The band was sharing the bill with Taj Mahal and Country Joe and the Fish. They arrived to find they'd been advertised only as "Supporting Act." The mission was clear—do or die—and Led Zeppelin took the stage that night with a vengeance. Jimmy Page could feel something happening in the audience, even from the stage. "It felt like a vacuum and we'd arrived to fill it," he explains. "First this row, then that row...it was like a tornado and it went rolling across the country."
By the time the band hit New York, they were headliners. The first album went top ten and stayed on the charts more than a year. They would tour the US three times in 1969 alone.
Led Zeppelin II was largely written and recorded on the road, no small feat considering the pace of their touring. The album sported more of a band personality—they were getting to know each other—and Plant had honed his vocal approach. "Whole Lotta Love," the explosive first single from the album, would be the first big hit.
Today, none of the band members is sure when the monster "Whole Lotta Love" riff first appeared. John Paul Jones ventures that it probably came from a stage improv during "Dazed and Confused." Says Plant: "Wherever it came from, it was all about that riff. Any tribute which flows in, must go to Jimmy and his riffs. They were mostly in E and you could really play around with them. Since I've been playing guitar myself, I've realized more than ever that the whole thing, the whole band really, came straight from the blues. Everything."
By 1970, Zeppelin's popularity had spread to England and parts beyond. They had even unseated The Beatles in the prestigious annual Melody Maker readership poll. Singles were rarely released in the US, never in the UK. Concert ads were rarely taken. To be a fan of Led Zeppelin was to be a member of an exclusive club. The information traveled not in newspapers, but in the back of cars, on the telephone and on the radio. "My basic attitude toward performing live is the same now as it was then," he told me in 1990. "I don't know if you can put it in print, but it's this—shit or bust. You do it. No nerves...you just do it."
Led Zeppelin toured for two-and-a-half years straight before finally taking a break. When a vacation was planned, it was a working vacation. Plant had the idea of traveling to a cottage in the mountains of Wales for a songwriting session with Page. (Plant: "I thought we'd be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, San Franciscan, Marin County blues without ever actually going there.") The name of the cottage was Bron-Y-Aur, so-called for the stretch of sun that crossed the valley every day. "Bron Y-Aur" would become a title for a certain kind of Zeppelin music—acoustic, bluesy, and soulful.
"It was the first time I really came to know Robert," says Page. "Actually living together at Bron Y-Aur, as opposed to occupying nearby hotel rooms. The songs took us into areas that changed the band, and it established a standard of traveling for inspiration... which is the best thing a musician can do."
Led Zeppelin III contained echoes of Sunset Strip, of the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield, of-Joni Mitchell and Moby Grape. Crossbred with their essential blues foundation, this was a new direction that truly pushed the envelope of hard-rock. They were rewarded with their least-selling album yet. It didn't matter to Jimmy Page. The stage shows expanded to feature the new material in an acoustic set.
Led Zeppelin's concerts became legendary affairs. "Dazed and Confused," still the roller-coaster centerpiece, could last as long as 45 minutes. When the floodgates opened, it was sometimes difficult for Page to close them again. Likewise for John Bonham's nightly solo, "Moby Dick." The "boogie" section of the show came late in the set, and it tended to feature whatever music the band was listening to at the time. (Some of the surprise songs played by Zeppelin: "Woodstock," "Shaft," "Feelin' Groovy," and "The Star Spangled Banner.") There were few effects, no tapes, just brute musical strength. Zeppelin live was a direct descendant from Elvis's early shows. Raw, direct, a reminder of when rock was young.
Undaunted by the sales of the third album, Page kept to his original goal of bringing hard rock and musical drama to an essentially acoustic base. It was all about depth of feeling, he says today. In 1990, it's that same depth of feeling that keeps the many Zeppelin imitators just that. Like with a great comedian, you can retell the jokes but the laughs just aren't the same.
The next album, "Led Zeppelin IV", was a watershed moment in the band's history. The LP slipped into stores in 1971 with little fanfare. Here was a more "mature" work that also rocked as hard as any of their previous efforts. It was remark able music for a band that was still, essentially, a trio with a great singer.
Bonham and Jones had begun to feel their confidence. It was Bonham who spontaneously interrupted work on another (never-finished) track by playing the drum-part from Little Richard's "Keep A-Knockin'." And Jones had brought in another idea, inspired by the Muddy Waters album Electric Mud.
"I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part," Jones recalls, humming the part. "But it couldn't be too simple. I wanted it to turn back on itself. I showed it to the guys, and we fell into it. We struggled with the turn-around, until Bonham figured out that you just count four-time as if there's no turn-around. That was the secret. Anyway, we titled it after a dog that was wandering in and out of the studio. The dog had no name, so we just called the song 'Black Dog."
The highlight of the album, of course, was "Stairway to Heaven." The most-played track in radio history, it began like many Zeppelin classics...on a tape from Page's home studio. Recording at Headley Grange, a converted poorhouse in Hampshire, Page first played the track to John Paul Jones. "Bonzo and Robert had gone out for the night, and I worked really hard on the thing. Jonesy and I then routined it together, and later we ran through it with the drums and everything. Robert was sitting there at the time, by the fireplace, and I believe he came up with 80% of the lyrics at that time. He was just sort of writing away and suddenly there it was....
Plant picks up the story: "Yeah, I just sat next to Pagey while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working but, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if uh-oh—it just had to be gotten out at that 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."
Houses of the Holy came next. Released in May of 1973, this richly atmospheric album was not an easy first listen. ("It usually takes people a year to really catch up to our albums," Page once said.) The band hit the road again with the new material. Their popularity was now so great that they served as a test-case. They were selling out massive stadiums that had never hosted rock and roll before.
Records were breaking at every stop, yet in 1973, it was the Rolling Stones who were getting all the magazine covers. Led Zeppelin was still rock's best-kept secret. In the entire history of the band, they had never even hired a publicist. The lack of press accessibility had kept the band mysterious, but the mystery cut both ways. What press reports did reach the papers usually centered on a) riots over concert tickets, or b) motorcycles-in-the-hallway type road behavior. Peter Grant found himself involved in constant crisis management.
(Once introducing himself to Bob Dylan at an L.A. party, Grant offered a warm handshake. "I'm Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin," he said. Dylan replied, "I don't come to you with my problems, do I?" It was the only time I'd ever seen Grant at a loss for words.)
The roguish reputation dogged Led Zeppelin for years. In 1972, Elvis Presley wanted to meet the band. Their mutual promoter at the time, Jerry Weintraub, took Page and Plant up to Presley's Las Vegas hotel suite. For the first few minutes, Elvis ignored them.
Page—who had first picked up a guitar after hearing "Baby Let's Play House" on overseas radio—began to fidget. What was going on? Did he really want to meet them? Should they say something? Elvis finally turned to them. "Is it true," he said, "these stories about you boys on the road?" Plant answered, "Of course not. We're family men. I get the most pleasure out of walking the hotel corridors, singing your songs." Plant offered his best Elvis impersonation. "Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruuuuel, but looooove me...." For a moment Elvis Presley eyed them both very carefully. Then he burst out laughing. Then his bodyguards burst out laughing. For two hours he entertained them in his suite. He had never heard their records, he said, except for when his stepbrother played him 'Stairway to Heaven'. "I liked it," said Presley.
Later, walking down the hallway from the hotel room, Page and Plant congratulated themselves on a two-hour meeting with the King. "Hey," came a voice from behind them. Presley had poked his head out the door. "Treat me like fooool...." The double-lp Physical Graffiti was recorded over several months at Headley Grange. The intention was to make a straight-forward rock album. One song stood out early on. The album was planned to culminate in the hypnotic new track, "Kashmir." Fifteen years later, all three members point to this song as quintessential Zeppelin, the truest of their many recordings. "It's all there," explains John Paul Jones, "all the elements that defined the band..."
The "Kashmir" riff first appeared on Page's home-studio work tapes. It was first a tuning, an extension of a guitar-cycle that Page had been working on for years. (The same cycle that would produce "White Summer," "Black Mountain Side," and the unreleased "Swan Song.") "The structure of it was strange, weird enough to continue exploring," remembers Page. Jones had been late for the sessions, and Page used the time to work on the riff with John Bonham. Plant added the middle-section, and Jones later added the ascending bass riff in overdubs and all the string parts.
Originally called "Driving to Kashmir," the lyrics were inspired by the long drive from Goulimine to Tan-tan in Southern Morocco, the area once called Spanish Sahara. "the whole inspiration came from the fact that the road went on and on and on," Plant explains. "It was a single track road which cut neatly through the desert. Two miles to the East and West were ridges of sandrock. It basically looked like you were driving down a channel, this dilapidated road, and there was seemingly no end to it. 'Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dreams...' It's one of my favorites...that, 'All My Love' and 'In The Light' and two or three others really were the finest moments. But 'Kashmir' in particular. It was so positive, lyrically.
"I remember at the time there were a lot of musicians who were really insensitive about their audience's interpretation of their work. You'd get all this negatively coming out, as if to be mysterious is to be negative, to be dark. Mystery is not about darkness. It's about intrigue. There's a fine line in between, of course. Not even a fine line... it's a gossamer thread.
"How on earth do you want to purport yourself? I believed that it had to be Light. Lyrically, you have to stand by your words! There was a lot of gloom purported by guys who went back and took off their stage-clothes and played golf. And I didn't want to be one of those guys. I wanted whatever I was saying to represent what I was doing. But 'Kashmir' was tremendous for the mood. A lot of that was down to Bonzo, what he played. Page and I couldn't have done it without Bonzo's thrift. He was a real thrifty player. It was what he didn't do that made it work...."
There are many successful bands who function like co-workers. They clock-in, they clock-out, they exchange cards at Christmas. Thank you, and see you on-stage. In my time around them, Led Zeppelin functioned like four very different brothers. It was the kind of closeness that allowed for friendly competition, for privately griping over another member, and for fiercely defending that same person in the next breath. Their camaraderie stood in direct opposition to the often-heavy image of Led Zeppelin.
Once on the road, Robert Plant popped into a McDonald's for lunch. Slowly, the patrons began to recognize him. The room began to tilt towards him. Before long he was surrounded by young fans, and it's a tribute to his disarming personality that soon they were treating him not as Robert Plant, but as a co-conspirator and a fellow fan of the band.
"Hey, what's Jimmy Page really like?" "He's my mate," Plant replied simply.
To this day, Page remains an inscrutable presence. He is ethereal, yet extremely forceful. Steely, yet soulful. Jimmy Page is one of the more powerful figures ever to be over-described as 'fragile.' One afternoon in Chicago in 1975, Page let the room go dark as the sun set. He quietly, defiantly, described his future.
"To be able to fuse all these styles was always my dream in the early stages," he said, "but now the composing side of it is just as important. I think it's time to travel again....it could be a good time for that now. We've been in all these hotel rooms, touring. The balance has got to swing exactly the opposite, to the point where you've got an instrument and nothing else. I think it's time to travel, start gaining some really right in there experiences. There's always this time thing. Everything, for me, seems to be a race against time. Especially musically. I know what I want to get down and I haven't much time to do it in. I've got a real wanderlust right now. I want to move."
By July 1975, Zeppelin had accomplished all they'd dreamed of. The world tour had been a mash. Physical Graffiti was a big hit, and all five albums re-entered the charts. The band had lived in each other' pockets for years, and their spirit was still strong. Now it me to travel, to recharge.
Within three weeks Page had flown to Marrakesh to meet up with Plant, who was traveling with his wife Maureen. Veering off the tourist paths, Page and Plant rented a Range Rover and drove deep into Morocco. The mission was to discover street music, to soak up the experiences that might enhance the next album. Bob Marley tapes blasting, they travelled through Ovazazatte, Zagora, Tafraoute, the Atlas Mountains, moving north through Casablanca and Tangier to meet up with the rest of the band in Montreux, Switzerland. Page took a brief break, flying to London to check the editing of the "Dazed and Confused" sequence for The Song Remains The Same.
(The band had all but decided to shelve the 1973 concert film in favor of something filmed on their upcoming summer tour.) He had planned to catch up with Plant in a few days. Their wanderlust tour wasn't over yet, and soon they would be gearing up to perform live again.
Bad luck struck when Plant's car plunged off a cliff on the Greek island of Rhodes. Plant's wife suffered a fractured skull, and a broken leg and pelvis. Plant fractured his elbow and broke his ankle. They were taken to a small local emergency ward. Just how pervasive was Zeppelin's popularity? "I was lying there in some pain," Plant says with understatement, "trying to get cockroaches off the bed and the guy next to me, this drunken soldier, started singing 'The Ocean' from Houses of the Holy."
Plant's accident would thrust the band into their darkest period. For 18 months, it wasn't known if he'd be able to use his leg again. Plant spent a lengthy period of time drinking beer and "tinkering on the village piano." Clearly, Zeppelin needed a new album, and needed to feel their ability to make a great one. The plan was to record fast, to push the limits, to paint themselves in a corner and dare themselves to escape.
Rehearsals for Presence began in Malibu, California. It was an odd sight - Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant in a wheelchair. The band soon moved to Munich for the sessions. Every waking hour was spent in the studio, located in the basement of their hotel.
In 1977, Page described the album with a real fervor. "The general urgency and the pent-up whoa was in all of us. The mechanism was perfectly oiled. We started steaming in rehearsals. We did a lot of old rock and roll numbers just to loosen up a bit. 'For Your Life' was made up in the studio, right on the spot. I particularly enjoyed the guitar playing on the blues things. The solos never had that coloring before. I was so happy about it... especially since I have to warm up to solo. I get nervous about that kind of guitar playing. Really, very insecure about it. But that's the way I can really concentrate. I'm usually at my best when I'm really exhausted or under pressure or both. When you're exhausted all you want to know about is what you have to do. The Golden question is why this was done so fast, and why the others take so long. The fact is that this one, we lived all the way through... under circumstances that were extremely frustrating. We weren't sure about Robert, weren't sure what was going to happen. Everyone managed to pull it all in...it was great."
If each Zeppelin album was, as Jimmy Page says, a concept album detailing the mental state of the band at the time... then this one was a story of anxiety and frenzy and blues and pain. Presence, he says, is the most important Zeppelin album. It's a snapshot of a time when the group was stripped of its legendary power. They were running on pure heart and soul.
A dangerous period of inactivity followed Presence. ("You gotta keep your mind active," said Page at the time, "you can never just 'go on holiday.") Plant continued therapy on his ankle. Jones tried farming. Page retreated to Switzerland to produce "Bonzo's Montreux" with John Bonham. Each member was being asked the same question with alarming frequency—had the band broken up?
The days of gardening would soon come to an end. Plant's leg improved, and the band held their collective breath when he elected to get up on stage with Bad Company at a New York concert. It was a triumphant evening for Plant. He found he could still move the way he wanted to on a stage. It was a little wobbly, but it would improve. Yellow lights were switched to green. A Led Zeppelin tour was planned for the next year.
Meanwhile, rock had changed. Punk was raging through England, threatening to sweep all the old-time arena-size acts under the carpet. While Page admired the work of the Sex Pistols and the Damned, he was surprised to see that some of the younger musicians had their guns aimed directly for Zeppelin. (Said a member of the Clash: "I don't even have to listen to their music. Just looking at one of their album covers makes me want to vomit...") After winning the Melody Maker poll at the outset of 1977, Page had earnestly explained that "Zeppelin is not a nostalgia band." They rehearsed for two months, carefully assembling the set that would prove it.
The 1977 Zeppelin show was a three-hour tour de force. Page's guitar blazed, Plant's soul was on nightly display, Jones and Bonham swung. It was a thunderous break in the two-year silence. For the first time, critics and audiences agreed. This was Zeppelin at their tightest and loosest. The response was overwhelming. As Plant joked on-stage at Madison Square Garden, plucking up some roses left by a fan: "I didn't know you cared."
In Los Angeles in 1977, Page gave a particularly stunning description of the Zeppelin alchemy: "The motto of the group is definitely 'ever onward.' If there ever is to be a total analysis, it's that. The fact is that it's like a chemical fusion...there's so much ESP involved in it. It sounds pretentious, but it's true. That's just what it is. When there are three people playing on stage, instrumentally, and I'm in the middle of a staccato thing, and Bonzo just for some unknown reasons happens to be there doing the same beats on the snare drum... that sort of thing is definitely a form of trans-state...it is a sort of communication on that other plane. People get so scientific about it, I experience it every day. There is such a creative thing there within all of us, you just want to keep going. People really bring it down to earth when they say 'Have you ever really thought of splitting up?'.
But things would never be easy for Led Zeppelin. Tragic news hit as the band was preparing to leave the U.S. at the end of the tour. Plant's young song Karac had died suddenly from a virus infection. The effect was devastating. Plant disappeared into the country to mend the wounds. His bandmates worried about him, wondered about the future of the group, but within a year Plant had re-emerged with new dedication.
In November of 1978, Zeppelin flew to Stockholm to begin recording a new LP. In Through The Out Door was an album of new sounds and wide style-shifts, odd directions and even the gorgeous Zeppelin ballad "All My Love." "The whole search is for the unknown," Page once said. "We're always looking..."
The band came roaring back to full-power in the summer of 1979. The seventies had been their decade, and they were closing it out in style. In August, two huge appearances at Knebworth had turned out to be emotional affairs for the homeland audiences. The band swept the Melody Maker polls again. "Fool in the Rain," a rare Zeppelin single, was released in December.
After Knebworth, what would be the next step for the biggest band in the world? The answer came that next July as the group stealthily began their first European tour in three years. "Zeppelin Over Europe 80" opened with little fanfare—it was almost a dream for the Zeppelin faithful. There was a playful and generous spirit about the show. (Page had even handled some of the stage introductions himself.) The set opened with "Train Kept A Rollin'," the first song the band performed together twelve years earlier.
Rehearsals quietly began for an American tour. The group had acquired a new motto for the States, "cut the waffle," as in no-frills and fewer solos. In early September they announced the U.S. dates with a press release entitled "Led Zeppelin—The Eighties."
On September 25th, the band was locked in rehearsals at Page's home. The work was over for the day. John Paul Jones and Zeppelin associate Benjie LeFevre had playfully decided to visit John Bonham's room "just to watch him sleep." They found him dead. Bonham had turned the wrong way, accidentally, after a night of drinking. The tragic sight, according to Jones, looked shockingly arbitrary.
The decision to end the band came instantly. In a group this close, the loss was immeasurable. When the three members met in a London hotel room, it was only a matter of wording the statement.
"It was impossible to continue, really," says Page today. "Especially in light of what we'd done live, stretching and moving the songs this way and that. At that point in time especially, in the early 80's, there was no way one wanted to even consider taking on another drummer. For someone to 'learn' the things Bonham had done...it just wouldn't have been honest. We had a great respect for each other, and that needed to continue ...in life or death."
On July 13th, 1985, the band performed at Live-Aid, at JFK Stadium. There were priceless moments, but I'll remember Page's smile when Robert sang his familiar added-line to "Stairway to Heaven" - "does anybody remember laughter." It was a look that came from way down deep, and it carried with it a memory of a hundred Zeppelin shows gone by. In subsequent years the band would sometimes perform with Jason Bonham on drums, popping up at the 40th Anniversary concert for Atlantic Records or at Bonham's own wedding party.
"I look back at it all and laugh," Robert Plant says today. "I was just 19 when I got off the plane. It's like having a child, and I'm part of that child. The answer to it all is growing up, developing a balance. So much of the time was like being in the middle of a knitting pattern which hadn't been finished. There were no instructions, and the pages were re-written every day...."