A new biography of Led Zeppelin is crammed with filth and a whole lotta love, says Richard McComb.
Drunken rampages, spiralling drug addiction, gross sexual philandering, guns, robbery, boorish behaviour and downright thuggery ... it’s a wonder anyone is still bothered with Led Zeppelin.
A bloated beast, as much myth as substance. The Jurassic Park of rock.
But then there is the music. Oh, the music. The sweetest, most beautiful, blood curdlingly damnable music ever produced by flesh, bones, fists, steel, strings – and an overload of earth-shattering amplification.
Let any mortal stand accursed should they not follow the hermit’s lantern to the dark, lonely mountain, from whence doth blare the mighty rock of the gods.
And here, in essence, is the dichotomy of Led Zeppelin, the greatest rock band in the world – well, for about seven tumultuous years anyway. Powered by the supersonic drumming and soaring vocals of two sons of the West Midlands, this Jekyll and Hyde streak is detailed in a new “definitive” biography of the band, titled When Giants Walked The Earth.
Zeppelin first broke onto the scene, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, in 1968 and the book has been released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the birth of the original stadium rock outfit. Yes, it’s been a long time.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to reconcile the two sides of the band, the creative impulse and the destructive spite; and in fairness to music journalist Mick Wall, his biography doesn’t pull any punches or offer trite apologies on behalf of Messrs Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones, who rode the four horses of the rock apocalypse.
There is the much vaunted debauchery, the sex and drugs – the bottomless pits of powder – and quite a lot else besides. Such excesses might go cap in hand with the morally ambiguous territory of rock; it’s just that Zeppelin went into a whole new orbit. And that’s when things got mucky, really mucky, and pretty unpleasant.
And so towards the dénouement of the story we have Redditch’s own John “Bonzo” Bonham, arguably rock’s greatest drummer, out of his head on booze and heroin, urinating in his pants in a plane. Wall relates stories of Bonham slapping one woman and attempting to coerce an air stewardess into sex. Trashing hotels is one thing, and Bonzo and Co were adept at this. Assaulting women is of a different order.
And then there is the flipside, of Bonham in particular. Following the death of Robert Plant’s five-year-old son Karac, it was the errant drummer, a former mucker of the lead singer on the Birmingham and Black Country club circuit, who accompanied the distraught star back to Birmingham from the US, displaying both loyalty and compassion, as Wall makes clear.
The most compelling aspect of the band is not the sleaze or Page’s love of “magick,” but the music and the band’s evolution: the unique chemistry of the players; the diverse creative influences, from rock and roll to funk and folk acoustic; the unashamed cherry-picking of blues standards and lyrical hooks; and the way in which occult-obsessed guitarist and band leader Jimmy Page
fashioned his fledgling New Yardbirds into something gloriously worth far more than the sum of their outstanding parts.
Not that everything went strictly to plan. Lady luck had a role to play in the “discovery” of Plant and Bonham. Sixties’ singer/guitarist Terry Reid alerted Page to the duo after seeing them play together in the Band of Joy. Reid phoned his mate the next day and told Page he had found a couple of very rough diamonds. But what did the singer look like, asked Page?
“What do you mean, what does he look like?” said Reid. “He looks like a Greek god, but what does that matter? I’m talking about how he sings. And his drummer is phenomenal. Check it out!”
It was The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, no saint himself, who said Page’s band would go down like a lead zeppelin (meaning balloon) and thus was the name born. The “a” in lead was dropped for fear people would pronounce the word as “lead,” as in “jump lead.” And in any case, Led, as in Zeppelin, looked far cooler. “It was all that light and heavy irony,” mused Peter Grant, the band’s infamous manager and enforcer.
The new band were loud, excessively loud, and the more people complained, the more Grant encouraged Page to ramp up the amps. It’s astonishing now to learn how Zeppelin were turned down by a number of record labels before they signed to Atlantic in the US, the country that would become their adopted home, both spiritually and as tax exiles.
It wasn’t long before the mothership took off. In an interview with Wall, Plant recalled how his life, and that of his chum Bonzo, were transformed.
“We were being stretched and pulled and challenged musically. There was a lot of demand, which in the end kind of brought us together,” said Plant.
“Because we’d drive home from rehearsals from Pangbourne [Page’s Berkshire home], together in Bonzo’s mum’s Anglia van – and we started communicating as the two guys from the Black Country who had a lot to take in ... We were big fishes in a small pond up in the Black Country and suddenly we were in a kind of world situation, where we were sitting on planes together not knowing which cutlery to pick up.”
It wasn’t long before Bonham had a Rolls-Royce waiting for him by the lift of his council flat in Dudley. Odd to think that this wild man of rock briefly had a part-time job at Osbourne’s, a gents’ outfitters, in the high street.
For a time there was an air of nativity about the band. Plant, “still just a hippy from the Black Country,” was only 19 on the first US tour. He went bare-foot on stage and japes included water-fights. By the second tour, Plant had been initiated into the world of groupies. “All that dour Englishness swiftly disappeared into the powder-blue, post Summer of Love California sunshine, I was teleported ...” said the singer.
By 1975, and the release of the majestic double album Physical Graffiti, Zeppelin were at their peak and the aura of invincibility soon dissolved along a well-trodden path of drug addiction, alcoholism, paranoia and self-indulgence. Personal tragedies also took their toll and when Plant returned to work with Led Zeppelin in November 1978, 16 months after the death of Karac, the band’s creative cupboard was bare.
Ticket sales were poor for the much hyped 1979 Knebworth shows. By 1980, Bonham, fearful of another planned US tour, had kicked heroin but was drinking heavily and taking anti-anxiety medication. Tour rehearsals began and on September 24 that year Bonham started the day with four quadruple vodka-and-oranges and a couple of ham rolls “for breakfast.” He became too drunk to play, later downed two final vodkas at Page’s new mansion in Windsor. He was dragged to bed, propped on his side and left to sleep it off.
Bonham was found dead the next afternoon having choked to death on his own vomit. Reports suggested he had downed 40 vodkas. The funeral was held at Rushock parish church, Worcestershire, Wall pointing out that Bonham’s body was buried in the graveyard the drummer is seen speeding past in “home movie” The Song Remains The Same.
* When Giants Walked The Earth, A Biography of Led Zeppelin, by Mick Wall, is published by Orion Books, £20