Talk about telegraphing your punch: The cover of Led Zeppelin, the British quartet’s seismic 1969 debut, shows the Hindenburg airship, in all its phallic glory, going down in flames. The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe and things blowing up. The swagger is there from the get-go, on “Good Times Bad Times”: Jimmy Page’s guitar pounces from the speakers, fat with menace; John Bonham’s kick drum swings with anvil force; Robert Plant rambles on about the perils of manhood. Hard rock would never be the same.
There may be better, more refined Zep albums than Led Zeppelin—a.k.a. Led Zeppelin I — but none sounds quite as gratifyingly raw or is as comprehensive in defining the band’s intentions. Though acclaimed as a heavy-metal progenitor, Zep also danced with Chicago blues, British folk and Eastern ragas. They’re all represented on this debut, produced by Page and immaculately engineered by Glyn Johns in a thirty-hour recording session that caught the band fresh off its first tour and bursting with ambition. Their self-confidence becomes a bluster so obscene that Willie Dixon might have barely recognized his “You Shook Me,” on which Page and Plant make like brawling alley cats in a call-and-response that brings the blues classic to a shrieking conclusion. The album’s triumph lies in Page’s command of dynamics, from the ebb-and-flow sequencing of the nine songs to arrangements that dramatize the wide spread of sonic colors. The guitarist’s delicate acoustic finger-picking over tabla drumming on “Black Mountain Side” gives way to the proto-punk “Communication Breakdown,” and the bawdy “You Shook Me” melts into John Paul Jones’ foreboding bass intro announcing “Dazed and Confused.” Subtlety would play a much larger part on later Zeppelin works; for now, the mission was to create a music of extremes, one that appealed to hard-core album buyers rather than the Top Forty marketplace. That was never more true than on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” a moody folk song until the dam bursts, Bonham cuts loose and the shape of things to come — most famously, a ditty named “Stairway to Heaven” — is glimpsed.