Sometime during the week of Aug. 12, 1968, the band that would take over the world as Led Zeppelin held its first rehearsal in a small basement room in central London.
The preceding May, Yardbirds guitarist and session veteran Jimmy Page found himself without a band when the other three members — who’d seen some success since the group first formed in 1963, but had fallen out of fashion — abruptly quit. With a Scandinavian tour already booked, Page and manager Peter Grant united bassist/keyboardist and fellow sessioneer John Paul Jones (with whom the guitarist had performed on songs by Donovan and others) with two young musicians from the British Midlands, singer Robert Plant and powerhouse drummer John Bonham, both 20, who’d played together in a group called Band of Joy.
Page’s initial choices had been singer Terry Reid — who he’d seen when both Reid and the Yardbirds were opening acts on a 1966 Rolling Stones tour — and Procol Harum drummer B.J. Wilson, with whom he’d played on Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” album. Both declined — and how different would the world be if they hadn’t?
As the new quartet launched into the R&B chestnut “Train Kept a’Rollin’,” a Yardbirds live staple that the group had recorded in 1965, the chemistry, according to all four members, was instantaneous.
“We first played together in a small room on Gerrard Street, a basement room, which is now Chinatown,” Jones recalled in 1990, according to the band’s website. “There was just wall-to-wall amplifiers, and a space for the door — and that was it. Literally, it was everyone looking at each other, ‘What shall we play?’ Me doing sessions, I didn’t know anything at all. There was an old Yardbirds’ number called ‘Train Kept a’Rollin’.’ The whole room just exploded.”
“I could feel that something was happening to myself and to everyone else in the room,” Plant remembered. “It felt like we’d found something that we had to be very careful with because we might lose it, but it was remarkable — the power.”
While no recordings from the rehearsal have surfaced, that first song — which would be the group’s live opener for most of its first year of existence as well as its final tour in 1980, yet was never properly recorded — probably sounded a lot like this performance from San Francisco’s Fillmore West the following April. The arrangement hews to the late-period Yardbirds version — with some honking harmonica by Plant and an uncharacteristically brief but blazing solo from Page — albeit turbocharged by the band’s titanium-strength rhythm section.
“At the end, we knew that it was really happening, really electrifying,” Page said. “We went from there to start rehearsals for the album.”
Later that month the group did a session for singer P.J. Proby’s “Three Week Hero” album — Jones was already booked as the arranger and hired the others — and made their live debut with the aforementioned nine-date tour of Scandinavia as the New Yardbirds before heading into London’s Olympic Studios in September to record their first long-player with ace engineer (and Page’s longtime friend) Glyn Johns.
Renowned for such songs as “Communication Breakdown,” the blues classic “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and the electrified folk song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” the outtakes show that the group explored other territory in the sessions, such as the soul-inflected “Baby Come on Home,” which would have cast the album and the band in a different light.
From that point on, the ascent escalated quickly. The band played its first U.K. show on Oct. 4 at London’s legendary Marquee (the group is pictured above performing at the club two weeks later), changed the name to Led Zeppelin by the end of that month, signed with Atlantic Records in November, launched its first U.S. tour on Dec. 26 and released the album in January.
The group played an incredible 145 shows in 1969, and by the end of the year they had released the blockbuster “Led Zeppelin II” (featuring their breakthrough single “Whole Lotta Love”) and were headlining venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Boston Garden and Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.
From there, Zeppelin went on to become one of the most popular rock bands in history, dominating the 1970s, influencing countless thousands of musicians and, according to unofficial estimates, selling more than 200 million albums worldwide.
And it all started in that little basement room …