The Led Zeppelin story that appears below, in three parts now, was published in a 2003 Led Zep Q special but it was written long before that, as part of my memoirs and adapted for Q, who edited it down a bit. This is the unedited version. I was the US editor of
Melody Maker at this
time, flown from New York, first class at Atlantic Records’ expense of course, to
Chicago to write about Led Zep and interview Jimmy Page for the magazine. What
follows is very different to the kind of piece I would have submitted to Melody Maker in 1975. Not only was this sort of fly-on-the-wall
reportage unsuited to M M’s brand of
journalism, but putting Led Zeppelin under the magnifying glass like this was
inadvisable from a personal security standpoint in those days.
I’m in the back seat of a long black Cadillac limousine, amidst a caravan of similar vehicles, gliding very smoothly along the Kennedy Ex
pressway that leads
from downtown Chicago to O’Hare Airport. My
sole travelling companion, apart from the uniformed driver, is John Bonham who sits to my right, muffled up in a
sheepskin, swigging from a quart bottle of blue-label Schmirnoff, and muttering
disconsolately to himself. The sources of Bonzo’s discontent are many and varied
but centre largely on where he is and where he would prefer to be.
Even though it’s only just past midday Bonzo is not sober. I cannot even be certain whether this is the first bottle of vodka he’s tackled today and, bearing in mind his reputation for unprovoked aggression towards music writers, I am acutely aware that the situation could turn nasty. Though I think it unlikely that Led Zeppelin’s muscular drummer will attack me physically in the back of this limousine, spacious though it is, I am nevertheless on my guard and watch what I say.
Bonzo’s main problem is that he is homesick. He wants to be back in England, on his farm in the Black Country with wife Pat and the kids, breathing in the Albion air, tending his livestock and doing manly things like laying bricks for a garage to house his roadsters or ploughing his fields on a tractor. And the fact that Led Zeppelin now has an unscheduled 48 hours of down time, which leaves Bonzo bereft of a reason to be here in the first place, just adds to his inconsolable mood.
The atmosphere isn’t helped by the driver who’s relating a story which he hopes might lighten the mood. “I had that Jethro Tull in the back of this limousine last week,” he’s saying, in all seriousness. “They can’t be doing that well. They were all sharing the same cigarette.”
Bonzo and I ignore him. Bonzo looks out of the window at the frozen grey landscape rolling by and closes his eyes. He might actually be nodding off, I think. Then he opens his eyes again. “What the fuck am I doing here,” he mutters. “I wanna be back HO
It’s January 1975, and we’re five days into Led Zeppelin’s tenth North American tour, the last three nights of which have been spent in Chicago where, in a building that was once the largest indoor arena in the world, Zeppelin debuted songs from their Physical Graffiti album, performed gems from their back catalogue and made the hair on the back of everyone’s neck stand on end when they played ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Unfortunately Robert Plant arrived in the freezing Windy City dressed in a lightweight, open-fronted blouse more suited to a pre-pubescent girl, the kind of thing he likes to wear on stage, and has succumbed to a nasty cold, his health deteriorating steadily during the run. This morning he was pronounced too sick to continue the tour and tonight’s show in St Louis has been hastily cancelled. Since the following night was a night off anyway, Led Zeppelin, much to their chagrin, find themselves stranded in cold, unwelcoming Chicago for 48 hours.
This is beyond the pale. Led Zeppelin are in their pomp, as high and mighty as it is possible to be in the world of rock; rich, powerful and untouchable, so used to getting their own way, in fact, that even a setback like this fails to bring them down to earth. A meeting is called. Present are Jimmy Page,
John Paul Jones, Bonham, behemoth-like manager Peter
Grant, second-in-command Richard Cole, and the pilot of the Starship, the
luxury private Boeing 720 that Zeppelin have rented for the duration of the
tour, with me and a few other hangers-on on the sidelines. The sole item on the
agenda is what to do now. They have their own plane at the ready, after all,
and they’re paying for it on a daily basis whether or not they actually fly
anywhere, so there’s no need to stay in Chicago.
Jones, eternally secretive, the only member of the group who could walk out of a stadium alongside the fans and not be recognised, fancies the Caribbean, 48 hours in the balmy Bahamas sounding just the ticket at this time of year. Bonzo, of course, would really like to go back home, back to Worcestershire, just so he can spend a night with his beloved Pat, but he’ll settle for Jamaica if that’s out of the question. Page, on the other hand, wants to fly to Los Angeles, into the arms of a ravishing teenage model as it happens, but as ever he’s acting coy, a bit mysterious, talking softly, and unspecific about his real reason for wanting to go to LA. Grant doesn’t really care – he wants only to get away from the cold of Chicago. Cole has no say in the matter – he merely carries out orders, ruthlessly and efficiently, like a finely-tuned machine. As for me, well, just so long as I string along and get some kind of interview along the way it doesn’t really matter where I go. In the event the pilot has the final say. The Starship is licensed to fly only within the continental USA, he tells us. Page gets his own way, though I somehow think that the brains behind Led Zeppelin would have got his own way even if the Starship was licensed to fly to the moon.
To LA it is then, with Plant staying behind, nursed by the finest medics that Zep’s immense treasure chest can afford, and in the scramble for the limousines I find myself in the car with Bonzo, my fate in the hands of a restless Led Zeppelin let loose in the Land of the Free, a deeply disturbing prospect indeed.