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.”