I wrote this potted biography of Led Zeppelin for an Omnibus book project but in the end it was surplus to requirements. Dave Lewis subsequently used it in one of his privately published books about the group. It’s quite long so I’ve divided it up into three parts, with two and three following later this week.
The Led Zeppelin story began in a rehearsal room in a cellar in London’s Chinatown in September 1968, and ended, tragically, in September 1980 when the group’s drummer, John Bonham, died at the home of their guitarist Jimmy Page in the royal town of Windsor.
In the dozen years between these two Septembers Led Zeppelin climbed to the very top of the rock mountain, releasing 10 albums, playing over 500 concerts worldwide and establishing a legend such as few rock groups before or since. They performed a style of music that has influenced all subsequent generations of rock musicians and, in the robust manner in which they conducted their business affairs, changed the way the music industry was run, for the most part benefiting musicians everywhere.
The key element in Led Zeppelin’s rise to glory was an absolute refusal to compromise on any level whatsoever for the sake of commercial gain – and the fact that all four musicians and their canny manager eventually became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, more commercially successful than any other band of their era, validates the wisdom of their methods. It also earned them a reputation for ruthless inflexibility and, largely because of the unrestrained way in which they behaved on the road, an as yet undiminished mystique.
But none of this would have happened had Led Zeppelin not been spectacularly good at their calling, both collectively and individually. Jimmy Page was among the most gifted, versatile and experienced guitarists in Britain; drawn to the blues like so many of his peers but quite capable of playing with precision in any style, a legacy of his work as a pre-eminent session player in the mid-sixties and, alongside his great friend and rival Jeff Beck, a member of the latter-day Yardbirds. The group’s master strategist, Page unveiled in Led Zeppelin his considerable talents as a composer, bringing a wealth of sonic ideas to the studio, at the same time demonstrating an intuitive grasp of rock dynamics and what young, predominantly male, fans wanted to see and hear. Much the same applied to the more reserved John Paul Jones, their bass and keyboard player who, having been raised in a musical family, was formally trained from an early age; he, too, was an experienced session hand and also a skilled arranger. The other side of the Led Zeppelin equation was represented by two relative novices, singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. Plant brought to the feast a remarkable voice, untapped skills as a lyricist and a generous dollop of sex appeal, while Bonham brought muscle and a refreshing lack of pretension that anchored the airship yet at the same time gave it enormous power.
There was a fifth crew member, manager Peter Grant, a giant of a man whose commitment to the cause and readiness to physically confront anyone who sought to profit at the band’s expense or otherwise break their stride, made him the most respected yet feared manager of his era. Grant, well versed in the mechanics of the music industry and how best to seize the money that flowed within it, provided Led Zeppelin with a canvas on which to create without any need of concern for security, either financial or otherwise.
Built on such strong foundations, how could they fail?
The confidence with which they approached the project was reflected in their decision to record and produce their first album themselves, at their own expense, and for Grant to offer it to record labels as a preconceived package – take it or leave it. In this way they imposed the message that Led Zeppelin was self-sufficient, in absolute control of its destiny from the very outset, and required a record company merely to efficiently promote, market and distribute their work. They were perhaps fortunate that Ahmet Ertegun, the shrewd head of Atlantic Records, recognised not only the commercial potential of their music but was sympathetic to their methods. Few other label bosses would have been as farsighted or accommodating.
Rarely has studio time been more cost-effectively applied as it was with Led Zeppelin’s debut album. The record, simply titled Led Zeppelin and recorded in
a mere 30 hours, cost a reputed £1,782, paid for by Page and Grant. Produced by
Page, the songs that the group recorded in a period of just nine days had been
well rehearsed and arranged on a recent Scandinavian tour the four undertook as
The New Yardbirds, and ‘old’ studio hands with the experience of Page and Jones
could be relied upon to get maximum value from every hour (and pound) spent.
With the possible exception of the 12 hours that The Beatles took to record
their first album at Abbey Road, rarely has studio time been used so
profitably. Led Zeppelin’s début album went on to gross over £3.5 million, just
short of 20,000 times more than they invested. London
Their work ethic extended to the live arena as well as the studio. Though they played a handful of shows in the UK during the final months of 1968, Peter Grant and Jimmy Page had their eyes fixed firmly on America and to this end they became the first ever British rock group to concentrate on the US before they’d become stars back home. The first of many
began in Denver on
December 26, 1968, which meant they had to fly out over Christmas; not for a
second did they hesitate to do so.
The volume of work that Led Zeppelin accomplished in their first three years together ensured their subsequent fortunes: four albums (including their best-selling, untitled fourth LP) and, up to the end of 1971, seven US tours, four UK tours, three European tours and one trip to Japan. They didn’t really let up in 1972 either, with tours of
a second trip to Japan and
their longest ever UK outing.
By this time they were the most popular band in the world among committed rock fans, and from mid-1973 Peter Grant cut back on Led Zeppelin’s touring schedule, shrewdly rationing exposure so as to always leave audiences wanting more. Nevertheless, their selective approach meant that Led Zeppelin were by no means the most famous group in the world at large. Grant’s game-plan deliberately shunned such media friendly activities as interviews with the mainstream press, appearing on television and even releasing singles. Coverage of the band was therefore limited to the music press and occasional live broadcasts on BBC Radio 1. He believed that word of mouth would spread the news about Led Zeppelin amongst the rock fraternity, and that as word of their prowess in concert spread, so the momentum would build. He was right.
The downside to this strategy was that they were largely ignored by the mainstream, popular press and that unlike such Sixties rock icons as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin would never become ‘household names’, not that they ever really wanted to. Their music and reputation was known only to a cult of loyal, relatively young, fans; in effect a secret society, albeit a very large one.