Good Times/Bad Times: The Led Zeppelin Story
Matt Peters looks at some pivotal highs and lows from half a century of one of the most influential bands of all time…
Whether they admit it or not, legacy is the Grail most artists are chasing. But it’s one of the great human quandaries; what do we leave behind of ourselves? In the case of Led Zeppelin, it’s one of the greatest catalogues in recording history – a decade of creativity that’s arguably second only to the Fab Four’s. Beyond the hammer of the gods, red snappers and rumours of the occult, Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones crafted a musical treasure chest so rich it continues to be picked through, analysed and reissued while the fevered fascination continues.
Moreover, it endures as a benchmark of achievement for musicians. “The whole thing just went into a place that no one had been to before,” Robert Plant summarised in 2014. Because Zeppelin’s impact stretches beyond the albums; they changed the way a hugely successful touring band could exist and be perceived, and in a time when single releases and radio play could dictate fortunes, they resolutely refused to play the game. Of all the acts that can be called heavy rock, Zeppelin were the greatest. But they frequently transcended genre. At its core, this was a band who were more than the sum of their parts – and that was by design.
Unlike most of the origin stories behind other legendary British bands, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin were formed by a linchpin who had already carved out quite a career for himself beforehand. Mostly self-taught on the guitar from the age of 12, James Patrick Page left school in Epsom, Surrey at 15, before heading to London’s clubs to pursue his musical dream. Page’s first professional gigs were with singer Red E Lewis And The Red Caps and Neil Christian & The Crusaders in the late 50s, but after sampling the relentlessness of a touring life on the road, he became focused on session work as a guitarist. And he soon found he had a gift for it. In the three-year period between 1963 and 1966, Page’s studio work with other artists was prolific and sought-after; he worked with stars ranging from Cliff Richard and Lulu to Donovan and Nico.
Page’s fate was soon calling him back to a band. At the second time of asking, in 1966 he joined Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds. And when the band split in July 1968, Page was encouraged by their formidable manager Peter Grant to form his own band. He wasted no time; the new ensemble initially toured Scandinavia in September under the name The New Yardbirds, but by the end of the year, Page’s band had a debut album recorded with his session work savings in just nine days at London’s Olympic Studios. Following a name change to Led Zeppelin (a reference to the idea of going down like a lead balloon), their self-titled debut would be released on Atlantic in January 1969 in the US, with a March release following in the UK.
Gathering Of The Gods
The guitarist’s aim was clear; as he told fan Chris Cornell in a 2015 interview, he wanted this band to be the guitar showcase he’d always dreamed of, encompassing the versatility he had learned in the years before. But there was a crucial caveat. “It was going to be a guitar tour de force, but not at the expense of the other members,” he told Cornell. “Everyone needed to be heard.”
The other parts of that puzzle were Page’s equals in their fields – they just didn’t know it yet. Page had crossed paths with bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones as another prolific musician on the session circuit; Page and manager Grant headed north to Birmingham to audition relative unknown Robert Plant after a recommendation from their first choice, Terry Reid. Plant’s Black Country friend, drummer John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham, took longer to convince about the new venture. He’d already played with the singer in Band Of Joy, but after Grant and Page’s dogged pursuit, eventually relented and joined with him again.
As they rehearsed the material Page had prepared, the alchemical power the driven and focused four created was undeniable. “Everyone started playing in the stratosphere,” noted the guitarist about his band, “me included, because I never played guitar like I did on that first album.” They brought out the best in each other, but it was only the beginning. The scope and ambition would grow to become the ultimate vehicle for their talents, which stretched far beyond blues rock. Here, from across their 50-year history, are the key ups, downs and remarkable achievements of Led Zeppelin.
Lightning Strikes Twice
Page stakes his claim to greatness
The old adage that a band have a lifetime to write their first record, leading to the inevitable ‘difficult second album’, really doesn’t apply here. The UK press were still taking a while to catch on by the time the unremitting Zeppelin were already on their second US tour in the summer of 1969. As a result, Led Zeppelin II was tracked on the road on both sides of the Atlantic with engineer Eddie Kramer. If the process seemed disjointed and pressurised from being cooked up in London, L.A. and New York recording studios, the record didn’t show it. Instead, Zeppelin made their ambitions clear under the vision of Page – a guitarist who could showboat while soundscaping. “You watch how Page’s parts come together,” notes Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, “his aesthetic of weird scales and being irreverent with keys and being very rhythmically intense. Always a very strong sense of rhythm. From a songwriting perspective, he’s the guy.”
The encompassing psychedelic trip of Dazed And Confused, the brazen intensity in Heartbreaker’s solo, Thank You and Ramble On’s acoustic excursions – not to mention the combination of riff genius with studio experimentation exemplified on the menacing Whole Lotta Love – proved Page’s prodigious abilities as composer, player and producer. The fans had already shown their faith in it, too – Led Zeppelin II received pre-orders of 40,000 by the time it was released stateside on 22 October, over a week before the UK release.
Zeppelin to the manor born for their fourth opus
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, because while 1970’s Led Zeppelin III boldly pushed the folkier acoustic elements of their sound further in fascinating ways, with increased creative input from Robert Plant, it resulted in some confused reactions from listeners and critics at the time. The four musicians had decamped to the remote country Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales for III’s writing sessions with an acoustic guitar and tape recorder. They had clearly got a taste for creating in isolation, as the band defiantly closed ranks for the follow-up. Going against label advice, Page decided their next effort would be untitled, without sleeve notes or the Zeppelin name on the cover; instead there were four mysterious symbols, each representing a band member – giving Led Zeppelin IV the nickname ‘Four Symbols’.
Page’s resolution with the project proved well founded. On the advice of their trusted engineer, the keen-eared Andy Johns (younger brother of producer Glyn), the latter part of tracking found the band on location with The Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio. The tumble-down surroundings of grand Victorian house Headley Grange in East Hampshire proved crucial for what is a strong contender for Zeppelin’s finest hour. Bonham’s spectacular drum sound on the band’s version of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s When The Levee Breaks was tracked by Johns, capturing the natural reverb in the stairwell, using mics on the stairs above Bonzo’s new 26″ Ludwig bass drum. Plant came up with the initial lyrics to Stairway To Heaven by the log fire one evening while Page strummed an acoustic, and Black Dog, with its revolving Jones riff, was named after a Labrador that wandered around the grounds of the reportedly haunted house.
Stairway…’s grand scope, as it built from bustle-in-your-hedgerow folk ballad to full-blown dramatic Page solo, meant the guitarist needed to use a custom-made Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck guitar with 12- and six-string necks to deliver it faithfully live without switching instruments. It’s still regarded as one of the most iconic guitar performances of all time.
The quartet captured in their element on tour
By the time Zeppelin hit North America for their eighth tour there, they were in rude creative health, with four albums under their belt and the stamina for three-hour sets becoming a standard. It also saw powerful new material previewed from forthcoming fifth album Houses Of The Holy.
The proof is in the pudding on the newly remastered four-LP How The West Was Won reissue, with recordings taken from two shows during the two-month excursion; L.A. Forum on 25 June, 1972 and Long Beach Arena on 27 June, 1972 (see p102 for our review).
There’s plenty of evidence of how efficiently their power could be wielded onstage in these recordings, but the expansive excursions captured are eyebrow-raising by the tamer standards of today’s rock. The 25-minute Dazed And Confused’s journey moves from Page’s groundbreaking use of a violin bow to a diversion into The Crunge’s funky town, while the equally expansive Whole Lotta Love takes in James. B Oden via John Lee Hooker. Okay, Bonham’s 19-minute Moby Dick drum solo might push it for some, but if any drummer deserves one…
Travellers Of Time And Space
Swan Song takes flight with a double
Zeppelin’s first double album came with much fanfare – the first release on their own record-label imprint in 1975, distributed by their former label Atlantic and founded the year before. Swan Song Records would go on to release material from artists including Bad Company and The Pretty Things, but first there was the grand arrival of Physical Graffiti. It wasn’t just different from previous Zeppelin releases in its 15-track length and sumptuous die-cut sleeve depicting a New York City tenement block in the East Village – with interchangeable images behind the windows thanks to the inner sleeves. Several of its songs were taken from sessions for previous albums, with three each from IV and Houses Of The Holy (including its title track, oddly enough).
Aided, as ever, by the musical multitasking unsung hero of the band, John Paul Jones (mandolin, lap steel and organ to name a few of his instruments besides bass), the sheer scope of musical styles here – from hard rockers to country, funk and instrumental folk – makes it the finest representation of the diverse terrain Zeppelin could cover. And Kashmir was its towering summit.
Page and Plant’s openness to world styles found them secretly recording in Bombay with Indian classical musicians back in 1972 (hear the 2015 deluxe reissue of Coda for more), and three years in the making this ambitious orchestral-rock piece was inspired by both Page and Plant’s experiences. For the guitarist, it was experiments with modal melodies in DADGAD tuning and, despite its title, Plant reflected on his 1973 travels in Sub-Saharan Africa. Though in truth, nobody in the band had ever been to Kashmir, the majestic composition remains one of the greatest examples of a rock crossover with both world music and stirring orchestration.
Zeppelin’s last album: their strangest brew
While predecessor Presence has some remarkable moments (the thundering Achilles Last Stand, please take a bow) and a surprising lack of keyboards and acoustic guitars, it marked the end of the band’s remarkable creative run. In Through The Out Door, Zeppelin’s final studio album proper, is also their most flawed work. Originally issued somewhat ominously in an outer sleeve styled as a brown paper bag, the soulless mix that even its reissue failed to address isn’t a great experience for the ears.
But the nods to joyful Billy Joel-esque pop on Fool In The Rain aren’t that shocking in light of the bravely experimental Houses Of The Holy’s Marmite attempts at reggae (D’yer Maker) and the James Brown-inspired The Crunge. Still, even by their standards, the quartet were in a strange place here. For good reasons.
Page’s guitar influence is notably diminished throughout the record, which was an inevitability due to his struggles with drug addiction at the time, while Bonham was swamped in his own battles with alcoholism as the band tracked in Stockholm eight months before the album’s release. John Paul Jones’s synths moved to fill the void, but the relationship between experimentation and Zeppelin’s high standards was blurring confusingly; Hot Dog’s honky-tonk knees-up attempts to recall the old Page/Plant fire but merely fizzles, and the head-scratching 10-and-a-half-minute Carouselambra remains one of their oddest manoeuvres.
Plant’s touching tribute to his late son Karac on All My Love is in stark contrast, a rare song without a Page credit and a heartfelt ballad for the five-year-old child who tragically passed away in the UK from a stomach virus while the singer was touring the US in 1977. The turmoil almost split the band, before Zeppelin faced another tragedy in their already eventful history.
Dazed And Confused
Zeppelin lose their beating heart
“John Bonham is the greatest rock drummer of all time,” Dave Grohl stated in 2015. And you’d be pushed to find any drummer in rock who could consider themselves Bonzo’s superior. His influence on modern rock drumming cannot be overstated; immensely hard-hitting, but with feel and a surprisingly smooth groove, plus a right foot like a traction engine, his chops were matched by a legendarily larger-than-life personality.
But Bonham’s rock wildman image and the untimely nature of his death can often distract from his other side; the emotional support he gave to his old friend Plant when he lost his son in 1977, and how he encouraged his own son Jason to take up the drums.
His death at the age of 32 on 25 September 1980, from inhalation of vomit after a heavy drinking bout, effectively ended the band. Bonham had been staying at Page’s house in Windsor as the band rehearsed before a European tour. In a statement released on 4 December, the remaining three members stated: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” Page’s dream was over.
The band pay their blues dues… in court
By their second album, Zeppelin’s debt to pioneering US blues artists who had inspired them, such as Skip James, was clear. In that way, they were no different from the Stones before them. But for Page and co, it became a legal matter. Courts found two specific songs on II owed a significant debt to Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon. For Bring It On Home, Page had intended the intro and outro to be a homage to the Dixon-penned 1966 original. But Dixon disagreed, and sued in 1972. The songwriter took them to court again in 1985 for writing credits, claiming
Whole Lotta Love used lyrics from Dixon’s 1962 song for Muddy Waters, You Need Love. Both suits were settled out of court for undisclosed sums, with Dixon gaining credit for Bring It On Home and subsequently included in the credits for Whole Lotta Love.
Though Page and Plant would work together again in the 1990s on live and recorded projects reworking Zeppelin songs, they’ve also reunited with Jones sporadically under the Led Zeppelin name. The first time was the ill-fated Live Aid performance at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, with Phil Collins on drums, that’s not remembered fondly by the members. The next three performance reunions would feature Jason Bonham on drums, with 2007’s Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in London on 10 December the only full set, captured on 2012 release Celebration Day.
Demand was at fever pitch for follow-up activity, but the ever forward-looking Plant, busy with his own solo projects, refused resolutely. This led Page and Jones to explore alternative options with Steven Tyler and Myles Kennedy on the mic. By 2009, any potential project plan was dissolved. Now that it looks as though the last Zeppelin reissues may have been issued, we eagerly await and hope for Jimmy Page’s next creative chapter.