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Led Zeppelin vs. Rolling Stone

Even as they were conquering the world in the early 1970s, Zeppelin had a notoriously contentious relationship with this magazine

Led Zeppelin - John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy PageLED ZEPPELIN IN CONCERT AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON, BRITAIN - 1970

Led Zeppelin performs in 1970.

Ray Stevenson/REX Shutterstock

In Almost Famous, the 2000 film inspired by Cameron Crowe’s years as a teenage music journalist, one fictional Seventies rocker warns another about talking to a Rolling Stone reporter. “It’s Rolling Stone,” he says. “The magazine that trashed ‘Layla,’ broke up Cream, ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made!”

Rolling Stone had, in fact, panned Zeppelin’s first two albums. “The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago,” wrote John Mendelsohn in the March 15th, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone. “And the excesses of the Beck Group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness) are fully in evidence.”

Mendelsohn returned to review Led Zeppelin II, bringing industrial levels of sarcasm with him. “Hey, man, I take it all back!” he joked. “This is one fucking heavyweight of an album! Who can deny that Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4” and 5’8” in the world??” (Page, for the record, is nearly six feet tall.) Mendelsohn then went after Robert Plant: “The album ends with a far-out blues number called ‘Bring 
It on Home,’ during which [Plant] contributes
 some very convincing moaning and 
harp-playing, and sings, ‘Wadge da train
roll down da track.’ Who said that white men 
couldn’t sing blues?”

Outside of the reviews section, Zeppelin barely existed in the pages of Rolling Stone, which implicitly lumped them in with bands like the Carpenters or Grand Funk Railroad: huge-selling acts without the artistic bona fides to merit much coverage. Rolling Stone wasn’t alone. Critics everywhere initially dismissed Zeppelin as nothing more than entertainment for zonked teenagers, and the band has been wary of journalists – and reluctant to do interviews – ever since. “[The first Rolling Stone review] was really hurtful,” John Paul Jones admitted in 1990, “because we knew we’d done a good record. It helped foster my general hatred of the press.”

Things slowly got better: Rolling 
Stone’s Lester Bangs gave a mixed review 
to Led Zeppelin III, and future Patti Smith 
Group guitarist Lenny Kaye raved about
 Zeppelin IV in 1971. But it took Cameron 
Crowe to achieve true Zeppelin-Stone detente. “I was a fan from day one,” Crowe says. “They were an event in my neighborhood from minute one. Everybody listening to the whole debut album, side to side. They were like a darker, less pretty, more subversive Beatles. From the beginning, they were a fan’s band.”

When Crowe, then 17, was assigned a 1975 Led Zeppelin cover story, the band initially declined to participate. “They had an idea that a cover, given their success, would be bet- ter for the magazine than them,” Crowe says. But he was un-deterred. “I hatched a plan to stay on the ’75 tour until they decided to give the RS piece a chance,” he says. “I talked to Jimmy Page on their airplane after a show one night, when he said, ‘What the hell. Joe Walsh said I should trust you.’ He posed for the cover holding an armful of black roses. That was his statement to Rolling Stone. The magazine chose a live shot in the end.”

RS 182 led zeppelin cameron crowe

Crowe says Zeppelin wore their negative press like a badge of honor. “They didn’t need critics,” he says. “The Rolling Stones were more ‘sanctioned’ by the straight press and the Truman Capote intelligentsia. Not Zeppelin. They didn’t have to take an ad out for concerts or put out singles. It was a fan experience, their shows sold out by word of mouth. I think the band knew their music was too vital to be ignored for too long.”

For Mendelsohn, the saga was a surprising beginning to a long career as a rock critic. He was only 21 when he mailed his Led Zeppelin I review – which he’d originally written for his college paper at UCLA – to Rolling Stone. Amazingly, the magazine printed it, and Mendelsohn soon became a regular, strident voice in the pages of RS. He went on to write several books (including a biography of the Kinks, 1984’s The Kinks Kronikles), and he was also a songwriter and musician for groups like Christopher Milk, who recorded for Warner Bros in the 1970s. (Plant would later dismiss Mendelsohn’s criticisms as the kvetchings of a “frustrated musician.”)

Critics eventually caught up to the rest of the world, pegging Zeppelin I and II as classics, blueprints for a thousand lesser bands to come. But Mendelsohn still can’t stand Led Zeppelin. “When I discovered YouTube, I started watching a bunch of videos by old bands,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006. “I was relieved to discover that I felt the exact same way about Zeppelin as I did when I was 21. I like melody, wit, vocal harmony and expressiveness, all of which are lacking from Led Zeppelin. It’s all just showing off.”

In This Article: Cameron Crowe, Led Zeppelin

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