50 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Play Their First Show as Led Zeppelin
“Led Zeppelin, the group formed by Jimmy Page after the disbandment of the Yardbirds, make their debut at Surrey University tomorrow,” a short newspaper piece reported on Oct. 24, 1968. “Their manager, Peter Grant, is currently finalizing a six-week American tour for the group. … They have started work on their first LP, which will be released early in the New Year.”
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone who paid seven shillings and sixpence to attend the university’s Great Hall on Oct. 25 knew just what a historic moment they were going to witness. They were probably more interested in meeting new students at the first dance night of the new term.
It wasn’t the first show staged by Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham – they’d completed a tour as the New Yardbirds six days earlier – but it was the first time they appeared as Led Zeppelin, the title chosen by Page after a comment by Keith Moon of the Who that a band they’d considered starting would have “gone down like a lead balloon.”
While the crowd may not have been aware how special the evening was, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin all assert that they’d known from the outset that they were going to change the world. In their 50th anniversary book Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin, Page recalled wanting to “manifest what I had learned during my touring and recording time with the Yardbirds.”
“That process led me to Robert Plant," he said. "When I heard him in the Midlands with his band, Obs-Tweedle, I invited him to my house in Pangbourne to introduce him to the material I wanted to do. He was open to those ideas. After a few visits, he talked of John Bonham. … I really felt a profound connection with John’s playing and immediately I knew he would be perfect. I figured the new band would give John Bonham the chance to play and present John Bonham’s playing unlike anything he had experienced before. John Paul Jones called me up soon after and asked if I was putting a band together and did I need a bass player?”
“Our first rehearsal really did feel special,” Jones recalled. “If you’re a bass player, you want to know what the drummer’s like. If the drummer’s no good, there’s simply no point. I immediately recognized in Bonzo a commune spirit and a bloody good drummer. … People had heard great bands but they were going to hear something now that was coming from a totally different perspective.”
Plant agreed: “Jimmy comments that we were all in that rehearsal room and we knew. The actual weight of that knowing is phenomenal; you can spend years almost getting there. … We were all into the idea of opening songs up, which for me and for our own individual flair and gift was an absolute dream. That was the difference from being in a blues band of the time, where you were limited by the form. With Led Zeppelin, we were taking in all sorts of other imagery, even at this early stage. Musically, everything was open. There was a structure, but the structure was prompted and edited according to cues. There would be a kind of signature that advances to another part of the song, that’s how it worked.”
“It’s the attitude,” Page emphasized. “It’s the energy level of it. It’s the intensity. It’s not just a noise, it’s the shape of the noise, the length, breadth and depth of the noise. … We could really flex our musical prowess, to see whether we’d settled on things in the right way or whether it needed to be tweaked, and also how well it was received.”
While it’s not clear what Led Zeppelin played that night, it’s likely the set included “Communication Breakdown,” “I Can't Quit You Baby,” “You Shook Me,” “Dazed & Confused,” “Babe I'm Gonna Leave You” and “How Many More Times.” Within three months, those songs would appear on the band’s self-titled debut album, and within three years the group be world news, going on to become one of the biggest-selling artists of all time.
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