It’s easy to forget at this distance that Led Zeppelin’s first three albums, the foundation of their titanic legacy, were the most divisive hit records of their day. This magazine is still living down 1969 pans of Led Zeppelin and II as brutal blues ham; III shook fans and enemies alike with its dedicated swerve into acoustic textures and restraint.
The music is now beyond reproach. Made and issued between the falls of 1968 and 1970, the original LPs mark Zeppelin’s rapid progression out of British R&B and psychedelia into a crushing-riff rock of unprecedented dynamic range, embedded with details from Fifties rockabilly and Celtic and Appalachian folk, blown open with volcanic improvising. These bonus-laden reissues, overseen by guitarist-producer Jimmy Page, do not change the story in a major way. They deepen the telling, recounting that blitzkrieg with fresh, incremental detail. The primary lesson, especially from the studio outtakes: Everything happened overnight. None of it was by accident.
An October ’69 Paris concert, added to the debut, shows how far and fast the interplay and confrontation advanced onstage. Issued that month, II was still tied to straight-blues sources (the Willie Dixon elements in “Whole Lotta Love”). But the alternate takes highlight Robert Plant’s ripening vocal poise and, in a rough mix of “Ramble On,” the decisive, melodic force of John Paul Jones’ bass and John Bonham’s drumming.
III was a masterful union of ballads and bruising, and a giant step in the songwriting ascent toward, later, “No Quarter” and “Kashmir.” “Jennings Farm Blues,” an electric run at the folk gallop “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” shows Zeppelin exploring options, and the medley “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind,” by Page and Plant, feels like a deep-blues breath before the next rush forward.