Cameron’s looks back at Led Zeppelin just months after the death of drummer John Bonham. This was the original piece that inspired Stephen Davis to call his infamous Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods.
This L.A. Times story from January 4, 1981 is brand new to the site (and our 232nd item in the Journalism section). In addition to a history of the band, Cameron looks at some of the bad luck that seemed to plague the band.
Led Zeppelin – The Hammer of the Gods
During a tour several years back, Led Zeppelin guitarist and founder Jimmy Page sat in his hotel room selecting official photos of his band. Time and again, he passed over the clear, precise shots in favor of dark and fuzzy near-rejects.
“What are you looking for?” asked the photographer.
Replied Page, “Power. Mystery. And the hammer of the gods.”
Melodramatic words, perhaps, but ones that summarize the mystique of Led Zeppelin. When the British quartet cryptically announced its passing in November – an end they attributed to the death in September of 31-year-old drummer John Bonham – they were still one of the most popular acts in the world. Zeppelin was a rock institution for 12 years, yet few knew any more about them at the end than they did when the group formed in 1968.
They were a close band. Page, 36, bassist-keyboard player John Paul Jones, 35, singer Robert Plan, 32, and Bonham were perhaps the most insulated group in the music business. They carried an uneasy view of outsiders. Writers and critics never really accepted them, they felt. They clung to their own longtime friendship and to the incredible fan support that began with their first album (recorded in 30 hours) in 1969. Since then, they’ve sold about 30 million albums and 2 million concert tickets.
“I have no idea why our band is so popular,” said Page in 1973. Covering the group for The Times, I had been led past two security levels, several road managers, through several double-locked doors to a large room where page sat alone, quietly staring out the window onto Sunset Boulevard.
“We’ve never done a television program,” he said. “We don’t see our interviews. We don’t record AM singles – in England, in fact, there’s never been a Led Zeppelin single. All I can say is that Led Zeppelin is street music. Rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe people feel an affinity toward it because the media never hammered it down anybody’s throat. Quite honestly, the popularity surprises us.”
It was a strange hold that Led Zeppelin seemed to have on the adolescent mind. For millions of kids, teen-age depression was easily aided by a good pari of headphones and a copy of “Physical Graffiti.” Perhaps no one knew this as much as Robert Plant, by far the most accessible member of Zeppelin on the road. Plant was known to walk into such places as a suburban McDonald’s, strike a classic rock-god pose for a shocked counter girl, smile and order a Big Mac and fries. Then he would sit and talk about the band with fans, happily gossiping about the group’s inner workings.
Throughout the ‘70s, as the band’s popularity increased, there was a certain hugeness to everything Led Zeppelin did. They stayed in the best hotels, played the biggest halls and stadiums. The sheer size of Zeppelin’s sound often clouded the fact that they were, simply, a trio with a singer. While Page was the architect of the band’s studio sound, all four members carried an equal musical load. “Stairway to Heaven” was mostly Page, “All of My Love” was largely John Paul Jones. Songs like “Rock and Roll,” “Trampled Underfoot” and “The Song Remains the Same” grew out of studio improvisations started by John Bonham. Fundamentally, Zeppelin was brute strength and musical power.
There have never been many interviews, and only one press conference, 10 years ago. With Zeppelin, the mystery always led to speculation, and that was just fine with Page. For the first four years they toured extensively with only one ruthless objective – obliterate the competition. They played louder and harder than any of the headliners. They always know how well they had done, Plant once observed, by how many people came back to the hotel after a show.
The reputation spread. In ’72, Elvis Presley wanted to meet the members of Led Zeppelin. Their mutual promoter at the time, Jerry Weintraub, took Jimmy Page and Robert Plan up to Presley’s Las Vegas hotel suite. For the first few minutes, Elvis ignored them. Page – who had first picked up a guitar after hearing “Baby Let’s Play House” on overseas radio – began to fidget. What was going on? Did he really want to meet them? Should they say something?’
Elvis finally turned to them. “Is it true,” he said. “These stories about you boys on the road?. . . “
Plant answered, “Of course not. We’re family men. I get the most pleasure out of walking the hotel corridors, singing your songs,” Plant offered his best Elvis impersonation. “Treeat me like a fooooool, treat me meeean and cruuuuel, but looooooove me.”
For a moment, Elvis eyed them both very carefully. Then he burst out laughing. Then his bodyguards burst out laughing. For two hours he entertained them in his suite. He had never heard their records, he said, except when a cousin played him “Stairway to Heaven.” “I liked it,” said Presley.
Later, walking down the hallway from the hotel room, Page and Plant congratulated themselves on a two-hour meeting with The King.
“Hey,” came a voice behind them. Presley had poked his head out the door. “Treeeeeat me like a fooooooool . . . “
“I sang it with him,” Plant recalled later. “It was a high point of my life. I could have packed it in right there, a happy man.”
The band only grew more popular. The fourth Led Zeppelin album became one of the biggest records of all time. “Stairway to Heaven,” a track never released as a single, became the most requested songs of the ‘70s.
The group thought quite a bit of “Stairway to Heaven” and the respectability it brought them. “The song proved a lot of things to us and to other people as well,” said John Paul Jones. “No one ever compared us to Black Sabbath again after that song. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something that will hold up for a long time. We did that with ‘Stairway.’”
But starting in ’73 came a persistent stretch of bad luck and timing that would dog the group for years to come. On tour in California, Page broke a finger gripping a fence in San Diego. Dates were shuffled around. Zeppelin returned after a month-long break to ticket riots in almost every city. The bad press racked up.
Just before a summer tour in ’75, Robert Plant’s car plunged off a cliff in Sicily. Page’s child was in the car and emerged unharmed. Plant’s wife, Maureen suffered a fractured skull, a broken leg and pelvis. Plant fractured his elbow and broke his ankle. It kept the band off the road for two years.
They returned the next year for a tour that, again, broke attendance records at almost every stop. There were fewer riots over the sold-out shows. Then, in Oakland for one of the tour’s last shows, there was an incident that would again darken the band’s reputation. John Bonham’s child was denied a souvenir placard from a dressing room door. Bonham, along with manager Peter Grant and a road manager, beat the security guard to a pulp.
There were lawsuits and vows from promoter Bill Graham to “never in good conscience book this band again.”
Led Zeppelin prepared to leave the country, shamed by the press, when Robert Plant received news that his young son Karac had died of a virus infection. Plant’s father met his plan. “All this success and fame,” he said. “What is it worth?”
In ’78, a year in which they still won most music polls, Zeppelin did not exist. Much was written about the band’s dark side, the karma of their early years coming back to haunt them.
Perhaps too little has been written about the other sides of Led Zeppelin. When the plane carrying the Lynyrd Skynyrd band went down several years ago, killing singer Ronnie Van Zant and two other musicians, the funeral hall was literally filled with flower arrangements of all kinds, sent by a band they’d never met – Led Zeppelin.
Zeppelin released their last studio LP, “In Through the Out Door,” in the midst of an industry recession that had already caused the commercial death of many other “dinosaurs.” The album sold a phenomenal 4 million.
Zeppelin had struggled back to life. They headlined a show at the Knebworth Festival in London, and quietly put together a three-legged American tour to have begun last October. A warm-up series of concerts around Europe produced reports that Page was leaping the stage, Plant was in fine form, Jones and Bonham were laying with a vengeance. They began their three-hour show with the first song they had ever played together 12 years earlier in Page’s London loft, “Train Kept a Rolling.”
Then, last September, the same day the first mail-order tickets were available in Chicago, the same day of the first ticket mob, came the news that Zeppelin fans could hardly believe. John Bonham, the groups celebrated drummer, had died from “unspecified causes.” (It was later found that he had died from inhaling his own vomit, after ingesting about 40 shots of vodka.)
It was much more than just another member leaving another band. Even the fans knew: It seemed ludicrous, almost sacrilegious that a band like Zeppelin would hold auditions for a Bonham replacement. Still, the American tour was canceled with no comment, and rumors persisted that they might carry on with either journeyman drummer Aynsley Dunbar or Bad Company member Simon Kirke. There was even word the band had rehearsed with Jason Bonham, the 16-year-old son who studied and idolized his late father’s style.
Then, came the official statement. “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”
The ambiguous statement surprised even American representatives of the group’s Swansong Records, who first read it on the UPI wire. Their transatlantic calls confirmed the word. There were no future plans. The name Led Zeppelin had been retired. They had done what few groups were ever able to do – ignore the commercial opportunities and never look back.
Certainly they will play together again in some form. The many Led Zeppelin fans will demand nothing less. Perhaps Page will now take the opportunity to complete his long-promised project, the first official Zeppelin live album, something he’s been recording and editing tapes for since ’69.
I thought back to the afternoon I’d first interviewed Page seven years earlier. I asked him – would there be a Led Zeppelin as long as there was a Jimmy Page?
“There will be a Led Zeppelin as long as there’s a Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant,” he answered. “This isn’t a nostalgia band, playing the ‘hits’ forever. If anything ever happened and somebody left – which I really can’t ever see happening – I don’t think we’d bother to carry on. That would just be it. The magic for me is as it is now.”
Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – January 4, 1981