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One of the biggest bands of all time, Led Zeppelin lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the hilt, and even off stage were one big rock cliche, but also throughout their career maintained a radical edge. Jon Rogers rexamines their extraordinary history.
Taking pot shots at the four-headed monolithic heavy rock beast that was Led Zeppelin is all too easy.
Musically, it was a lumbering leviathan, often playing three-hour sets that often comprised of seemingly endless, self-indulgent solos, including (horror of horrors) John Bonham bashing out a drum solo on 'Moby Dick'. And don't forget their wholesale pillaging of the blues which they sprinkled liberally throughout most of their songs and then cranked up the volume to an ear-splitting Spinal Tap level of 11. Lyrically, too, they could be appalling. When Robert Plant wasn't singing about some mystical mumbo-jumbo about Vikings or the Battle for Evermore his crotch took over, invariably imploring some woman to "squeeze my lemon 'till the juice runs down my legs" (the line was looted from Robert Johnson anyway).
Even off stage they were one big rock cliché, living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the hilt. The band consumed an endless supply of alcohol, drugs, televisions and hotel rooms – when they weren't flying around America in their own private jet. Jimmy Page, for a while, got obsessed with the occult, magick and Aleister Crowley. There was also a limitless supply of groupies. The stories of which have now gone into the realms of folklore. Separate incidents supposedly involved a Red Snapper and a redheaded groupie, the so-called “octopus incident” and whilst on their third tour of America, a groupie that liked her Great Dane to do certain things to her. In the "groupie" issue of Rolling Stone Page recounted a tale of being served up on a room service trolley by Bonham dressed as a waiter to the waiting women.
They were exactly the sort of rock dinosaurs punk came along to eradicate.
But they also had a radical edge to them. When they first signed to their record label the band managed to secure complete artistic control and then, later, set up their own record label, Swan Song. They also never sanctioned the release of singles in the UK. For most record labels, singles are largely seen as a loss-leader, put out solely as a means to promote the forthcoming album. Despite severe pressure to release 'Stairway to Heaven' in a 7-inch format the group still refused, probably losing themselves a great deal of lost income and exposure. They also shunned the usual record company marketing ploys and not only refused to give their fourth album a title but also refused to have their name on the cover. The band also took time and effort over the artwork on each album. Rather than shoving out a cover with a picture of the band, most albums came in a gatefold sleeve at least. 'Led Zeppelin III' came with a cardboard disc that could be spun around, changing the patterns on the cover (the idea came to Page from recollecting old gardening catalogues). 'In Through the Out Door' had six possible covers and the covers of the double album 'Physical Graffiti' slotted together to complete a picture of a tenement block. Even playing live they defied convention, refusing to accept a support band in favour of playing three hour slots themselves.
When, though, someone comes to write that great big thick book on rock mythology Led Zeppelin will be right up there as one of the great rock bands. They could veer from the hypnotic pounding of 'When the Levee Breaks', the intricate, exotic influences on 'Kashmir' as well as the straight-forward blast of 'Rock and Roll'. There was the loneliness of 'Tea for One', the reflective 'In My Time of Dying' and the spookiness of 'No Quarter'. And they also wrote a little ditty called 'Stairway to Heaven' which you may have heard of.
Not only were they musically way over the top but also financially. They were big business selling albums in vast quantities; their second album spent two and a half years in the US Top 40. In 1973 the Financial Times tipped the band to earn in excess of $30 million in the US alone. It's hard to think of a more commercially successful or archetypal rock band of the 70's. Along with The Beatles they are the only band to have five diamond albums (sales of more than 10 million each). Their fourth album has reportedly sold 22 million copies.
Not bad for a band that was originally conceived as the New Yardbirds.
After Jeff Beck left the Yardbirds and the band disintegrated in 1968 guitarist Jimmy Page was left with the name and an obligation to complete a tour of Scandinavia. Page initially linked-up with session bassist John Paul Jones, whom he had worked with on various sessions including those for Lulu, Dusty Springfield and Donovan. Teaming up with manager Peter Grant they set about putting a band together. Vocalist Robert Plant (who had been in Band of Joy along with a drummer called John Bonham) was recommended to them, who in turn suggested Bonham for the drumming position. And the New Yardbirds went off to fulfil their contractual obligations.
Talking to Mick Houghton, then writing for Circus magazine in 1976, Page said: "I knew exactly the style I was after and the sort of musicians I wanted to play with, the sort of powerhouse sound I was really going for."
The band returned, went into the studio to cut their first album, which was supposedly done in 37 hours at a cost of £1,750 (paid out of Page's life savings) and then took the name Led Zeppelin after a suggestion by Who drummer Keith Moon who, legend has it, quipped their sound was “so heavy they should go down like a lead zeppelin”.
'Led Zeppelin' was released in early 1969 after the band signed to Atlantic for a record-breaking $200,000 advance which included a "total artistic control" clause. The album, which was largely a studio version of their live set, mixed together a heavy-duty interpretation of the blues in the shape of covers of Willie Dixon's 'You Shook Me' and Otis Rush's 'Can't Quit You' with the folk of Bert Jansch (who remains a strong influence on Page: “He [Jansch] was the innovator of the time.”) via the acoustic instrumental 'Black Mountain Side' (Jansch's September 1966 album 'Jack Onion' contained 'Blackwater Side') and Anne Bredon's 'Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You' (which Joan Baez had covered) as well as their love of rhythm and blues in the epic 'Dazed and Confused'. It went Top 10 in both Britain and the US. Looking back in 1977 Page commented that "the first album has got the catalyst for so much."
"It was inevitable that the first LP had leftover ideas from the Yardbirds," Page told Houghton in Circus magazine. "Because that's what I'd been working on. It was original stuff that I'd developed myself."
Following in chronological order was 'Led Zeppelin II'. The album was an unashamed collection of rock songs, containing the classic 'Whole Lotta Love'. Released as a single in America, it was to give the band their only Top 10 hit in the US. Although the band thought it would be inappropriate to release the single in the UK it would later be covered by Alexis Korner's studio band CCS (standing for Collective Consciousness Society) and used as the theme tune for BBC1's chart show 'Top of the Pops'. Strangely, the song would also be covered by the London Symphony Orchestra as well as Tina Turner. Willie Dixon, though, thought the song bore a remarkable similarity to his song 'You Need Love' and brought a plagiarism suit against the band in 1987, which would eventually be settled out of court. At the time, Plant was reported to have said: “You only get caught when you're successful. That's the game.” Upon release the album went straight to number one on both sides of the Atlantic and had even notched up 400,000 advance orders before its late 1969 release. Along with 'Whole Lotta Love' songs like 'The Lemon Song', 'What Is and What Should Never Be' as well as 'Moby Dick' (which would later become a live favourite and feature Bonham's drum solo) ensured that the album would often feature in "best rock album" polls. "This is one fucking heavyweight of an album!" is how John Mendelssohn described it in his review for Rolling Stone in December 1969.
After a 27-date tour of America which grossed $800,000 Plant and Page (along with roadies Clive Coulson and Sandy Macgregor) hid themselves away in the remote eighteenth-century Welsh country cottage, Bron-yr-Aur (meaning "breast of gold"), in south Snowdonia to organise and prepare their third album, which would have the ingenious title of 'Led Zeppelin III'. The cottage was extremely basic with no bathroom, electricity or running water. Candles and gaslights were used, water had to be fetched from the nearby stream and the nearest town was two miles away down a mountain road. The area is steeped in ancient myth. The giant Idris Gawr has his seat on the mountain near by and legend has it that King Arthur fought his last battle in the Ochr-yr-Bwich pass. During their stay the songs 'Bron-yr-Aur', 'Bron-y-Aur Stomp', 'Misty Mountain Hop', 'Friends' and 'That's the Way' were written as well as the early stages of what would become their best known song, 'Stairway to Heaven'. Rough sketches of 'Over the Hills and Far Away', 'Down by the Seaside' and 'The Rover' were also drawn up. After playing the Bath Festival in 1970 and heading out on tours of Europe and the US the album was released towards the end of that year. Later, in 1973, Plant would return to the area, buying a sheep farm in the nearby Llyfnant Valley.
The latest album, released in October, still contained some hard-boiled rockers – in the shape of the thunderous 'Immigrant Song' (about the Viking invasions of England) complete with Plant's finest Wagnerian wailing and 'Celebration Day' – but the album largely emphasised the band's acoustic, folk and blues heritage with the mournful 'Since I've Been Loving You' and the traditional 'Gallows Pole' (which stemmed from a Leadbelly song) standing out. Along with the trademark riffs it mixed in the folk music of Pentangle, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, Celtic mythology (Plant had been studying the manuscripts of the ancient legends kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) as well as the delta blues of Mississippi. In an interview at the time Page said: “The new album is totally different from the others and I see that it's obviously a new direction. Everybody in the band is going through some changes. There are changes in the playing and the lyrics. Robert is really getting involved in his lyric writing.” Despite critical misgivings - Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone thought: "Their music is as ephemeral as Marvel comics" comparing their "insensitive grossness" to a one of Cecil B DeMille's films. The fans still brought it though and the album topped the charts in both the UK and America. "Sitting around a log fire in Wales," commented Page in a defence of the album to Gig in 1977. "You don't put up a 200-watt Marshall set-up but you get your acoustic guitars. Consequently acoustic numbers came out." For Plant, it was a "time to step back, take stock and not get lost in it all."
While the band were doing their own Valhallic-style raiding in the US by cultivating their "wild boys on tour" image by their excessive consumption of drink, drugs, groupies and the trashing of hotel rooms they also had a darker side too largely thanks to Page's growing interest in the occult and particularly Aleister Crowley. Page's obsession even stretched to buying Crowley's Scottish mansion Boleskine House in 1970 and putting the quotes 'Do What Thou Wilt', and 'So Mote It Be' from the self-styled "Great Beast" on the run-out grooves of their third album. In 1976 he told Circus magazine that he had read 'Magic in Theory and in Practice' when he was about 11 and had done "quite extensive" reading of Crowley's work, particularly being attracted to Crowley's "system of self-liberation". In 1975 Page even opened his own occult bookshop off Kensington High Street called Equinox. When questioned about his interest in the subject though Page would be coy and hesitant to reveal too much.
Their untitled, and best known, fourth album was largely recorded on the Rolling Stones mobile recording studio at Headley Grange in Hampshire and was released in December 1971. The inside cover containing four runic symbols that represented each member of the group. It kicked-off with the thunderous boogie of 'Black Dog' which was followed by the self-explanatory 'Rock and Roll". The tempo was sedated by the mystical folk of 'The Battle of Evermore' (with former Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny helping out on vocal duties) before the album's centrepiece, 'Stairway to Heaven'. Also seeped in mysticism (as well as obscure lyrics) it would become their best-known track and a perennial feature in concerts. The eight minute song slowly built from Plant's voice into a rousing, head-strong virtuoso guitar solo from Page. The song gestated over a long period. The early buds of the song started coming through whilst they were in their Welsh cottage but the actual recording of the song started in Basing Street in December 1970. Plant's lyrics came later when the band were at Headley Grange and Bonham and Jones had taken the night off to go to the Speakeasy. The guitar solo would also come later when the band returned to Basing Street, according to Richard Digby Smith, who was the tape operator on the album, Page got the solo down in three takes. For Page, the song "crystallised the essence of the band. It was milestone for us."
'Misty Mountain Hop' saw the band pay homage to the hippie era in San Francisco. It's really though the final track that really stands out. 'When the Levee Breaks' took a blues framework, put the drums way up in the mix as if Bonham had been bashing out the rhythm with concrete slabs and then had Plant wailing over the top. The drum sound was achieved by putting the drums in the huge open entrance hall which had a stairway going up to all three floors. A stereo mike was then put on the second floor. US rap group the Beastie Boys liked the track so much that they sampled it on the track 'Rhymin & Stealin' from their 1986 album 'Licensed to Ill.' Indie also-rans Chapterhouse also sampled Bonham's drumming on their single 'Pearl'. Zeppelin's untitled album got to number one in the UK but. despite the classic status now bestowed on it, it could only mange second place in the States evn though it went gold on its first day of release.
Their fifth album was actually given a proper title: 'Houses of the Holy', although the band obviously forgot to actually put that on the cover. Despite having its moments the spring 1973 album recorded at the Electric Ladyland and Olympics studios was patchy at best. Fans were not only offered up the likes of the ominous 'No Quarter' and 'The Song Remains the Same' as well as the rollicking reggae-tinged 'D'yer Mak'er' but also the appalling cod-funk of 'The Crunge' – a strong contender for the band's worst effort actually committed to vinyl - and the run-of-the-mill 'Dancing Days.' The album still managed to reach the top of both the UK and US charts.
After yet another tour of America the band had something of a hiatus, they stopped touring to work on their film/live album, form their own label Swan Song (launched in May 1974 it would sign acts like Bad Company and The Pretty Things) and write songs for the album that would become 'Physical Graffiti'.
Eventually released in 1975 the double album would contain some of the band's finest songs, most notably the majestic sweep of the nine-minute 'Kashmir', the unabashed 'The Rover' and the stunning blues of 'In My Time of Dying'. Sides three and four couldn't quite match the opening two but still managed to conjure something special with 'In the Light' and 'Night Flight'. It spent six weeks at the number one spot in the US charts and also hit the top over here, eventually becoming the band's biggest-selling recording.
A planned world tour had to be cancelled when disaster struck Plant and his wife when they were both badly injured in a car crash on the Greek island of Rhodes in the summer. Plant would not be able to walk unaided until the following year.
With boring predictability their next album, 'Presence', once again reached the top of the UK and US album charts in 1976. It's cover depicted a strange, black obelisk set in familial settings. The music varied wildly and marked something of a return to the band's hard rock of their early albums. Recorded in Munich in three weeks, it kicked-off with the gallop of 'Achilles Last Stand' before moving on to the rather workman like efforts of 'For Your Life' and 'Royal Orleans'. 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' upped the standard once again before falling back to the plain and ordinary 'Candy Store Rock' and 'Hoot's On for Nowhere'. The album closed though with the beautiful despair and heartache of 'Tea for One'. "Nothing was plotted out beforehand, remembered Page to Houghton. "There may have been a few ideas on cassette but that was all. Everything just came pouring out in the studio."
The long awaited double live album and film, 'The Song Remains the Same', finally saw the light of day in late 1976. Although it was a commercial success (and reached the number one spot in the USA and the UK) it was also a musical albatross; generally failing to capture the spirit of the band's marathon concerts. It was Led Zeppelin at their most bombastic and over-blown. Songs were drawn out, seemingly endless and usually filled with self-indulgent solos. Fans had to be super fit to last this endurance test of stamina. Along with the live footage shot at Madison Square Garden, spliced in-between the songs were "fantasy sequences" where each member of the band was meant to reveal their innermost soul. Plant saw himself as some sort of medieval hero excelling at horse riding, sailing and fighting baddies to save young damsels in distress. Raglan Castle between Monmouth and Abergavenny was used for the filming. Plant summed-up his feelings of the album to Mojo magazine in 1994: "I think 'The Song Remains the Same' is such a load of bollocks".
Tragedy struck again in July 1977 during a 51-date tour of America. Initially a security man got badly beaten up and then three days later Plant's son, Karac, died after suddenly contracting a stomach infection. The tour was abandoned immediately. It would prove to be the last time the band would tour the States.
The band retreated and nothing was heard from them for a year. Rumours started spreading that the band was jinxed in some way. Gossips pointed to Page's fascination with the work of Aleister Crowley and the occult in general as the cause. Some even thought that the band had gone to the crossroads to sell their souls in a Faustian-style pact with the devil - just like the legend that surrounded Robert Johnson. Any efforts to quell the whispers weren't helped when John Bonham broke two ribs in a car crash.
The band returned to the studio – in fact, Abba's studio in Sweden – in late 1978 to record their next album 'In Through the Out Door'. Certainly one of the group's weaker efforts it still had its moments and contains a diverse spread of styles which had largely been masterminded by Jones. Opener 'In the Evening' boogied along while 'All My Love' (supposedly written for Plant's son) showed a tender, if a little clichéd, side and the weary 'I'm Gonna Crawl' saw the band still finding their creative form but songs like 'South Bound Saurez' never had much going for it. Fans remained loyal though, once again buying enough copies to send the album to the top of the charts. It stayed at number one in the US charts for seven weeks.
A European tour was planned in 1980, acting as a warm up for a US tour afterwards but whilst rehearsals were underway Bonham was found dead at Page's house, having choked on his own vomit after a serious drinking binge in September.
After his death the band felt that they couldn't go on and announced their retirement soon afterwards.
Until recently the band's vaults hadn't been comprehensively raided. A compilation album of unissued tracks spanning the band's career, 'Coda', was released in 1982, largely for contractual reasons, and was aimed directly at the die-hard fans. Despite some flashes it didn't unearth any startling discoveries or forgotten gems.
Over the years though the label has cashed in on the popularity of their back catalogue releasing remastered box sets and compilations (such as the 'Remasters' albums and a 4-CD box set, which did contain some previously unreleased material) and although it improved the sound quality it usually meant selling fans something they already had.
The release of the band's BBC radio sessions in 1997 proved to be of most interest to fans, and even contained three previously unheard tracks.
In a spate of activity though a five hour DVD collecting various live performances - including the Royal Albert Hall in January 1970 and Knebworth in 1979 - and the triple live album 'How the West was Won' – taken from two shows on the west coast of America in June 1972 – has seen the light of day. Hopefully now, with the release of a decent live album the "bollocks" on 'The Song Remains the Same' will be consigned to the archives.
The appeal of the band to the latest crop of groups like the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips as well as older, hard rock bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith is perhaps best left up to Plant in an interview with Barney Hoskyns for 'Rock's Backpages' in May 2003. "The thing about the group was the extension of the instrumental parts, and that was in full fling by the time we even made our first record [...] It was what we feasted on to get riffs, to get organised, to become a big band with big riffs."