How would Led Zeppelin improve upon The Yardbirds and cut through a ’68 scene flush with legendary bands like The Rolling Stones, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who? Zep founder and mastermind Jimmy Page saw an opening.
“Ultimately, I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock, and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses,” Page told Guitar World in 1993. “Lots of light and shade in the music.” In the band’s 1969 debut, the plan went into effect with the first track, “Good Times Bad Times.”
The hard rock and heavy chorus came through right away in that opener. As for the blues, listeners got a blast of Zep’s take on the form with “You Shook Me,” the album’s third track. In between, Page’s concept of “light and shade” got its first airing with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”
Working with a folk number popularized by Joan Baez, the Zeppelin blueprint became clear on the track. Looking back on the debut Zep album in later decades, Page saw “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as the standout.
Jimmy Page saw Led Zeppelin’s ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ as a leap forward for 1969
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When Page auditioned Robert Plant for Led Zeppelin in ’68, he told the singer about his plans for a heavy version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Plant, an admirer of the folk and California scenes, already had experience taking Buffalo Springfield songs and adding explosive vocals.
“We had an empathy,” Page told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I knew exactly how [“Babe”] was going to shape up. I set the mood with the acoustic guitar and that flamenco-like section. But Robert embraced it. He came up with an incredible, plaintive vocal.”
If you wanted drama, light and shade, a roaring vocal, and all the rest, Led Zeppelin delivered it in the nearly seven minutes of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Looking back on the band’s ’69 debut again in 2015, Page saw the track as the one that stood out.
“At that time, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was such a movement forward,” he told Classic Rock. “And Robert’s singing on it is just fabulous.” But Page saw the entire record as a sign of things to come for his band.
Page continues to marvel at the ‘barrage of ideas’ on ‘Led Zeppelin’
When critics and rock fans pick apart Led Zeppelin these days, you’ll hear a great many takes referencing the borrowed material (often pointing to the blues tracks and “Dazed and Confused”). But those critiques miss the variety of instrumentation and strength of the performances.
Page continued to marvel at the band’s debut LP in 2015. “That whole album was a complete barrage of ideas,” he told Classic Rock. “It’s got so much energy to it, and yet there are so many colors in there too.”
That view echoed Prince’s praise of the Zep in the ’80s. “Led Zeppelin would make you feel differently on each song,” he said in an interview. “That was the only period in recent history that delivered songs and colors.”