In the days before
MTV and twenty four hour news stations…when being a rock star was a rare and exotic thing, Led Zeppelin were the extreme. You had never seen anything like Jimmy Page with his bewildering outfits, absurdly
long (yet pristine) curly hair, waft-thin body, paled skin, and wizardly demeanor. Neither
had you seen a bare-chested wild man with ridiculously long, untamed hair, pouting around stage with the sexual energy that
Robert Plant had seeping out of his pores. And you surely had never seen an actual
beast, hairy and crude, sweating and pounding away on the drum kit, like a gorilla displaying dominance. There were other bands that were musically just as heavy at the time, but none with the sheer physical
aura that Led Zeppelin were able to portray.
Think about it…when
Zeppelin formed and went on their first tour through Scandinavia in 1968 (known then as the New Yardbirds), there were already
acts that played sped up versions of blues classics: Ten Years After and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac to name two. Likewise, Jimi Hendrix had already released two full-length albums of effects-ridden,
hammering guitar noise and shown the world his wild fashion sense and stage presence.
Eric Clapton too, had already formed (and was just about to dismantle) Cream, in his own words, “to start a revolution in musical thought…to change the world, to upset people, and to shock them.” And their album, “Disraeli Gears,” managed to
make his prophesy come true, with bands like Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, and Iron Butterfly following suit by releasing their
own versions of shock. Most significantly however, Jimmy Page’s former
bandmate in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, had already established the sound Page sought.
In 1967, the erratic Beck
was fired from the Yardbirds and formed the Jeff Beck Group, which put together the blueprint that Page followed almost precisely
when forming Led Zeppelin. Get a young, energetic, slightly camp, blonde lead
singer with an incredible blues voice able to harmonize with an electric guitar run (Rod Stewart)…grab an amazingly
melodic bass player, with brilliant ideas; one who would never seek the spotlight, yet would musically hold everything together
(Ron Wood)…and get a competent blues drummer who knew how to stay out of the way (Aynsley Dunbar). Reshape old blues material (“You Shook Me,” “I Ain’t Superstitious”)
and older hits (“Shape of Things”) into heavier tones, but never shy too far away from traditional folk
sounds (“Greensleaves,” “Morning Dew”). Tour
this band religiously in America and watch the teenaged boys come running.
His band released a groundbreaking
album that had everything Beck was looking for in 1968 (significantly called “Truth”) and Beck
had the right approach and the right situation with Cream just breaking up and the Stones not yet in their “Beggar’s
Banquet” through “Exile” phase, but the group just didn’t have the right
personalities to stick together. Stewart was more interested in superstardom,
Wood wanted to be a guitarist, and Beck was a primadonna that couldn’t be trusted to give his all night in and night
out. Having toured through the States with the Yardbirds, Beck knew that in order
to break the bank, the band couldn’t just be all hard rock posturing like Hendrix, couldn’t be just psychedelic
wanderings like Clapton or the Yardbirds, couldn’t just be a folk band or a white blues cover band…you had to
combine all the elements together. But Beck just didn’t have the stick-to-itiveness
to run the table. Jimmy Page however, knew how to steal a good idea when he heard
After Beck left
the Yardbirds, Page, the brilliant, twenty-four-year old Kinks, Who, and Them session man, took over as the Yardbirds’
sole lead guitarist. While touring America, Page also saw the thirsty teenaged
American audiences and understood that Beck’s vision was exactly what these particular kids were after. This lost generation, the kids just younger than the Baby Boomers and just older than Punks, weren’t
just looking for music…they wanted adventure, romance, violence, mysticism…they wanted a purpose. They wanted their musical experience to be different from the Stones or the Beatles or the their older
brother’s other music…they wanted their own gods. And Page knew he
had the chops to deliver.
The other members
of the Yardbirds however, were ready to call it quits. So with his new manager,
the former professional wrestler, rotund Peter Grant (the Suge Knight of his day), Page decided to recruit replacement players
to form the New Yardbirds and do an already scheduled tour through Scandinavia. But
when he found the pieces to fulfill the tour, he realized the name Yardbirds just didn’t apply to this bunch; they had
that perfect combination of elements (with the ability to play both heavy and light) that the new American audiences were
after…a combination that deserved a new and appropriate name, and Page sold them on his vision of conquest.
Beck’s template, Page unearthed a basically unknown, burly blonde, nineteen-year-old singer and blues aficionado in
Birmingham who was then paving roads and a father to be named Robert Plant. He
was even prissier than Rod Stewart, but had an edgier, desperate, more dangerous voice.
Even more significantly, he also had a true love for the softer California bands Moby Grape, Love, and the Buffalo
Springfield, was sensitive and intelligent, and was eager to do anything Page said in order to gain a little money and fame.
Page then tapped his fellow
session man extraordinaire, the absolutely gifted, quiet, twenty-one-year old musician, John Paul Jones to play bass. Besides playing on records by Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, and Jeff Beck and being
one of the greatest bass players in Rock’s history, he also acted as arranger for the Rolling Stones, Donovan, and Herman’s
Hermits. If this wasn’t enough, he could play the keyboards and most any
other instrument you threw his way, and had the type of personality that merged well with almost anyone. Most significantly, unlike Ronnie Wood, he had no real dreams about being a guitarist, and was content
to be in the background.
For the drummer though, Page
shied away from Beck’s model. Instead of enrolling a solid blues drummer
that stayed in the background, Page employed Robert Plant’s friend and old band member, the nineteen-year old John Bonham
to play the drums as a lead instrument. Bonham was a backwoodsy, construction
worker, already with a drinking habit, and hit the drums harder than anybody had ever heard, but also played bongos and understood
the softer sides of performing. Like Plant, he was in awe of Page’s presence
and desperate for a break. With the three newbies signed up, and with Peter Grant
calling the shots, the foursome went off to Copenhagen, decided to call themselves Led Zeppelin (heavy and light), and soon
conquered America, earning more money than any band in history, performing songs that are still overplayed on radio stations
almost forty years after they formed.
But still, the question is
why Zeppelin above all the others? There is so much criticism from their own
time period and similar gripes floating around the Web Reviewing Community today: Some people hate Robert Plant’s voice,
others hate his pretentious lyrics. Some think Jimmy Page is a sloppy guitar
player, while others consider him no better than a talented hack incapable of doing anything original. There are many out there that think John Bonham was a mindless thug, and that Zeppelin’s music is
still so popular because America is still full of the violent kids that originally flocked towards the band in the late 60s. And unfortunately for the band, somehow their music has been transformed into the
image of their fans: cocky, goofy, and immature.
So then, what
was it about Led Zeppelin that brought them such huge commercial success, but such intense critical bashing? There is that age old, Hammer of the Gods rumor that the entire band (except John Paul Jones) sold
their souls to the devil, ala Robert Johnson, to make it as fast and furious as they did.
There are others that contend that Zeppelin mercilessly stole all of their material from old bluesmen and their contemporaries
in their quest to make it big. Still others claim that the reason Led Zeppelin
never really achieved legendary status in their native England, and were only really a cultural phenomenon to teenagers in
the States, was simply because of the 1960s in the United States:
The Cuban Missile Crisis,
JFK murdered, his assassin then murdered on television. Sit-ins, marches with children being attacked by dogs, the Watts Riots,
Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King murdered, along with dozens of other Civil Rights activists. Robert Kennedy
murdered as well, along with tens of thousands in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive. The Mai Ly Massacre. Richard Nixon in the White
House. The Boston Strangler. The KKK. The Black Panthers. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Charles Manson. Altamont.
America was a
violent place in the time that Zeppelin dominated. The Baby Boomers were growing
up and turning professional, but their little brothers were being sent off to die and the country was crumbling at the feet
of those who were lucky to avoid the war. The white, Anglo-Saxon, thirteen to
twenty four year old males ate up Zeppelin’s music as a push towards the violence they were dominated by… yes
you always hear wild stories of Zeppelin’s appetite for groupies (particularly Page’s obsession with a fourteen
year old and the infamous “Shark Incident”), but guys were the ones attending the shows and buying the albums. Still though…there had to be something more to Zeppelin’s appeal. If it was really just the music, then the Jeff Beck Group should have become at least
close to what Zeppelin became.
It really is simple actually…Zeppelin
was always more than the music. They were about Page’s obsession
with Black Magic and Aleister Crowley. They were about album covers and Plant’s
open shirt bravado. They were about secret symbols. They were about Robert’s lyrical homage to the Lord of the Rings and English folklore. They were about mysticism. They were
about the creepy organ solos by Jones, Page’s bowing technique on the electric guitar and the use of a theramin, and
Bonham’s twenty-minute drum solos. They were about never compromising and
not releasing singles or giving into radio pressures. They were about the vast
fortunes Peter Grant was able to seize for them. They were about the ridiculous
stories of excess and sex and groupies doing unheard of things. They were about
Bonzo drinking more than any human ever and buying a new car every month. They
were about road manager Richard Cole. They were about heroine and Page’s
wizardly clothes. They were about Satan buying souls. They were about the Sunset Strip and the Riot House. They
were that adventure, that release, that experience that the youth of the 1970s needed.
They really were gods.
Gods with an amazing soundtrack
though, they were gods to followers that were ostracized. Zeppelin’s fans
were the pimply-faced Dungeons and Dragons player or the hard-edged townie. They
weren’t the sophisticated music fans of the Baby Boom. The Beatles, Stones,
Doors, even the Who had a more intelligent fan base because their fans, like the United States, grew with them. It seemed like for Zeppelin’s peek years (1969-1975) their audience’s age didn’t change. For six years, their fans were teenaged kids in need of their teenaged angst music,
always an annoying, infantile minority to the Baby Boom generation. And the band
knew it. Page was older than every member of The Who and was only a year younger
than Jagger and Richards... he wanted nothing more than to be accepted in their circles—those extensive Baby Boomer
circles where music was debated and honored as art. But his audience prevented
him from doing so…his audience shaped his band’s music.
What this long rant all comes down to is that Led
Zeppelin were horribly dismissed by critics in their time mainly because they played to a crowd of kids and kids didn’t
run Rolling Stone magazine (like they do now). Zeppelin continues to be
dismissed to this day because instead of making advancing music, they made music catered to fit the needs of their public—mostly
great music by my standards, but music that is easily written off because of the image of its audience.