It used to be said that somewhere in the world, at any given moment, "Stairway to Heaven" is playing on the radio. This 1971 track from the fourth Led Zeppelin album, with its mellow guitar intro (perhaps borrowed from Spirit's "Taurus"), became so ubiquitous in rock culture that it formed the basis for a well-known music-store gag in Wayne's World (a sign in the store reading "No Stairway to Heaven"). Like "Bohemian Rhapsody" for Queen, "Money" for Pink Floyd or "Hotel California" for the Eagles, "Stairway" played an important role in making Led Zep one of the highest-profile bands of the 1970s. Some would even argue that Page, Plant and company are to the 70s what the Beatles are to the 1960s, Elvis to the 1950s or Michael Jackson to the 1980s.
Despite Led Zeppelin's status as icons of 70s rock, the band's music is steeped in the British electric blues and psychedelia of the 1960s. The first two albums, of course, were released in 1969; Led Zeppelin II competed in the album charts in the autumn of 1969 with the Beatles' Abbey Road -- placing the 1960s and the 70s in immediate musical juxtaposition. Is there any other way to hear the center section of "Whole Lotta Love" as something other than late-60s psychedelic head music (though more sexually driven than most hippie soundscapes to be sure) or the slow sections of "Dazed and Confused" as opiate-induced languor? It was trippy blues, or better yet, "hippie blues."
The blues roots in Led Zeppelin's music have been much discussed; the story is often told of how the band developed out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, a band that in many ways carried the torch for electric blues on the London scene in the mid 1960s after the Rolling Stones became an international sensation. The Yardbirds soon had hits of their own, though the recording of "For Your Love" became famous for Eric Clapton's refusal to sell out to pop sensibilities, leaving the band to play a more authentic style of electric blues with John Mayall. The Stones, Clapton and even Mayall owed much of their blues scene in London during the 1962-64 period to Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and the band that started it all: Blues Incorporated. Led Zep guitarist and mastermind Jimmy Page also moved in these circles, as did bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones. In fact, the circle around Korner and his band touched many other important British musicians, including Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and even jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. Page and Jones also spent most of the mid 1960s in the recording studio, playing sessions and developing the skills (as well as a certain pop sensibility) that would soon come in handy when Zeppelin began recording, especially into the 1970s as the band's music became increasingly ambitious. This is the path to "Stairway to Heaven."
In his article "Does The Song Remain the Same?" music theorist Dave Headlam identifies the sources that Page and the band used for a large number of tracks on the first four albums. Of course, covering the music of other musicians was very much a part of the London blues scene -- indeed, it played a central role in British pop in general during the early 1960s, as American records were quickly copied in British versions before the originals could find distribution in the UK. But most often the sources of the music were acknowledged, and even trumpeted with a certain pride among the British bluesmen (Muddy Waters was a favorite among these groups). The Beatles (like other Liverpool bands) played dozens of covers, and several of the early Stones singles were cover versions (the early albums are packed with them). So it would seem that while Led Zep's later adaptation of already-released music was in keeping with a well established and widespread practice, they were the exception in that they did not often acknowledge the original sources. But even that characterization is not quite right, since early Rolling Stones b-sides, for instance, were revamped versions of other records, credited to Nanker Phelge: "Stoned" was a reworking of "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs, and "Little By Little" recast Jimmy Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame." Of course, this reworking of material without attribution was motivated by a desire to collect publishing royalties for the newly "created" song. Still, in this context it is clear that even the infamous Led Zeppelin song "thievery" (Robert Plant's word for it) was rooted in 1960s practice and was nothing new in 1969.
We tend to remember Led Zeppelin in terms of the studio albums, produced with increasing skill by Page, who is certainly one of the masters of layering guitars and who captured the big sound of John Bonham's drums to perfection. But Led Zep was first and foremost a live band; once that band took the stage, it might be three or more hours before they stepped down. Live Zeppelin was often drenched in improvisation: songs might go in any number of directions once they got going. And the live sound was much sparer than the studio sound, with no layers of guitars to thicken the texture. From a musical point of view, a live show was a very different undertaking from recording an album: in performance it was about owning the stage, creating dynamic contrasts and taking the music wherever it seemed to want to go that night. In London during the mid 1960s, fans would have called such interpretive freedom a rave up; in the late 1960s it was a jam, but by the 1970s it was hardly an innovation. Like San Francisco bands such as the Grateful Dead, or southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin in concert were a jam band: how many more ways can you play "How Many More Times?"
The sixties roots of Led Zeppelin provide further evidence for an argument I have been making for many years now: there is a clear line of historical and music-stylistic development that can be followed from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. While some rock historians have seen a distinct break between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, perhaps marked symbolically by the tragic events at Altamont in late 1969, I have argued that the lines of continuity are far stronger than the moments of discontinuity. In the case of Led Zeppelin, we can locate their roots in the London pop and blues scene of the 1960s, and trace the band's emergence out of the blues-inspired music of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Cream into a style that continued to blend blues with folk (Joan Baez, Bert Jansch), pop and even prog-rock to create a distinctive style that seems to stand as the sound -- or at least one very important sound -- of the 70s.
The influence of Led Zep continued to be felt long after the band's demise in the wake of drummer John Bonham's death in 1980. Many would cite the band as an important source for the "heavy" rock of the 70s, 80s and 90s including heavy metal (though Page is quick to remind us that the group did plenty of lighter, acoustic-based music). When the first album was recorded during the fall of 1968 and released in early 1969, it was indeed fresh. But it was not a break with the past. Looking back after forty-five years, it seems clear that, in spite of all of the other styles figuring into the story, at its core the music of Led Zeppelin is hippie blues.
John Covach, "The Hippie Aesthetic: Cultural Positioning and Musical Ambition in Early Progressive Rock," in Composition and Experimentation in British Rock 1966-1976, a special issue of Philomusica Online (2007); reprinted in The Ashgate Library of Essays on Popular Music: Rock, ed. Mark Spicer (Ashgate Publishing, 2012).
Dave Headlam, "Does the Song Remain the Same? Issues of Authorship and Identification in the Music of Led Zeppelin," in E. Marvin and R. Hermann, eds., Concert Music, Rock and Jazz Since 1945: Essays and Analytical Studies (University of Rochester Press, 1995), 313-63.