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.
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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.
But the audiences had no difficulty responding to what you were doing.
Jones: Yeah, well, they came to the gigs. That was the difference. It was the same thing in England. We packed our gigs everywhere we went. There were lines right way round the block where the clubs or pubs were. Purely people there by word of mouth. You know “This is a good band, this will be a good gig. Go to it.” And they did. And the press, I feel, were a little bit miffed at the fact that they weren’t really there at the making of the band. So they chose then to ignore it, and we chose to ignore them. It was actually quite nice, not having to answer an enormous amount of stupid questions. I’m not saying that this is the case at this very moment [laughs], but you know what I mean.
Plant: It’s funny, really, because the acclaim always came from the street, never from the written critique. And really, in a much more basic manner, the same thing is happening to me now. Because people are comparing me, or not comparing me, or trying to screw me down, or complaining about my constant changes as a solo artist. All I’m doing is what I was always part of doing anyway I’m having a great time and weaving around like a fucking lunatic. But it’s the same kind of situation, two generations on journalists who were sucking their mother’s breast when the first querulous Led Zeppelin reviews came in are now doing the same thing to me.
You know, Led Zeppelin’s sledgehammer attitude or reputation, if you like, was only just one part of the whole spectrum of what it was. Sometimes it was gross and very indecent, and sometimes it was delicate and beautiful you know?
Jones: Certain people just don’t get it at all. There was a lot of humor in the group, a lot of humor in the music. Not all this glowering, satanic crap [laughs].
What about the way Led Zeppelin has begun to be seen in almost mythic terms?
Page: It’s only a myth to people who never heard us live, I suppose. I mean, if you heard us live, you’d know exactly where it was at.
Obviously, though, there are quite a few bands out there whose only point of reference is Zeppelin’s recorded word and that make almost slavish attempts to recapture the power of those recordings. Isn’t that a sort mythification?
Page: They miss the point. They miss the whole spirit that was behind it and the passion passion’s the word. They just get caught up in imitating the riffs without going for what was underneath. It was a very passionate band, and that’s what really comes through the whole thing.
What about the fans? Do you think they understand what the band was about? Or do they have their own vision of what made Led Zeppelin great?
Plant: Well, I don’t know, because nobody ever tells me anything about what they feel. They just go, “Yeah, man, Zeppelin.” And that’s it! They don’t say, “Did you really fuck somebody with a snake on your head?” [Laughs] You don’t get the dreamscapes.
Well, did you ever fuck somebody with a snake on your head?
Plant: Ahhh, no, that must have been Jimmy [laughs].But there’s a devotion, and I don’t think the contributing factor is the hedonistic lifestyle or anything like that. I think the fact is that some songs do actually have a timeless appeal. I don’t know whether it would have been better that they didn’t, so that I could get on with my life without constantly having to cross t’s and dot i’s that belong in sentences way back, you know? But it doesn’t matter, really. One should always be proud of any good piece of work. And there are whole bunches of good pieces of work going back there.
Did you have a concept for the group?
Page: Well, certainly on the first album, I had a very good idea of what I wanted to try and get with the band. Because at that stage, I was extremely instrumental in the total direction of it. Obviously, there was a definite concept of what one was trying to do and achieve there, and it was done. But we were definitely right out there on a limb, weren’t we? Doing what we believed in. And it didn’t really follow any sort of trend that was going on at all or certainly nothing relative to any other band.
Did you ever look at other bands as competition the way, for instance, the Beatles looked at the Stones?
Plant: We were more concerned with diversity, self-satisfaction, creativity. So, really, there was nobody to compete with, because we were trying to entertain ourselves first and foremost, with no intentional stab at a pretty song for a pretty song’s sake.
From the beginning, really, it was a group policy that singles were not to be considered, that the whole game would be that if you wanted to find out about Led Zeppelin, you had to get into the whole thing. We would not put out singles as calling cards. So, really, there was nobody to compete with. It would be nice to think that we could walk alongside Kaleidoscope or Buffalo Springfield for diversity. I don’t think Jimmy’d agree with that [laughs], because I don’t think he thought much of Buffalo Springfield.
But I think the way the music moved around in its Englishness and its blues roots the inspiration didn’t allow it to compete with anybody, really. Because it wasn’t a pop band. I mean, it’s popular, but it certainly was not pop.
There’s probably no better example of that than “Stairway to Heaven.” which may be the most popular radio song of all time yet has never been available as a single.
Plant: Yeah, but the fact that it caught people’s imagination is interesting, really. Because it’s kind of the legend that created “Stairway to Heaven.”
How do you mean?
Plant: Well, because when we played it at the beginning, before the album came out, you could often see people settling down to have forty winks.
Plant: Yeah! Because people hadn’t heard it. They didn’t know what it was.
Page: Oh, that’s not true. No, I remember playing that at the L.A. Forum, and. . .I’m not saying the whole audience gave us a standing ovation, but there was this sizable standing ovation there. And I thought: “This is incredible, because no one’s heard this number yet. This is the first time they’re hearing it!” It obviously touched them, you know. And that was at the L.A. Forum, so I knew we were onto something with that one. Because it’s always difficult to hear a number, especially something that long, which you’ve never heard before.
Jones: “Stairway” embodies a lot of what Led Zeppelin was about. It actually had a sort of precedent in a song on the first album called “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” which had many of the same elements: the acoustic start, the build and the sort of “heavy” end.
It’s a good tune, for a start. Jimmy came up with the original guitar phrases and the original idea, and I think Robert might have had a short lyric, a first verse or something, a couple lines. And then Jimmy and I basically sat down, just the two of us sat down and worked out the entire arrangement, we plotted it through. It came together, basically, through quite a lot of hard work.
What strikes me about “Stairway to Heaven” is that there are folk-oriented songs like “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California,” and there are hard-rock songs like “Black Dog” and “When the Levee Breaks” and “Stairway” seems to be where the two sides meet.
Plant: Yeah, I think you’re right I mean, it wasn’t particularly unique, that approach, because some of the West Coast bands were doing it, combining that sort of stuff. It’s just that it’s ambiguous to such a degree that the only thing you know about it is that it’s affirmative, and it’s going the right way.
Obviously, Led Zeppelin drew from a wide range of musical styles how did the band find its common ground?
Jones: It wasn’t a purist band, as you get nowadays, where the entire band listens to the same type of music. Between the blues influences of Robert and the rock & roll influences of Jimmy who also had strong blues influences the soul influences of Bonzo and my soul and jazz influences, there seemed to be a common area, which was Led Zeppelin. The fusion of all different types of music and interests.
There was also quite a difference in experience, too, between the four members. Robert, what was it like for you and Bonham who were essentially unknown before joining Led Zeppelin to be thrown in with established, successful players like Page and Jones?
Plant: Everything is in the eye of the beholder. Jimmy was a member of the Yardbirds, and he was a session musician, so he was successful. Jonesy was much more the back-room boy I didn’t care, really, whether he’d produced “Mellow Yellow” or not, because it was a pop song, and it just started and stopped. Pretty song, but somebody had to write the song, never mind organize it. So their sort of positions and previous roles weren’t really that daunting.
But how they handled themselves with us was important Jonesy was a bit. . .not withdrawn, but he stands back a little and shoots the odd bit of dialogue into the air. It’s good stuff, but an acquired taste, really. And Jimmy’s personality, initially, was. . .I don’t think I’d ever come across a personality like it before. He had a demeanor which you had to adjust to; it certainly wasn’t very casual to start with. But then again, the music was so intense that everything was intense. The ambition was intense, and the delivery was intense, and where we were going was intense. Nobody knew what the fuck it was, but we all knew that this power was ridiculous from the beginning. So it was very hard to relax, sit down, have a beer and be the guys from the Black Country. Bonzo and I were much more basic in every respect in how to deal with everything including Jimmy. Because he had to be dealt with.
It must not have been all that difficult, though. Didn’t the lineup click from the first time the four of you got together?
Page: Yeah. We got together in this small rehearsal room and just played “Train Kept a-Rollin’ ” which was a number I used to do with the Yardbirds, and I think Robert knew it. And at the end of it we knew that it was really happening, really electrifying. Exciting is the word. We went on from there to start rehearsing for the album.
What was it about the way you four played together that made the music so exciting? Jones: In a band like that, everybody’s got their ears open. That’s what it is. It is a chemistry, I suppose, that nonmusicians might not understand, but you follow the music, really. All sorts of ways, in all sorts of combinations. Which was very important for us. There’s no way I could have been in a band where you’d have to tho me records note for note every night and the only person who got to play any different was the lead guitarist you know what I mean? And at the time we really didn’t think about how anything would go down. We weren’t worried about making a record that would sell. The records were primarily for us, I think. So it wasn’t a case of analyzing the first album to work out what was successful, like they do these days. It was like “That’s done now it’s ever onward.”
Zeppelin had an ability to skip from style to style. Where did that come from?
There must be more to it than that.
Plant: Yeah, but you didn’t see the Band of Joy, before Zeppelin. And that was the same.
Plant: Yeah! Me and Bonzo in the Band of Joy we used to do versions of “White Rabbit,” the Airplane thing, with “March of the Siamese Children,” from The King and I, in the middle. In half time. We did all sorts of strange stuff. . . “Hey, Grandma,” from Moby Grape, which turned into something else most peculiar. There was always that looking around and getting goose bumps. When I first heard Om Kalsoum, it was a very important day for me, because it opened, it just enriched my life so much Even though I hardly understand a word she’s singing, because it’s in Arabic, I had to take some of the effect it had on me and put it into the music. As with Manic Nirvana right now, you stimulate yourself through your own excitement.
Don’t you still need a certain amount of ability to pull that off?
Plant: But if nobody else is doing it, you’ve got nothing to be measured against. We got it right, at times. Tracks like “Friends” and “Four Sticks” Jimmy and I went to India, and we recorded versions of these two tracks with the Bombay Symphony. We’d got a sort of disheveled gang of musicians together in Bombay, and we recorded two Led Zeppelin tracks. The session went very well until I got a bottle of brandy out, and there’s nothing like a good Indian, and there were no good Indians in that room at the end of the bottle. It’s a shame, really, that they won’t include it on this box set.
Plant: I don’t know. Maybe Pagey didn’t think about it [laughs]. I didn’t think about it until just a second ago.
Page: Well, the only things that were left over that had complete vocals all came out on Coda. Those tracks were something that we were going to work on, probably at some later point in time. The actual master plan after having done that was to maybe do a tour through the Far East, going through Egypt and Bombay, then on to Thailand and all the rest of it, and then recording in those places. And that was like a first taste, to see how it would go. Of course, we never got that far. But that’s one of the game plans we had at the time.
Plant: We liked to travel and explore. I mean, we can’t be considered anthropologists or anything like that, but we knew of a few good brothels in the Far East.
“Knew a few good brothels” — now, that’s more typical of the Led Zeppelin myth than imagining you guys with the Bombay Symphony.
Plant: You can do a lot of things in one day.
Indeed. Of course, back then there was what now seems an almost legendary groupie scene the likes of which may never be seen again. That seems to leave a lot of younger fans feeling as if they’ve been gypped.
Page: You mean the whole scene, in the younger fans’ minds, has changed from sex, drugs and rock & roll to contraceptives, no drugs and rock & roll? [Laughs] That’s what you mean, is it?
Exactly. Was it as wonderful back, then as kids today imagine?
Page: You’d better ask Robert [laughs].
Plant: Yeah. That era, the whole thing of the G.T.O.’s and what was that Zappa album? 10,000 Hotels? “I’ve Been to Bed With Robert Planet.”. . . Yeah, shoving the Plaster Casters’ cast of Jimi Hendrix’s penis up one of the girls’ assholes at some hotel in Detroit was. . .quite fun, actually. I don’t remember who did it, but I remember I was in the hotel at the time.
It was. . .free love.
And it’s pretty much gone now, isn’t it?
Plant: Well, I think you now have to adapt a totally different attitude to the whole thing. Just when my stamina is really getting good, too [laughs].
But it was great. And that whole preposterous thing of the vocalist being larger than life — the way I was viewed in the mid-1970s was hysterical. Actually, I couldn’t take myself seriously for very long, because I would be constantly hacked to pieces by my fellow band members, who’d be giggling at me.
Didn’t they call you Percy?
After Percival, the hero?
Plant: It was something to do with my anatomy. At the time. Maybe they wouldn’t call me that now, I dunno [laughs].
While we’re on the subject of Led Zeppelin legends, fundamentalist groups have claimed for years that there are satanic messages backward-masked onto “Stairway to Heaven.” Is there any truth to the charges?
Page: Well, I don’t pass any comment on them [sighs].
Plant: I mean, who on earth would have ever thought of doing that in the first place? You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that. Especially with “Stairway.” I mean, we were so proud of that thing, and its intentions are so positive, that the last thing one would do would be. . .I found it foul, the whole idea, you know? But. . . it’s very American. Nowhere else in the world has anybody ever considered it or been concerned or bothered at all about that. I figure if backward masking really worked, every record in the store would have “Buy this album!” hidden on it.
Page: You’ve got it, you’ve hit the nail on the head. And that’s all there is to say about it.
Jones: Of course, it’s fatal, you know, because you tend to wind these people up after a while. If you go around saying, “Oh, yes, if you play track 8 at 36 rpms, you’ll definitely hear a message,” they’ll say, “All right,” and go right home and try it. English bands tend to be more ironic and sarcastic, and once they discover the average American lack of irony and humor, it’s just sitting ducks, really. You just sort of have to go for it.
That cuts both ways, though. I mean, just look at all the fans who think Stephen Davis’s “Hammer of the Gods” is actually some sort of tribute to Led Zeppelin. I would imagine you three were a little less enthusiastic about it.
Page: I think I opened it up in the middle somewhere and started to read, and I just threw it out the window. I was living by a river then, so it actually found its way to the bottom of the sea [laughs]. That’s a fact.
I mean, I couldn’t bother to wade through that sort of stuff. I mean, that’s true masochism. The whole humor of the band disappeared in the parts that I read, and it was just a sensationalist book. I can understand obviously what you’re saying that fans read it just purely out of interest. And there’s no smoke without fire. But it wasn’t a very factual account.
Thinking about the way Led Zeppelin is perceived now, I wonder: Would people even recognize Led Zeppelin if it were around today?
Plant: Of course not. It couldn’t possibly be anything like where it was when it stopped. We’d probably be a lounge act now in San Antonio who knows? I mean, it wouldn’t be recognizable, I wouldn’t think. Could we play “Black Dog” for a further 10 years? I don’t think so. Only if it turned out like Dread Zeppelin, and then you could enjoy yourself. I mean, we were doing reggae versions of “Stairway to Heaven” when Tortelvis was thin. Just doing sound checks and stuff like that. I mean, it wasn’t sending the thing up it was just like “Here’s another way of doing it.”
Page: Our trademark, so to speak I suppose you could tell it anywhere. Like Robert’s voice is his trademark. And hopefully the same can be said of my guitar [laughs]. So even though we obviously would have gone through a lot of changes and tried all different musical approaches, nevertheless that would have been the telltale clue that it was Zeppelin. It would be immediately recognizable by the audible qualities of the four players.
What was that quality, though? What was it that gave Led Zeppelin and its music such a distinctive spirit?
Plant: Muddy Waters said — when? 15 years ago? — that nobody’s got the deep blues anymore. Maybe now, in this second or third generation of Zeppelinisms, people are losing the plot. Maybe people. . .they don’t feel it the way it was felt originally. But we had it. And that’s a hell of a sweeping statement. But we did have something up there, which was not just token cloning or token theft or whatever it was. We had a weave of. . .I don’t know. It was conspiratorial elegance, if you like. In the middle of it all, occasionally, it really did work. And it was wholehearted, and we gave it all a new personality.