In May 1966, Melody Maker announced that Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had joined forces to form arguably the world’s first ‘supergroup’ – the as-yet-unnamed Cream. Just a few days later, on May 16, five moonlighting musicians slipped into London’s IBC Studios to form their own impromptu band. There, Yardbirds guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, renowned session bassist John Paul Jones and keyboard player Nicky Hopkins recorded a sole track, Beck’s Bolero, that would precipitate Beck’s departure from The Yardbirds – and sow the seeds for Led Zeppelin.
Fly On The Wall: Beck, Page, Moon And The Birth Of Led Zeppelin
In a small London studio, two Yardbirds, one member of The Who and a pair of passing session maestros united to record a spontaneous instrumental track. Things would never be the same again.
Chris Stamp (co-manager, The Who): Keith was always looking for other options. He always thought he was going to be the Beach Boys’ drummer, The Beatles’ drummer, the Stones’ drummer.
Roger Daltrey (vocalist, The Who): At the height of The Who’s fame, Keith would have dropped our band just like that to join The Beatles.
Jim McCarty (drummer, The Yardbirds): Jeff Beck was our guitarist at that point, but it had always been the four of us and him. Musically, Jeff was separate from us. Even during recording sometimes, he would just come in after we’d completed a backing track and lay his bit down on top of it. So he frequently wasn’t with us when we did the track. I think our manager, Simon Napier-Bell, was pushing Jeff to make a name for himself.
Simon Napier-Bell (manager, The Yardbirds): Jeff felt somewhat unfulfilled with The Yardbirds. There was a fair amount of friction with them, especially when we’d recorded Roger The Engineer. He’d felt they weren’t making use of his soloing abilities as well as they might. Of course, he was right.
Jeff Beck: It was decided that it would be a good idea for me to record some of my own stuff, with a view towards making a solo album. This was partly to stop me moaning about The Yardbirds.
Simon Napier-Bell: I thought if I encouraged Jeff to do some personal musical projects separate from The Yardbirds, he would feel more artistically fulfilled, which might help keep him with them. So I was encouraging Jeff to pursue solo projects while remaining with the group. The Beck’s Bolero session, however, didn’t come about at my instigation – it was a matter of Jeff and Jimmy getting together and making plans for the future. Jimmy had big ideas for where he wanted to go.
Jeff Beck: I fell in love with Jim’s playing 'cos we spoke the same language. We were out to get the most out of the studio, bending the rules, like using slap echo – doing all the things you weren’t allowed to.
Simon Napier-Bell: I heard rumours that Jimmy was talking with Keith Moon about joining his supergroup. I don’t think the name Led Zeppelin was in the air at that time, though it may have been mentioned between them. Cream was being formed at the same time. Whether that had much influence on Beck, Page and Moon, I don’t know. The Who’s managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, were in the same building as Clapton’s manager Robert Stigwood. So when he was putting Cream together, they would have known all about it, as I did too. Keith Moon would have heard from Kit and Chris as to what was going on too. From my point of view, I was thinking only of keeping Jeff in the group. Jimmy, I think, was thinking of a new group which would be a blend of all their talents.
Jeff Beck: Me and Jim Page arranged a session with Keith Moon in secret, just to see what would happen. But we had to have something to play in the studio because Keith only had a limited time – he could only give us like three hours before his roadies would start looking for him. I went over to Jim’s house a few days before the session and he was strumming away on this 12-string Fender electric that had a really big sound. It was the sound of that Fender 12-string that really inspired the melody. And I don’t care what he says, I invented that melody. He hit these Amaj7 chords and the Em7 chords, and I just started playing over the top of it.
Jimmy Page: The idea was built around Ravel’s Bolero. It’s got a lot of drama to it; it came off right.
Jeff Beck: He was playing the bolero rhythm and I played the melody on top of it, but then I said: “Jim, you’ve got to break away from the bolero beat – you can’t go on like that for ever!” So we stopped it dead in the middle of the song – like The Yardbirds would do on For Your Love – then we stuck that riff into the middle. And I went home and worked out the other bit [the uptempo section].
Jimmy Page: Even though he said he wrote it, I wrote it.
Jeff Beck: Page didn’t write that song.
Jimmy Page: Wrote it, played on it, produced it... I don’t give a damn what he says.
**Simon Napier-Bell: **The musicians were organised for the session by Jimmy. John Paul Jones was the first-choice session musician for all the top sessions and nearly always turned up for them with Jimmy.
Jeff Beck: We agreed that we would go in and get Moonie to play a bolero rhythm with it. That’s where it came from.
Simon Napier-Bell: I had done a couple of singles with The Yardbirds’ vocalist Keith Relf at IBC Studios. So when Jeff said he had a solo project, it was my first choice and I booked it.
Jeff Beck: He [Moon] came to the studio in dark glasses because he was incognito. The Who had told him that if he played with anybody else, he’d be out of the band.
Simon Napier-Bell: Keith Moon did arrive for the session in disguise. But Kit Lambert was one of my closest friends so I’d felt duty-bound to tell him about it. Kit looked at it like I did – better to let him try it out than stop him. By being in disguise, Keith was making sure that everyone noticed that he was trying to avoid being noticed. It was a two-day session, with me as producer. I was there both days. We laid down backing tracks on the first day.
Jeff Beck: We didn’t have to play it more than twice before the others were onto it. There was not an ounce of work in it. We didn’t deliberate, we just played it through. Everyone in the control room was aghast: “These guys don’t even need to rehearse.”
Jimmy Page: It’s got a lot of drama to it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it, Beck’s doing the slide bits, and I’m basically playing around the chords.
Jeff Beck: I was using a Les Paul for the lead guitar and for the backwards slide guitar through a Vox AC30 – it was the only amp I had and it was covered with beer. Actually, I think it was the beer that gave it its sound.
Simon Napier-Bell: Jeff, as always, played what he was meant to play well, and without any fuss.
Jeff Beck: I remember Jimmy at the studio yelling at us and calling us fucking hooligans.
John Paul Jones: Moon did this amazing fill around the kit, and a U47 [mic] just left its stand and went flying across the room; he just cracked it one.
Nicky Hopkins (keyboards): Jesus, Keith played just incredible. He went nuts and smashed his drumstick into the mic. Just smashed it! It was just funny the way he did it.
Jimmy Page: You can hear him scream, then hit the mic, and from there all you hear are the cymbals. The song just continues. It was sort of funny.
Jeff Beck: The cymbal fill is so wild that he actually smashes the mic, deliberately – boff! Kicks the mic off with a stick, and then you don’t hear the drums again. And that’s the tape we used.
John Paul Jones: The engineers were going: “Uh, Keith, we don’t seem to be getting your top kit too well.”
Jimmy Page: The track was done, and then the producer just disappeared. He was never seen again; he simply didn’t come back. Napier-Bell just sort of left me and Jeff to it.
Simon Napier-Bell: I would say I produced the whole record. Certainly I produced the track. As things progressed on the second day and Jeff and Jimmy bickered over what was needed where, I figured they were sufficiently knowledgeable to sort it out for themselves. So I left them for four hours to do so. I would say leaving them to resolve their differences and do the overdubs as they wanted them was an astute part of being a good producer. Anyway, it ended up pretty good, so who cares?
Jimmy Page: Jeff was playing and I was in the box [recording booth]. And even though it says he wrote it, I wrote it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it.
Jeff Beck: It just sounded and felt like we shouldn’t go anywhere else. We should just get rehearsing and carry this band.
Jim McCarty: I don’t remember Jeff trying to keep it secret. I certainly heard it while Jeff was still in The Yardbirds, before it was released. It was all above board. I thought it was a really great track.
John Paul Jones: The group that played on Beck’s Bolero was going to be called Led Zeppelin.
Peter Grant (future Led Zeppelin manager): The stories are true... it was Keith who coined the name, although he meant it as Lead Zeppelin.
Jimmy Page: It was going to be me and Beck on guitars, Moon on drums, maybe Nicky Hopkins on piano. The only one from the session who wasn’t going to be in it was Jonesy, who had played bass.
Jeff Beck: That would have been the best. But we didn’t have a singer.
Simon Napier-Bell: I didn’t get involved in trying to find a singer for them. In general, in the 60s, doing such things tended to be bad for your kneecaps.
Jimmy Page: Moon suggested we bring in Entwistle as bassist and lead singer, but after some discussion we decided to use another singer. The first choice was Stevie Winwood, but he was too heavily committed. Next we thought of Steve Marriott. He was approached and seemed to be full of glee about it. A message came from the business side of Marriott [manager Don Arden], which said: “How would you like to play guitar with broken fingers? You will be if you don’t stay away from Stevie.”
Simon Napier-Bell: They may have had plans, but forming a group called Led Zeppelin was not discussed at that time by the people who could have made it happen, like managers and record companies – it was never ever considered.
Jeff Beck: Everyone had prior commitments. That session that day, it was one day that really started my head turning – we were almost doing it.
Jimmy Page: It would have been the first of all those bands, sort of like the Cream and everything. Instead, it didn’t happen – apart from the Bolero. That’s the closest it got.
Simon Napier-Bell: A few days later, Keith Moon briefly left The Who, but I don’t think that was related to the Beck’s Bolero session.
Pete Townshend (guitarist, The Who): What actually happened was Keith and John went off and left me behind. They were gonna go and form a band with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page called Led Zeppelin.
Jimmy Page: The idea sort of fell apart. We just said, “Let’s forget about the whole thing, quick.” Instead of being more positive about it and looking for another singer, we just let it slip by. Then The Who began a tour, The Yardbirds began a tour and that was it.
Additional sources: Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher; Guitar_;_ Guitar World_;_ Guitar Player.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Within six months of the Beck's Bolero session, Jeff Beck had left The Yardbirds to embark on a solo career. In March 1967 the track appeared as the B-side to his debut single, Hi Ho Silver Lining - though the production credit went to Mickie Most, who succeeded Simon Napier-Bell as The Yardbirds' manager. Keith Moon's stint away from The Who lasted a matter of days before he returned to the fold.
In late 1968, Jimmy Page reinvented The Yardbirds as the New Yardbirds, with John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. They changed their name to Led Zeppelin before the year was out. In 2009, Beck and Page reunited on stage to play Beck's Bolero at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony.