LED ZEPPELIN (1968–80). Robert Plant (vocals), Jimmy Page (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass/keyboards), John Bonham (drums).
Led Zeppelin was for all intents and purposes the ultimate heavy metal band. Although the band was far more eclectic in its approach than any of its peers, utilizing everything from blues to Celtic folk to Moroccan music and mythology in its sonic stew, it also provided the most enduring template for bands that would follow. With Jimmy Page’s charismatic flights of the fretboard, Robert Plant’s highpitched vocals, and Bonzo’s (John Bonham’s) drums of thunder, the band provided the text that others would follow, even if they could only try. Misunderstood by the critics of their day who largely disliked them, the band rarely gave interviews, and in a day before MTV, this gave them a power of mystique that their mystical lyrics and powerful sound only enhanced.
The band first came together when former session guitarist Jimmy Page’s tenur in the final version of the Yardbirds was coming to a close. In order to fulfill a number of scheduled concert dates after singer Keith Relf and James McCarty had left the band, Page and bassist Chris Dreja set about finding a singer and drummer. After approaching vocalist Terry Reid, who couldn’t join the group, Page checked out vocalist Robert Plant, whom Reid had recommended. Liking what he heard, Page enlisted Plant, who in turn suggested his former bandmate from the Band of Joy, John Bonham on drums. Ironically, it took some convincing to secure Bonham, who had been offered more money to play in a number of local groups. Seeing the potential that the new group offered, however, Bonham took the gig. Before the obligatory Yardbirds gigs could be filled, Chris Dreja left the band, and Page recruited his session buddy John Paul Jones—with whom he had recently recorded Donavan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”—on bass.
After playing the Yardbirds dates under the moniker “The New Yardbirds,” the band rechristened itself Led Zeppelin, purportedly after a few derogatory comments from the Who’s John Entwistle, who had allegedly declaimed that the new group would likely go over like a “lead zeppelin.” Misspelling “lead” to ensure its proper pronunciation, the new band was born. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, soon secured the group a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and the band set to work recording their eponymous debut. Led Zeppelin, released in 1969, was a product of its time, featuring as it did a variety of blues covers and blues-influenced originals. But like the Jeff Beck Group of the day (the band’s closest competitor), Led Zeppelin cranked up the volume and intensity, their melding of the blues form and rock power giving birth to a prototypical version of heavy metal that had no real precedent. And unlike Beck’s group, Robert Plant’s high and emotional vocals and Bonham’s heavy yet virtuosic work on the drums set the group apart yet again. At the same time, the track “Black Mountain Side” was an indicator of the acoustic elements that would balance the band’s heavier nature throughout their career.
Grant’s plan for the band involved heavy American touring, and the band spent two months on the road in the U.S. before the album was even released. As a result, word of mouth about the band’s powerhouse live shows set the stage for the album’s positive reception, and it quickly made its way into the top ten.
The band continued to tour heavily throughout 1969, recording their second album piecemeal along the way. Despite such a recording process, Led Zeppelin II, produced by Page, is among the most consistent and powerful albums in the band’s catalog. Dubbed the “brown bomber” by fans due to its brown cover and heavy content, the album built upon the promise of the debut and saw the band refining its approach at the same time.
Rockers like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” saw the band flexing its muscles, while numbers like “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “Thank You” showed an evolution of the band’s softer side and revealed a growing engagement with the Celtic folk tradition. The two sides of the band provided a synergistic yin-yang dynamic that added to their depth and served to make their heaviest moments all the more powerful. While this fact may have been lost on the critics, it certainly wasn’t lost on the fans who came to the band’s concerts in everincreasing numbers. They also helped to make the album a smash hit, spending seven weeks as the top-selling album in the U.S. after its release.
The band again toured heavily to support the album, and in October 1970 released Led Zeppelin III. The album was another success, and somewhat surprisingly emphasized the band’s folk side, featuring such tracks as “Tangerine” and the traditional folk tune “The Gallow’s Pole.” After touring for Led Zeppelin III, the band took a short break and decamped to Headley Grange, a former poor house in Headley, East Hampshire, England, that had become a popular location for British bands to rehearse and record in.
Using the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit, the band, along with engineer Andy Johns, set about recording what would become the band’s masterpiece. Released in November 1971, the officially untitled album—often referred to as the “Zoso” album or, more commonly, Led Zeppelin IV—was the band’s biggest hit to date. Featuring the classics “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog,” and “When the
Levee Breaks” (which had the legendary drum sound that was facilitated by Johns’s inspired recording of Bonham’s drums in Headley Grange’s foyer), the album also featured the band’s most popular song, “Stairway to Heaven.” While the song may be among the most overplayed on FM radio, it nonetheless remains one of the signature songs of the band’s career (with the only competition perhaps coming from “Kasmir” or “Whole Lotta Love”). It ably melded both the light and dark sides of the band as it built from its acoustic beginning to its thundering climax, with the band’s heavy guitars and drums erupting as Plant howls out the final chorus of the song, before dropping back down into the song’s end.
Led Zeppelin IV was a certifiable smash and cemented the band’s musical reputation and commercial position. “Stairway to Heaven” became a huge radio hit, despite the fact that the band refused to edit the song for a single release. And while the album never made it to number 1 on the charts, it became their best-selling album by selling over 16 million copies over the next two decades.
The band continued touring, but focused now on larger venues like Madison Square Garden and the LA Forum. Their next album, Houses of the Holy, continued their musical experimentation, even as they remained consistently in delivering heavy tracks. The single “Dyer Maker” incorporated a reggae feel, while “The Crunge” added funk elements to the band’s palette. Released in the spring of 1973, Houses of the Holy was another solid hit for the band, and they embarked on an extensive tour in support of it. Throughout the tour the band broke attendance records, most of which had been previously set by the Beatles, another testament to the juggernaut that the band had become. The ’73 tour concluded with a series of shows at Madison Square Garden, which were filmed by the band, and later seen as the concert footage in the film The Song Remains the Same, which was released in 1976.
Taking a well-deserved break after the 1973 tour, the band laid low, doing little other than establishing their own record imprint, Swan Song Records, which would release all of their subsequent albums, as well as those by such artists as Bad Company, Dave Edmunds, Monarch, and the Pretty Things. 1975 saw the release of Physical Grafitti, a double album of new material. Although the band launched a major tour in support of the album, it was suspended after Plant was injured in a serious automobile accident while vacationing briefly in Greece.
Led Zeppelin’s luck seemed to change somewhat with the arrival of 1976. That year saw the release of a new studio album, Presence, which although it quickly went to number 1 on the album charts, was fairly panned by critics. More significantly, though, while the band was on tour in 1977, Robert Plant’s son Karac died as a result of a stomach infection. With Plant devastated, the tour was immediately cancelled, and Plant spent most of the next two years in seclusion, leading to speculation that the band might be finished.
In the summer of 1978, the band went back into the studio, working on their next album. Before its release, they went on a short tour of Europe that culminated in two concerts at Knebworth that would be the last the four would ever play together in England. In Through the Out Door was finally released in September 1979 and went straight to the top of both the American and English charts, entering at number 1. In May the band completed a European tour, and in September were preparing for a major tour of America, rehearsing at Jimmy Page’s house. On the 25th of September, after a day of reported binge drinking, John Henry Bonham was found
dead in his bed, having choked on his own vomit. In December 1980, citing the impossibility of continuing without him, the remaining members announced that they would disband.
In the following years, Page, Plant, and Jones all engaged in various solo endeavors. Plant established a solid solo career, releasing a variety of adventurous and sometimes popular albums. Page released two albums with the Firm, featuring Bad Company and Free vocalist Paul Rodgers, and later released an album with David Coverdale. Jones released a solo album, Zooma, in 1999, and spent time producing and arranging. In 1985, Page, Plant, and Jones reunited briefly to play at Live Aid. Nine years later Page and Plant reunited as “Page and Plant,” recording a segment of MTV Unplugged, released as “No Quarter,” and followed it up with a studio album, Walking Into Clarksdale, produced by Steve Albini.
In December 2007, Led Zeppelin reunited for a concert in memory of Atlantic Records founder Amhet Ertegun, with John Bonham’s son Jason filling in for his dad. The concert showed that the band members still had a lot of fire in their bellies and fueled speculation that they might embark on a full-scale tour, a possibility that the band have entertained but not as of yet committed to.
Discography: Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969); Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic, 1969); Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic, 1970); Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic, 1971); Houses of the Holy (Atlantic, 1973); Physical Graffiti (Swan Song, 1975); Presence (Swan Song, 1976); The Song
Remains the Same [live] (Swan Song, 1976); In Through the Out Door (Swan Song, 1979); Coda (Swan Song, 1982); How the West Was Won [live] (Atlantic, 2003); Led Zeppelin [Box Set] (Swan Song, 1990); Led Zeppelin Remasters [Bonus Disc] (Swan Song, 1990); Led Zeppelin Remasters (Swan Song, 1992); Led Zeppelin [Box Set 2] (Swan Song, 1993); Complete Studio Recordings (Swan Song, 1993); BBC Sessions [live] (Atlantic, 1997); Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin, Vol. 1 (Atlantic, 1999); Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin, Vol. 2 (Atlantic, 2000); Complete Studio Sessions (WEA/Warner, 2002); Box Set, Vol. 1 (Classic Compact Disc, 2003); Mothership (Rhino, 2007).