Thursday, September 27, 2007

Honing their sound

On this day in 1968, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham and Robert Plant participated in their second recording session together. They laid down raw demos of three songs, honing their sound and claiming their identity.

Fresh from an inaugural 10-date tour of Scandinavia, the group gathered at Olympic Studios, close to the River Thames in Barnes, London. The man behind the recording console, Glyn Johns, was impressed with the band's professionalism, confidence and familiarity with studio recording.

While all were familiar, Page and Jones had the most experience, having been highly accessible session musicians for a number of years. Plant had recorded three singles over the past two years and had also just sung on another session with bluesman Alexis Korner. All four members of Led Zeppelin had also laid down a track either earlier in the month or in August for singer P.J. Proby.

Both sessions of the group that was shortly thereafter known as Led Zeppelin included a slow, bouncy blues in E. At P.J. Proby's session, it was called "Jim's Blues," and a near repeat of the exact arrangement was carried over to this second session with Plant now switching between harmonica and improvising some lyrics, many from Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me." Both sessions included an ample guitar solo featuring some of Page's trademark licks and interplay with Bonham's drum fills. They apparently went on for about 10 minutes in this vein. Jones stuck to just bass for this song, having also played piano on that first session.

However, on another song at this session, Jones switched over to a fine-sounding gospel organ. The band also backed Plant's confident vocal by singing three-part harmony behind him. This song, labeled on the master tape as "Tribute to Bert Berns," was named to honor of the producer of singles by groups such as Them and Lulu & the Luvvers -- cuts for which Page served as session guitarist. The existence of this cut was forgotten for nearly a quarter of a century until the track was found and cleaned up for release on Led Zeppelin's Box Set 2 in 1993, with the proper title "Baby Come On Home."

The third raw demo recorded at this session was "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," a song over which Plant had bonded with Page when the singer went to visit him at his house. In an uptempo version with Page's work largely confined to strumming an acoustic guitar, Jones' crafty work on the bass stands out. This start-stop arrangement also gave Bonham room to execute many drum fills. Plant did a bit of talking-style singing but mostly sang in the higher register with a volume and intensity that could really carry.

The goal of this session may have been to emerge from the studio with a demo tape for Manager Peter Grant to use for seeking out a record contract for the band, but it may also have been an extra opportunity for the four musicians just to hone their sound. After all, whether they were knew it or not, this group would go on to release 18 astonishing album sides over the following 11 years.

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