Led Zeppelin has been called the grandfathers of the "Heavy Metal" genre. At their height in the early to mid 1970s, they frequently outsold the Rolling Stones in concert tickets. And by 1973, they had sold more albums than any other band worldwide. Their anthemic song, "Stairway to Heaven," is the most-played song in the history of radio.
Led Zeppelin was formed out of the ashes of the 1960s supergroup The Yardbirds, once featuring renowned guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and later, a young studio session guitarist, Jimmy Page. (Page, it is estimated, played on 50 to 90 percent of the popular rock records made in England from 1963 to 1965.) In 1965, he joined the Yardbirds, having turned down an offer to replace Eric Clapton just a year earlier. With the Yardbirds, Page and fellow guitarist Jeff Beck pioneered the two-guitar style of rock. Beck left only a year later, however, to pursue a solo career. The band continued for another year and a half, but split by 1968.
Page decided to form The New Yardbirds and sought new musicians. First, he recruited John Paul Jones, a fellow session player, to play bass and keyboards. Then, following a tip, he went to listen to a young blues singer, Robert Plant in Birmingham. Plant suggested drummer John Bonham who had played with him in the Band of Joy. The Who's drummer, Keith Moon, had said something about the new incarnation going down like a lead balloon. Thus, the name Led Zeppelin was coined.
Led Zeppelin's first British show was on October 5, 1968, at Surrey University. An unexpected American tour followed that winter, when the Jeff Beck Group cancelled their spot on a tour with Vanilla Fudge. The band's ambitious manager, Peter Grant, took the opportunity, convinced all involved, and Led Zeppelin left for Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 1968.
Led Zeppelin signed with Atlantic Records and released its self-titled first album in February 1969. The band's sound had diverse influences, including the Delta blues and performers like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, The Incredible String Band, and Elvis Presley. Between Plant's incredible vocal range, and Page's utilization of the new technology of the time—including fuzzboxes, boosters, split pickups on his guitars, and super-amplifiers for the maximum distortion—the band roared into the underground rock consciousness.
Led Zeppelin's best-known song, "Stairway to Heaven," first performed at a 1971 concert in Belfast, was from their fourth album—untitled, save for four strange, runic symbols. Led Zeppelin's fourth album was recorded at Headley Grange, a converted poorhouse in Hampshire, England. Page and Jones wrote the music for "Stairway to Heaven" first, and Plant wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting. Plant later recalled to journalist Cameron Crowe in Led Zeppelin: The Complete Studio Recordings, "It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if—uh oh—it just had to be gotten out at the 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.' "
The band followed up with Houses of the Holy in 1973. Some of the concerts on that tour were filmed for posterity and later released in the film, The Song Remains the Same. Following this album, Led Zeppelin started its own label, Swan Song. Signings to the label included Dave Edmunds, Bad Company, the Pretty Things, and Maggie Bell.
In the early years, the band did not have a publicist, did not release singles, and avoided the press. While the idea had been to keep the band mysterious, the band became notorious instead when all their press had to do with riots over concert tickets and the band members and their entourage trashing hotel rooms. Nevertheless, album and concert sales climbed continuously. In the beginning, they made around $200 a night playing small clubs, but at their height were making more than $500,000 a night. After their fourth album, the band owned it's own plane, "The Starship."
Crowe, in the liner notes to The Complete Studio Recordings, summed it up: "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."
In 1974, the band returned to Headley Grange and recorded a double-album, Physical Graffiti. The standout song on the album was the hypnotic "Kashmir," a song the band members claim as their favorite. (Rapper Puff Daddy teamed with Page and Plant as well as Tom Morrello of Rage Against the Machine to create a reworking of "Kashmir" called "Come With Me," featuring a 70-piece orchestra, for the Godzilla soundtrack in 1998.) After the album's release in February 1975, the band decided to take some vacation time before touring again.
On August 4, during a trip to the Greek island of Rhodes, Plant and his wife rolled over a cliff in their car and both were seriously injured. Upcoming tours were postponed and for 18 months, it was not known whether Plant would walk again. The band released its live concert film, The Song Remains the Same to fill the void for their fan base during their time away. Presence, the band's seventh album, was recorded in Munich with Robert Plant in a wheelchair, his ankle still on the mend. The album was released in March 1976, and a tour followed the next year.
That tour was interrupted by tragedy when Plant's son Karac died at the age of five from a rare viral infection. The band abandoned their U.S. tour. "It was the toughest part of my entire life," Plant told reporter Deborah Wilker at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "It didn't haunt me. I was just incredibly aggrieved."
Around this time, darker rumors about the band started, like stories of Page's excessive drug and alcohol use, rumors of his dabbling in black magic. There was speculation that karmic retribution was to blame for the tragedies.
James Rotondi, in Guitar Player magazine, recalled, "Enough preconceptions, bad raps and spurious accusations have swirled around Page over the last 30 years to fill the National Enquirer, Blues Revue, and an entire season of The X-Files."
The band regrouped and in November and December of 1978 recorded In Through the Out Door, which was to be their final album. A rare single, "Fool in the Rain," was released in December 1979. A U.S. tour was planned for autumn 1980, however, their last show would be performed at the British Knebworth Festival in 1979.
On September 25, 1980, the band was assembled for rehearsals at Page's home and set to leave on tour the next day. During the night, however, Bonham was found dead in a bedroom. After drinking around 40 shots of vodka in a 12-hour period, Bonham died of asphyxiation. The remaining three members decided instantly that they could not go on without him. They later met in a London hotel room to write a statement for the press.
Page and Plant each embarked on other projects in the 1980s. Page formed The Firm, releasing a self-titled first album in 1985, which had success with the single, "Radioactive." The Firm released a second album, Mean Business, the following year. Page released a solo album, Outrider, in 1988 and embarked on a brief project with David Coverdale in 1993, with one album, Coverdale/Page.
Plant released his first solo album, Pictures at Eleven in 1982, followed by The Principle of Moments (1983) and Shaken 'n' Stirred (1985). During these years, Plant distanced himself from his connections with Led Zeppelin.
Plant's stance seemed to change in 1985 when the remaining members reunited to play Live Aid concert with Bonham's son Jason on drums. Three years later, they reunited, again with Jason Bonham on drums, to play the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary celebration. That same year, Plant released his fourth solo effort, Now and Zen, which contained samples of Zeppelin songs. His following solo efforts, Manic Nirvana (1990) and Fate of Nations (1993) also veered closer to his Zeppelin past.
"Led Zeppelin was so big and so successful that I wanted to distance myself from it," Plant told reporter Gary Graff in the Houston Chronicle in June 1988. "I was fooling myself, really. I've learned that I can lean on my past— without thinking that I'm taking the easy way out."
Hopes of a more permanent reunion sprang eternal among fans, and the remaining members of Led Zeppelin were offered $100 million to tour America. They turned it down. Two years later, Plant was still adamant about not reforming the band. He told Deborah Wilker of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, "I can't imagine anything more horrifying than three middle-aged men trying to pretend that 'Black Dog' is significant. It's inappropriate."
The mid-1990s finally saw a reunion of sorts. Plant was invited to play MTV Unplugged in 1994 and included Page plus a group of Egyptian, Moroccan, and Western classical musicians in addition to bassist Charlie Jones, drummer Michael Lee, and Porl Thompson of the Cure on rhythm guitar. The show was called "Unledded" and a recording of the program was released titled No Quarter.
In 1995, The Sporting Life, John Paul Jones's venture with avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galas, was released. Jones told writer Joe Gore at Guitar Player, "I suppose I was disappointed that they didn't feel they had to tell me about it. (Page and Plant's project No Quarter. ) I read it in the newspapers, which was kind of embarrassing. I'm a great Led Zeppelin fan. I thought it was a fantastic band, and I'm very proud of what we did. But Diamanda is a stunning artist, and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else right now."
In January 1995 Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by fellow heavy-rockers Aerosmith. "They were like Lord Byron-mad, bad and dangerous to know," Joe Perry of Aerosmith told The Boston Globe. "It was kind of like Howling Wolf meets the Loch Ness monster."
Led Zeppelin's record sales as strong as ever, a 1997 Billboard reported that Led Zeppelin were the number two-selling act of all time, according to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). Ten of their albums were certified at multi-platinum levels. By 1999, Led Zeppelin became the third act in music history to be awarded four or more Diamond albums, according to the RIAA.
Page and Plant continued the collaboration they'd renewed on No Quarter on Walking Into Clarksdale in 1998. The album, produced by indie-rock icon Steve Albini, represented the first new material from the duo since In Through the Out Door in 1979.
The two continued their solo efforts as well. Recorded over two nights in Los Angeles in October of 1999, Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes Live at the Greek was the first major release exclusively available online (at music-maker.com ), where it could be customized by the purchaser. Page toured with The Black Crowes again the following year. Plant released his seventh solo album, Dreamland, in 2002, and toured behind it with his band, Strange Sensation, which again included Thompson from The Cure and Clive Deamer, drummer from Portishead. John Paul Jones released two solo CDs, 1999's Zoomba and The Thunderthief, featuring some guitar work by Robert Fripp, in 2002.
While the band had historically balked at commercializing their music, the new century saw a change of heart. First, Page and Plant licensed Zeppelin's "That's The Way" for use on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's 2001 film, Almost Famous. The film chronicled Crowe's early career as a rock journalist who, among other bands, interviewed and went on tour with Led Zeppelin. In 2002, Led Zeppelin sold a song for use in a commercial for the first time in the band's history, selling "Rock and Roll" to Cadillac. The car manufacturer has used the ad to sell its Cadillac CTS, XLR, Escalade, and Escalade EXT. In 2003, in honor of their 35th anniversary, Led Zeppelin released the Led Zeppelin DVD, which contains live performance footage, previously unreleased, from four of their tours during the 1970s. At the same time, the group also released How the West Was Won, a three-disc CD with live material compiled from their concerts in 1972 in California.
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