Led Zeppelin: The Rolling Stone Interview
At the time, nobody thought it would work. Keith Moon, after hearing the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page explain his idea for a new blues-based band, simply laughed. The band, the Who’s drummer predicted, would go over not like a lead balloon but like a lead zeppelin.
Needless to say, Moon was wrong. Led Zeppelin was a smash virtually from the moment its first album, Led Zeppelin, was released in 1969, and the band would dominate rock & roll for the next decade. Yet it was an entirely new kind of success. Unlike the rock titans of the Sixties, Led Zeppelin had little use for singles; albums were the band’s currency, generating a whole new canon, including tracks like “No Quarter,” “Immigrant Song,” “Communication Breakdown” and the eternally popular “Stairway to Heaven.”
Classics, every one of them, but classics of a new sort. Other bands had done their best to make rock seem bigger, louder, tougher and more ambitious, but it was Led Zeppelin that made the music heavy. From the galloping rumble of “Whole Lotta Love ” and the blues-spiked growl of “Black Dog” to the exoticisms of “Kashmir,” Led Zeppelin’s sound was invariably larger than life. Yet the band’s music rarely conveyed the brutality of proto-metal acts like Black Sabbath or Deep Purple; its impact was more a matter of intensity than jackhammer insistence.
Live, Led Zeppelin was without peer. Constantly reinventing itself onstage, the band made improvisational forays through songs like “Dazed and Confused” that were the stuff of legend. And as the fans flocked to its concerts, Led Zeppelin seemed to tower over its competition; by 1975, the band was unquestionably the most popular group in rock. It may also have been the most powerful, thanks to the band’s manager, Peter Grant, who changed the way business was done on the concert circuit, shifting the power and the money from the pockets of the promoters to the hands of the artists.
Such success, of course, was not without its cost. Before long, Led Zeppelin’s very preeminence assumed the status of myth, and all sorts of stories sprang up. Some were sinister, some salacious, some downright silly. The band was alleged to have indulged in everything from secret devil messages (ostensibly on “Stairway to Heaven”) to seafood orgies (in which willing groupies took in the catch of the day). There were also tragedies along the way, among them a car accident in Greece that put singer Robert Plant in a wheelchair (and nearly killed his wife) and an altercation in Oakland, California, with promoter Bill Graham that landed drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham in jail. But it was Bonham’s death in 1980 that finally grounded Led Zeppelin. Apart from Coda, an album of previously unreleased material that emerged in 1982, there has been no new music from Led Zeppelin in more than a decade.
Since Bonham’s death, the three surviving members of the band Page, Plant and bassist John Paul Jones have performed in public only twice, at Live Aid, with drummers Phil Collins and Tony Thompson, and at Atlantic Records’ fortieth-anniversary concert, with Bonham’s son Jason on drums. There seems to be little chance of a Who-style reunion for the band. “For me, it’s impossible to consider Led Zeppelin in the present tense,” Plant said in Cleveland recently.”Because if you took Bonzo’s drumming away, the band would sound useless. I think apart from the pride in the work that I did in that band, everything is very much in the past tense.”
Indeed, all three are busy with post-Zeppelin pursuits. Although Page recently returned to London after remastering tracks for a 54-song Led Zeppelin retrospective due for release in October, his first priority is the solo career he took up after the demise of the Firm. Plant is now touring behind Manic Nirvana, his sixth solo album. Jones has been in Barcelona, Spain, recording an “industrial flamenco” group called La Sura Dels Baus.
It’s been almost a whole decade since Led Zeppelin broke up, and yet for a lot of fans, it’s like it never ended.
Plant: Well, it hasn’t ended for anybody, really. I mean, Bing Crosby hasn’t ended, either, you know? Elvis certainly hasn’t.
Do you worry about that?
Page: Oh, good Lord, no. Why should I? I thought I was in the greatest band in the world. But musically, around that point in time, things were so healthy in so many areas.
Did you, as you were remastering tracks for the box set, find yourself thinking about where Led Zeppelin stands right now in rock history?
Page: Yes, and I realized what an absolutely brilliant textbook it was, and obviously still is. Because of the different areas of music that we touched on, and the different pathways that we were prepared to tread down sometimes really mosey down, steamroller down that gave such a wide variety of styles. And you know, pretty much it was all done really very well. There was a lot of soul and depth in it.
These days, though, radio particularly classic-rock radio seems to be a major factor in preserving the Zeppelin legacy. Do you think that’s a healthy perspective?
Plant: It depends. If that had happened in 1968, I don’t think we’d ever have been heard at all. If we’d been on the receiving end of this conservatism, maybe we’d have never been exposed. Because we didn’t sound like Tommy James, and we didn’t sound like Gary Puckett or whatever.
But Led Zeppelin did meet a lot of resistance early on, from press and radio.
Plant: Not from radio. Just from the press. And that was because we just didn’t play whatever game the game was. We figured the best thing to do was shut the fuck up and play, you know? It’s no good trying to be prophetic when you’re 20 years old. So the thing was, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, keep quiet.
Jones: The first review we got from Rolling Stone [“RS 29”] was. . .the total subject matter was all about the hype of Led Zeppelin. You know “It’s just another band of do-nothings, and here they are hyped up by everybody, and it’s a bunch of shit anyway.” And that was really hurtful at the time, because we knew we’d done a good record. It helped foster my general hatred of the press.
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