“After [Led Zep IV], no one ever compared us to Black Sabbath again.” – John Paul Jones.
“Ultimately, I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses – a combination that had never been done before. Lots of light and shade. – Jimmy Page.
It’s safe, I think, to say that there was Led Zeppelin before the fourth album (1971) and Zep after (1972 – 1980). By no means did Zeppelin have the 70s to themselves but had to share it with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Allman Brothers, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, The Cars, Boston, Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt, Pink Floyd, Bowie and then later with The Police, Elvis Costello, etc. (Rumor has it there was also something called disco but for some reason I can’t remember any of it.)
But it’s also safe to say there was no bigger, more decadent, more explosive, more … representative of the 70s band than Zeppelin. But there was also a very dark side of Zep that showed itself from time to time.
One major problem they had was that while he was a great drummer, Bonham was an equally great drinker. He could be the nicest guy in the world sober and then just a tremendous fucking asshole when he was drunk. Which he was. A lot. Part of Bonzo’s problem is that he hated to be away from his family in England but if you’re a musician, well, that’s the job.
That said, I won’t detail all their tours* of the US and UK here. I will say here that there was an upside to their manager Peter Grant who demanded – and got – 90% of the gross of every show. By all accounts, he was a brilliant manager. But a hard drinker and druggie himself, he admitted that if someone needed to get stepped on they got stepped on. Case in point is an infamous show which I’ll detail a little later below.
In 1973, the band released Houses of the Holy, a worthy if not quite-as-great as Zep IV album. Wikipedia: “According to the band’s biographer Dave Lewis, while the barnstorming effect of the early era was now leveling off, and though devoid of the electricity of Zeppelin I and II, the sheer diversity of the third album, and lacking the classic status of the fourth, Houses of the Holy nevertheless found its rightful niche.
The album largely abandoned their previous music’s weighty, dark blues-rock distortion in favor of a clean, expansive rock sound—as evinced by Page’s sharper, brighter guitar tone. It was also likely the most eclectic musically of their albums.”
Jimmy Page – “George [Harrison] was talking to Bonzo one evening and said, ‘The problem with you guys is that you never do ballads.’ I said, ‘I’ll give him a ballad,’ and I wrote ‘Rain Song.’ In fact, you’ll notice I even quote ‘Something’ in the song’s first two chords.” Plant says this is his best vocal:
Three Madison Square Garden shows were filmed for a movie released in 1976 called The Song Remains the Same. This would probably be a reasonably good flick except the band decided to add in some dopey fantasy sequences. Page’s was filmed on the hills near his Crowley estate.
In 1974 the band started a label called Swan Song which I guess was going to be their Apple (and in a sense was, lasting only till 1983.) While largely a vehicle for Zep, they did manage to have one great, lasting band in Bad Company. (Much as the Beatles at least got James Taylor and the ill-fated Badfinger out of Apple.)
The band’s first release (1975) on Swan Song was the double album Physical Grafitti, one of their more popular albums and one I used to love to drive around and listen to. AllMusic calls it their most sprawling and ambitious work, their Electric Ladyland one supposes or perhaps their Exile on Main Street. It would be their last great new album.
96-98 8th St./St. Mark’s Place. PG cover. “Waiting on a Friend” video shot here.
This one’s got it all – rock, blues, funk. cha-cha-cha, John the conqueroo, the old razzmatazz, bluster, blisters on my fingers, Zep-o-mania and of course, “Boogie with Stu.” You name it, brother. This is the album that has “Kashmir” which seemingly everybody (but me) thinks is quintessential Zep. Good song but I’ll take “Stairway” over “Kashmir” every single time.
I am randomly going to pick “The Wanton Song” because it’s got a lot of that old crunch ‘n roll. The opening riff repetitively jumps an octave from G on the sixth string to G on the fourth string. “As far as I’m concerned,” said Page, “the riff in Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Wanton Song,’ for example, is the chorus. It could go on for half an hour and I would be completely riveted and satisfied. It’s so powerful and concise that it never gets boring:” (Pagey has no self-esteem issues.)
And now, here’s where the air starts to leak out of the blimp, at first slowly, then all at once in a big fiery explosion. In August of ’75, while on vacation in Greece, Plant and his wife were in a car accident. Plant broke his ankle; his wife needed a transfusion. Consequently, the band were unable to tour in 1976.
The only output was The Song Remains the Same which got mixed reviews. Plus Zep had been on tax hiatus for so long they were in danger of being forgotten in the UK. And let us not forget that punk had raised its head and to those bands and its fans, Zep were something much less than relevant. They were a dinosaur. More in the UK where punk was a religion than in the States. But still.
The next album, Presence, was written and recorded under difficult circumstances. Page had started to develop a heroin addiction and Plant was in a wheelchair. Page says the only thing he remembers about recording the album is pushing Plant around in the chair. Plant wasn’t happy about the decision to record so quickly and began rethinking his life choices.
It was easy to pick a song here. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is what they do so well – take an old blues tune and Zep it up:
The album was successful and the band embarked on a US tour in 1977. They played to mega-crowds everywhere but the memory of the tour is marred by a terrible incident in Oakland.
The short story is that one of Bill Graham’s guys saw a young kid who turned out to be manager Grant’s son stealing a plaque with Zep’s name on it from a trailer door. Bonzo saw this and reported the incident to Peter and added that he slapped the kid. (Unclear if that part is true.) A furious Grant chased the staffer into a trailer, locked it and he and one of his thugs beat the shit out of this guy so hard the trailer was rocking.
For some technical reason, these assholes got off, only having to pay minor fines. (Bonham was indicted as well.) Graham never booked the band again and Jimmy Page was mega-depressed about the whole thing. Grant later wept over it, realizing he was completely out of control but, damage done.
And two days after that, there was a far worse incident. Robert plant received news that his five year-old-son Karac had died of a stomach virus. The tour was, naturally, canceled. Plant went home to grieve and to bury his son and the rest of the band dispersed. Needless to say, Zep’s future was in doubt.
It would be more than a year before the band was to regroup again. In late 1978 they recorded what was to be their final studio album, In Through the Out Door. Per Wikipedia: “The album was named by the group to describe its recent struggles amidst the death of Karac and the taxation exile the band took from the UK. The exile resulted in the band being unable to tour on British soil for over two years, and trying to get back into the public mind was therefore like trying to get in through the ‘out’ door.”
With Page’s continuing heroin problem and Bonham’s alcoholism, this album became more of a Jones/Plant effort. Jones later said, “there were two distinct camps by then, and Robert and I were in the relatively clean one.” Many of the songs were consequently put together by Plant and Jones during the day, with Page and Bonham adding their parts late at night.
Critics were not kind, implying that Zep’s best days were behind them and that Jones was better as a guy supporting Page rather than the reverse Despite all that, there’s some pretty good stuff on the album. Plant wrote “All My Love” for Karac. It was popular and touching but Page and Bonham felt it was too soft-rock sounding. Notwithstanding its reason for being, I’m not a particularly big fan of the song finding it kinda wimpy-sounding.
A much better song I think is “Fool in the Rain.” More insight from Wikipedia: “The song exhibits a Latin feel. The main section is in 12/8 meter; this section employs an unusual polyrhythmic groove, with the piano and bass playing six beats per measure and the melody (and parts of the drum kit) playing four beats per measure. The result is that most of the instruments appear to be playing quarter-note triplets against the swing of the melody and drum kit.” (Take notes. There’ll be a test later.)
For reasons that escape me, this album was not released until late 1979. In that year, Zep played a couple of gigantic shows at Knebworth and did a brief European tour in summer of 1980. Unlike other tours, this one was far less jam-focused, largely due to the fact that the punkers weren’t having it and generally speaking, the era of the 25-minute guitar solo was no longer in fashion.
An American tour was planned for late 1980. Alas it was not to be. Bonham’s drinking problem continued and was exacerbated by his anxiety on leaving his family and home yet again after so much time off the road. On the way to rehearsal, he stopped for “breakfast,” which consisted of a ham roll and four quadruple vodkas. (This was nothing for him as one night on tour he downed some ten black Russians and then punched some female publicist in the face.)
He continued drinking heavily at rehearsals. The band went back to Page’s house in Windsor. Bonham fell asleep and was carried to bed. The next day, their new tour manager and JPJ found Bonham dead. The cause of death was asphyxiation and vomit, same as Jimi Hendrix. On September 25, 1980 at the age of 32, John Bonham was dead.
ELO drummer Bev Bevan was a close friend of Bonham’s and said, “It was the most horrible funeral I’ve been to. There was a lot of wailing. I just burst out into tears.”
And just like that Bonham was gone and so was Led Zeppelin. Unlike the Who, who survived Keith Moon’s similar passing some two years prior, the band felt it was the chemistry among those four guys the created that magic (magick?) and that he could not be replaced.
A press statement stated that “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” The statement was signed simply “Led Zeppelin.”
Jimmy Page released a good compilation album in 1982 called Coda which is a musical term meaning “the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure.”
The band, with Phil Collins on drums, reunited in 1985 for a disastrously poor performance at Live Aid. Page blamed Phil but truthfully, the whole thing was shabby and unrehearsed.
Since the dissolution of Zep, in terms of putting out new product, Robert Plant has been inarguably the front-runner. He has released eleven studio albums, one live album, and four collaborations. One of those, Raising Sand, was recorded with bluegrass goddess (27 Grammy awards) Alison Krauss and was a smash. (Recall Plant’s folkie roots and that he sang with Sandy Denny as far back as 1971.)
Jonesy has put out solo albums and collaborated with just about every musician on the planet including R.E.M, Foo Fighters and Josh Homme, the latter in a band called Them Crooked Vultures. (Of his collaboration with JPJ, Dave Grohl said, “If I say it’s the greatest thing that happened to me in my life, my wife will get mad, so it’s the second greatest.”)
And Jimmy Page? The bandleader and one of the most revered and respected guitarists in rock history? The guy we all knew would blow the doors down with great stuff?
Well, apart from stints in bands like The Firm (mid-80s) and Coverdale/Page (early 90s) and appearances with bands like the Black Crowes, he has been …. seemingly remastering and re-releasing the same Zep stuff over and over. And, well, he did appear in the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud where he … played some Zep licks. And he did an unused soundtrack for a Kenneth Anger movie called – wait for it- Lucifer Rising.
The book When Giants Walked the Earth speculates on ‘whither Jimmy?’ at some length. Out of ideas? Been there, done that and can’t top it? Resting on his laurels? Regardless, all I can do here is blatantly misquote Paul Simon and say, “Where have you gone Jimmy Page, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
I think Page would do a Zep tour in a heartbeat but Plant has, rightfully I think, moved on. (Page and Plant recorded an album called No Quarter in 1994 and did a world tour. Even though they used a title from Jones for the album and tour, they did not invite him, not wanting it to seem to be a Zep reunion. Jonesy was pissed, wondering if they’d lost his phone number.)
No Quarter is not on Spotify but there is an album called No Quarter Pounder by Dread Zeppelin which amuses me no fucking end. (Page and Plant also did an album in 1998 called Walking Into Clarksdale, also MIA on Spotify.)
In 2012, the remaining members of Zep became Kennedy Center recipients. Talk show host David Letterman was inducted on the same night and so had them on as guests. The interview is worth the price of admission. Heart did a cover of “Stairway to Heaven” which brought Robert Plant to tears. This link goes to the entire tribute including Jack Black’s induction.
Zep’s legacy? Well, there are about a million tribute bands one of which, Kashmir, sonny boy and I are going to see in a couple of weeks. (For a reason that I cannot explain, although I’ve seen a million bands and had ample opportunity to see Led Zeppelin, it never happened.) There aren’t really bands like Zep anymore. (Except for the slavishly derivative Greta Van Fleet.) That era has come and gone. But even though there aren’t, musicians and fans everywhere get it and their influence looms large. (See: Grohl, Dave.)
In 2007, the band reunited (with Jason Bonham) for a one-off tribute to Ahmet Ertegun and did a well-rehearsed killer set at London’s O2 arena. The 02 seats 20,000 people; twenty million ticket requests were received. Jimmy Page’s star-anointed outfits were long gone and the band pretty much went on in street clothes. My invitation got lost in the mail.
I will end this narrative with three things. Firstly, a blues song, as in looking back on this series I realize that I had literally done not one. Second is a 5-hour Zep Spotify playlist. Third is a random sampling playlist of some of their solo work. That should keep you busy for a while. (The final song by Seasick Steve features Jonesy on mandolin. I kinda dug it.)
Led Zeppelin were inducted (by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, same year as the Allman Brothers, which made at least one future blogger very happy. (But somehow, ABB never got the call to jam at the end which still pisses me off.)
“Thank you, my friends, for finally remembering my phone number,” said John Paul Jones.
So mote it be.
*On July 29, 1973, Led Zeppelin had more than $200,000 in cash ($1.2M in 2018 money) stolen from a safety-deposit box at their New York City hotel, the Drake. No one was ever caught but it made front-page headlines everywhere.
Sources: When Giants Walked the Earth, Mick Wall. St. Martin’s Griffin Press; Wikipedia, Classic Rock Magazine, Guitar World, Led Zeppelin website.