14.10.18

BRING IT ON HOME: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin & Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager by Mark Blake






Myths and legends are strange bedfellows. In the Oxford English Dictionary a myth is defined as ‘a widely held but false belief or idea’ while a legend is ‘an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field’. Peter Grant straddles the two and, perhaps bearing this in mind, Mark Blake prefaces his biography of the man with a quote from Oscar Wilde, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’, which is both astute and playful at the same time.
         The problem with writing about Grant, a man I knew but not well, is how to separate fact from fiction, yet at the same time produce a readable book that entertains sufficiently to make you want to keep turning its pages. Bring It On Home did that alright, largely because instead of being pedantic about separating fact from fiction Blake has wisely allowed his readers to make up their own mind about a few of the more outlandish claims that were made by, or on behalf of, Grant. Was he raised in abject poverty? Probably. Was he amongst those who dangled Robert Stigwood from a fourth floor window? Maybe. Did he carry huge wads of cash? Yes. Did he address as Popeye an American sailor who hassled Jimmy Page? I hope so. Was he as violent as some people claim? Probably not. Did he weigh 300 lbs? Yes. Was he in thrall to Page? Probably. Was he a good father? Doubtful. Did he lose the plot? Yes. And so it goes on, scattering enigmas like notes in a Page guitar solo.
         Bring It On Home is not the first biography of Peter Grant. That honour belongs to my former Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch who in 2001 wrote The Man Who Led Zeppelin, which I commissioned and edited for Omnibus Press. It is to Blake’s credit that although some information is bound to be repeated, very little from Welch’s book appears in Bring It On Home. It isn’t even mentioned in the extensive bibliography and Welch, who wrote about Led Zeppelin as much as any other writer from the music press in the 1970s, is barely mentioned. This indicates that Blake has not only been selective in his research – which is extensive – but is resolved not to plagiarise. Others in his trade are rarely so scrupulous.
         What Blake has going for him that Welch lacked is the co-operation of Grant’s two children, daughter Helen and son Warren, without whom he would have had to rely on a lot of the secondary research that, alongside his own experiences, fed Welch’s book. Both Grant’s children contribute extensively, offering both opinions and facts unavailable to previous Led Zeppelin biographers whose books invariably covered Grant’s life as a sub-plot. What we learn, unsurprisingly, is that home life with the Grants was not one of quiet domesticity, that their father was rarely off duty and, even when he was, if the phone rang and Jimmy Page was on the other end of the line he jumped to it.
         Helen and Warren’s participation ensures that the book is not just another Led Zeppelin book in disguise. Although Blake cannot help but tell the group’s story within his narrative, he diverts the attention away from them and back to Grant sufficiently for the book’s primary focus to remain intact. Though it lacks any new testimony from Page, Robert Plant or John Paul Jones, he’s secured fairly blunt interviews with many of those who worked for Grant, including second-in-command Richard Cole and some who remained by his side after the group’s demise. Their testimony confirms that it took a series of dreadful blows – his divorce, the 1977 Oakland incident, the death of Bonham, heroin addiction, what he viewed as betrayal by Page and Plant – to fell him, and it took him almost a decade to get back up again. After all, as he said himself, once you've managed Led Zeppelin what else is there to do?
         The book also benefits from an interview Grant himself gave shortly before his death to a researcher gathering material for the film that was to have been made by Malcolm McLaren. This has not been published before and we can safely assume that at this stage in his life Grant was likely to be more forthcoming about controversial issues. Some of this material, I am reliably informed, has been held back on the advice of lawyers.
         Nevertheless, the book contains fresh details of Grant’s deprived childhood, his mother (who was over six foot herself), his lack of schooling, his early jobs, his entry into the music business as a driver of pre-Beatles rock’n’roll acts and his apprenticeship with Don Arden with whom he had a spectacular fall-out. Conflicts were par for the course in Grant’s business life and in most cases the combatants were eventually reconciled though not in Arden’s case, nor, of course, with US promoter Bill Graham. Blake gives the nasty Oakland business the prominence it deserves and in the preceding chapters makes it clear that Grant’s increasingly bad judgement at this stage of Led Zeppelin’s career, ie after 1976, was caused by overwork, an inability to delegate and paranoia brought about by his dependence on drugs. By this time the karma surrounding Led Zeppelin was at its worst and I’m rather glad that my relationship with them, such as it was, ended that same year.
         Bring It On Home also offers some intriguing new information about the power structure that supported Grant. A shady character called Herb Atkin (aka Itkin), an ally of Grant’s equally shady US lawyer Steve Weiss, seems to have played a key role in oiling the wheels of Led Zeppelin’s unhindered accumulation of wealth and ability to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement. Unmentioned in any previous Led Zeppelin books, Atkin may or may not have been a CIA operative, or have had a connection with the mafia, but he certainly had useful contacts in high places. Atkin died in 1989 and Weiss in 2008, but Blake has uncovered evidence that both tried to take over Led Zeppelin from Grant after Bonham’s death; also that Weiss almost certainly benefitted financially from the group to an extent that Grant, and probably Page, were unaware.
         All of these conspiracy theories make Bring It On Home an enthralling read and confirm the well-known dictum that power corrupts. The extent of the corruption is exposed graphically in Blake’s book as the King’s Road offices of Swan Song, Led Zeppelin’s record label, became abandoned, like the Marie Celeste, its artists left floundering. Meanwhile Grant himself disappears, for several years a virtual recluse at Horselunges, his 15th Century moated manor house at Hellingly in East Sussex. Those who visit, either summoned or otherwise, are often left waiting in a reception area for 48 hours before Grant gets out of bed to greet them. Sometimes he doesn’t even bother and they are sent away, their mission unfulfilled. Slowly he emerges from his self-imposed exile, slimmed down, humble even, and in the final few pages is acclaimed by the industry he helped to change for the better. Finally, in 1995, he dies from a heart attack in the back seat of Warren’s car. “He was too fine a man to dance with compromise,” said Plant. “He walked.”
         Bring It On Home is not without its flaws. Grant’s wife Gloria, nee Cutting, is a under-represented which is surprising in view of their 14-year marriage and her children’s contribution to the book. What happened to her after she fled with Grant’s groundsman? We don’t know. According to Blake, Grant left Horselunges for a rented flat in Eastbourne. Was he broke when he died? We don’t know. Finally, according to Warren, the Inland Revenue were chasing Grant when he died. How much for? Did the stress of this contribute to his heart attack? We don’t know. Also, some of the stories sound to me like someone is gilding the lily, but then again without the stories the book would suffer.
         It would probably be too much to expect Mark Blake to answer all these questions about a man who was certainly secretive yet at the same time loved to create myths about himself. It was the myths that turned him into a legend, but if a legend is as the OED defines, Grant certainly qualifies and Mark Blake’s fascinating book does nothing to dispel that.

7.10.18

EVENINGS WITH LED ZEPPELIN – The Complete Concert Chronicle by Dave Lewis & Mike Tremaglio




First I must declare an interest, and quite a big one at that. I commissioned this book for Omnibus Press four years ago, contributed a bit of new text here and there and also edited it, reading every word and doing my best to render what is essentially a list of gigs as entertaining as possible. My name appears at the top of a long list of acknowledgements on page nine, and elsewhere I am quoted about Led Zeppelin gigs I saw, mostly extracts from what I wrote about them for Melody Maker at the time.
         ‘Essentially a list of gigs’, of course, does the book a great disservice. It is 576 pages long, weighs exactly 5lbs and the RRP printed on the back is £40, making it far and away the most ambitious reference book on Led Zeppelin that Dave Lewis, now officially the world’s most prolific Led Zep author, has thus far produced, with or without assistance. His co-author Mike Tremaglio, based in Connecticut, is another Zep collector and historian and I’d wager a decent sum that both their wives are badgering them for extensions to be built on their homes purely to house all the memorabilia that clutters up every available space.
         By and large volumes like this are labours of love. Evenings With is just that, Lewis and Tremaglio’s bid to be judged alongside Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicle and Andy Neill and Matt Kent’s Anyway Anyhow Anywhere on The Who from 1958 to 1978, both of which I turn to before anything else if I need to check up on a Beatle or Who fact. Evenings With… now sits proudly beside them on my bookshelves.
         Although the meat of Evenings With is the Led Zeppelin on the road story from that first Scandinavian tour in September 1968 to the ‘Over Europe’ tour in 1980, the book’s extensive prologues follow Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds to their dissolution in 1968, Robert Plant’s adventures with his Band of Joy and Obs-Tweedle – surely the worst band name ever – and even John Bonham’s gig with Tim Rose that he was reluctant to jettison because, initially, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant’s offer was insufficiently remunerative and he had a family to feed.
         Once we’re into the main course, virtually every one of the 516 Led Zeppelin concerts the authors have been able to confirm is covered in as much detail they can muster, and that includes photos of the venue, inside and out, Zep on stage at that venue, ticket stubs, posters, press reports and, of course, set lists, followed where appropriate with details of any available bootleg recordings. The latter enables the authors to comment on the shows.
         The reviews are amongst the most interesting elements of the book and it is to Lewis and Tremaglio’s credit that these haven’t been censored by omission in any way. Although both are obviously fans up to their eyeballs, they haven’t flinched at including negative reviews by rock critics ill-disposed towards Led Zeppelin, most notably Robert Hilburn of the LA Times who seems to be the only person at the Forum ever to be unmoved by them. Then again, I wasn’t exactly overflowing with praise for them myself at London’s Marquee on March 23, 1971, when in MM I questioned the wisdom of putting them on in such a small venue, or at Alexandra Palace on December 22, 1972, when I was derisive about a venue I described as “cold and forbidding”. “There was a diminishing sound that flew up into the rafters and returned as a disjointed series of echoes,” I wrote. “My guess is that only about half the fans heard the music as it should have been heard.”
         Still, I obviously enjoyed myself at The Pavillon in Montreux on October 28 and 29, 1972, especially ‘Whole Lotta Love’ at the close of the set: “Here the climax comes, because here Zeppelin are doing what they revel in,” I wrote. “They’ve proved themselves with complicated, sophisticated numbers and here the fun starts. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ moves through a brief history of rock and roll, with Robert Plant taking his audience through the inspiration of Zeppelin and amateurs alike: Elvis Presley. Remember ‘Let's Have A Party’? Zeppelin haven’t forgotten, their version sounds remarkably like the original. Remember ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’? Zep do. Each number flows at the drop of a hat, and you get the impression that this medley will go on forever. Remember ‘Heartbreak Hotel’? Jimmy Page hasn’t forgotten those licks and he can reproduce them as easily as Robert Plant remembers the words. Eventually it has to end and the closing ‘Lotta Love’ riff is still echoing around the hall as the exhausted band leave the stage. Ten minutes of clapping provokes an encore – ‘Heartbreaker’ with that inimitable little guitar solo in the middle that Page throws at the audience using his left hand only.”
         Reading that again reminds me that in the afternoon I watched them rehearse a bunch of Elvis songs during a soundcheck, after which I asked them if they’d play at my wedding. They declined.
         But back to Evenings With. My old friend tour manager Richard Cole, a man who has undergone a conversion comparable only to St Paul on the road to Damascus, has written an introduction, and at the close, as you would expect, there’s a rundown of post Zep get-togethers by Page, Plant and John Paul Jones. One final point – almost all the pictures of Led Zeppelin will be new to most fans. This is because Lewis and Tremaglio, together with designer Mick Lowe, have gone out of their way to find pictures, often not taken by professionals, that are either unseen or unusual. This is perhaps best exemplified by the shot on the cover – taken at the Boston Tea Party in May, 1969 – which I certainly hadn’t seen until the book was in development.
         This picture is particular appropriate for a book that documents Led Zeppelin live for a gig at this particular venue was, by all accounts, a pivotal moment at the start of their American journey. Cole cites it in his introduction. “It was encore after encore. They literally ran out of things to play.” Jones puts it even better: “As far as I’m concerned, the key Led Zeppelin gig – the one that just put everything into focus – was one that we played on our first American tour at the Boston Tea Party. We’d played our usual one hour set, using all the material from the first album and Page’s ‘White Summer’ guitar piece and, by the end, the audience just wouldn’t let us off the stage. It was in such a state that we had to start throwing ideas around – just thinking of songs that we might all know or that some of us knew a part of, and work it from there. So we’d go back on and play things like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Please Please Me’ – old Beatles favourites. I mean, just anything that would come in our head, and the response was quite amazing. There were kids actually bashing their heads against the stage – I’ve never seen that at a gig before or since, and when we finally left the stage we’d played for four plus hours. Peter [Grant] was absolutely ecstatic. He was crying – if you can imagine that – and hugging us all. You know with this huge grizzly bear hug. I suppose it was then that we realised just what Led Zeppelin was going to become.”
         It’s quotes like this that make Evenings With… not only the definitive reference book on Led Zeppelin but also one of the most entertaining.