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 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.

1 comment:

frank ack said...

I was blessed to have met Peter Grant in Dallas Texas and actually had given him a bronze statue of "The Flying Man". At first he thought I was trying to sell it to him and bartering with me saying that it wasn't quality reproduction Etc. Once I told him this is a gift The Polar GrizzlyBloke turned into a Teddy Bear. God Bless "G"!