By the late sixties, the vibrant, down and dirty sound of the blues had been seized on and diluted by white musicians, to the extent that the original masters found themselves forced to either dumb down their growling, fearsome music, or submit to ‘collaborations’ in order to keep public interest going. Rock rediscovered the back catalogue of this genre, and plundered it mercilessly, so that, by the time Led Zeppelin’s first album hit the shelves, we could have almost forgotten the power of the first time Boogie Chillen, Rolling Stone or Stormy Monday entered the public consciousness.
But the band crosswired the two sounds, recast Howling Wolf, Kansas Joe McCoy and Albert Hunter, and plugged it back into the mains. The recording kept the needle firmly in the red, bestowing a distortion still present even on remastered recordings, to give the ambience of a live gig.
The result took time to settle in an era hung over from psychedelia and flower power. Once established, it set a precedent for heavy metal which has continued unabated. They were criticised for not crediting the writers in songs that were patently borrowed, yet this is in itself a perpetuation of an oral folk tradition. Moreoever, the group didn’t just peddle storming bouts of riffs: up to a third of their music is acoustic. They could be tight and minimalistic (witness Communication Breakdown); or they could slow the tempo down to such an extent that time stands still (as in Since I’ve Been Loving You). They melded folk into the mix (the Robert Plant/Sandy Denny duet on The Battle of Evermore being a highlight); reggae (D’Ye Make Her); and the solid, pounding John Bonham rhythm on When The Levee Breaks excited a new generation of hip-hop artists (and led to them suing the Beastie Boys). John Paul Jones virtually pioneered swooping, diving bass lines; and Jimmy Page, already a hard-working session man before the band formed, gave the Ramones a template for their sound, along with a manual for guitar solos.
Whole Lotta Love (FF 1976 #19) showcased all of this and provided Top Of The Pops with its most memorable theme tune. The sexual undertone present in the blues flowered here in all its glory: lyrics like ‘I wanna give you every inch of my love‘ and ‘I wanna be your back door man‘ coupled (to coin a phrase) with Page’s imitation of orgasmic delight are ‘curiously’ absent on their session recording. The other three Peel sessions (all from the same year) give one an eye-opening insight into the early, raw and thrilling sound that could sound complacent in later years, and certainly sounds underpowered in comparison to, say, the White Stripes or Soledad Brothers’ recreations of stripped-down dementia. Yet, seeing them in the conetxt of the times, they opened doors that could have stayed closed for much longer. For that we should be grateful.
[Those of you with Ken Garner's The Peel Sessions will notice a conflict in the first session's tracklisting, with Dazed And Confused instead of Communication Breakdown. I have taken my version of the sessions from the BBC discs and the information on Wikipedia: CB was apparently recorded as a session for a different programme. Moreover, the last session does not contain all the tracks: White Summer was not on the album, and I don't know of any source where it is available. Finally, the 1971 recording premiering Stairway To Heaven is not listed as a session by Ken (although he discusses it), so I didn't include it-SIG.]
Led Zeppelin, First Peel Session
1. Dazed And Confused
2. You Shook Me
3. I Can’t Quit You Baby
Led Zeppelin, Second Peel Session
1. What Is And What Should Never Be
2. Whole Lotta Love
3. Travelling Riverside Blues
4. Communication Breakdown
Led Zeppelin, Third Peel Session
1. Communication Breakdown
2. I Can’t Quit You Baby
3. You Shook Me
4. How Many More Times