In 1966, London-based session guitarist Jimmy Page joined the blues-influenced rock band the #Yardbirds to replace bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Page soon switched from bass to lead guitar, creating a dual lead guitar line-up with Jeff Beck. Following Beck’s departure in October 1966, the #Yardbirds (tweet with an alternate content), tired from constant touring and recording, began to wind down. Page wanted to form a supergroup with him and Beck on guitars, and the Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle on drums and bass. Vocalists Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott were also considered for the project. The group never formed, although Page, Beck and Moon did record a song together in 1966, “Beck’s Bolero”, in a session that also included bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones.
The Yardbirds played their final gig in July 1968 at Luton College of Technology in Bedfordshire. They were still committed to several concerts in Scandinavia, so drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf authorised Page and bassist Chris Dreja to use “the Yardbirds” name to fulfill the band’s obligations. Page and Dreja began putting a new line-up together. Page’s first choice for the lead singer was Terry Reid, but Reid declined the offer and suggested Robert Plant, a singer for the Band of Joyand Hobbstweedle. Plant eventually accepted the position, recommending former Band of Joy drummer John Bonham. Jones inquired about the vacant position at the suggestion of his wife after Dreja dropped out of the project to become a photographer. He would later take the photograph that appeared on the back of Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Page had known Jones since they were both session musicians and agreed to let him join as the final member.
The four played together for the first time in a room below a record store on Gerrard Street in London. Page suggested that they attempt “Train Kept A-Rollin'”, originally a jump blues song popularised in a rockabilly version by Johnny Burnette, which had been covered by the Yardbirds. “As soon as I heard John Bonham play”, Jones recalled, “I knew this was going to be great … We locked together as a team immediately”. Before leaving for Scandinavia, the group took part in a recording session for the P.J. Proby album, Three Week Hero. The album’s track “Jim’s Blues”, with Plant on harmonica, was the first studio track to feature all four future members of Led Zeppelin.
The band completed the Scandinavian tour as the New Yardbirds, playing together for the first time on 7 September 1968. Later that month, they began recording their first album, which was based on their live set. The album was recorded and mixed in nine days, and Page himself covered the costs. After the album’s completion, the band were forced to change their name after Dreja issued a cease and desist letter, stating that Page was only allowed to use the New Yardbirds moniker for the Scandinavian dates. One account of how the new band’s name was chosen held that Moon and Entwistle had suggested that a supergroup with Page and Beck would go down like a “lead balloon”, an idiom for disastrous results. The group dropped the ‘a’ in lead at the suggestion of their manager, Peter Grant, so that those unfamiliar with the term would not pronounce it “leed”. The word “balloon” was swapped for “zeppelin”, a word which, according to music journalist Keith Shadwick, brought “the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace” to Page’s mind.
Grant secured a $143,000 advance contract from Atlantic Records in November 1968, which was then the biggest deal of its kind for a new band. Atlantic were a label with a catalogue of mainly blues, soul and jazz artists, but in the late 1960s they began to take an interest in British progressive rock acts. Record executives signed Led Zeppelin without having ever seen them. Under the terms of their contract, the band had autonomy in deciding when they would release albums and tour, and had the final say over the contents and design of each album. They would also decide how to promote each release and which tracks to release as singles. They formed their own company, Superhype, to handle all publishing rights.