With the recent release of the ‘Celebration Day’ DVD, several new books, including the excellent ‘Trampled Underfoot’ (reviewed here) and with their back catalogue due for another extensive re-mastering later this year, the myths and legend surrounding Led Zeppelin continues to grow
Led Zeppelin had already called it a day 33 years ago, when I was just getting into music. Raised on a post punk diet of New Wave, Indie and Electronic music, the heyday of Zep was long gone. By the time they re-formed for a one off disastrous show at 1984’s US Live Aid, they already seemed like they were from a different planet.
But for a devout music lover, the myth of Led Zeppelin, the excess, the invention of heavy rock, the groupies, drugs, wealth, devil worship, death, and downfall, is just too good a story to stay away from. And through discovering the legend behind those already grizzled men of the 80’s, I discovered their music, surely still some of the most visceral, exciting rock music ever recorded.
The 1985 book, Hammer of the Gods, built Led Zep’s reputation as the hardest living band of all. Along with the Stones, they pretty much set the blue print of blues based heavy rock, led by an extrovert frontman, with a brilliant guitarist, conquering America through a brutal schedule of touring.
Here’s the together Leo extrovert singer with his mate the fucked up guitar payer
Hammer of the Gods while widely dis-credited by all of the surviving members, either because alot was made up, or because it makes the participants, mainly Page, look decidedly seedy. But with it’s lurid tales of underage sex, extensive drug taking and general abuse of groupies, some notably involving dead fish, it’s still a great read. Hammer of the Gods remained the high water mark for documented rock ‘n roll excess until comprehensively out done by Motley Crue’s “The Dirt” six years later.
Barney Hoskyn’s book however is a very different kettle, of, well fish. Told through a chronological collection of 200 interviews, many contemporary, plus quotes from the various music papers of the day, it gives the most comprehensive overview of the band, from the people closest to it’s centre.
It’s not always a pretty spectacle. Like all good rock and roll stories, it starts as a tale of compaderie, as a group of mates who bond with a common love of music, discover they have a combination of great chemistry, artistry and creative vision and go on to conquer the world. And also like all great rock stories, it then fairly quickly degenerates into personal factions, artistic differences, tragedy and ultimately divorce, followed many, many years later by only a partial reconciliation.
The book’s focus is pretty evenly balanced between the artistry and the excess. For rock aficionados, it provides great insight and context into the early recording session’s and mid era Zep, particularly the recording of their finest album Led Zeppelin IV, much of which was recorded at Headley Grange mansion (also the venue for other 70’s rock behemoths, Genesis).
The huge drum sound of Bonham’s drums came from placing the kit in a high ceiling hallway, Black Dog, from the same album, was named imaginatively after a black labrador that used to roam the grounds, and the Stairway to Heaven lyrics were written in a single day in the garden. (In the 2007 documentary, “It Might Get Loud“, Page re-visits Headley Grange, and recalls some of the great music recorded there).
..he was one mean bastard. I was afraid to even look in his direction when I was with the Zep
The bands downward spiral started soon after, and if the fame and success went to their heads, it’s hardly surprising. Being in the biggest band in the world, having your own plane, playing to a record breaking 56,000 fans in Tampa, Florida, thereby breaking the Beatle’s previous record at Shea stadium, all before they were 25, is some mean achievement.
But as the tours became bigger, so did the debauchery, with all members, and Peter Grant, their hirsute, ogre of a manager, all succumbing to drugs, mainly cocaine. Page also becomes a heroine addict and devotee of occultist Aleister Crowley just for good measure. John “Bonzo” Bonham, always a heavy drinker, by 1980 was dead at Page’s house, a tragedy that marks the end of the band, and seemingly for two decades, Page and Plant’s relationship.
Peter Grant, through years of substance abuse, loses his marriage (his wife runs off with the gardener), his mansion, and most of his fortune, ending up in a flat in Eastbourne. But before the heavy come down, it must have been a great ride. Only Plant, perhaps shocked into sobriety by the death of his young son, and always the most level headed of the four, increasingly restrains himself from indulging in the chaos around him.
We’d sit there with an ounce of coke; it never ran out. He blew huge amounts of his fortune in it.
When something like drugs owns you, it owns you. Peter had another master, and it wasn’t Led Zeppelin, it was his own hell.
The 2007 re-union, released end of last year as a DVD and CD “Celebration Day”, does against the odds, capture the power of the band from their heyday. Simply recorded, with minimal fuss, on a plain stage, and without the 30 minute long guitar solos, the band are well rehearsed and tight. While it’s a pity for fans there wasn’t a tour, “Celebration Day” and “Trampled Underfoot” are a fitting bookend to a great chapter in British rock music history