Led Zeppelin released their earth-shattering debut album on Jan. 12, 1969, announcing the quartet as the harbingers of the sort of epic hard rock that would become a force unto itself in the decade to come. The band was famously derided as obnoxious music for lunkheads by many critics during its early peak, but proved to be extraordinarily popular and unforeseeably enduring. For many, Led Zeppelin is the greatest hard rock band of all time—maybe the greatest rock band in any discipline. But this band, born out of the Yardbirds and bolstered by the blues, has a legacy that can’t easily be reduced to just Page’s big riffs and Bonham’s drums and Plant’s wail. Fifty years later, what Led Zeppelin represented is something more damning than most of us would like to admit.
The band’s musical heritage, its public image and its extensive influence are all indissolubly connected to some of the most damning clichés of classic rock: a pilfering of the blues, a penchant for hedonistic excess, the romanticizing of a ‘70s “groupie” culture that preyed on naïve, sometimes-underage girls—its all a part of what Zeppelin was. And it all makes their legacy continuously and increasingly polarizing.
Rock music was rapidly changing in 1969. A decade that had begun with several of rock & roll’s stars of the ‘50s suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the forefront of popular music (Little Richard a minister, Chuck Berry in prison, Buddy Holly dead at 22), was ending with an entire generation of artists who’d been elevated to a level of cultural import that landed them at the center of national dialogues on everything from long hair to Vietnam. Charles Manson and Woodstock would both become flashpoints that summer, but early in the year, a loud self-titled debut by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham provided as clear an indication as any as to where rock was going.