The era of Led Zeppelin began 50 years ago today with the release of their debut album

Written By Alan Cross

When Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin (originally known as The New Yardbirds) in mid-1968, no one could have foreseen the monster this thing would become. 

After playing a series of gigs through the rest of the year, the band recorded their debut album in a blur of sessions (a total of 36 hours spread over ten days) at Olympic Studios in London beginning September 25 and ending in mid-October. Having honed all the arrangements and performances through playing live, the band made short work of the recording with engineer Glyn Johns. It also helped that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were two of the most-respected session players in all the UK. They were accustomed to working fast.

The self-titled result was released on January 12, 1969. It’s now a rock classic and sounds as fresh as it did fifty years ago.

What people tend to forget is that people HATED the record.

Rolling Stone said this: “The album offers little that its twin, The Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better than three months ago…To fill the void created by the devise of Cream, they will have to find a producer, editor, and some material worthy of their collective talents.”

When manager Peter Grant played it for Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton, they were all very unimpressed. None of them got what Zeppelin was trying to do. Jagger was apparently extra dismissive.

But the person most offended was Countess Eva von Zeppelin, the granddaughter of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the creator of the original hydrogen-filled airship. Her problem was with the artwork and the very name of the band.

What we see is a treated black-and-white image of the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937, when this Zeppelin-class airship caught fire while attempting to dock in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died. The artwork is based on a picture taken by Sam Shere.

Here’s newsreel footage of the disaster.

little context is required at this point. When Page floated the idea of forming a new band to his friends John Entwhistle and Keith Moon of The Who, it’s claimed that Moon said the new project would go over worse than a lead balloon. “It’ll be a lead Zeppelin!” he said.

Peter Grant liked the concept but was worried about how people might pronounce “lead.” Dropping the “a,” he showed it to Page. Led Zeppelin it was.

Back to the countess. She was annoyed that the band was trading on her family name. In 1970 during a trip to Denmark, Grant arranged for the band to meet the countess backstage. Despite all his charms, she denounced the group as “a bunch of shrieking monkeys” and threatened to sue if they continued besmirching the good name of Zeppelin.

That night, Zep played another the name “The Nobs,” just in case. It turns out that the countess was all talk, too. No legal action was ever filed.

So how did artwork designer George Hardie get away with using this famous photograph without paying any royalties or rights? By altering the photo into an illustration using something called a “Radiograph pen,” he essentially created a new work, putting it outside the realm of the original copyright.

By the way, Hardie was paid $76 for his trouble.

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