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 YardbirdsYardbirds. 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).
However, the Atlantic deal created an image problem for Led Zeppelin that they never got past. The political sensibilities that had emerged in the mix of the counterculture, the underground press and the new rock culture held a great deal of mistrust of and contempt for power and wealth. The band’s large advance and its contract cast it as mercenaries in the view of many critics. Even though they were an essentially unknown quantity, Led Zeppelin were being termed a “hype.”
All of this took place before anybody had heard Led Zeppelin’s first album. Once that changed, it was love or hate, and little in between.
THE ATLANTIC DEAL HAD RUBBED enough taste makers on the British scene the wrong way that Grant couldn’t get the bookings that he wanted in England. The band played a few dates at London’s Marquee, but there were complaints that it was too loud. Grant decided to send the band to America instead — though this was possibly his intent all along. “By the time I got Zeppelin,” Grant said, “I knew America inside out.” Grant told Richard Cole — who had been the Yardbirds’ tour manager in the U.S. — to guide the group through its American dates. Cole was a hard drinker and a hard guy who had been a road manager for the Who. He met the band members in Los Angeles on December 23rd, 1968, booked them into the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip and set about entertaining them in his fashion. Page was well-prepared for the libertine Los Angeles rock scene — he knew groupies from his earlier tours with the Yardbirds — but for Plant and Bonham, this was a whole new world. They were startled to see policemen carrying guns in public places, and they had never seen so many limousines on one street before.
Midway through that first U.S. tour, on January 12th, the group’s first album, Led Zeppelin, was released in the U.S. It was pretty much unlike anything else. The arrangements were more sculpted than those of Cream or Jimi Hendrix, and the musicianship wasn’t cumbersome like Iron Butterfly’s or bombastic like Vanilla Fudge’s. The closest comparisons might be to MC5 or the Stooges — both from Michigan—yet neither had the polish or prowess of Led Zeppelin, nor did Led Zeppelin have the political, social or die-hard sensibility of those landmark bands. What they did have, though, was the potential for a mass audience. Young record buyers loved the album, but there were others who did not.
This had to do with various concerns — the hype claim, a conviction that Led Zeppelin were another white British band exploiting black musical forms — but what bothered critics the most about Led Zeppelin was the sound, which was seen as a manifestation of anger and male aggression. Critic Jon Landau described a Boston show as “loud…violent and often insane.” Plus, there was a trickier element: This was a younger audience than the one that had embraced the cultural and political epiphanies of the 1960s artists. Landau again: “Zeppelin forced a revival of the distinction between popularity and quality. As long as the bands most admired aesthetically were also the bands most successful commercially (Cream, for instance), the distinction was irrelevant. But Zeppelin’s enormous commercial success, in spite of critical opposition, revealed the deep division in what was once thought to be a homogeneous audience. That division has now evolved into a clearly defined mass taste and a clearly defined elitist taste.”
None of these concerns impeded Led Zeppelin’s early success, which, as Landau indicated, proved phenomenal. Whereas the first album had formed in quick bursts in the studio, Led Zeppelin II was recorded piecemeal in various locales during the group’s hectic 1969 touring schedule. Though Page had doubts about how it might all hold together, its impact, musically and culturally, was only bigger. Combined with the first album, Led Zeppelin II forged a new sensibility in rock & roll — or at least codified something that had been forming. Some called it hard rock or heavy rock; others dubbed it heavy metal (a term that would be used to denote bands like MC5, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly, though both the term and the music would have far different dimensions in the generations that followed). It wasn’t quite plain yet, but Led Zeppelin were effecting — or representing — a sea change in popular music and popular culture. They were, as Steve Pond once noted in ROLLING STONE, the last band of the 1960s and the first band of the 1970s. In 1969 and early 1970, Led Zeppelin had competed with the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Those were all epochal works, in part because they were summarizing or finishing an epoch. Led Zeppelin’s albums were also epochal, because they were starting one.
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. None of this sort of thing was new, of course. Led Zeppelin, though, were studying to make a fine — or wretched — art of a reputation for debauchery. The most notorious and oft-cited instance along these lines took place at a Seattle wharfside hotel, the Edgewater Inn, where road manager Richard Cole talked a young woman into letting him insert dead fish parts into her vagina and anus, as band members looked on. Another time, after playing a concert to benefit radiation survivors in Hiroshima, Japan, the band members visited a geisha house where they drank so many geishas under the table that the establishment had to call in a new crew of women to take over the drinking.
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. If they were only one of the many British rock groups touring at the time, they were also one of the finest. The stamina they found each night at curtain time was amazing…” At tour’s end, she stopped by the band’s dressing room to say goodbye. “Two members of the group,” she wrote, “attacked me. Shrieking and grabbing at my clothes, totally over the edge. I fought them off until Peter Grant rescued me, but not before they managed to tear my dress down the back… If you walk inside the cages at the zoo, you get to see the animals close up, stroke the captive pelts and mingle with the energy behind the mystique. You also get to smell the shit firsthand.”
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.
Physical Graffiti and the 1975 concert performances displayed Led Zeppelin at an artistic peak. 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, to avoid paying Britain’s onerous taxes (up to ninety-five percent of their songwriting royalties). 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. Martin had been following in the car behind. She called Richard Cole back in London: The medical care on the island might not be enough for Maureen, who had lost a lot of blood and might die. Cole arranged to get Robert and his family back to England, where Maureen would remain in the hospital for weeks; Robert, however, had to leave immediately, due to tax laws.
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. In November, Led Zeppelin traveled to Munich and recorded Presence. Released in April 1976, Presence conveyed the sense of a band up against bad odds, fighting back. The opening two tracks, “Achilles Last Stand” (about the car accident) and “For Your Life” (about hell and drugs and terror, and about how life inside the band may have been developing), featured the best solos Page would ever play—abstract, desperate, raging. “Presence was pure anxiety and emotion,” Page said later. “We didn’t know if we’d ever be able to play in the same way again. It might have been a very dramatic change, if the worst had happened to Robert. Presence is our best in terms of uninterrupted emotion.”
Over the years, Presence hasn’t sold as well as most of the band’s catalog. It’s more or less the forgotten album; its feelings are too hard, too intense and probably too insular to stay close to for very long. In effect, Led Zeppelin accomplished something akin to Eric Clapton’s achievement on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla: They forged the spirit and purpose of blues into a new form, without relying on blues scales and structures. Presence is clearly singular in Led Zeppelin’s body of work, and it’s likely the best album the band ever made.
“It was really like a cry of survival,” Plant said. “There won’t be another album like it, put it like that. It was a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do.”
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. According to Richard Cole, Page, much of the road crew and Cole himself were using heroin, and Page sometimes seemed weakened as a result. On the third night of the Chicago shows, severe stomach pains forced him to leave the stage, and the show was canceled. After a couple of rest breaks, the band headed to the San Francisco Bay area for a pair of massive Oakland Coliseum concerts promoted by Bill Graham. Trouble, though, had been building — actually, storing up for years. Peter Grant had always been protective of Led Zeppelin, but early along, that protection turned into an impregnable shield designed to guarantee the band and its company a sense of impunity — to destroy property; to insult, attack or take advantage of people. “We made our own laws,” Cole told Stephen Davis in Hammer of the Gods. “If you didn’t want to fucking abide by them, don’t get involved.”
Things were even worse on this tour. Grant was going through a painful divorce, and his temper was flaring. In addition, Cole brought in John Bindon as a security coordinator. Bindon had played hard-guy roles in films like Performance, Quadrophenia and Get Carter, but some found him more frightening in real life. Plant, Page and Jones had all complained about Bindon and Cole’s handling of people, but that didn’t curtail much of it. In Mojo, British writer Nick Kent described Cole in particular as “a genuinely terrifying” person. “One night,” Kent wrote, “I saw him harassing a timid thirteen-year-old girl who’d come to the group’s hotel simply to get an autograph of Robert Plant. The more frightened and hysterical she became, the more Cole seemed to enjoy it.”
In his autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock & and Out, Graham recounted Cole calling him the day before the first of the Oakland shows, demanding the immediate delivery of a $25,000 advance on the shows’ earnings. When Graham brought the money to the band’s hotel, he realized what the call was really about: “This was drug money.” The next day, July 23rd, when the band’s road crew and security arrived at the Coliseum, Graham was further disturbed. “I [had] heard about the ugliness of their security,” he wrote, “how they were just waiting to kill. They had these bodyguards who had police records in England. They were thugs.”
Graham soon saw those reputations played out. When one of Graham’s crew made what Grant took as a remark about his weight, Bindon approached the man and knocked him out. After the show, another of Graham’s staff, Jim Matzorkis, saw a boy removing a sign with the band’s name on it from a trailer door. Matzorkis took the plaque back, explaining that they needed it for the next day’s show. The boy was Grant’s son. Bonham saw the incident and reported it to Grant, who went looking for Matzorkis. Graham tried to intervene, but when Grant and Bindon found Matzorkis taking shelter in a trailer, they threw Graham out, shut the door and began to work the staffer over seriously. Graham tried to get back into the room to stop the beating, but Cole guarded the door, wielding a pipe. Matzorkis later said that when Bindon tried to gouge his eye out, he summoned his strength and escaped the trailer, bleeding. Graham had him rushed to the hospital.
The next day, before Led Zeppelin took the stage, one of the band’s lawyers required that Graham sign a letter of indemnification, releasing the group and its organization of any responsibility for the beating. Graham signed. He didn’t want to risk the chance of a riot if the band wouldn’t play. He also knew that the letter didn’t bind any of Matzorkis’ legal options. Plant tried to reach some sort of conciliation, but Graham wouldn’t speak to him. Disheartened and angry about the whole matter, Page played guitar sitting down for much of the show.
The next morning, an Oakland SWAT team surrounded Led Zeppelin’s hotel, and police officers arrested Grant, Cole, Bindon and Bonham. They were all charged with assault, and Matzorkis filed a $2 million civil suit.
The day after the arrests, 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. “I felt quite remote from the whole thing,” Plant told Uncut in 2005. “I wasn’t comfortable with the group at all. We’d gone right through the hoop and, because my hoop was on fire, I didn’t know if it was worth it anymore.” On another occasion Plant said that Page’s and others’ drug use was also an issue: “Addiction to powders was the worst way to see yourself, a waste of your time and everybody’s time. You make excuses to yourself why things aren’t right or about what’s happening to your potential. You lie to yourself first and rub your nose later. It was time to get out.”
By late 1978, Plant was ready to try again with Led Zeppelin. The band recorded a new album in Stockholm. This time, Plant and Jones took the helm. “There were two distinct camps by then,” John Paul Jones said, “and we were in the relatively clean one.” But with the exception of “In the Evening,” “Carouselambra” and “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the new album, In Through the Out Door, was a misfire —the only one among the band’s studio works. What was absent was Jimmy Page’s fucked-up quality, except Page was too fucked up to deliver it. (In Through the Out Door became best known for selling in such massive numbers out of the box that it single-handedly rescued the flagging American music industry.)
Led Zeppelin returned to performing live in July and August 1979, close to the time of the new album’s release. They played a pair of warm-ups in Copenhagen, then two extravaganzas at Britain’s Kneb-worth Festival in August. Plant was uneasy with the scale of the setting and the band’s performance — “a shit gig,” he said years later — but these were clearly Jimmy Page’s shows; his stage manner and guitar work on “Achilles Last Stand,” “In the Evening,” “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love,” as featured on the 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD box set, are joyous and transfixing. The band had everything to lose on those nights — probably the only ones like that in its career — and it had too much shared instinct, experience, pride and irrepressible talent not to meet the challenge.
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.
In the years after the band’s demise, when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talked about each another, it was generally with respect, though it was also as if some hidden wound lay between them. In 1994, Plant received an invitation from MTV to play on the network’s Unplugged series. He knew the setting would call for revisiting some Led Zeppelin songs, so he invited Page to share the stage with him. The two used the occasion to create a genuine collaboration, an adventure in mixing old and new forms, folk music, electronic loops, Moroccan spiritual drones, funereal blues, Egyptian and Western orchestration, Indian tonalities and rock & roll, much of it filtered through the prism of some of Led Zeppelin’s songs that dug the deepest (several from the undervalued Led Zeppelin III). Page and Plant didn’t invite Jones for the event — which hurt, especially given that they named their new endeavor after a signature song of his, “No Quarter.” By then, though, it should have been apparent that if you’re looking for grace in the Led Zeppelin legacy, it’s best to examine sounds over manners. No Quarter was, in any event, remarkable: It demonstrated two thoughtful and meticulous artists finding new resources in something they had started a long time ago, something that hadn’t finished even though they had walked away from it. For a time, they played these new sounds around the world.
Then the magic was over. A follow-up album in 1998, Walking Into Clarksdale, with more traditional rock & roll quartet instrumentation, seemed to renege on the territory mapped out in No Quarter. Page and Plant toured the world yet again, playing the Clarksdale material alongside Led Zeppelin songs, but this time the two were closing prospects off rather than opening anything up. Plant declined to continue the tour in 1999.
It’s understandable. Led Zeppelin’s music had always been about possibilities: for sound, for an audience, for flawed people making something that might be better than themselves. That music changed things far more than anybody ever expected, or might have wanted, even those who made the music. It is still an immediate music — too big, too overwhelming to wear off or end and too pleasurable to refuse. These messed-up men created something that still lays a claim on the times. That is Led Zeppelin’s shadow, and it will outlast the souls who made it.