Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: Led Zeppelin
Written by Jeff Owens
Jimmy Page onstage during an early-era Led Zeppelin performance.
Photo courtesy Getty Images
It would be truly difficult to say more in praise of Led Zeppelin than has already been heaped on the band many times over. It was simply one of the greatest bands in the world and in the entire history of rock music to this day, occupying that rarefied stratum attained by so few among the band’s predecessors, contemporaries and successors.
And yet Led Zeppelin is also a fascinating study in contradiction and popular misperception. Although universally hailed as the quintessential 1970s British rock juggernaut, the band’s history is bookended by its barnstorming late 1960s genesis and its tragic early 1980s swan song. Although widely regarded as a progenitor of heavy metal and hard rock, Zeppelin in truth transcended genres by drawing from many and varied musical sources—lilting as often as it was lumbering, delicate as often as it was deafening and scintillating as often as it was swaggering.
Zeppelin ruled the 1970s with impunity and rewrote the book on rock stardom, and it is amazing testimony to the band’s legacy that it remains a supremely powerful force in popular music more than 30 years after disbanding. As influential in their decade as the Beatles were in theirs, Zeppelin continues to wield an almost mystical hold on generations of listeners and musicians who continually discover and rediscover the richness of the band’s catalog and history.
Veteran London session guitarist and late-era Yardbirds member Jimmy Page formed the group in 1968 in order to accomplish two goals. The first and most immediate was to honor contractual performance obligations by the rapidly disintegrating Yardbirds; the second and larger goal was to assemble a vehicle for his own musical vision and vast material backlog.
Page had worked in anonymity on hundreds of mid-’60s sessions as one of Britain’s most in-demand session guitarists (including Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” Them’s “Gloria,” the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”) before he first joined and then replaced Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds for a two-year stint (1966-1968), the end of which found the band in disarray. He thus set about assembling a “New Yardbirds” lineup, recruiting bassist/keyboardist and fellow London session musician/arranger John Paul Jones, relatively unknown Birmingham vocalist Robert Plant and, on drums, Plant’s friend and Band of Joy bandmate John Bonham.
The combination of Page’s powerful, layered guitar work and production smarts; Plant’s keening, wailing vocals; Jones’ nimble bass playing and keyboard work; and Bonham’s seismic drumming created a musical chemistry seldom equaled in rock. Zeppelin’s sound was bluesy and often incredibly heavy, but there were plenty of other elements at work too—an early predilection for the psychedelic, a large dose of U.K. acoustic folk a la Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, a sense of Middle Eastern melodicism, occasional prog-like forays into odd time signatures, and even country/rockabilly-like guitar touches in the vein of Scotty Moore and James Burton.
Page has said he specifically had this kind of versatility in mind when he formed the band.
“I had a lot of ideas from my days with the Yardbirds,” he told Guitar World magazine in 1993. “The Yardbirds allowed me to improvise a lot in live performance and I started building a textbook of ideas that I eventually used in Zeppelin. In addition to those ideas, I wanted to add acoustic textures. Ultimately, I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses—a combination that had never been done before. Lots of light and shade in the music.”
Jones echoed the deliberateness of the band’s approach, noting that, “The very thing Zeppelin was about was that there were absolutely no limits. We all had ideas, and we’d use everything we came across, whether it was folk, country music, blues, Indian, Arabic.”
1969 debut album Led Zeppelin.
A long string of albums comprising one of rock’s most exciting, innovative, influential and successful catalogs began in 1969 and continued throughout the 1970s, ignoring the singles-oriented approach of the ’60s and supported by tours that were legendary in terms of both box office receipts and tales of Saturnalian offstage excess. The first two albums, eponymous debut Led Zeppelin and aptly named follow-up Led Zeppelin II, were released in 1969. The former contained Zep’s apocalyptic psychedelic blues cover of the Jake Holmes-penned “Dazed and Confused” (a holdover from the Yardbirds’ live act), plus heavy rock classics “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown.” The latter continued in that heavy electric blues vein, with classics such as “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On.”
Zeppelin shifted gears and surprised fans and critics with third album Led Zeppelin III (1970), an almost entirely acoustic folk-oriented effort that offered only one full-on electric fusillade (“The Immigrant Song”) and one lengthy electric blues (“Since I’ve Been Loving You”).
Zeppelin’s untitled 1971 fourth album (known variously as Led Zeppelin IV, the “runes album” and Zoso) remains the group’s most enduring rock milestone. A fully realized hybrid of pile-driving hard rock and lilting folk, it consisted of “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “Four Sticks,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Going to California,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “When the Levee Breaks” and an eight-minute epic that became the band’s biggest song and radio’s all-time most-requested rock song, “Stairway to Heaven.” A gargantuan success, Zep’s fourth is one of the best-selling albums in history, to date having sold 37 million copies.
Fifth album Houses of the Holy (1973) was another blockbuster, but a stylistic turning point too. Less bluesy and more dynamic and groove-oriented than its predecessors, it featured a widely varied selection of upbeat, almost poppy rock (“Dancing Days,” “The Song Remains the Same”), gorgeously atmospheric suites (“No Quarter,” “The Rain Song”) and even a touch of reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and James Brown-ish funk (“The Crunge”).
1975 double-disc Physical Graffiti was a sprawling, 15-song magnum opus that for many rivals the untitled fourth album for the title of Zep’s greatest. A musical tour de force released on the band’s own label, Swan Song, it went 16 times platinum in the United States alone and is widely regarded as one of Zeppelin’s defining works, with songs including “The Rover,” “Trampled Underfoot,” “Houses of the Holy,” “Custard Pie” and another eight-minute epic, the magnificently Eastern-inflected “Kashmir.”
Zeppelin’s mega-hit 1971 untitled fourth album (above), which featured “Stairway to Heaven,” and 1975 double album Physical Graffiti (below).
Double live album The Song Remains the Same served as the soundtrack for the concert film of the same name; both were released in fall 1976. Zeppelin by this time could legitimately claim the title of world’s biggest band, outselling even the Stones.
The second half of the 1970s was marred by tragedies that ultimately resulted in Zeppelin’s disbanding. Plant and his wife, Maureen, were seriously injured in an auto accident on the Greek island of Rhodes in August 1975. Unable to tour, Plant spent two years recuperating; it was during this forced hiatus that most of the material for 1976 album Presence was written.
No sooner was Zeppelin finally back on the road for a 1977 North American tour than tragedy struck Plant once again. After the second of two concerts in Oakland, Calif., that were fraught with unusual difficulties, Plant received word that his 5-year-old son, Karac, had succumbed to a lung infection. Devastated, Plant immediately retreated to his home in England’s Midlands; Zeppelin would never again perform in the United States.
The band was effectively sidelined during a long and crucial period during which much changed in rock and popular music. Three years passed between the underrated Presence and 1979’s In Through the Out Door (1979), which turned out to be Zeppelin’s final studio album. During rehearsals for the subsequent U.S. tour, Bonham was found dead on Sept. 25, 1980, due to asphyxiation following excessive alcohol consumption. Page, Plant and Jones considered Bonham irreplaceable, and they promptly disbanded Led Zeppelin.
Plant launched a successful solo career. Page made sporadic recording and performance appearances, including short-lived band the Firm (1984-1986). Jones returned to producing, arranging and scoring music. The three surviving members briefly reunited several times during the 1980s, including Live Aid in 1985, the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary celebration in 1988 and various private family functions. Page and Plant reunited in the 1990s for two successful albums, No Quarter (1994) and Walking into Clarksdale (1998); the former supported by a highly successful tour.
The band reunited as Led Zeppelin on Dec. 10, 2007, with Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums, for an enormous charity concert at London’s O2 Arena held in memory of late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Critics praised the band’s solid two-hour performance, and speculation abounded for a year afterward that a tour was in the works, with Page, Jones and Jason Bonham making no secret of their desire to tour and record together with Plant as Led Zeppelin. Plant soon publicly stated, however, that while he enjoyed the O2 Arena show and felt the group’s performance was strong, and that more one-off shows in the near future “wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” he would not participate in a full tour. By early 2009, all talk of a reunion had ended.
Reunion or none, Led Zeppelin remains one of the most powerful, influential, innovative and successful bands in the history of popular music. With eight studio albums and one live album in almost exactly one decade, Zeppelin sold more than 300 million records and is one of only three acts that have ever achieved four diamond albums in the United States (sales of 10 million certified by the Recording Industry Association of America). An electrifying and unpredictable live act, Zeppelin performed hundreds of concerts worldwide and nearly singlehandedly established the form of ’70s-style stadium rock, and an entirely new business model that went with it. The band continues to exert immeasurable influence on musicians worldwide, and has received numerous awards and accolades, including a 2005 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1995) and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame (2004).
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