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By Mikal Gilmore
August 10, 2006 4:33 PM ET
Savaged by critics, adored by fans, the biggest band of the Seventies took sex, drugs and rock & roll to epic heights before collapsing under the weight of its own heaviness
Led Zeppelin perform in Germany on March 1st, 1973.
There is no other story in rock & roll like the story of Led Zeppelin because the story is an argument — about music, who makes it, who hears it and who judges its meanings. Mainly, though, it’s an argument about the work, merits and life of a band that has been both treasured and scorned now for more than thirty-five years. The arguments started as soon as the band did, rooted in a conviction that Led Zeppelin represented a new world, a new age — a rift between the hard-fought values of the 1960s and the real-life pleasures and recklessness of the 1970s. Either the band was taking us forward or taking us under, illuminating the times or darkening them. Those in the band weren’t always sure themselves where everything was headed; things moved big and moved fast, and nothing simple happened. When everything was done, good and bad, the music withstood it all. Led Zeppelin — talented, complex, grasping, beautiful and dangerous — made one of the most enduring bodies of composition and performance in twentieth-century music, despite everything they had to overpower, including themselves.
Led Zeppelin were playing for new ears, and three and a half decades later, their music still plays the same way. Those sounds rushed through us and ahead of us, into territory that seemed to have no ending.
Led Zeppelin would come to epitomize the 1970s as nothing else ever has, but their ingenuity and ambition were deeply rooted in the changes of earlier decades. Jimmy Page was drawn to guitar in the 1950s by Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle sounds and Elvis Presley’s sexualized rockabilly, and by the 1960s he was a major player in the London pop scene. He made a reputation playing on sessions for the Kinks, the Who, Them, the Pretty Things, Herman’s Hermits and Donovan, among others. In 1966, Page joined Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds. But the band was fraying from Beck’s dark-cloud temperament, and in mid-1968, all the members had abandoned the group. Page, with the help of the group’s manager at the time, Peter Grant, assumed the rights to the band’s name and set out to find new members.
When John Paul Jones, an arranger and bassist who had worked with Page on Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” heard about the new band, he called Page to say he was eager to join. Page told Jones he would be back in touch; first, there was a singer he had to see. Page was looking for a vocalist who was versatile and undaunted — who could interact spontaneously with guitar improvisations. He had thought about Steve Marriott, formerly of Small Faces, and Terry Reid, but they weren’t available. The day after Jones’ call, Page and Grant went to hear Robert Plant, whom Reid had recommended.
Plant was from an industrial area known as the Black Country, in England’s Midlands. Like Page, he had been drawn to Elvis Presley, though Plant had a special affinity for American country-blues singers, such as Skip James, Bukka White and Memphis Minnie. He also had a thing about Lord of the Rings, which inspired the name of the band he was singing in, Hobbstweedle, when Page first heard him performing at a teachers college in Birmingham. When Plant sang a version of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” in what Page later described as a “primeval wail,” the guitarist said it unsettled him. It was exactly the voice he wanted. “I just could not understand why,” Page said, “when he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.” Page and Plant met at the guitarist’s houseboat on the Thames and discussed their tastes. Page played a track recorded by Joan Baez, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and explained that he wanted to find a way to put a song like that in a new context, one that would bring alive both the darkness and lightness of the material and heighten those contrasts. “We were dealing from the same pack of cards,” Plant said last year. “You can smell when people…had their doors opened a little wider than most, and you could feel that was the deal with Jimmy. His ability to absorb things and the way he carried himself was far more cerebral than anything I’d come across before and I was so very impressed.”
Plant recommended John Bonham, a drummer he had worked with. Bonham admired soul and Motown drummers and jazz musician Gene Krupa. But it was Cream’s Ginger Baker, Bonham said, who “was the first to come out with this ‘new’ attitude — that a drummer could be a forward musician in a rock band, and not something that was stuck in the background and forgotten about.” Bonham was nobody to remain in the background. He had a crushing attack and had been tossed from clubs for playing too loud. Page later said that when he first heard Bonham, he decided what his band would sound like. “This could be a breakthrough band,” Page told Bonham.
Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham came together for the first time in a room below a record store in London. Page suggested that they try “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” a rockabilly song popularized by Johnny Burnette that had been given new life by the Yardbirds. They had their sound and groove in that first song. “As soon as I heard John Bonham play,” Jones told the drummer’s biographer, Chris Welch, “I knew this was going to be great — somebody who knows what he’s doing and swings like a bastard. We locked together as a team immediately.” Plant has said that was the moment that he found the potential of what he could do with his voice, and also that it was the moment that defined the band: “Even though we were all steeped in blues and R&B, we found in that first hour and a half that we had our own identity.”
AFTER THAT FIRST MEETING, Page took the New Yardbirds to Copenhagen and Stockholm for some shows, playing covers and some new material of his own. Page understood right away that working any longer under the Yardbirds name would prove a liability. He settled on a new name, according to one legend, from a remark that the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, had made when Page, Beck, Moon and Who bassist John Entwistle had flirted with the idea of forming a group. “It would probably go over like a lead zeppelin,” Moon joked. The phrase stayed with Page; it afforded a further example of contrasts between hard and light things. Peter Grant, who would now be the manager of this new band, decided to remove the letter a from lead — he was worried that the word might be mispronounced as “leed.”
When the band returned to London in October 1968, Page took Led Zeppelin into Olympic Studios with engineer Glyn Johns (who had also worked with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who). Page simply wanted the sound forged in those early live shows; he didn’t want anything that couldn’t be reproduced live effectively with just the four of them. Even the aural effects of a track like “Dazed and Confused” could be rendered live without excess gimmickry. Part of the astonishing presence and depth of those recordings came from the way he placed amplifiers in the room, to get varying sounds of vibrancy and decay. “Distance is depth,” Page told Johns. It was an idea as old as the sounds of the Sun and Chess blues and early rock & roll recordings, and yet in Page’s hands it became something refreshingly extreme.
The band members spent roughly thirty hours of studio time making their first album. They knew they had something singular. They played a few nights at London’s Marquee, to largely good reviews — and then the easy times stopped. In November, Grant visited New York, where he won Zeppelin a $200,000 advance from Atlantic Records — an unprecedented amount for a new act whose first album nobody had yet heard. Even more important, though, were the contract terms that Grant secured: Essentially, Led Zeppelin held all the control. They alone would decide when they would release albums and tour, and they had final say over the contents and design of each album. They also would decide how much they would do to promote each release (not that much beyond tours, though those would be extensive) and which tracks to select as singles (Grant and the band wanted none). A major band would be working for itself, not for a company or for management (Led Zeppelin had no contract with Grant).
IN 1969, LED ZEPPELIN PLAYED 139 shows, the vast majority of them in the United States (they played only thirty-three in the U.K. that year). Clearly, they had settled on America as the primary foundation for their fame and accomplishment. “It felt like a vacuum and we’d arrived to fill it,” Page once told Cameron Crowe. “It was like a tornado, and it went rolling across the country.”
A touring life that extensive could be exhausting, of course. These were men away from their wives and children for long periods (only Page wasn’t married, though he later lived with a woman, Charlotte Martin, and would have a child with her). But touring presented considerable rewards as well. It built the following that Grant envisioned, made money and offered ample opportunities for immediate pleasure — including late-night drinking, drug-taking and all manner of sexual adventures.
Undeniably, things could turn ugly. In 1969, Life — one of the biggest magazines in America — assigned journalist Ellen Sanders to cover the band’s U.S. tour. “No matter how miserably the group managed to keep their behavior up to a basic human level,” she later wrote, “they played well almost every night of the week..”
IN 1970, JIMMY PAGE DECIDED THAT Led Zeppelin had earned enough credibility with their audience that the group could afford extending musical directions a bit. He and Plant retreated to a remote cottage in Wales and wrote a suite of acoustic-based songs that reflected the two’s affection for British folk, and paid tribute to the sort of music that Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell were producing from California (the entire band regarded Mitchell as perhaps the best songwriter in contemporary music). The songs Page and Plant assembled — including “That’s the Way” and “Gallows Poll” — appeared on the second half of Led Zeppelin III, with bounding electric tracks like “Immigrant Song,” “Celebration Day” and “Out on the Tiles” on the first half. By far the most affecting was “That’s the Way,” which Page regarded as Plant’s breakthrough as a lyric writer. Though it seemed to be about the gulf between two boyhood friends from different social backgrounds, it was in fact a song about the band’s ambivalent relationship with America. The group’s members were sometimes frightened and confused by what they saw or experienced in the United States — they were spit on, had guns drawn on them and were heckled at airports and on planes — and they were troubled about the violence that they had seen policemen visit upon youth who protested the war in Vietnam, as well as upon the fans at their shows. “We’ve been to America so much and seen so many things that we don’t agree with,” Plant said, “that our feelings of protest have to reflect in our music.”
Led Zeppelin III sold well initially, but quickly lost ground. Neither fans nor critics knew what to make of a record with such sharp electric and acoustic contrasts. But the next record — an album with no title, generally referred to as Led Zeppelin IV — did a stronger job of melding sounds and interests. There isn’t a missed step anywhere — indeed, it is an extraordinary statement of prowess and dreams, unbelievably complex yet straightforward at one extreme (“Black Dog,” with its staggering range of time-signature changes) and an alluring tale of scorn turned to transcendence at the other (“Stairway to Heaven”).
Something else, though, happened with Led Zeppelin IV. There was an invocation of history and horror (and a bit of Lord of the Rings) in “The Battle of Evermore,” and the suggestion of a shared mission of spiritual hope in “Stairway to Heaven.” Just as important, though, was what was not on the album: any discernible title. The four runic symbols that function as both the record’s real name and as representations of the personalities in the band had no clear meaning, but that made them more evocative, more a possibility than a meaning. (Page designed his own zoso-looking symbol and would never explain its significance — he told Plant only, but Plant forgot what it meant—while Bonham’s pattern of intersecting circles resembled the logo of a beer he liked.)
In the case of Jimmy Page, the use of symbolism had a special edge. As far back as his time in the Yardbirds, Page had an interest in the occult. By this point in Led Zeppelin’s history, that interest had transformed into an obsession with the British mystic and rogue Aleister Crowley, who messed in some pretty heavy juju, including an interest in satanism, in the early 1900s. Page himself was never a satanist, but he was attracted to Crowley’s philosophy. “His whole thing,” Page once said, “was total liberation and really getting down to what part you played. What you want to do, do it.” Page had Crowley’s primary law, “Do what thou wilt,” inscribed in the run-off groove of the original LP releases of Led Zeppelin III. Years later, Page admitted that his concentration on Crowley was unfortunate, but in the band’s lifetime, occultism proved a source of both silly speculation and painful rumors. The most wearying—and trite—of these was that Page and the other members of Led Zeppelin (except for John Paul Jones, the quiet one) had sold their souls to the devil in exchange for fame and success.
Tales like this may hold a dark appeal for some — the soul-selling legend certainly didn’t hurt Robert Johnson’s stature over the years — but in the end it’s all romantic know-nothingism. Johnson never met any devils at midnight crossroads for the same reason that Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin could never have made a supernatural deal for fame had they wanted to: There’s no devil to make deals with. Any bargains are bargains with the self — but that might be enough. Crowley’s dictum of “Do what thou wilt” would have a terrible effect on the life and death of Led Zeppelin.
HOUSES OF THE HOLY,’ The band’s 1973 album, has been seen as among Led Zeppelin’s lesser works, but few held doubts about the band’s sixth studio collection, the expansive Physical Graffiti. When the group began sessions for the 1975 album, it realized it had stored up a worthy collection of earlier unreleased tracks that might fit alongside some of the longer and more diverse material that Page and Plant had been writing. The result — fifteen tracks spread over two LPs — created a textural and thematic breadth unlike anything else the band had ever attempted. In particular, “Kashmir” — a song that made use of Indian and Arabic scales -was the band’s most ambitious recording. The track opens with a swirling drone and begins a steady mounting tension that, though the song’s sections shift and evolve, never lets up. In “Kashmir,” it was plain that the group’s music wasn’t about ideals of fulfillment or completion or satisfaction. The song itself was about a drive that Plant and Page made through southern Morocco, down a nonstop road through a never-ending desert. The music was also about a drive toward a way-off horizon that couldn’t be resisted. Led Zeppelin weren’t interested in endings that were endings; they were interested in never reaching an ending.
…After a tenth tour of America and a series of triumphant May concerts at London’s Earls Court, the group was set to leave England for a time… The day after the last Earls Court date, Robert Plant, his wife, Maureen, and their three children set out on a trip to Marrakech, Morocco. Page, Martin and their daughter, Scarlet, joined the Plants in June. The two families traveled through July and wound up on the Greek island of Rhodes. On August 3rd, Page left to check on some property in Sicily. The next day, Maureen Plant was driving her family and Scarlet Page in a rented car down a narrow road on the island when she lost control. The car hit a tree hard. Robert thought his wife was dead. His children were badly injured, though Scarlet was unhurt. Robert’s ankle was severely broken.
Doctors told Plant he would not be able to walk for months — in fact, they thought he might never walk again unaided. The group would not be able to tour for a year or more, if ever. Plant and Page sequestered themselves in Malibu and began writing material that was leaner and more hard-hitting…
ON JANUARY 1ST, 1976, Robert Plant was able to take his first steps without the help of a crutch or cane since the accident on Rhodes. Led Zeppelin didn’t resume live performances, though, until their eleventh U.S. tour, in 1977. Page and Grant conceived it as the effort that would reassert Led Zeppelin as the dominant band of the decade — but it didn’t go that way.
The tour started on April 1st, in Dallas, and was slated to extend for forty-nine concerts across America, for 1.3 million ticket holders…
July 26th, the group traveled to New Orleans for the next show. As they were checking into the hotel, Plant received a call from his wife. Plant’s son, Karac, was seriously ill — a respiratory infection. Two hours later, Maureen called back; their son was dead. Plant, Bonham and Cole caught the next flight back to England.
AFTER THE EVENTS OF JULY 1977, Led Zeppelin were in pieces. The death of Plant’s son stopped all band undertakings immediately. Bonham and Cole were the only members of Led Zeppelin’s inner circle to attend Karac Plant’s funeral in Birmingham. According to Cole — whose accounts are sometimes questionable — Plant was confused and hurt that the others hadn’t joined him on this day. Plant, Cole claimed, said, “Maybe they don’t have as much respect for me as I do for them. Maybe they’re not the friends I thought they were.”
Jimmy Page had to fend off rumors that his flirtations with the occult had backfired and created a curse, and that Led Zeppelin were now paying the cost. “I don’t see how the band would merit a karmic attack,” Page responded. “All I or we have attempted to do is go out and really have a good time and please people at the same time.”
But Plant later acknowledged that he had been forced to reevaluate everything. “After losing my son,” he said, “I found that the excesses that surrounded Led Zeppelin were such that nobody knew where the actual axis of all this stuff was. Everybody was insular, developing their own world. The band had gone through two or three really big — huge — changes: changes that actually wrecked it before it was born again. The whole beauty and lightness of 1970 had turned into a sort of neurosis.”
Grant and the other members of Led Zeppelin agreed to give Plant as much time and distance as he needed to grieve and come to his own decisions.
By late 1978, Plant was ready to try again with Led Zeppelin. The band recorded a new album in Stockholm.
Grant wanted the band to return to America — maybe as a way of redeeming its bad end there — but Plant was opposed. He didn’t want to be apart from his family more than necessary (in January, Maureen had given birth to the couple’s second son, Logan Romero Plant). Instead, the singer agreed to a two-week summer 1980 tour of Europe. At the June 27th show in Nuremberg, West Germany, Bonham collapsed from exhaustion. The tour ended in Berlin on July 7th, after Page canceled shows scheduled for France. Finally, Plant relented: He’d give Grant the American tour he wanted, but only if it were for four weeks. “I reckoned once Robert got over there and got into the swing,” Grant said, “he’d be OK.”
YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THE END of Led Zeppelin — indeed, you can’t talk meaningfully about Led Zeppelin, for better and worse — without considering John Bonham. He was in some ways the center of the band’s story — the force that literally propelled the band and the problem that stopped it. Bonham had grown up drinking in the Black Country and found himself in a music scene that was at the time a drinking culture. The trouble was, Bonham was a horrible drunk. Many described him as the friendliest and most down-to-earth member of Led Zeppelin when he was sober, but after a few drinks he could be belligerent as hell. Richard Cole believed that Bonham’s temperament stemmed from the strain he felt being away from his wife and children. In Mojo, Nick Kent related a memory Bryan Ferry had of a night in Bonham’s company in Los Angeles: “Ferry recalled Bonham bursting into tears and pleading to go home, back to his family in the Midlands, so terrified had he become of his own insatiable appetites while on the road.”
Some of Bonham’s behavior, though, was pitiless. One time, according to Hammer of the Gods, on board the chartered Starship jet, he staggered out of the plane’s bedroom cabin drunk, grabbed a stewardess and announced his intent to rape her. Grant and Cole had to pull him off. Another time, Bonham showed up at L.A.’s most famous rock & roll bar, the Rainbow, drank ten black Russians in rapid fire, glowered around the room, and when a young woman publicist recognized him and smiled at him, he punched her in the face, then went back to his drinks.
On September 24th, 1980, Led Zeppelin met to begin rehearsals for the upcoming American tour. Bonham had overcome a heroin problem and was taking a drug to help with anxiety and depression — but he had also been drinking vodka the whole day, and the alcohol only renewed his depression. Plant remembered Bonham as tired and disconsolate: “He was saying, ‘I don’t want to do this. You play the drums and I’ll sing.’ ” Bonham drank through rehearsal, until there wasn’t any point in continuing to play. Then the band convened back at Jimmy Page’s new house in Windsor. Bonham drank several more double vodkas and passed out around midnight. He was moved into a spare bedroom by an assistant. The next day, into the afternoon, John Paul Jones went to wake Bonham, accompanied by Plant’s assistant, Benji LeFevre. They found Bonham dead; he had rolled over in his sleep and taken water and vomit into his lungs and choked. Jones later told Cameron Crowe that his death looked “shockingly arbitrary.”
They wouldn’t say as much for more than two months, but it all finished right then. “It was so…final,” Plant said. “I never even thought about the future of the band or music.”
THERE WAS HUBRIS IN LED ZEPPELIN’S story, and there were bad endings. There were harsh judgments and wrecked feelings — some self-incurred and deserved, some not. There was also a kind of awful innocence and intensity, and through it all a magnificent brilliance.
Mainly, there was a heaviness to bear. Robert Plant — the one person in the band’s history who seemed to have deepened the most, though at the greatest cost — kept his distance from the band’s history and music for many years. Jimmy Page, on the other hand, loved the band’s music and history, and stayed close to it — remastering albums, assembling collections of unreleased live music for CD and DVD and playing Led Zeppelin’s music onstage whenever the chance seemed right. John Paul Jones, meantime, lived quietly with his family, working as an arranger and producer and recording resourceful music without fanfare (he overcame his drug problems in 1983). Page, Plant and Jones played together again in public a handful of times after 1980 — at the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, at a celebration of Atlantic Records’ fortieth anniversary in 1988, at the band’s 1995 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — but none of these occasions satisfied the three men. They knew what was missing.