It wasn't just Led Zeppelin's thunderous volume, sledgehammer beat, and edge-of-mayhem arrangements that made it the most influential and successful heavy-metal pioneer. It was the band's finesse. Like its ancestors the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin used a guitar style that drew heavily on the blues; its early repertoire included remakes of songs by Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, and Willie Dixon (who later won a sizable settlement from the band in a suit in which he alleged copyright infringement). But Jimmy Page blessed the group with a unique understanding of the guitar and the recording studio as electronic instruments, and of rock as sculptured sound; like Jimi Hendrix, Page had a reason for every bit of distortion, feedback, reverberation, and out-and-out noise that he incorporated. Few of the many acts that try to imitate Led Zeppelin can make the same claim.
Page and Robert Plant were also grounded in British folk music and fascinated by mythology, Middle Earth fantasy, and the occult, as became increasingly evident from the band's later albums (the fourth LP's title is comprised of four runic characters). A song that builds from a folk-baroque acoustic setting to screaming heavy metal, "Stairway to Heaven," fittingly became the best-known Led Zeppelin song and a staple of FM airplay, although like most of the group's "hits," it was never released as a single. Though sometimes critically derided during their lifespan, Led Zeppelin was unquestionably one of the most enduring bands in rock history, with U.S. sales of more than 100 million records.
When the Yardbirds fell apart in the summer of 1968, Page was left with rights to the group's name and a string of concert obligations. He enlisted John Paul Jones, who had done session work with the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, and Shirley Bassey. Page and Jones had first met, jammed together, and discussed forming a group when both were hired to back Donovan on his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP.
Page had hoped to complete the group with drummer B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum and singer Terry Reid. Neither was available, but Reid recommended Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham, drummer for his old Birmingham group, Band of Joy. The four first played together as the session group behind P.J. Proby on his Three Week Hero. In October 1968 they embarked on a tour of Scandinavia under the name the New Yardbirds. Upon their return to England they recorded their debut album in 30 hours.
Adopting the name Led Zeppelin (allegedly coined by Keith Moon), they toured the U.S. in early 1969, opening for Vanilla Fudge. Their first album was released in February; within two months it had reached Billboard's Top 10. Led Zeppelin II reached Number One two months after its release, and since then every album of new material has gone platinum; five of the group's LPs have reached Number One. After touring almost incessantly during its first two years together, Zeppelin began limiting its appearances to alternating years. The band's 1973 U.S. tour broke box-office records throughout the country (many of which had been set by the Beatles), and by 1975 its immense ticket and album sales had made Led Zeppelin the most popular rock & roll group in the world. In 1974 the quartet established its own label, Swan Song. The label's first release was Physical Graffiti (Number One, 1975), the band's first double-album set, which sold 4 million copies.
On August 4, 1975, Plant and his family were seriously injured in a car crash while vacationing on the Greek island of Rhodes. As a result, the group toured even less frequently. That and speculation among fans that supernatural forces may have come into play also heightened the Zeppelin mystique. (Plant believed in psychic phenomena, and Page, whose interest in the occult was well known, once resided in Boleskine House, the former home of infamous satanist Aleister Crowley.)
In 1976 Led Zeppelin released Presence, a 4-million seller. The group had just embarked on its U.S. tour when Plant's six-year-old son, Karac, died suddenly of a viral infection. The remainder of the tour was canceled, and the group took off the next year and a half. In late 1978 Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham began work on In Through the Out Door, their last group effort. They had completed a brief European tour and were beginning to rehearse for a U.S. tour when, on September 25, 1980, Bonham died at Page's home of what was described as asphyxiation; he had inhaled his own vomit after having consumed alcohol and fallen asleep. On December 4, 1980, Page, Plant, and Jones released a cryptic statement to the effect that they could no longer continue as they were. Soon thereafter it was rumored that Plant and Page were going to form a band called XYZ (ex-Yes and Zeppelin) with Alan White and Chris Squire of Yes; the group never materialized. In 1982 Zeppelin released Coda (Number Six, 1982), a collection of early recordings and outtakes.
Plant and Page each pursued solo careers. Jones released a soundtrack album, Scream for Help, in 1986, and has worked in production. The remaining members of Zeppelin have reunited sporadically since. They played in 1985 at Live Aid (with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums), and in May 1988 (with John Bonham's son, Jason, on drums) at the Atlantic Records 40th-anniversary celebration at New York's Madison Square Garden. They also performed at Jason Bonham's wedding. Zeppelin's concert movie, The Song Remains the Same (originally released in 1976), is still a staple of midnight shows around the country, and Zeppelin tunes like "Stairway to Heaven," "Kashmir," "Communication Breakdown," "Whole Lotta Love," and "No Quarter" are still in heavy rotation on classic-rock radio playlists. In 1990 a St. Petersburg, Florida, station kicked off its all-Zeppelin format by playing "Stairway to Heaven" for 24 hours straight. (Less than two weeks later, the station had expanded its playlist to include Pink Floyd.)
In fall 1994 Page and Plant participated in the No Quarter album, which they followed up with a new 1998 studio effort, Walking Into Clarksdale. Jones, who was not invited to join them, was by then working and touring with Diamanda Gal ás, with whom he recorded 1994's The Sporting Life. In 1997 a live-in-the-studio collection of Zeppelin's BBC radio sessions peaked at Number 12 and went platinum. In 1999 the recording industry announced that the band was only the third act in music history to achieve four or more diamond-certified albums, signifying sales of 10 million copies.
In recent years, Page has become the group's unofficial archivist, and in 2003 he oversaw the release of two best-selling live-show collections: The three-disc album How The West Was Won (Number One) and the DVD set Led Zeppelin. He then turned his attention to The Song Remains the Same, expanding both the film and its soundtrack for a November 2007 re-release, which was accompanied by yet another best-of collection, Mothership (Number Seven).
The slew of vintage-Zeppelin material was merely a prelude for a long-rumored reunion, which finally occurred on December 10th, 2007, at a London concert in honor of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegün. With Jason Bonham on drums, the band performed 16 songs. The performance sparked speculation that more reunion shows — and possibly even a worldwide tour — might be in the works. But Plant's support of his successful Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand may have gotten in the way; Jones and Page did get together with drummer Taylor Hawkins and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, however, to perform a few Zeppelin songs live in London in 2008.
Persistent subsequent rumors suggested that Jones, Page, and Jason Bonham might be on the verge of recording with a new singer, but no such group ever materialized. Expect to hear continued Zep reunion rumors in the future, though — as long as sufficient band members are still around to reunite.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.