It must have been around May of 1968 that I heard the Yardbirds in session on John Peel’s BBC radio show. This late version of the band played a loud and heavy set which sounded nothing like the most blueswailing R&B outfit of yore and I made a mental note to investigate them further. We couldn’t know it at the time, but this was one of their final performances and within weeks the Yardbirds would be no more.
Fast-forward a few months and posters started to appear around Sheffield advertising a show at the university students’ union by “The New Yardbirds”. I’d read in Melody Maker that the original Yardbirds had folded and this new band featured a different line-up with guitarist Jimmy Page as the only constant member. Other than that I knew virtually nothing about them.
Back then the UK university circuit played host to the cream of the burgeoning blues, folk and prog rock movement and Sheffield was no exception. Within the space of a year I attended shows at the uni by King Crimson, Family, Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, Chicken Shack, Incredible String Band, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Freddie King and many others. I didn’t actually go to university however and, strictly speaking, non-students weren’t admitted unless signed in by a member of the union. This had never been a problem in the past though and it was always possible to persuade a passing student to oblige.
So it was that on November 23, 1968 I pitched up at Sheffield University to see “The New Yardbirds”. Or so I thought. As it turned out, the band had changed their name after just a few shows and by the time they reached Sheffield they were already trading as Led Zeppelin. The posters had been printed months ahead of time, of course. So, unlikely as it seems now, some concert-goers arrived unaware of the name change and not exactly sure who or what they were paying to see.
Now, discounting a few warm-up shows in Scandinavia a month earlier, the Sheffield gig was only the eighth show Led Zeppelin had ever played. Let’s pause and think about that for a moment. Not only that, their debut album was still four months away. This was a brand new band with no recorded product in the shops and only Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds pedigree as a drawcard. So, it’s probably fair to say they were a totally unknown quantity to the majority of the 400 or so paying customers who showed up that night.
The hall was perhaps the size of a school gymnasium and the stage, such as it was, consisted of a number of large square wooden blocks pushed loosely together. Too loosely, as it turned out – and we’ll hear more about that later. Ticket price was just ten shillings (50p) or thereabouts.
Heavy Rock may have already existed in 1968, but it had yet to be given a name. At that stage, Led Zeppelin’s music was just a harder-edged development of the psychedelic blues of Cream and Hendrix with a touch of the John Mayall/Eric Clapton Beano album thrown in. Jeff Beck’s Truth album, perhaps the blueprint for all that was to follow, had gone on sale in August and this had also clearly influenced the direction Page had taken with his new band.
Opening with a staccato “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, the band sounded tight, powerful and almost painfully loud. This 1951 Tiny Bradshaw song, as popularised by the Johnny Burnette Trio in 1956, had been part of the Yardbirds canon even before Jimmy Page joined the band. It was the perfect start to the set, although Plant’s shrieking vocals were an unfamiliar shock to the ears at that early stage.
To this impressionable 18-year-old, almost as memorable as the way Led Zeppelin sounded that night was the way they looked. Page, in particular, was the personification of cool with his leonine mane of black hair, shocking pink velvet suit, frilly shirt, red high-heeled boots and low slung Fender Telecaster with hand-painted “dragon” motif. The guitar was a gift from Jeff Beck when the pair were in the Yardbirds together and it had gone through several different paint jobs since. I’d like to go on record here and claim that Jimmy Page never looked better than he did on this November 1968 night.
Robert Plant, on the other hand, was still a year or so away from perfecting his rock god look and on this occasion looked more like a refugee from a hairdressing salon than a Viking warrior. With cherubic (and still quite short) blonde curls, tight blue satin ruff shirt and mod style black Levi’s sta-prest pants, his ensemble was topped off, bizarrely, with (I kid you not) open-toed Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals, complete with black socks. John Paul Jones and John Bonham, as always, looked almost completely anonymous alongside the two strutting frontmen.
The cramped, knee-high stage was constructed from a number of 3-foot-square wooden blocks sitting side by side. These were clearly not secured too well, as during Bonzo’s drum solo “Pat’s Delight” (part of which he played minus drumsticks, using the palms of his hands), they began to drift slowly apart, causing part of his kit, including the hi-hat and one of the floor toms, to follow. Standing within touching distance of the stage I clearly heard Bonham exclaim “My life!” as his drums began to list alarmingly to starboard, before a vigilant roadie leapt onstage to rescue the situation.
The set list was a mix of blues standards, Yardbirds leftovers and around half of the then-unreleased first Led Zeppelin album. The surprise of the night was an extended version of the 1964 Garnett Mimms soul classic “As Long As I Have You”. Running for around 15 minutes, it took the form of a sprawling multi-part workout incorporating sections of Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage”, Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and the Willie Dixon classic “I Just Wanna Make Love To You”. This song stayed in the LZ set well into 1969, although it remains officially unreleased.
After the gig, the band were very approachable and seemed quite happy to hang around chatting to the few remaining crowd members and answering asinine guitar questions from (ahem) some of us while the gear was packed away.
In the weeks that followed, we discussed the show endlessly and decided that while Jimmy Page was certainly a guitar hero in the making, Led Zeppelin may have had the rug pulled out from under them by Jeff Beck, whose first album Truth was already in the shops. The exact opposite would prove to be the case as it turned out. Ah, the folly of youth. How were we to know?
Train Kept A-Rollin’
I Can’t Quit You Baby
As Long As I Have You
Dazed and Confused
For Your Love
You Shook Me
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
How Many More Times