How could we begin an article about Led Zeppelin? They were a rock band, which was formed in London in 1968 by Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass, keyboards) and John Bonham (drums). They had a heavy sound, rooted in blues and psychedelia, especially in their first albums, they were recognized as the forefathers of heavy metal music, although their music was singular with a lot of influences by several music genres. But, damn, what am I writing now?! If the construction of rock music has some solid foundations, one of these is Led Zeppelin. Indeed, I am not sure whether our beloved music would be there today, 50 years now, without Led Zeppelin and some other classic bands, which built the whole base.
by Apostolos Gkolfinopoulos
In 1966 Jimmy Page replaced bassist Paul Samwell-Smith in The Yardbirds, but soon he became the guitarist next to Jeff Beck. Beck left the band in October 1966 and The Yardbirds lost their passion due to the frequent tours and recordings. Page wanted to form a supergroup together with Beck on guitars, Keith Moon and John Entwistle (The Who) on drums and bass respectively. Besides, he wanted Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott in the band. Of course, this band was never formed, however, Page, Beck and Moon recorded a song in 1966, named “Beck’s Bolero”, which also features John Paul Jones. Yardbirds’ last live gig took place in July 1968 in Bedfordshire. With some live shows still pending in Scandinavia, Jim McCarty and Keith Relf gave Page and bassist Chris Dreja their permission to use the name “The Yardbirds” and find the replacements. Terry Reid was the first selection for the vocals position – Reid didn’t finally accept the band’s proposal and recommended Robert Plant (Band of Joy, Hobbstweedle). Plant accepted the position, recommending at the same time the ex-drummer of Band of Joy, John Bonham. Jones entered the group since Dreja took the decision to become a photo artist following his wife’s advice. Page was familiar with Jones since they both were session musicians – that’s how the quartet was formed. Their first live show took place at a small venue, under a record store at Gerrard Street in London. Page suggested that they played a cover of the song “Train Kept A-Rollin”, which was also covered by The Yardbirds. «As I listened to John Bonham’s performance, I was sure that the thing could progress to something very nice, we were already very tight, as a team», Jones later stated. Before leaving to Scandinavia, they recorded for P.J. Proby – it was the song “Jim’s Blues” in the “Three Week Hero” album, with Plant on the harmonica, and that was the first official recording of the band, who would soon be baptized “Led Zeppelin”. The band toured Scandinavia as The New Yardbirds, playing live for the first time before a crowd at Gladsaxe Teen Clubs in Denmark, on 7th September 1968. Shortly after they began recording their first album, which was based on their live setlist. Funded by Page, the recordings lasted nine days. Meanwhile, the band was forced to change its name, since Dreja sent them a letter of complaint, where it was stated that Page had the license of the name The New Yardbirds only for the Scandinavian tour. A rumor says that according to Moon and Entwistle, a supergroup with Page and Beck would be a «lead balloon», such a supergroup would have a catastrophe. With the prompt of manager Peter Grant, the band erased the “a” from the word “lead” and used the word “zeppelin” instead of “balloon”. On November 1968, Grant managed to close a deal of 137.012,55 € with Atlantic Records, which was the biggest contract for a newcomer band until then. Atlantic Records had mainly blues, soul and jazz artists in its roster, but at the end of the ‘60s showed some interest in the British progressive rock scene. The head of the company signed with Led Zeppelin, without having seen them play live before – and the most important was that the band was free to decide about everything (what would be released, where would they tour, the album covers, promotional tactics, which songs would be released as a single etc. What is more, the band established its own company, Superhype, which would be responsible for every release.
On October 25, 1968, they played for the first time under the name Led Zeppelin at the University of Surrey in Guildford and at the end of the year they toured for the first time in North America. Their first album, entitled “Led Zeppelin”, was released in the USA on January 12, 1969, and reached number 10 at the album charts, whereas in Britain it was released on March 31 and reached number 6 at the album charts. The most interesting is that their music was a “sonic revolution” and paved the way for what would be called “hard rock” and “heavy metal”. At their first year of existence, they organized four tours in the USA, four tours in Britain and released their second album, called “Led Zeppelin II”, which was recorded in North America and was more successful than their debut, reaching number one both in USA and Britain. That album showcased their blues-rock sound, which was “heavy and hard, brutal and immediate” and the press was persuaded to regard this release as “the first musical monument of heavy metal”. The band tried to avoid all the TV appearances since they believed that their fans could enjoy the band and its music at the lie shows. After the release of their second album, Led Zeppelin toured in the USA, at bars and various clubs, but soon later at bigger venues, as their name grew bigger. In 1970 Page and Plant were isolated at Bron-Yr-Aur, at a remote cottage in Wales in order to prepare their third album (“Led Zeppelin III”). This composing process ended in a more acoustic style, with big influences from folk and Celtic music, and that proved the flexibility and ingenuity of the band. This rich folk sound of the “Led Zeppelin III”, which was something different compared to the “electric” sound of the first two albums, initially caused various reactions, shocking the reviewers and the fans. The intensity between the band and the media was increased, but the album managed to reach number one at the album charts both in USA and Britain.
During the ‘70s, Led Zeppelin reached the top, having a huge commercial success and an overwhelming acceptance by the music fans – they became one of the most influential band of their time. They changed their looks, wearing fancy clothes, especially Page’s outfit with the moon and the stars is historical! Their live shows featured several effects with laser, colorful lights etc. They used to travel with their own passenger aircraft, a Boeing 720 (named “Starship”), to stay at many hotel rooms and their fame of licentiousness begun getting bigger and bigger. Many legendary stories are known, for example that John Bonham drove once a motorcycle in a hired floor at Riot House, that they destroyed a room at the Tokyo Hilton – nevertheless, most of these stories are just exaggerations. Their fourth album hit the stores on November 8, 1971. Due to the negative reactions to the third album, they decided to release the next, fourth album without a title, although this album is known as “Led Zeppelin IV”, “Untitled” or simply “IV”. The cover doesn’t contain the name of the band, they wanted to remain anonymous in order to avoid the obscure comments of the press. What caused a lot of debate and let the people free to their own comments was the symbols that could be seen on the album artwork. It was Page’s idea that every member should choose a symbol. Page mentioned in an interview in 1977; “After all this nonsense that could be read in the press, I told the other band members that it would be a good idea to release the album without our logo. Initially I wanted only one symbol on the album, but we finally decided that since the album would be our fourth and we are four in the group, everyone should pick his symbol. I decided mine and the others chose theirs for their own reasons. Although Page stated that he designed his symbol based on the alleged civilization of Mu, the truth is that his symbol exists since 1557 and represents Saturn. It was well-known that Page was fond of Aleister Crowley and his symbol is like a magic seal. Jones chose his symbol from Rudolf Koch’s book, “Book of Signs” and represents trust and accountability. Bonham’s symbol comes from the same book, represents the Trinity Mother, Father, and Child, but if you turn it upside down, you can see the logo of the beer Ballantine. During the British tour in the winter of 1971, you could see each symbol on the member’s instruments, but later, only Page and Bonham kept their symbols. Having sold 37 million copies, “Led Zeppelin IV” is one of the best seller albums in the history of music and its success made Led Zeppelin superstars in the decade of the ‘70s. 23 million copies were sold only in the US until 2006, most people believe that “Stairway to Heaven” is the best song in rock history. From the end of 1971 until the beginning of 1973, the release of this fourth album was followed by tours in Britain, Australia, Asia, Japan and North America.On March 1973, the album “Houses of the Holy” was released. One of the album’s trademark was the experimentation of the band with the use of synthesizers and mellotron. The orange cover, designed by legendary label Hipgnosis, pictured naked children climbing on Giant’s Causeway, North Ireland. Although the faces of the children can’t be seen, the cover was controversial and once again it didn’ t feature the band’s name, not even the album title. “Houses of the Holy” made it in the first positions in the album charts and their North American tour broke every record, as the band was playing live only in big stadiums and theaters. Three sold-out gigs at the Madison Square Garden in New York were filmed, so the movie “The Song Remains The Same” was made, but it was finally available only in 1976. 1974 was a break for Led Zeppelin after the extensive touring, and the group established its own record label, Swan Song, whose logo shows God Apollo and was inspired by a 1869 drawing by William Rimmer, named “Evening: Fall of Day”. Apart from the band’s albums, Swan Song released many other artists’ albums, for example, albums by Bad Company, The Pretty Things, and Maggie Bell. As long as Led Zeppelin was active, their label was very popular, but stopped its operation three years after their split. In 1975 the double album “Physical Graffiti” was released and it contained 15 songs. A Rolling Stone article calls the album “Led Zeppelin’s offer to artistic respect” and mentions that the only rivals of Led Zeppelin in the “World’s Best Rock Band” contest are The Rolling Stones and The Who! The album was of course a great commercial success and made Led Zeppelin even more famous and the band’s previous albums continued selling more and more in USA, something that made the band tour again in North America with sophisticated sound and light systems. On May 1975 five live shows at the Earls Court Arena in London were sold-out – just keep in mind that the Earls Court Arena was the largest concert venue in Britain!
After these live shows in Britain, the band decided to rest for a while and scheduled an autumn tour in America. However, on August 1975 Plant and his wife Maureen had a serious car crash in Rhodes on their vacation. Plant broke his ankle and Maureen was seriously injured and many blood transfusions were needed. That forced the band to cancel the tour, so they focused on their next album. That time Led Zeppelin were the most popular rock band in the whole world, even more popular than The Rolling Stones. “Presence” was out in March 1976 and marked a turn on the band’s sound, which more concentrated on guitar riffs, away from the acoustic ballads and the experiments of the previous albums. It went platinum, but the reactions of both press and fans were mixed – many believed that the band’s sound was extravagant. During the recording process, rumor says that Page started heroin, something that affected the band’s gigs and recordings. Due to Plant’s car accident, Led Zeppelin didn’ t tour in 1976, that gave the band the time to complete the “The Song Remains The Same” movie, which was accompanied by a soundtrack album. The movie premiered in New York on October 20, 1976, but it got a rather mediocre feedback by journalists and fans. The situation for the band was the same in Britain, something that forced them not to tour there (tax problems was the other reason). Led Zeppelin should now regain their British fans. In 1977 they toured again in North America, where they made another audience record, according to the “Guinness Book of Records”. The tour was very successful, although some riots, woundings, and arrests took place. Bonham and some members of the road crew were arrested for beating someone, after the live show on July 23 in Oakland, California. The other day the Oakland gig was the band’s last live show in the US. Two days later, as the band was approaching the French Quarter Hotel for the live show at the Lousiana Superdome on July 30, Plant learns that his five-year-old son Karac died of stomach discomfort. The rest of the tour was immediately canceled and many believe that it was the beginning of Led Zeppelin’ s end.
On November 1978 the band recorded at the Polar Studios in Stockholm the album “In Through The Out Door”, which contained several sonic experimentations, something that caused various reactions to the press. Nevertheless, the album reached number one both in the USA and Britain the second week of its release. Again this success pushed up the sales of the previous Led Zeppelin albums. On August 1979, having played two times in Copenhagen, they headlined the Knebworth Music Festival. In June and July 1980 they planned a short tour in Europe. On June 27, in Nuremberg, the show was violently interrupted during the third song of the set, when Bonham collapsed and was transferred to the hospital. The journalists didn’t miss the chance and wrote that Bonham’s collapse was due to excessive use of drugs and alcohol, but the band insisted that Bonham had just eaten too. Later Led Zeppelin schedules a tour in North America, which would begin on October 17, 1980. On September 24, Bonham with his assistant Rex King, who was driving, drove off to Bray Studios for the programmed rehearsal. On their way, Bonham and Rex King stopped for a breakfast – Led Zeppelin’s drummer ate a roll of ham and drunk a large amount a vodka. They finally arrived at the studio, where he continued drinking. The rehearsals ended late in the evening and the band went to Page’s house in Old Mill House, Clewer, Windsor. After midnight, Bonham, who was asleep, was brought to bed. At 1:45 at noon of the following day, manager Benji Le Fevre and John Paul Jones found Bonham dead on his bed. Cause of death was suffocation of vomiting and the coroner didn’t find any other substances in Bonham’s body. Bonham was cremated on October 10, 1980, and his ashes were buried in the cemetery of St. Michael’s Church, close to Droitwich, in Worcestershire. The scheduled tour in North America was canceled. There were rumors that Led Zeppelin would replace Bonham with another drummer (the names of Cozy Powell, Carmine Appice. Barriemore Barlow, Simon Kirke, Bev Bevan were heard), but the remaining members decided to disband. On December 4, 1980, an official press statement was released; “We would like to inform you that the loss of our beloved friend and the deep sense of our indivisible harmony that we have, led us to the decision that we can’t continue anymore”. This press release was signed as Led Zeppelin.
After the dissolution of the band, The Honeydrippers was the first important project, which was started by Plant in 1981 and released their only album in 1984. Page was also in the band, together with some other friends like Jeff Beck, Paul Shaffer, and Nile Rodgers. Ο Plant focused on a different direction with an R & B style, with a remarkable cover of the Phil Phillips song “Sea of Love”, which reached number at the single charts in the USA. “Coda”, a compilation of unreleased material, was released in November 1982. On July 13, 1985, Page, Plant and Jones took part in Live Aid, at the JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, where they played with Tony Thompson and Phil Collins on the drums and Paul Martinez (bass). This live performance was technically poor and ruined by sound problems. The three remaining members met again on May 14, 1988, at the 40-year anniversary concert of Atlantic Records with Bonham’s son, Jason, behind the drum kit. The result was again disappointing. Plant disagreed with Page before hitting the stage, on whether they would play “Stairway to Heaven” or not, Jones’ keyboards couldn’t be heard on the TV broadcasting. Page described the concert as “a great disappointment” and Plant said, “the concert was wrong”.
The 1990s and 2000s
The first Led Zeppelin box set, which consists of remastered songs and four unreleased songs, supervised by Page, was released in 1990, increased the band’s fame, but the discussion of the members for a possible reunion was fruitless. “Led Zeppelin Boxed Set 2” hit the stores in 1993. In 1994, Page and Plant reunited for the 90-minute “UnLedded” MTV unplugged project. Later, “No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded”, which featured some re-recordings of Led Zeppelin songs and embarked on a world tour. That caused some communication problems between the members, as Jones hadn’t been asked to participate. In 1995 they entered the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” and at the induction ceremony, Bonham’s children, Jason and Zoe, represented their father. During the ceremony, Jones’ disappointment was obvious – when he received his award, he said; “Thank you very much, my friends, finally you remembered my phone number!” causing awkward looks from Page and Plant. Then they played a small set together with Aerosmith members, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (they presented the ceremony), Jason Bonham on drums, and later played with Neil Young and Michael Lee (drums). In 1997, Atlantic Records released “Whola Lotta Love” as a single in USA and Britain (that was their only single that was released in Britain and reached number 21). On November 1997 “Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions”, featuring 1969 και 1971 recordings, was out. Page and Plant published one more album, “Walking into Clarksdale” (1998), with new material, but the album wasn’t a success, so their new collaboration ended.
In 2003 “How The West Was Won”, a triple live album, was released, as well as a 6-hour DVD, which was the biggest seller on the music DVD market. On July 2007 Atlantic announced that on November three new releases will be out; “Mothership”, a compilation of 24 songs, the re-release of the “The Song Remains the Same” soundtrack (this re-release contained also some unreleased material) and a new DVD. Apart from these, Led Zeppelin’s back catalog was now legally available as a digital download. On December 10, 2007, they reunited for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in London, with Jason Bonham on drums. According to the “Guinness World Records” of 2009, Led Zeppelin made the “Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert” record, since there were 20 million online ticket pre-orders. There was a very positive reaction from critics and thus the rumors for a new start were spreading –according to these rumors, Page, Jones and Jason Bonham were thinking of embarking into a new tour and recording a new album. However, Plant continued his tour with Alison Krauss and in September 2008 stated that he couldn’t record or tour with them. It is said that Jones and Page started searching for Plant’s substitute (some names they checked were Steven Tyler and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge), but in January 2009 it was confirmed that this project wouldn’t be realized. On 17 October 2012 the film “Celebration Day” was given a limited theatrical run and on 19 October it was released in a video format. The sales of “Celebration Day” reached 1.92 million euros in an evening and hit number 4 and number 9 in Britain and the USA respectively. After the official premiere of that film, Page announced that he has been remastering Led Zeppelin’s discography and that the band’s first three albums would be released on 2 June 2014 with bonus tracks.
The roots of Led Zeppelin’s music go back to the blues. The influence of the American bluesmen, like Muddy Waters and Skip James, was crystal clear on the first two albums of the band, as well as the country blues style of Howlin’ Wolf. The songs, both music and lyrics, were based on the twelve-bar blues. You can also find folk music in Led Zeppelin’s sound (British, Celtic and American folk). Besides these, Led Zeppelin were influenced by rock n’ roll, jazz, country, funk, soul, and reggae, especially in “Houses of the Holy” and later albums. With a wide range of blues and folk standards, in its first two albums, the band not only mixed musical and lyrical elements from different songs but also improvised a lot – that caused reactions, copyright claims and legal controversies. They used to compose the music firstly, then came the lyrics, which were written again for the final versions of the songs. Since 1970, Page and Plant were the main composers; Page composed on his acoustic guitar, Plant focused on the lyrics. During the composing process, Jones and Bonham added their parts. Much later Page gave space to Jones, who used his keyboards and his contribution became very important. As far as the lyrics are concerned, they had their roots in blues and folk and were mixed with phrases from other songs. Many of their songs had romantic lyrics, referring to unfulfilled love and sexual conquests, common topics in rock, pop, and blues music. In “Led Zeppelin III» you could find references to mythology and mysticism since Plant was fond of legends and history. All these elements together with the Page’s interest in the occult, caused many accusations of hidden satanic messages, something which they, of course, didn’t admit. Later Plant’s lyrics became more autobiographical and less optimistic with his experiences and issues as the main basis. Musicologist Robert Walser describes their sound as “fast and powerful, with an unusual pace and exciting dynamics, combined with the lament of the vocals”. That’s how they were established as the forefathers of hard rock and heavy metal music, they were the definition of the heavy metal band, although they weren’t comfortable with this tag. Eastern music elements into the blues scales. Plant high-pitched vocals resembled the technique of Janis Joplin. Bonham’s drumming was powerful and fast, whereas Jones’ bass lines were melodic and his keyboards added a sophisticated touch to Led Zeppelin’s sound. Page had once said that they wanted to create music, which would have light and shadow. That’s what they managed in “Led Zeppelin III”, where they used acoustic instruments, and in their fourth album (especially in “Stairway to Heaven”, which begins with an acoustic guitar and ends with loud drums and a heavy electric sound. In their latest albums, Led Zeppelin’s sound was more mature and progressive, with the dominant Jones’ keyboards.
Led Zeppelin are considered as one of the most successful, innovative and influential bands in the history of rock music. Their music, complicated but also catchy, beautiful but also risky, showcased their talent, belonged to the best of the 20th century, it is fresh and interesting no matter how much time has passed. They composed their songs, overcoming the problems, surpassing even themselves. It is needless to say how many artists and bands they have influenced – you can just read what so many musicians confess in interviews! And it’s not accidentally that Led Zeppelin are put next to The Beatles, as far as their influence is concerned. They also managed to change a lot of things in the music business. The fact that they didn’t release singles forced radio stations to play all their songs. They were pioneers in playing gigs at large venues and stadiums, without other bands to support them. Their album sales exceeded the 200 million (some say 300 million) copies. In the USA six of their albums reached the top at the album charts, in Britain, eight Led Zeppelin albums made that (a record they share with ABBA). As far as their outfit preferences, the band influenced a lot of other groups, especially of the glam metal genre.
Led Zeppelin were inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in 1995 and the “UK Music Hall of Fame” in 2006. Among the awards they have won, we find the “American Music Award” in 2005, the “Polar Music Prize” in 2006 and the “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2005, whereas four of their recordings have been inducted in the “Grammy Hall of Fame”. They have five “Diamond” albums, fourteen Multi-Platinum albums, four Platinum albums and one Gold album in the USA, as well as in Britain they have five Multi-Platinum albums, six Platinum albums, one Gold album and 4 Silver albums. One of the most accurate music magazines in the world, Rolling Stone, has put five Led Zeppelin albums in the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and the band on the fourteenth position in the “Greatest Artists of All Time” list. In 2005 Page was honored with the title “Officer of the Order of the British Empire” as a reward for his philanthropic activity and in 2009, Plant was awarded the title “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” for his contribution to British music. Music TV channel VH1 has placed the band in the first position of the “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock”. On a BBC Radio 2 poll, they have been voted as the greatest rock band of all time. Led Zeppelin have been awarded the Ivor Novello Award for their “Outstanding Contribution to British Music” in 1977 and with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” in the 42-year anniversary of the Ivor Novello Awards in 1997. In 2008 they were awarded the “Best Live Act” Award at the MOJO Awards for their recent-then reunion and in 2012 the three remaining members (Page, Plant, and Jones) they also took the “Kennedy Center Honors” award.
I remember it was 1977 or 1978 when the movie “The Song Remains the Same” came to Greece with the unforgettable title “A Zeppelin Full of Songs”. Having already bought the album, I and my friends went to see this movie seventeen times, in every cinema in Athens and Piraeus. We were in every cinema that played it! We couldn’t get enough! These were the years of innocence, we listened to songs like “Rock n’ Roll”, “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love” and we banged our heads spontaneously! And then, we put “Stairway to Heaven” on the stereo so as to calm down and feel the shiver all over our body.
These were Led Zeppelin!