After a lackluster year, blues rock legends and psychedelic rock pioneers The Yardbirds needed a change. Their last album was a dud, and they had been coasting on the release of their Greatest Hits album for most of 1967 and 1968. They hardly played their new stuff live. In fact, they hardly played any of their songs as they were produced, just mostly mixes and long solos. Moreover, former Yardbirds’ members Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were becoming bigger than the band that spawned them: The Jeff Beck Group, with front man Rod Stewart on vocals, had finally broken big in the summer of ‘68, and Eric Clapton’s supergroup Cream ruled the charts. Vocalist Keith Reif and drummer Joe McCarty wanted to move in a folk rock direction, while guitarist Jimmy Page wanted to continue to experiment with the heavy psychedelic blues that was so popular with Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Bassist Chris Dreja didn’t give a shit either way, at this point he was more interested in being a rock photographer. Session bassist John Paul Jones, who was a longtime collaborator of Page’s from his own session days, played in Dreja’s stead more often than not, sometimes even live.
The Yardbirds played their final show just outside London in July 1968, and then Reif and McCarty permanently departed the band. However, the Yardbirds still had a contract to perform a Scandinavian Tour. Dreja and Page saw an opportunity to form a new band and the tour would quickly get them noticed, but they had to keep the name “Yardbirds” because the promotional materials were already published and distributed.
The Yardbirds quickly found a replacement for Reif but their chosen young vocalist couldn’t break his previous contract to make the tour. However, he did recommend Page go see the band Obs-Tweedle then performing in Birmingham. Page obliged, and after just one song (Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”) offered the 19 year old front man Robert Plant the job for the Yardbirds. Plant immediately accepted and recommended his childhood friend John Bonham as replacement drummer for McCarty. With the fast pace of the changes, Dreja decided to leave to pursue his career in photography. John Paul Jones, practically a member of the band anyway, quickly stepped into the vacancy.
The New Yardbirds played their first gig on 7 September 1968 at Egegård School in Gladsaxe, Denmark, a suburb of Copenhagen. The new band had barely played together before and rehearsed all morning and afternoon in preparation. That night was the school’s “Teen Club Ball” and almost 1400 people were in attendance. The young audience was not happy. They had bought tickets to see the legendary Yardbirds and were upset to find out that only Page was still in the lineup. Nonetheless, the New Yardbirds quickly won over the skeptical crowd. The Teen Club Ball in Gladsaxe Denmark was the first time Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham played together on stage in front of an audience.
The New Yardbirds recorded their first album later in the month based on their live performances from the tour. The album never happened. Although Dreja was OK with the band using the “Yardbirds” name to finish the Scandinavian tour, he was not cool with them recording new music, unless of course he got a cut. The New Yardbirds needed a new name.
So when the band completed their Scandinavian tour in October, they decided to make a clean break with their Yardbirds’ past. Two year’s previously, Page and The Who’s Keith Moon toyed with the idea of forming their own supergroup to rival Clapton’s Cream. The Who’s John Entwhistle said the band would go down “like a lead balloon”. The conversation stuck with Page. The “a” in “lead” was dropped for pronunciation purposes, and “balloon” was changed to “zeppelin” to presage the “lightness”, “heaviness” and “combustibility” of the new group’s sound.