Light and Shade
Hollywood, 1973. It was only the second day of Led Zeppelin’s stay in Los Angeles. Already, the word was out. Hordes of fans prowled the hallways of their hotel, the infamous Continental Hyatt House. The lobby was filled with photographers, groupies teetering on platform heels, even an impatient car salesman who’d come to deliver a hot-rod to drummer John Bonham.
The cold steel elevator door slid open to reveal the ninth floor. Two beefy security guards stood there, demanding a note of authorization. One had already reached in, ready to smash the button marked “lobby.” Luckily, I had a note.
Nine floors up, there was no sense of the furor downstairs. Robert Plant, fresh from the shower, strode to the window of his suite and looked out at the billboards of Sunset Strip. He noticed the gloriously run-down hotel, the Chateau Marmont, where Zeppelin had first stayed upon their arrival in America back in 1968. Plant joked to Jimmy Page, the guitarist leader of the group, that his innocence looked like it needed a paint job.
Page had something else on his mind. A representative of their record company, he said, had just called to report that the sales of the new album, Houses of the Holy, were spectacular. Page had been officially told that Led Zeppelin were the biggest-selling group in the whole world. A silent moment of triumph passed between Plant and Page. Across the hall, an Al Green record played on Jones’s portable stereo.
“Well,” said Jimmy Page, turning to the visiting writer. “What do you want to know?”
I wanted to say “everything.” As a fledgling journalist still working at a record store, I’d fought for the opportunity to cover Led Zeppelin for the L.A. Times. The band had provided the soundtrack for my own adolescence, but I kept that to myself. I had a notebook full of questions, and as our interview progressed, Page and Plant seemed to warm from their notoriously press-wary stance. In the coming years, they would invite me to tour with them. We conducted innumerable interviews. Not many journalists were ever offered a front-row seat to the Zeppelin experience, and years later my files are still bulging with volumes of transcripts and passionately-scribbled notes I can barely read.
The Zeppelin attitude had something to do with Peter Grant, their brilliant and imposing manager. A little bit to do with the wicked humor of Richard Cole, their road-manager. Something to do with John Bonham thundering down the aisle of the Starship, performing Monty Python routines. With John Paul Jones, lost in dry-ice, playing “No Quarter.” It had a lot to do with Page and Plant, side-by-side, sharing a single spotlight, ripping through “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
The reverberations from those days run through most of what passes for rock and roll in the 1990’s. Led Zeppelin has never been more popular, more pervasive, more…omnipresent. They broke up ten years ago, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio. Not since Elvis joined the Army has an audience so completely refused to acknowledge an artist’s inactivity.
Zeppelin was also about the group’s many, many followers. For a generation of kids, teenage angst was easily aided by a good set of headphones and a decent copy of Led Zeppelin II. Now that generation has their own kids, and the recordings sound even better.
Remastered by Jimmy Page in the summer of 1990, these discs represent a stunning reassessment of Led Zeppelin. “Putting the material together, I had a big smile on my face,” Page said recently. “I love the running order. It’s shed a new light on things and made them fresh. I think it’s an interesting little journey…”
22 years after their formation, the warm glow of myth surrounds Led Zeppelin. Few other than Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones remember what truly difficult road Led Zeppelin traveled in their time.
London, 1968. Noted British session guitarist Jimmy Page had taken an offer to join the Yardbirds, only to see the group splinter on an American tour. He’d vowed to continue the band as The New Yardbirds, and set about rebuilding the group from scratch. Fellow sessionmate, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones read an article in Disc Magazine after prodding from his wife and called Jimmy. Page had also gotten a hot tip on a young blues-singer from Birmingham, and he traveled there to see him perform.
“His vocal range was unbelievable,” recalls Page. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. there’s something wrong here. He’s not known.'” Page laughs. “I couldn’t figure it out. I thought, ‘he must be a strange guy or something.’ Then he came over to my place and I could see that he was a really good guy. I still don’t know why he hadn’t made it yet….”
At Page’s home, they explored each other’s tastes by playing favorite records-everything from Buddy Guy to the Incredible String Band to Muddy Waters and Elvis. Then Page broke out an odd choice. It was Joan Baez’s dramatic version of the ballad, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Page outlined a plan for a band that could play a song like that. “I’d like to play it heavy,” he said, “but with a lot of light and shade.”
It all made sense to Plant, who suggested they add his hometown pal and former bandmate, drummer John Bonham. The group’s first get-together was in a tiny room below a record store on London’s Gerard Street. The building has since been torn down, and the district reshaped as the city’s Chinatown district, but Page remembers it vividly. “The room was about 18 x 30,” remembers Page, “very small. We just played one number, ‘Train Kept a Rolling,’ and it was there immediately. An indescribable feeling….”
They rehearsed for several weeks at page’s home at Pangborne, on the River Thames. First on the agenda was a two-week tour of Scandinavia, a mop-up of some old Yardbirds commitments. Still playing under the name the New Yardbirds, they soon entered London’s Olympic Studios.
It was Robert plant’s first time in a full-service recording studio. “I’d go back to the playback room and listen,” he recounts. “It had so much weight, so much power, it was devastating. I had a long way to go with my voice then, but the enthusiasm and sparking of working with Jimmy’s guitar…it was so raunchy. All these things, bit-by-bit, started fitting into a trademark for us. We finished the album in three weeks. Jimmy invested all his Yardbirds money, which wasn’t much, into our first tour. We took a road crew of one and off we went….”
Their first British show took place October 15th, 1968, at Surrey University. They performed under a new name, Led Zeppelin, coined by the Who’s drummer Keith Moon. (As in “you’ll go over like a…”) An early staple of the live show would be the song “Dazed and Confused”, which featured an electric Page solo played in part with a violin bow. The bow later became Page’s famous solo-signature, and it’s an interesting historical footnote that the idea was first suggested to him during a session by the violinist father of actor David McCallum, of Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Zeppelin performed their intense, bluesy show at several stops around England. The response from the press was mild.
America beckoned. Manager Peter Grant had a keen sense of U.S. audiences and the vast underground movement that was sweeping the country. Grant saw an opportunity when the Jeff Beck Group, managed out of the same office, canceled out on an American tour with Vanilla Fudge. He called the upset promoters and talked them into a new group instead. Now all Grant had to do was convince the members of Led Zeppelin to leave their warm homes at the last minute, on Christmas Eve, for parts unknown.
They agreed with gusto. Page and Jones felt like warriors embarking on a new campaign. For Plant and Bonham, it was a long long way from the hills of the Black Country. The band flew straight to Los Angeles for a series of shows at the Whisky A Go Go. They drove to the Chateau Marmont, and came upon a good omen. Keith Webb, a friend from Terry Reid’s band, was standing out front in the 80 degree weather. He extended glasses of champagne.
“Oh I say, chaps,” Webb intoned. “Come on in, welcome to America, and Merry Christmas.”
“Bonzo and I were amazed,” Plant recalled in 1975. Seven years later, the sensations were still vivid. “We’d barely even been abroad, and here we were. It was the first time I saw a cop with a gun, the first time I saw a twenty-foot car. The whole thing was a complete bowl-over. It was Christmas and Christmas away from home for the English is the end of the world. I went wandering down the Sunset Strip with no shirt on. There were a lot of fun-loving people to crash into…and we started out on a path of positive enjoyment. Frank Zappa’s girl group, The GTO’s were upstairs. We met a lot of people who we still know, a lot of people who’ve faded away. Some of them literally just grew up. I don’t see the point in growing up….”
The first reviews of the album were surprisingly skeptical. It was a time of “supergroups,” of furiously-hyped bands who could barely cut it, and Led Zeppelin initially found themselves fighting upstream to prove their authenticity. A critical drubbing by Rolling Stone would remain painful for years. It set an ominous tone for the group as they left Los Angeles and headed up to San Francisco to begin their tour.
Manager Peter Grant had a game plan. He’d avoided releasing any singles, and had studiously booked the group into key hotspots for progressive music. This group would not compete on AM radio with Gary Puckett or the Fifth Dimension. Led Zeppelin was more about an entire album. It would be something to be passed between friends like a good joint. The key piece of this plan would be their show at San Francisco’s Fillmore West.
“The important thing,” Plant said recently, “was that Peter told us if we didn’t crack San Francisco, we’d have to go home. That was the place that was considered to be essential, the hotbed for the whole movement. It was the acid test, forget the Kool-Aid, and if we weren’t convincing, they would have known right away. I said ‘I’ve been singing for years. I’d be happy to sing anywhere.’ But he had his eyes set on something I couldn’t even imagine.”
The band was sharing the bill with Taj Mahal and Country Joe and the Fish. They arrived to find they’d been advertised only as “Supporting Act.” The mission was clear–do or die–and Led Zeppelin took the stage that night with a vengeance.
Jimmy page could feel something happening in the audience, even from the stage. “It felt like a vacuum and we’d arrived to fill it,” he explains. “First this row, then that row…it was like a tornado and it went rolling across the country.”
By the time the band hit New York, they were headliners. The first album went top ten and stayed on the charts more than a year. They would tour the US three times in 1969 alone.
Led Zeppelin II was largely written and recorded on the road, no small feat considering the pace of their touring. The album sported more of a band personality–they were getting to know each other–and Plant had honed his vocal approach. “Whole Lotta Love,” the explosive first single from the album, would be the first big hit.
Today, none of the band members is sure when the monster “Whole Lotta Love” riff first appeared. John Paul Jones ventures that it probably came from a stage improv during “Dazed and Confused.” Says Plant: “Wherever it came from, it was all about that riff. Any tribute which flows in, must go to Jimmy and his riffs. They were mostly in E and you could really play around with them. Since I’ve been playing guitar myself, I’ve realized more than ever that the whole thing, the whole band really, came straight from the blues.
By 1970, Zeppelin’s popularity had spread to England and parts beyond. They had even unseated The Beatles in the prestigious annual Melody Maker readership poll. Singles were rarely released in the US, never in the UK. Concert ads were rarely taken. To be a fan of Led Zeppelin was to be a member of an exclusive club. The information traveled not in newspapers, but in the back of cars, on the telephone and on the radio. Two of their rare BBC radio appearances appear on this set. “Travelling Riverside Blues” and “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” were high-profile early appearances for the band, but Page felt no nervousness about performing the intricate guitar parts for national radio.
“My basic attitude toward performing live is the same now as it was then,” he told me in 1990. “I don’t know if you can put it in print, but it’s this–shit or bust. You do it. No nerves…you just do it.”
Led Zeppelin toured for two-and-a-half years straight before finally taking a break. When a vacation was planned, it was a working vacation. Plant had the idea of traveling to a cottage in the mountains of Whales for a songwriting session with Page. (Plant: “I thought we’d be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, San Franciscan, Marin Country blues without ever actually going there.”) The name of the cottage was Bron Y-Aur, so-called for the stretch of sun that crossed the valley every day. “Bron Y-Aur” would become a title for a certain kind of Zeppelin music–acoustic, bluesy, and soulful.
“It was actually the first time I really got to know Robert,” says page. “Actually living together at Bron Y-Aur, as opposed to occupying nearby hotel rooms. The songs took us into areas that changed the band, and it established a standard of traveling for inspiration…which is the best thing a musician can do.”
Led Zeppelin III contained echoes of Sunset Strip, of the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield, of Joni Mitchell and Moby Grape. Crossbred with their essential blues foundation, this was a new direction that truly pushed the envelope of hard-rock.
They were rewarded with their least-selling album yet. It didn’t matter to Jimmy Page. The stage shows expanded to feature the new material in an acoustic set. Led Zeppelin’s concerts became legendary affairs. “Dazed and Confused,” still the roller-coaster centerpiece, could last as long as 45 minutes. When the floodgates opened, it was sometimes difficult for Page to close them again. Likewise for John Bonham’s nightly solo, “Moby Dick.” The “boggie” section of the show came late in the set, and it tended to feature whatever music the band was listening to at the time. (Some of the surprise songs played by Zeppelin: “Woodstock,” “The Shaft,” “Feeling Groovy,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”) There were few effects, no tapes, just brute musical strength. Zeppelin live was a direct descendant from Elvis’s early shows. Raw, direct a reminder of when rock was young.
Undaunted by the sales of the third album, Page kept to his original goal of bringing hard rock and musical drama to an essentially acoustic base. It was all about depth of feeling, he says today. In 1990, it’s that same depth of feeling that keeps the many Zeppelin imitators just that. Like with a great comedian, you can retell the jokes but the laughs just aren’t the same.
The next album, Led Zeppelin IV, was a watershed moment in the band’s history. The lp slipped into stores in 1971 with little fanfare. Here was a more “mature” work that also rocked as hard as any of their previous efforts. It was remarkable music for a band that was still, essentially, a trio with a great singer.
Bonham and Jones had begun to feel their confidence. It was Bonham who spontaneously interrupted work on another (never-finished) track by playing the drum-part from Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’.” And Jones had brought in another idea, inspired by the Muddy Waters album Electric Mud.
“I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part,” Jones recalls, humming the part. “But it couldn’t be to simple. I wanted it to turn back on itself. I showed it to the guys, and we fell into it. We struggled with the turn-around, until Bonham figured out that you just count four-times as if there’s no turn-around. That was the secret. Anyway, we titled it after a dog that was wondering in and out of the studio. The dog had no name, so we just called the song ‘Black Dog.'”
The highlight of the album, of course, was “Stairway to heaven.” The most-played track in radio history, it began like many Zeppelin classics…on a tape from Page’s home studio. Recording at Headley Grange, a converted poorhouse in Hampshire, Page first played the track to John Paul Jones. “Bonzo and Robert had gone out for the night, and I worked really hard on the thing. Jonesy and I then routined it together, and later we ran through it with the drums and everything. Robert was sitting there at the same time, by the fireplace, and I believe he came up with 80% of the lyrics at that time. He was just sort of writing away and suddenly there it was….”
Plant picks up the story: “Yeah, I just sat next to Pagey while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if–uh-oh–it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying ‘you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here’s a wedding song for you.”
Houses of the Holy came next. Released in may 1973, this richly atmospheric album was not an easy first listen. (“It usually takes people a year to really catch up on our albums,” page once said.) The band hit the road again with new material. Their popularity was now so great that they served as a test-case. They were selling out massive stadiums that had never hosted rock and roll before. Records were breaking at every stop, yet in 1973, it was the Rolling Stones who were getting all the magazine covers. Led Zeppelin was still rock’s best-kept secret. In the entire history of the band, they had never even hired a publicist.
The lack of press accessibility had kept the band mysterious, but the mystery cut both ways. What press reports did reach the papers usually centered on a) riots over concert tickets, or b) motorcycles-in-the-hallway-type road behavior. Peter Grant found himself involved in constant crisis management.
(Once introducing himself to Bob Dylan at an L.A. party, Grant offered a warm handshake. “I’m Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin,” he said. Dylan replied, “I don’t come to you with my problems, do I?” It was the only time I’d ever seen Grant at a loss for words.)
The roguish reputation dogged Led Zeppelin for years. In 1972, Elvis Presley wanted to meet the band. Their mutual promoter at the time, Jerry Weintraub, took Page and Plant 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. “Treat me like a foooool, treat me mean and cruuuel, but loooooove me….”
For a moment Elvis Presley eyed them both very carefully. Then he burst out laughing. Then his bodyguards burst out laughing. For the next two hours he entertained them in his suite. He had never heard their records, he said, except for when his stepbrother 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 from behind them. Presley had poked his head out the door. “Treat me like foooool….”
The double-lp Physical Graffiti was recorded over several months at Headley Grange. The intention was to make a straight-forward rock album. One song stood out early on. The album was planned to culminate in the hypnotic new track, “Kashmir.” Fifteen years later, all three members point to this song as quintessential Zeppelin, the truest of their many recordings. “It’s all there,” explains John Paul Jones, “all the elements that defined the band…”
The “Kashmir” riff first appeared on Page’s home-studio work tapes. It was first a tuning, an extension of a guitar-cycle that Page had been working on for years. (The same cycle that would produce “White Summer,” “Black Mountain Side,” and the unreleased “Swan-song.”) “The structure of it was strange, weird enough to continue exploring,” remembers Page. Jones had been late for the sessions, and Page used the time to work on the riff with John Bonham. Plant added the middle section and, Jones later added all the string parts.
Originally called “Driving to Kashmir,” the lyrics were inspired by the long drive from Goulimine to Tantan in Southern Morocco, the area once called the Spanish Sahara. “The whole inspiration came from the fact that the road went on and on and on,” Plant explains. “It was a single track road which neatly cut through the desert. Two miles to the East and West were ridges of sandrock. It basically looked like you were driving down a channel, this dilapidated road, and there was seemingly no end to it. ‘Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dreams…’ It’s one of my favorites…that, ‘All My Love’ and ‘In The Light’ and two or three others really were the finest moments. But ‘Kashmir’ in particular. It was so positive, lyrically.
“I remember at the time there were a lot of musicians who were really insensitive about their audiences interpretation of their work. You’d get all this negatively coming out, as if to be mysterious is to be negative, to be dark. Mystery is not about darkness. It’s about intrigue. There’s a fine line in between, of course. Not even a fine line…it’s a gossamer thread.
“How on earth do you want to purport yourself? I believe that it had to be Light. Lyrically, you have to stand by your words! There was a lot of gloom purported by guys who went back and took off their stage-clothes and played golf. And I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I wanted whatever I was saying to represent what I was doing.
“But ‘Kashmir’ was tremendous for the mood. A lot of that was down to Bonzo, what he played. Page and I couldn’t have done it without Bonzo’s thrift. He was a real thrifty player. It was what he didn’t do that made it work….”
There are many successful bands who function like co-workers. They clock-in, clock-out, they exchange cards at Christmas. Thank you, and see you on stage. In my time around them, Led Zeppelin functioned like four very different brothers. It was the kind of closeness that allowed for friendly competition, for privately griping over another member, and for fiercely defending that same person in the next breath. Their comraderie stood in direct opposition to the often-heavy image of Led Zeppelin.
Once on the road, Robert Plant popped into a McDonald’s for lunch. Slowly, the patrons began to recognize him. The room began to tilt towards him. Before long he was surrounded by young fans, and it’s a tribute to his disarming personality that soon they were treating him not as Robert Plant, but as a co-conspirator and a fellow fan of the band.
“Hey, what’s Jimmy Page really like?”
“He’s my mate,” Plant replied simply.
To this day, Page remains an inscrutable presence. He is ethereal, yet extremely forceful. Steely, yet soulful. Jimmy Page is one of the most powerful figures ever to be over-described as ‘fragile.’ One afternoon in Chicago in 1975, Page let the room go dark as the sun set. He quietly, defiantly, described his future.
“To be able to fuse all these styles was always my dream in the early stages,” he said, “but now the composing side of it is just as important. I think it’s time to travel again…it could be a good time for that now. We’ve been in all these hotel rooms, touring. The balance has got to swing exactly the opposite, to the point where you’ve got an instrument and nothing else. I think it’s time to travel, start gaining some really right-in-there experiences. There’s always this time thing. Especially musically. I know what I want to get down and I haven’t much time to do it in. I’ve got a real wanderlust right now. I want to move.”
By July 1975, Zeppelin had accomplished all they’d dreamed of. The world tour had been a smash. Physical Graffiti was a big hit, and all five albums had re-entered the charts. The band had lived in each other’s pockets for years, and their spirit was still strong. Now it was time to travel, to recharge.
Within three weeks Page had flown to Marrakesh to meet up with Plant, who traveling with his wife Maureen. Veering off the tourist paths, Page and Plant rented a Range Rover and drove deep into Morocco. The mission was to discover street music, to soak up the experiences that might enhance the next album. Bob Marley tapes blasting, they traveled through Ovazazatte, Zagora, Tagora, Tafraoute, the Atlas Mountains, moving north through Casablanca and Tangier to meet up with the rest of the band in Montreux, Switzerland.
Page took a brief break, flying to London to check the editing of the “Dazed and Confused” sequence for The Song Remains the Same. (The band had all but decided to shelve the 1973 concert film in favor of something filmed on their upcoming summer tour.) He had planned to catch up with Plant in a few days. Their wanderlust tour wasn’t over yet, and soon they would be gearing up to perform live again.
Bad luck struck when Plant’s car plunged off a cliff on the Greek island of Rhodes. Plant’s wife suffered a fractured skull, and a broken leg and pelvis. Plant fractured his elbow and broke his ankle. They were taken to a small local emergency ward. Just how pervasive was Zeppelin’s popularity? “I was lying there in some pain,” Plant says with understatement, “trying to get cockroaches off the bed and the guy next to me, this drunken soldier, started singing ‘The Ocean’ from Houses of the Holy.”
Plant’s accident would keep the band off the road for two years. The Song Remains the Same, the film and soundtrack, were released to fill the vacuum.
The band is not fond of their only concert recording. After years of revelatory live shows, the concert captured for posterity was achingly average. “As far as the studio recordings went,” says Page, “everyone single one of them has a certain ambiance, certain atmospherics that made them special. When it came to the live shows, we were always trying to move things forward and we certainly weren’t happy leaving them as they were. The songs were always in a state of change. On ‘Song Remains the Same’ you can hear the urgency and not much else. The live shows were an extension of the albums.”
Plant’s accident would thrust the band into their darkest period. For 18 months, it wasn’t known if he’d be able to use his leg again. Plant spent a lengthy period of time drinking beer and “tinkering on the village piano.” Clearly, Zeppelin needed a new album, and needed to feel their ability to make a great one. The plan was to record fast, to push the limits, to paint themselves in a corner and dare themselves to escape.
Rehearsals for Presence began in Malibu, California. It was an odd sight–Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant in a wheelchair. The band soon moved to Munich for the sessions. Every waking hour was spent in the studio, located in the basement of their hotel.
In 1977, Page described the album with a real fervor. “The general urgency and the pent-up whoa was in all of us. The mechanism was perfectly oiled. We started steaming in rehearsals. We did a lot of old rock and roll numbers just to loosen up a bit. ‘For Your Life’ was made up in the studio, right on the spot. I particularly enjoyed the guitar playing on the blues things. The solos never had that coloring before. I was so happy about it…especially since I have to warm up to solo. I get nervous about that kind of guitar playing. Really, very insecure about it. But that’s the way I can really concentrate. I’m usually at my best when I’ really exhausted or under pressure or both. When you’re exhausted all you want to know is what you have to do. The Golden question is why this was done so fast, and why the others take so long. The fact is that this one, we lived all the way through…under circumstances that were extremely frustrating. We weren’t sure about Robert, weren’t sure what was going to happen. Everyone manage to pull it all in…it was great.
If each Zeppelin album was, as Jimmy Page says, a concept album detailing the mental state of the band at the time…then this one was a story of anxiety and frenzy and blues and pain.Presence, he says, is the most important album. It’s a snapshot of a time when the group was stripped of its legendary power. They were running on pure heart and soul.
A dangerous period of inactivity followed Presence. (“You gotta keep your mind active,” said Page at the time, “you can never just ‘go on holiday.'” Plant continued therapy on his ankle. Jones tried farming. Page retreated to Switzerland to produce “Bonzo’s Montreux” with John Bonham. Each member was being asked the same question with alarming frequency–had the band broken up?
The day of gardening would soon come to an end. Plant’s leg improved, and the band held their collective breath when he elected to get up on stage with Bad Company at a New York concert. It was a triumphant evening for Plant. He found he could still move the way he wanted to on a stage. It was a little wobbly, but it would improve. Yellow lights were switched to green. A Led Zeppelin tour was planned for the next year.
Meanwhile, rock had changed. Punk was raging through England, threatening to sweep all the old-time arena-size acts under the carpet. While Page admired the work of the Sex Pistols and the Damned, he was surprised to see that some of the younger musicians had their guns aimed directly for Zeppelin. (Said a member of the Clash: “I don’t even have to listen to their music. Just looking at one of their album covers makes me want to vomit…”) After winning the Melody Maker poll at the outset of 1977, Page had earnestly explained that “Zeppelin is not a nostalgia band.” They rehearsed for two months, carefully assembling the set that would prove it.
The 1977 Zeppelin show was a three-hour tour de force. Page’s guitar blazed, Plant’s soul was on nightly display, Jones and Bonham swung. It was a thunderous break in the two-year silence. For the first time, critics and audiences agreed. This was Zeppelin at their tightest and loosest. The response was overwhelming. As Plant joked on-stage at Madison Square Garden, plucking up some roses left by a fan: “I didn’t know you cared.”
In Los Angeles in 1977, Page gave a particularly stunning description of the Zeppelin alchemy: “The motto of the group is definitely ‘ever onward.’ If there ever is to be a total analysis, it’s that. The fact is that it’s like a chemical fusion…there’s so much ESP involved in it. It sounds pretentious, but it’s true. That’s just what it is. When there are three people playing on stage, instrumentally, and I’m in the middle of a staccato thing, and Bonzo just for some unknown reasons happens to be there doing the same beats on the snare drum…that sort of thing is definitely a form of trans-state…it is sort of communication on that other plane. People get so scientific about it, I experience it every day. There is such a great creative thing there within all of us, you just want to keep going. People really bring it down to earth when they say ‘Have you ever really thought of splitting up?’
But things would never be easy for Led Zeppelin. Tragic news hit as the band was preparing to leave the US at the end of the tour. Plant’s young son Karac had died suddenly from a virus infection. The effect was devastating. Plant disappeared into the country to mend the wounds. His bandmates worried about him, wondered about the future of the group, but within a year Plant had re-emerged with new dedication.
In January of 1978, Zeppelin flew to Stockholm to begin recording a new lp. In Through The Out Door was an album of new sounds and wide style-shifts, odd directions and even the gorgeous Zeppelin ballad “All My Love.” “The whole search is for the unknown,” Page once said. “We’re always looking…”
The band came roaring back to full-power in the summer of 1979. The seventies had been their decade, and they were closing it out in style. In August, two huge appearances at Knebworth had turned out to be emotional affairs for the homeland audiences. The band swept the Melody Maker polls again. “Fool in the rain,” a rare Zeppelin single, was released in December.
After Knebworth, what would be the next step for the biggest band in the world? The answer came that next July as the group stealthily began their first European tour in three years. “Zeppelin Over Europe 80″ opened with little fanfare–it was almost a dream for the Zeppelin faithful. There was playful and generous spirit about the show. (Page had even handled some of the stage introductions himself.) The set opened with “Train Kept A Rollin’,” the first song the band performed together twelve years earlier.
Rehearsals quietly began for an American tour. The group had acquired a new motto for the States, “cut the waffle,” as in no-frills and fewer solos. In early September they announced the US dates with a press release entitled “Led Zeppelin-The Eighties.”
On September 25th, the band was locked in rehearsals at Page’s home. The work was over for the day. John Paul Jones and Zeppelin associate Benjie LeFevre had playfully decided to visit John Bonham’s room “just to watch him sleep.” They found him dead. Bonham had turned the wrong way, accidentally, after a night of drinking. The tragic sight, according to Jones, looked shockingly arbitrary.
The decision to end the band came instantly. In a group this close, the loss was immeasurable. When the three members met in a London hotel room, it was only a matter of wording the statement.
“It was impossible to continue, really,” says Page today. “Especially in light of what we’d done live, stretching and moving the songs this way and that. At that point in time especially, in the early 80’s, there was no way one wanted to even consider taking on another drummer. For someone to ‘learn’ the things Bonham had done…it just wouldn’t have been honest. We had a great respect for each other, and that needed to continue…in life or death.”
After a time, Plant embarked on a solo career. Page recorded and toured with The Firm, then released his own first solo album. Jones continued to arrange and produce. All have maintained a stance defiantly apart from “Zeppelin nostalgia.” They had accomplished the rarest of feats. Led Zeppelin were the most popular group in the world, and there would be no downward slide, no selling of “Whole Lotta Love” to a detergent company.
On July 13th, 1987, the band performed at Live-Aid, at JFK Stadium. There were priceless moments, but I’ll remember Page’s smile when Robert sang his familiar added-line to “Stairway to Heaven”–“does anybody remember laughter.” It was a look that came from way down deep, and it carried with it a memory of a hundred Zeppelin shows gone by. In subsequent years the band would sometimes perform with Jason Bonham on drums, popping up at the 40th Anniversary concert for Atlantic Records or at Bonham’s own wedding party.
“I look back at it all and laugh,” Robert Plant says today. “I was just 19 when I got off the plane. It’s like having a child, and I am part of that child. Shit. The answer to it all is growing up, developing a balance. So much of the time was like being in the middle of a knitting pattern which hadn’t been finished. There were no instructions, and the pages were re-written every day….”
Still, the sound on the Zeppelin CD catalog had been bothering the members. Two years ago, on tour with his own band, Plant had traveled to Robinsonville, Mississippi, hometown of blues legend Robert Johnson. Sitting on the porch of the post office, looking down the dusty street of Johnson’s youth, Plant slipped on a pair of headphones and listened to “Preachin’ The Blues.”
“The romance was great,” says Plant, “listening to the scratchy recording. But the same thing wouldn’t work for Led Zeppelin. In real terms, Zeppelin is as competitive now as it was in 1980. So it should be heard right. What we did back then was always make sure it sounded good. It was time to put Zeppelin, sonically, in their rightful place. For me, it’s timeless stuff and it needed a Million Mile service.”
For Page, the job of remastering and choosing a running order was a delicate matter. “You don’t want to tamper with it,” he says, “because the music means so much to people. But I’ll tell you, it was great to hear it all again. I sort of re-lived every second of my life over those years. I could really tell why it was what it was…or is. On any given night, we played with our whole hearts. There was never a routine. There were always areas, within all the numbers, that challenged us. We had to be there totally, with everything….”
And Page is particularly fond of the new recording, an ingenious layering of Bonham’s “Bonzo’s Montreux” with his earlier solo “Moby Dick.” “I had an internal whim that it might work,” says Page. “When I tried it, I felt it was meant to be. It’s a fitting tribute to John Bonham. I’m very proud of it.”
“Some day,” Plant says “I really want to write with Jimmy again. I’d like to see if we can get back to ‘In My Time of Dying.’ That would be amazing. But I’m not sure we should call it Led Zeppelin. Once it happens, it becomes something so much bigger….
“Really, Led Zeppelin was Jimmy. I was a great foil. He was very much…there’s a word, not ‘perpetrator,’ but definitely he had a premeditated view of the whole thing. Even though with my lyrics and some of my melodies it took off in directions he might not have been ready for…a couple times later on, when I got more confident I might have turned his head around a little…but the big role was his. The risks were his. The risks made it memorable. Without Jimmy it would have been no good. When people talk about how good other guitarists are, they’re talking about how they play within the accepted structures of contemporary guitar plating, which Pagey plays miles outside of. He plays from somewhere else. I like to think of it as…a little left of heaven.”
Led Zeppelin Box Set – The Complete Studio Recordings – Cameron Crowe – September 13, 1993