More than forty five years ago, Keith Moon of The Who predicted that Jimmy Page’s “New Yardbirds” would go over not like a lead balloon, but more like a lead zeppelin.
Despite his legendary drummer standing, Moon was a lousy clairvoyant. To put Zeppelin’s legacy in proper perspective, Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) offered these remarks to Rolling Stone magazine: “Heavy Metal would not exist without Led Zeppelin, and if did, it would suck.”
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John “Bonzo” Bonham put the “heavy” into blues and metal. They laid down some of rock music’s most monolithic riffs with songs like “Whole Lotta Love,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “Kashmir,” “The Immigrant, Song,” “Black Dog,” and “Misty Mountain Hop.”
They made music that was more bombastic, darker, carnal and mystical than their guitar-driven predecessors – Jimi Hendrix excluded. The website Ultimate Classic Rock summed it up: “When it came to Rock ‘n’ Roll excess, nobody did it bigger and better than Led Zeppelin. During their dozen years, they managed to make new rules and break most of the old ones.”
Zeppelin redefined rock for all time. They released eight original studio albums (plus “Coda”) and nearly all have withstood the scrutiny of time and changing music trends. Their sound was built around Page’s heavyweight guitar riffs (some conceived by Jones), Plant’s beseeching and orgasmic blues wails, and the walloping assault of a rhythm section (Bonham and Jones) that knew how to “swing.” The quartet applied a modern rock approach to Delta Blues, British Folk and World Music. The result was Led Zeppelin.
But unlike many bands they spawned, Zeppelin was bigger than any one particular style. They understood finesse, delicacy and crescendo and valued cross-influences to construct songs that spanned the dynamic range – often within the same song. Jones told Rolling Stone, “[We] weren’t a purist band. Between the Blues influences of Robert and the Rock ‘n’ 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. It was the fusion of different types of music and interests.”
American record producer, Rick Rubin, said that next to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin was the most consistent band from album-to- album and song- to-song. Yet from the beginning, they were reviled by segments of the music press. “There was a certain amount of acid poured on us. I saw it as venomous then,” Page told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in December of 2012. How does Page feel today? “I’ll give the reviewers the benefit of the doubt as each album was so different to the others. After [our first two albums], you get Led Zeppelin III. Acoustic guitars? What’s this about? There were crazy conclusions, but it made me more determined.”
As session players, Jones and Page understood how the recording studio and electronics could be used as instruments to shape sound. By borrowing techniques from Chess and Sun Records, Page used reverb and echo along with accented bass and drums to create the biggest sound possible. He also used small amps and creative microphone placements to obtain particular affects.
On stage, Zeppelin had few peers. They were improvisational giants and archetypal Rock Gods. They broke box office records in the mid 1970s. Over the years, music publications and readers’ polls have consistently ranked each member near the top or best at their respective instrument.
But their prowess as musicians was matched only by their reputation for debauchery, hotel mayhem and even satanic worship. Although never ones to deny the excesses associated with the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle, some tales were farfetched. Plant once joked that if satanic messages were hidden in songs like “Stairway to Heaven” – as some claimed - every record would carry the back-tracked message, “Buy This Album.”
Over the years, Page bristles when the subject of hedonism comes up. “I don’t really care about the lies or myths,” he remarked to Mojo’s Barney Hoskyns back in 2003. “The most important thing is what the music was about, how it was played and the honesty with which it was executed.” He echoed similar sentiments to Rolling Stone in 2012, “It’s not about ‘did they wreck a hotel room or throw a television out the window.’ It’s the music that keeps the band buoyant, not the myth.”
As a member of the Yardbirds, Page was planning his next move when they disbanded; to build on the success that Cream and the Jeff Beck Group achieved with a guitar-driven Blues Rock band. First on board was Jones, a multi-instrumentalist who he first met during session work for Folk and Pop singer, Donovan Leitch.
Like Page, Jones was a busy studio musician, director and arranger who had contributed his talents to the music of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Supremes, Everly Brothers, Jeff Beck, Herman’s Hermits, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield and Lulu. Page’s equally impressive credits included the Kinks, Rolling Stones, The Who, Nashville Teens, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, Marianne Faithful, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Brenda Lee.
On a Led Zeppelin website, Page was quoted as saying, “[John Paul Jones] didn’t need me for a job. He is unquestionably an incredible arranger and musician. It was just that he felt the need to express himself and thought we might be able to do it together. I jumped at the chance of getting him.”
When Page’s first choice for a singer and drummer were unavailable, he was pointed in the direction of Plant who in turn recommended Bonham. Bonham had already received financially tempting offers from Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe, but the opportunity to play Yardbirds-style music was the difference-maker.
According to Page, the quartet rehearsed in a small room and jammed on “Train Kept a-Rollin,” a Rockabilly tune popularized by the Yardbirds. The chemistry was there. In October of 1968, they fulfilled previously booked Yardbird engagements under the name “New Yardbirds,” then quickly returned to the studio as Led Zeppelin to complete their debut album in about 30 hours. They quickly hit the road and played their first U.S. show in Denver the day after Christmas.
Released in early 1969, their self-titled debut LP marked a momentous turn in the evolution of Hard Rock and what would become known as Heavy Metal. Powerful, proto-Punk speed rockers like “Communication Breakdown” would influence future Punk guitarists like Johnny Ramone. “Dazed and Confused”– a song probing the darkest depths of despair – contrasted sharply with delicate folk tunes like “Black Mountain Side.” And not unexpectedly, the boys paid homage to their Blues idols with versions of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”
Some in the music press were not impressed. With more than a bit of irony, Jones told Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine in 1990, “The first review we got from Rolling Stone was all about the hype of Led Zeppelin. You know…just another band of do-nothings.” Jones added, “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.”
Recorded during a frenzied touring schedule, Zeppelin II was released in October of 1969 and bounced the Beatle’s “Abbey Road” from the No. 1 spot. It remained there for seven weeks. “Whole Lotta Love” ushered in a new era of funky, blues-metal barnstormers with Page’s Kamikaze riffs. The tempo changes, delicacy and dynamics were again present in songs like “Thank You,” “Ramble On,” “Bring it On Home,” and “What is and Should Never Be.”
In 1970, the band retreated to a remote Welsh cottage (named Bron-yr-Aur) to prepare for the making of “Led Zeppelin III.” Released in October of 1970, the album rose to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the band placed greater emphasis on quieter songs, the opening cut – “The Immigrant Song” – nearly woke the dead with Page’s jackhammer riff and Plant’s indigenous vocal war cry. Zeppelin’s interest in mythology and music derived from Folk, Celtic and Country influences was growing as was their use of acoustic guitars to create texture. They had no intention of becoming a two-dimensional band.
In November of 1971, Zeppelin released their fourth album and arguably their masterpiece. The outer jacket was devoid of a title, band name, record company logo, catalogue number and credits. Only four metaphysical symbols appeared on the cover – an outgrowth of Plant’s interest in Celtic mysticism and Plant’s fascination with Occult Philosopher, Aleister Crowely.
Alternately referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV,” “ZoSo”, “Runes,” “Man with Sticks” and “Four Sticks,” it featured the epic rock anthem “Stairway to Heaven,” the most played song in the history of AOR radio. The band’s diversity and muscle was fully in play with powerhouse rockers like “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll.” The latter song proudly proclaimed “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled. Let me get back where I come from. It’s been a long time…been a long time…been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, time…Yes it has.”
Also featured were pseudo-hippie musings like “Misty Mountain Hop” and the multi-rhythmic and exotic “Four Sticks.” The harmonica-driven “When the Levee Breaks” was their swampy sounding modernization of the Delta Blues. Bonham’s distant yet booming drum sound was achieved with his drum kit positioned at the bottom of a stairway while mikes were positioned at the top. More Page genius.
Over the next two years, Zeppelin continued their foray into musical experimentation including Funk and Reggae. In the Spring of 1973, they released “Houses of the Holy,” their first LP given a title. In February of 1975, they released the double LP “Physical Graffiti,” the first on their own record label named Swan Song. Zeppelin was the most popular band in the world in terms of record sales and box office receipts. They were flying around in a leased jet emblazoned with the Led Zeppelin font. Things were getting a bit crazy and several tragic incidents were just around the corner.
While vacationing in 1975, Plant and his wife suffered severe injuries in a car accident. Fans assigned the accident to all kinds of crazy notions. The band stopped touring and soon began work on their 1976 album, “Presence.” Also released was the concert film “Song Remains the Same” capturing 1973 shows at Madison Square Garden. A better representation of Zeppelin in Concert was the CD, “How the West Was Won.” Released in 1997, it captured two Los Angeles area shows from 1972.
Touring resumed in 1977 until tragedy struck again. Plant’s son, Karac, died suddenly from a viral infection. Plant spent the better part of the year and 1978 in seclusion. Some thought it was the end of Zeppelin. In 1978, work began on what became the foursome’s final original album. “In Through the Out Door” sounded like a rock band reinventing itself. It topped the U.S. and British Charts.
In 1980, Zeppelin again hit the road. While preparing for the tour’s American leg, John Bonham died at the home of Jimmy Page following a night of binge drinking. It was an unrecoverable blow to band members and a subject Page prefers to sidestep. An obviously annoyed Page bristled during a 2012 Rolling Stone magazine interview with David Fricke: “The people’s business should be listening to what [Bonham] did and how hard he pushed himself to deliver that bass drum roll on ‘Good Times Bad Times.” He further emphasized, “I haven’t met anybody who can play that all the way through with that swing and approach. That’s what one should be listening to and not that he drank too much.”
The website Drum Lessons explained Bonham’s technique: “Bonham was known for his speed, power, sense of grove, distinctive drum sound and a lightning fast right foot. His innovative and polished use of triplet-based hand-to-feet patterns are staples in the drumming world. His bass drum foot was so fast that he could play very fast 16th note and 16th note triplets without the aid of a double pedal or two bass drums.”
Rhythm mate John Paul Jones explained his special relationship with Bonham to Global Bass magazine: “We were both huge Motown and Stax [Records] fans which is one reason I’ve always said that Zeppelin was one of the few bands to ‘swing.’ We actually had a groove in those days. People used to come to our shows and dance. You didn’t necessarily see that at a Black Sabbath show or whatever.”
On December 4th, 1980, the remaining members and manager released a simple press statement stating that they “could not continue as we were.” There were rumors about replacing Bonham and a new band with Page and Chris Squire of Yes.
Since that moment, the living members have reunited for special occasions only: in 1984 for a project produced by Atlantic Record’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun; in 1985 for Live Aid; in 1988 for Atlantic Record’s 40th Anniversary Celebration; a birthday party for Robert Plant’s daughter; Jason Bonham’s wedding; and a 2007 full-length concert to honor the life of Ahmet Ertegun who passed away in 2006. Jason Bonham took his father’s spot on the drum stool.
Commenting on the universally acclaimed performance (called “Celebration Day”), Jason told David Fricke, “They went onstage not only like they were Led Zeppelin, but Led Zeppelin with something to prove.”
Jimmy Page has speculated about the future of Zeppelin had Bonham lived. Whether the band would have ended or continued its rebirth will never be known. What is known is that Led Zeppelin was very special to living members. “Zeppelin was the greatest adventure of my life,” Plant declared to Barney Hoskyns of Mojo magazine in 2003. Page was equally forthcoming to David Fricke: “This was the sort of band musicians dream of being in. I was in it.”
Thirty years since disbanding, Led Zeppelin continues to be held in high regard for their artistic achievements, commercial successes and ongoing influence.
(Genres): Blues, Rock, Jazz, the sounds of Motown and Stax Records, Skiffle, American Rock ‘n’ Roll, Roots-Rock, British and American Folk, Rockabilly, Country, Bluegrass, Celtic, African and Middle Eastern. (Artists): Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, B.B. King, Freddie King, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Jerry Miller, Sleepy John Estes, Phil Upchurch, Fats Domino, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly, James Burton, Bert Jansch, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Byrds, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Umm Kulthum, Charlie Mingus, Ray Brown, Scott LeFaro, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Ginger Baker, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Louis Bellson, the Hollies, Graham Bond Organization.