It wasn’t easy getting Led Zeppelin together. After the fall of The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page set out to form a powerhouse group of his own. And Page put one in the win column early when fellow session-man John Paul Jones said he’d join. Then, after he couldn’t get Terry Reid, Page got to know Robert Plant.
Page couldn’t believe his luck at finding Plant, who hailed from England’s Black Country (about three hours by car from London). Plant had a raw power Page was ecstatic to have fronting his group. Better still, Plant said he knew a fearsome drummer who’d round out the group nicely.
Once Page saw John Bonham play, he knew the drummer represented the final piece of the puzzle. At that point, the new band needed to get together to see what, if anything, they had. All it took was one song to realize they had something remarkable between the four of them.
Led Zeppelin kicked off its first jam with ‘Train Kept A-Rollin”
So they’d all gathered together in a small practice room with their amps and microphones (the two session pros and the two wildmen of the Midlands). What would they play? “I’d said I’d been playing sessions and knew nothing at all,” Jones recalled in John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin.
When no one named a tune, Page suggested trying a number the Yardbirds made popular with Jeff Beck. “We went with ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’ in E, and he counted us in,” Jones continued in the Bonham bio. And right away, he felt an undeniable spark.
“[Bonham] counted us in and there was like this instant explosion,” Jones recalled. “And an instant recognition that this would be a really good outfit to be with.” The track featured the sort of drive listeners came to expect from the Zep.
By ’68, “Train Kept A-Rollin'” was an old song. Tiny Bradshaw had recorded it in ’51, and Johnny Burnette followed with a charged-up rockabilly version in ’56. Then The Yardbirds made it a heavy, psychedelic-rock staple with Beck in ’65.
Zeppelin kept playing the track into the band’s final tour
When Page joined The Yardbirds in ’66, the band was still doing its rave-ups with “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” And when Michelangelo Antonioni had The Yardbirds appear in Blow Up (1966), the group adapted the tune as “Stroll On” (likely for copyright reasons) for its on-screen performance.
In the early days of Zeppelin, it served as the ideal track to cover, and you’d hear the group perform it if you attended any of those shows the band played as The New Yardbirds. Then they took it on their American tours as Led Zeppelin.
On the band’s final tour, things came full circle for Zeppelin and “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Check the setlist on July 7, 1980 — the final Led Zeppelin performance — and you’ll see the group led off with the first song they played together in ’68.