Rock star. Whatever that term means to you, chances are it owes a debt to Led Zeppelin. No one before or since has lived the dream quite like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. In Led Zeppelin, Bob Spitz takes their full measure, separating the myth from the reality with his trademark connoisseurship and storytelling flair.
From the opening notes of their first album, the band announced itself as something different, a collision of grand artistic ambition and brute primal force, of English folk music and African American blues. That record sold over 10 million copies, and it was just the beginning; Led Zeppelin's albums have sold over 300 million certified copies worldwide, and the dust has never settled.
The band is notoriously guarded, and previous books provided more heat than light. But Spitz's authority is undeniable and irresistible. His feel for the atmosphere, the contextthe music, the business, the recording studios, the touring life, the whole ecosystem of popular musicis unparalleled. His account of the melding of Page and Jones, the virtuosic London sophisticates, with Plant and Bonham, the wild men from the Midlands, in a scene dominated by the Beatles and the Stones but changing fast, is in itself a revelation. Spitz takes the music seriously and brings the band's artistic journey to full and vivid life.
The music, however, is only part of the legend: Led Zeppelin is also the story of how the sixties became the seventies, of how playing clubs became playing stadiums, of how innocence became decadence. Led Zeppelin wasn't the first rock band to let loose on the road, but as with everything else, they took it to an entirely new level. Not all the legends are true, but in Spitz's careful accounting, what is true is astonishing and sometimes disturbing.
Led Zeppelin gave no quarter, and neither has Bob Spitz. Led Zeppelin is the full and honest reckoning the band has long awaited, and richly deserves.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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Sunday, January 26, 1969
They had been playing the band throughout the week. Entire sides of the album. FM radio, the underground free-form pipeline, was a godsend. He'd been tuned in to WNEW-FM, New York's preeminent alternative outlet, when it started: "Dazed and Confused," "Communication Breakdown," "You Shook Me," even "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," a Joan Baez number that had been hot-wired and jacked. Scott Muni, the station's afternoon deejay, couldn't help himself. He played the grooves off that record. Alison Steele, NEW's Nightbird, programmed it as though it were on a loop.
The name alone had visceral power. Sure, it was incongruous. A lead zeppelin was the ultimate sick joke, but spelling it "Led" took nerve. It told you everything you needed to know about this band-it was dynamic, irreverent, subversive, extreme-primed to rock 'n roll, not a toady to Top 40 populism. Led Zeppelin wasn't gonna hold your hand or take your daddy's T-Bird away. They meant business. This was serious, meaty stuff.
He loved what he'd heard. All that was left was to see them for himself.
As luck would have it, his friend Henry Smith was humping Led Zeppelin's equipment into a club in Boston that weekend. If he could get himself to the gig, Smith had agreed to slip him into the show. But how? He was basically broke. They'd been crashing at his parents' apartment in Yonkers, where his band, Chain Reaction, had been scratching for work. If he was going to get to Boston, he'd have to hitch.
Sunday-afternoon traffic was sparse along the I-95 corridor. The weather hadn't cooperated. An area of low pressure in Oklahoma had been creeping its way eastward, dropping temperatures below the freezing point along the Atlantic coastline. The sky was grim. The forecast predicted a nor'easter would hit Boston later that night or tomorrow morning. With a little luck, he might beat it to the gig.
A ride . . . then another, as the succession of cars plowed up the interstate, stitching a seam from Stamford to Bridgeport to New Haven to Providence and beyond. The songs in his head carried him through dozens of miles. These days, you couldn't take a breath without inhaling a killer. "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Dock of the Bay," "All Along the Watchtower," "White Room," "Hey Jude," "Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Fire." You could feast all day on those babies and never go hungry. But Led Zeppelin had thrown him an emotional curve. Their songs hit him deep. There was something dark and sensual about them, something strangely provocative in their nature. They rolled over him, allowing his imagination to run wild.
Small wonder that they'd erupted via Jimmy Page. He knew all about Page, a guitar virtuoso in the tradition of Clapton, Stills, and Jimmy's itchy alter ego Jeff Beck, with whom Page had served a brief but stormy stretch in the Yardbirds as that seminal band was coming apart at the seams. There was already a heady mystique about Page. He'd contributed uncredited licks to scores of hit records, not least on sessions with the Who, the Kinks, and Them. But Page had taken Led Zeppelin into another dimension, a province of rock 'n roll that was hard to define. Sometimes it was basic and bluesy, sometimes improvisational, other times a hybrid strain they were calling heavy metal, and all of it seasoned with enough folk, funk, and rockabilly elements to blur the lines. That was a lot to take in for a budding rock 'n roller. Seeing Page and his band would help to put things in perspective.
It was dark by the time he pulled up at the gig, a club called the Tea Party in a converted Unitarian meeting house-cum-synagogue that stood halfway along a solitary street. A hallucinatory gloom had fallen over the South End of Boston, casting East Berkeley Street in a desolate embrace. This was not the Boston of wealthy Brahmins, of culture and entitlement. "It was a tough neighborhood, a place you didn't want to hang out at night," says Don Law, who ran the joint. There was no sign of life in the surrounding tenements, aside from a bodega next door, whose light threw a waxy fluorescence across the pitted sidewalk. In the silhouette it projected, he could make out the outlines of heads, shoulders hunched against the cold, stretching down the street and around the corner. There must have been-what?-a couple hundred people waiting in line to get in. More.
Where the hell did everyone come from?
Led Zeppelin was hardly a household name. Until recently, they'd actually been billing themselves as the New Yardbirds. Their debut album had been released only two weeks earlier. Sure, he'd expected the freaks and the diehards, but this turnout was way off the chart. Obviously, word had rumbled out along the jungle drums. It wasn't unheard of. "We'd have a totally unknown British act open on Thursday," Don Law recalls, "and there'd be lines down the street by Saturday." He'd seen it with Jethro Tull, Humble Pie, and Ten Years After, all of whom had played the club during the past few months. Radio helped to a large degree. Boston's FM rock venue, WBCN, was still a novelty, in its infancy. Most of its broadcasts were piped right out of an anteroom at the Tea Party, its jocks a ragtag assortment of ex-college kids from the communications departments at Tufts and Emerson. Bands would come off the stage and do an on-the-spot interview. FM airplay of any good album had become one of the surefire weapons to launch a new act. With Led Zeppelin, the evidence was right there on the sidewalk.
Getting into the Tea Party for their final performance was going to take some doing. The lines looked daunting; the hitchhiker feared he'd arrived too late. Fortunately, Henry Smith had been on the lookout for him near the door, and the two men disappeared inside before management-or the fire department-could cut off admission.
You could tell from the vibe. An air of expectancy pulsed through the room. The crowd was on top of it. They were ready.
The Tea Party wasn't the most conventional place to showcase a band like this one. It was hard to get past its house-of-worship layout. The stage was a former pulpit with the legend praise ye the lord chiseled above the altar; the ballroom floor was pockmarked where pews had been removed; and a huge stained-glass window sported the Star of David. If the music piped over the PA system wasn't exactly liturgical, the psychedelic light show beaming liquid designs from the overhead balcony was downright profane. No service had ever packed in a congregation like the one thronging the hall. The club was legally outfitted to hold seven hundred, but the audience had long ago exceeded that number. The crowd was back to back,
belly to belly.
The band had soldiered through a solid three-night warm-up. The Thursday-, Friday-, and Saturday-night shows had gone pretty much as they'd hoped, delivering hard-hitting sets that, as a reviewer noted, "lived up to [their] advance billing as a group of exceptional power and drive." For the most part, Led Zeppelin ran through the highlights of their debut album, slipping in the occasional Yardbirds or Chuck Berry number. Long, discursive solos conjured up improvisational fragments of R&B or blues favorites. Was that "Mockingbird" tucked into "I Can't Quit You Baby"? A few bars of "Duke of Earl"? The familiar riff of "Cat's Squirrel"? Jimmy Page's playing, especially, was loose and luxurious. He felt at home at the Tea Party, having appeared there only nine months earlier during a Yardbirds tour. Then, in June 1968, a few months later, Page and his manager, Peter Grant, had turned up to check out the latest incarnation of another of Grant's acts, the Jeff Beck Group, with a lineup featuring Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart.
Don Law recalls how Grant arrived before Beck had gone on that day, cradling an acetate as though it were a precious artifact. "This is a new band called the New Yardbirds," he said, as the three men settled in a funky little office at the back of the stage. Listening to the test pressing while Grant and Page exchanged subtle glances, Law knew immediately he had to book the act before a canny competitor snatched them. And Grant talked him into a four-night stand.
He hoped this Sunday-night show on January 26 would give Boston something to talk about.
Law spent a few minutes backstage an hour before showtime that night, chatting with Page, a delicate, almost wraithlike creature who radiated rock-star heat. Law had street cred with Page, owing to his father, also named Don Law, who, in Texas in the mid-1930s, had produced the only known recordings-a mere twenty-nine songs-attributed to blues legend Robert Johnson. Page was as hooked on the influence of Johnson's music as his pals Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and he interrogated Law, practically browbeat him, for any unexplored Johnson morsel that would give him more insight into the music. Eavesdropping on their conversation was Zeppelin's feline vocalist, Robert Plant, himself a huge Johnson fan.
"One of the things I picked up from Robert Johnson when I started singing was the liaison between the guitar playing and his voice," Plant noted years later. "It was so sympathetic. It almost seemed as if the guitar was his vocal cords."
Plant was a blues aficionado who had been plumbing arcane Chicago-based anthologies, listening to tracks he could co-opt, since he was fourteen years old. Muddy Waters, Skip James, Son House, Snooks Eaglin-they were all part of Plant's education. Just that Thursday afternoon, a young fan helping the roadies had slipped him a tape copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 1, with a pair of Johnson ballads on it. Plant considered Robert Johnson the musician "to whom we all owe more or less our very existence." He strained to overhear Law and Page's exchange, but there was too much noise, and instead Plant contented himself with sipping his hot tea, prepping his vocal cords, while his bandmates, bass player John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, each clutching a pint of Watney's Red Barrel, stationed themselves across the room, in a huddle with a BCN disc jockey named J. J. Jackson.
There was a perceptible distance, even an awkwardness, among the band members that precluded more intimacy. They were still in the dating phase, still getting to know one another, still developing a camaraderie. They'd only been a unit for slightly more than four months, assembled by Jimmy Page, the way a cook might choose ingredients for a recipe. Page and John Paul Jones had known each other as journeymen session players on the London studio circuit; Robert Plant and John Bonham were mates from the Midlands. Though no one would admit it, a whiff of the North-South divide lingered in the air.
Their shows had blown hot and cold since they'd landed in the States at the close of 1968. Debuts in Los Angeles and San Francisco were star-is-born type affairs. Delirious critics in those cities sized up Led Zeppelin as phenoms who "were jamming as if they had been playing together for years" and "ranked in the company of the Who, Rolling Stones, and the late Cream." The Toronto reviewer said, "Several critics, myself included, had suggested Led Zeppelin just might be the next so-called supergroup." Jimmy Page felt the lift-off. "After the San Francisco gig, it was just-bang!" he said.
But often the venues Zeppelin played were ill equipped, the PA systems Paleolithic, and arrangements sounded about as polished as high school recitals. In Detroit, in front of an audience of local luminaries like MC5 and the Amboy Dukes, a reviewer in the very first issue of Creem noted, "Each member of the group was on a separate riff, not at all together. . . . They were playing different things simultaneously." It was cringeworthy but forgivable. Growing pains were a common symptom of new bands. Led Zeppelin was no exception. "We got better each day and found ourselves making things up as we went along," Jimmy Page explained not long afterward. The band ached to knock a show out of the park.
A lot depended on the audience. A band draws on the energy in the hall, and the Tea Party was revving up.
When disc jockey Charlie Daniels ambled onstage as the lights came down, the cheers in that old tabernacle sent a chill up the spine of the hitchhiker, posted along the back wall near the door. He took in the scene with a sense of awe. He hoped this band was as good as the hype.
At the back of the hall, a door flung open, and the four musicians marched theatrically through the crowd-"like kings, like conquering heroes parting the masses"-to the front of the stage.
"Here they are," Daniels roared, riding the wave of the buildup. "From England-let's give a warm Boston welcome to Leddddddd Zeppelin!"
A sound like a siren cut through the darkness before the spot came up and found Robert Plant contorted, Gumby-like, over the mic, his hand cupped around a harmonica. His bluesy plaint was mimicked by a sinewy guitar line from Jimmy Page's Les Paul as they launched into "The Train Kept a-Rollin'," an old Yardbirds standby, but on steroids and at a pitch that could restore hearing to the deaf. The version, rollicking and capable, served to get the crowd's attention.
Then a wounded-animal cry growled out: "I . . . I . . . I can't quit you baby. Wooooo-man, I'm gonna put you down a little while."
It was the voice of someone who'd experienced despair and heartbreak and had seen the inside of a Southern prison. But somehow it was coming out of the mouth of a skinny, twenty-year-old white guy with hair that would make Goldilocks envious. Plant had stolen the motif out from under generations of immortal Negro minstrels, yet it was more than a cultural appropriation. It was heartfelt. There was a rawness to his delivery that spoke more to the future than to the past, sparked by instrumentation that turned the blues idiom on its head. The playing wasn't indicative of a juke joint so much as a garage. It was loud and aggressive. Page attached jumper cables to the solo break, playing it as if Buddy Guy had gone berserk. His fingers flew up and down the frets as if they were too hot for him to linger on any one for too long. The bass, which John Paul Jones-known as Jonesy by his mates-had cranked as high as his amp could withstand, sent tremors through the crowd.
"The vibrations," said an observer in the crowd, "hit your chest with physical force." And the drummer, John Bonham, didn't play the drums-he attacked them "like a runaway freight train." The snare beats were so sharp they sounded like gunfire strafing the room.
Table of Contents
1 A Case of the Blues 13
2 Getting Down to Business 42
3 Reinventing the Wheel 64
4 Front 85
5 The Black Country 107
6 Don't Tread on Me 133
7 Breaking Through the Sound Barrier 164
8 The New Normal 186
9 Into the Distant Past 217
10 Invoking and Being Invocative 243
11 Just Boys Having Fun 270
12 A Law unto Themselves 296
13 The Land of Mondo Bizarro 324
14 Led Zeppelin Was Otherwise Engaged 344
15 Flying Too Close to the Sun 371
16 Home Away from Home 395
17 The Year of Living Dangerously 422
18 The Other Side of the Spectrum 446
19 Their Own Private Sodom and Gomorrah 472
20 A Transition Period 500
21 Swan Song 528
22 Coda 554
Photo Credits 651