HARDBARNED! The Blog

A post-Punk READiscovery of Led Zeppelin

I was born in 1976, when Led Zeppelin remained at the zenith of their world-dominating, continent-stomping, colossal stadium- and too-tight-jeans-filling powers. When I still listened to commercial radio, I’d nod to their hits on the local classic rock station with my Walkman while delivering local newspapers from my BMX bike, but I didn’t own any Zeppelin recordings until 1992, when at age 15, more than a decade after the band’s abrupt demise, I acquired the newly released three-disc Remasters CD collection of 26 songs and some interviews.

I plugged my blocky Sony single-disc CD player, a recent acquisition and newfangled technical wonder, into the back of the little Magnavox bookshelf stereo system on my dresser, which consisted of dual tape decks, a tuner and a record player in one compact unit with two separate little speakers. Between epic high-school spins of Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Metallica, Tool, Queensryche, Joe Satriani, Iron Maiden and many others, I wore out Remasters, but I didn’t own another Led Zeppelin recording for the next 25 years.

Remasters was essentially an abbreviated, greatest hits-style collection that sought to distill the mighty Zep’s official studio output—seven LPs, one double album and one posthumous collection of odds and ends—into two CDs mostly comprised of familiar hits or at least tunes with some established radio presence. Though Remasters arrived on the cusp of my adolescence, I somehow forever associated the band with the music of my childhood (John McCutcheon, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, John Denver & The Muppets’ A Christmas Together LP, the Top Gun soundtrack, etc.).

Instead of seeing Remasters as a roadmap for discovery, as I now know I should have, for me it was somehow finite, a summary of the band, complete and already on my shelf. This was no Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings of The Police, which I’d acquire the next year. Would that it were. My Zep box was more of a side note, leaving out plenty of music—more than 60 songs, in fact—not to mention B-sides, alternate takes and extras that other sets, like the Police's, included.

Also in 1992, I saw Alice in Chains and Sepultura open for Ozzy. I saw Van Hagar expound on their Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I somehow sat through an entire theatrical performance of an infernal musical about singing Cats, and yet, the newfound vigor I had for juggling wide-ranging, zigzagging, overlapping teenage interests in metal and grunge, alternative and indie-rock didn’t extend to what I perhaps considered old-folks’ music. I didn’t care much for the Beatles and barely noticed the Stones, and even though I liked Remasters a lot, I think maybe I grouped Led Zeppelin in with these bands of seemingly irrelevant old guys without consciously realizing it or thinking about it much.

Thus I failed to fully explore the extensive landmarks laid down by these American-blues-devouring-and-reconstituting arbiters of English rock, the massively influential, ridiculously popular forefathers of so many other bands I was avidly absorbing, blissfully unaware of the templates Zeppelin had established between 1969 and 1980 and the palpable impact they had and continued to have, in some cases drawing a direct line into the consciousness of so many of the bands that were captivating me at the time...and then there was punk.

Raging against everything that the mighty Zep had unabashedly celebrated, it wasn’t long before the “post-punk” second wave of this nihilistic subgenre held me in its thrall, and I was completely absorbed by Fugazi, Jawbreaker, Quicksand, Archers of Loaf, Face to Face, Rancid and Green Day, among many others. I loved the angry, whiny, irreverent pop-punk band Screeching Weasel and even planned on painting its mascot—a Ramones-style leather jacket-wearing cartoon weasel—onto the hood of my ’71 Chevy Impala, before selling it in a rush to acquire my first beloved Volvo wagon and run away to the beach with a girl I met at a restaurant. Ben Weasel hated Led Zeppelin and said so, so maybe he got to me. Was it possible to love Led Zeppelin AND Screeching Weasel? To be moved by Jawbreaker AND Rage Against The Machine? To get down with Archers of Loaf AND Young MC? To dig Megadeth AND Fugazi? To rock Slayer AND Enya AND Smashing Pumpkins AND John Denver? Not so much, usually, but I did. Select (and divide accordingly) were the rules of the cool.

My 15-year-old brain wrestled with these scene-centric absolutes, often instructed militantly by culture police disguised as underground authorities like Mr. Weasel and Tim Yohannon of the punk zine Maximum RocknRoll, which I had begun to devour regularly. Steve Albini, an artist I admired who played in underground punk bands, recorded them extensively and wrote about them for Yohannon (before recording The Pixies and Nirvana) would often rant with powerful missives on all that was wrong or right with certain bands or records or labels or venues or scenes or clothes or haircuts or anything else he was angry enough to vent about. His essay The Problem with Music,  a 1991 MRR cover story on all that was wrong with the mainstream music business and how it was killing the independent underground scene that I was growing to love and aspiring to join, made a strong impression on me.

The Problem with Music

By Steve Albini

All these dudes—and yes they were nearly all opinionated white men, unfortunately—insisted vehemently on uncompromising rules for punk and not-punk. Founded on a liberal, artistic, authority-rejecting open-mindedness and rage at injustice that descended into posturing, pale imitation and exclusivity a few years later, collective, egalitarian 90s punk scenes everywhere would devour themselves. Though some still manage to thrive, the extensive network of these cooperative, enabling underground communities has diminished considerably. Reflecting artfully on this tendency, but from a more personal angle, in 2010 Against Me! recorded a great song called “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” about the idealism of the young punk being eclipsed by the constrictive rules this anti-authoritarian system would impose on itself, summarizing its insular, masochistic, isolationist tendencies pretty effectively.

Flash back to 1992: I was 15, courting a new aesthetic that saw popular and cool as polar opposites, if not arch-enemies. There were a lot of rules to keep up with, and who didn’t want to be cool? For whatever reason, Led Zeppelin didn't seem cool enough to spend too much time uncovering. Music had taken on a new urgency for me and crossed over into the shaping of new values, awareness of social issues and broadening worldviews. I was learning that rock music could be much more than diversionary showmanship and navel-gazing performance, and it was leading me away from the indulgent, seemingly vacuous, heady glamour, of which Led Zeppelin, despite their undeniable musical artistry, seemed emblematic.

It would take a few years for me to discard the detritus of this narrow, inexperienced and childish worldview, rejecting the entire concept of guilty pleasures and scenes and rules and simply enjoying whatever music I liked, no matter how wide-ranging, uncool or scene-traversing, without worrying whatsoever about what someone else might think about the cool, or the lack thereof, as applied to my choices of musical enjoyment. Different tunes for different moods, all of it valid. This is not to say I don't still love pretty much all the records I loved when I was 15 years old.

To true believers, Led Zeppelin was in a category entirely of its own creation, a genre-bending mashup of rock, blues, folk, jam, metal (a not-yet realized genre they would often be credited with launching) and more. Of course this originalism is ripe for debate. Never critical darlings, Zep was often accused of shamelessly ripping off American and English artists alike, co-opting melodies, lyrics or entire songs from their forebears and at some times even from their contemporaries. Genius or con-men? Perhaps a bit of each. Both viewpoints have considerable merit, but as I amassed a growing music collection, I skipped Led Zeppelin. I still felt transported by them, even when my powers of judgmental, self-censoring musical rejection remained formidable and Zep was considered by many of my influencers to be hopelessly uncool, if not the enemy of rock itself.

So, a quarter-century went by. Fast forward from 1992 to 2017. A dear friend I’ve known since the time I bought Remasters gave me an unexpected gift—a thick doorstop of a book on Led Zeppelin, by a guy named Mick Wall who has also written about Prince, Lemmy, Pink Floyd, Jim Morrison and others. Over dinner with my wife and me, my friend spoke enthusiastically about how I simply had to read this thing…and what about Jimmy Page and his obsession with legendary eccentric Aleister Crowley, black magic and the occult? Yes, what about that, I wondered. So I read it.

In his 500-page-plus 2008 opus on the band, When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Wall asks us to take his word for it, and quite a lot, interspersing his narrative with stream-of-consciousness rants presented in the assumed voices of his principal characters: the four members of Led Zeppelin and their larger-than-life manager, a technique that at least initially seems presumptuous and uncalled for. And yet, Wall’s bonafides are well-established, his actual facetime with the principal fellows spanning a quarter-century or more, his interviews in concentric circles outside the band both thorough and extensive.

Wall’s utterly massive bibliography for Giants, though it encompasses a wide swath of what had already been written about the band and their legendary adventures, further reinforces his qualifications for the job, but daring to speak in another living (or dead) person’s voice just seems like a bad idea. While I was grateful for the italics and admit that if anyone should feel qualified to speak for these guys, it’s Wall, but man, it’s weird. He breaks up the narrative with abrupt intrusions that imagine the principals’ most private thoughts, dreams, regrets and perceived slights. It’s an effective, if creepy and disruptive strategy, helping us get to know the players in the decade-plus drama that was Led Zeppelin albeit while interrupting the narrative constantly.

So much of the sensational stuff that many seem to find the most fascinating topics to read (or write) about the band, including the madness and the misogyny; the epic appetites; the violence and the vehemence; Jimmy Page’s innocent or diabolically evil (skeptical eyebrow raised comically) dabbling in the dark arts; the Tolkien-steeped Middle-Earth lyrics of Robert Plant; the wildly speculative, often ridiculous and usually unconfirmed tales of reliance on mysticism, magic, supposed Satanism and even purported deals with the capital-D Devil that continue to make up the mythic, counter-cultural backstory of this loved, hated and in any case indisputably seminal band…were all significantly less interesting to me than the story of how they happened into existence as a unit of singular power, and how their unique, at times transcendent music was created and performed.

Aside from these regular, italicized (one might say speculative) asides, Wall’s book is nonfiction told in third-person, complicated by the often disorienting (for the reader) English habit of neither indenting dialog nor using double quotation marks to isolate it. There are plenty of clichéd Behind The Music-style stars-falling-from-grace tropes, detailing the requisite misadventures with copious sex, drugs and rock-and-roll debauchery throughout the swinging 70s, but there’s more to it than that, and Wall lacks anything but thoroughness.

Bookended by a few pre- and post-Zep years on either end and punctuated by accounts of the repeated, rumored, squashed and occasionally actualized, partial-reunion performances, Wall catalogs plenty of the drama in-between, without lingering on all the sordid details for long. Though plenty had been written about the excesses surrounding the band and its followers, and despite touching on requisite hotel highlights (sex with fish, motorcycles in hallways, televisions tossed out windows, buckets of booze and drugs) and backstage brawls (broken bones, threats, guns, cops, lawsuits), it’s clear that Wall is more interested in the men who made the music—who they were, what they felt and how it all happened. It’s a story he is qualified to tell, and he tells it well.

My friend’s enthusiasm and Wall’s book left my interest piqued. I wondered what else about Led Zeppelin I had missed, as more than half my life had gone by in the interim between first listening to Remasters and reading Giants. It seemed I had unfinished business here. It felt strange to be as familiar with the band as any average, lifelong fan of rock music and yet still realize that I’d barely scratched the surface.

After Wall’s book, I read two more books on the band (Led Zeppelin: Heaven & Hell, by Charles Cross and Erik Flannigan, and Hammer of The Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Stephen Davis—a better-known book that often came up in Wall’s account). The three books cover a lot of similar territory. Cross and Flannigan’s was a re-read of an impulse buy for book-report material from decades past that relies more heavily on a collection of photos than a memorable or cohesive narrative. Hammer of the Gods is probably the best-known band biography, and though there is some significant overlap that Wall clearly drew from, the two books work well as companion pieces for those interested in the details of the story of Zep. Plenty of memorable reading exists in the Wall and Davis books, and few of us will require more, and that includes me. For those who do, I'd likely start with Wall’s bibliography at the end of Giants.

One character that burns particularly bright throughout Davis' and Wall's accounts is Peter Grant. An all-consuming fire was created wherever Led Zep’s formidable manager decided to tread. An ex-wrestler of imposing stature, Grant was already well-known prior to Zep for his intimidation of promoters, record company executives, freelance artists, rival bands, hangers-on, road crews and managers alike.

Instrumental in eliciting an unprecedented $200,000 signing fee from Atlantic (a dominant global distributor that had at that time never signed a single rock band or—unbelievably—even listened to this one), Grant’s powers of persuasion were legendary. They extended to demands Atlantic met for Zeppelin’s complete artistic control over their own music, artwork, touring preferences and even the creation of Swan Song, Zep’s short-lived personal label-within-a-label that Atlantic also distributed before Swan Song unceremoniously caved, three years after Zeppelin’s demise.

Grant’s Yardbirds-era friendship with a young Jimmy Page evolved into a powerful alliance, which developed into unparalleled domination of the band’s every potential adversary coupled with an unyielding and at times even vicious defense of his artists and their mutual interests, the results of which included the occasional drunken beatings of those who got in his (or Led Zep’s) way and a cavalcade of resulting lawsuits.

A force of nature in his own right, Grant was key to implementing Zeppelin’s groundbreaking, album-focused release approach, managing to buck the late-60s standard of releasing single after single and hoping for airplay, insisting that Zep was not about hit singles and was best experienced live or via one full album at a time. This orientation served the band well, as they raked in sales on both fronts, playing to record-breaking crowds and cranking out platinum albums again and again.

The stuff of legend, perhaps more so than that of the truth, are Led Zeppelin’s tours. Particularly if one is to believe significant portions of the Davis book, and specifically considering the three lone American tours, these adventures raked in the debauchery along with the cash, but tours were less frequent than one might assume, which perhaps contributed to their legend.

With their collective legacies fully secured, individual track records and solo careers built before and since the fall of the mighty Zep notwithstanding, Led Zeppelin’s legacy remains firmly secured, but of course there is a dark side. This dark side (due to Satan, Crowley, black magic, karma or perhaps just a little bad luck, a lot of bad behavior and life itself) tried to fell the band many times before it finally succeeded.

No strangers to tragedy, Zep suffered at least two significant losses that nearly ended the band in its final half-decade, which nonetheless successfully derailed, delayed, distracted and depressed everyone involved, before Led Zeppelin finally fell apart for good.

Six months after the February 1975 release of the double album Physical Graffiti, Robert Plant’s leg-breaking car crash in Greece nearly killed his wife and doomed him to a long period of recovery, resulting in 1976’s Presence being recorded from a wheelchair. After a lengthy, painful rehabilitation two years later while on tour in America, Plant’s five-year-old son Karac died suddenly from an infection, devastating his father and stopping virtually all band activity for nearly two years; and yet the mighty Zep rose again, managing one more studio LP (In Through the Out Door, 1979) before John Bonham’s sudden, stunning death (after drinking a staggering amount of alcohol and drowning in his own vomit overnight) slammed the brakes on the Zep train for good in 1980.

There have been sporadic post-breakup shows over the four decades since Led Zep disbanded. A Live Aid benefit here, a studio-head tribute there, among a few others. Page and Plant have reunited even more often, at times without inviting Mr. Jones, sometimes even recording or touring, but never under the storied banner of Led Zeppelin. While neither tours nor official Led Zeppelin music ever followed these “reunions,” the term itself is problematic.

For Led Zeppelin, how can a reunion be a reunion when it requires a replacement? When a core member of the original four is absent? Even when his own son fills in? Four men made indelible magic together, and without each of them present, it could never be rekindled. John Bonham was an essential, defining component of what made Led Zeppelin unique, and even with his capable son Jason behind the kit, Led Zep’s…uh…song could never...uh remain the same. At least Robert Plant, in his oft-quoted positions on all things reunion-related, seems to think so, though Jimmy and John usually seem more optimistic.

Other than reading and listening, there are other, if decidedly inferior, ways to look back. There are concert films, but they never quite turned out as the band or Mr. Grant had planned, and most agree that they don’t come close to capturing the magic of Zep at its best, but I’ve never been a big fan of watching bands on TV, or of listening to live recordings anyway. If you were able to be there in person, then good for you, but if I’m not able to be there, I'll always prefer any band's official studio albums.

With nine readily available studio LPs (one posthumous, one a double), four official live recordings, nine compilations, 15 singles and four films, not to mention an enormous collection of bootlegged live recordings, (350 of which, official or not, are available on eBay at the time of this writing), Led Zep lives on with plenty of evidence, including 10 tunes that charted on Billboard’s enduring hit lists, a 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Kennedy Center honors from President Obama in 2012.

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For my money, if you want to experience Led Zeppelin, and you don’t have a time machine, it’s tough to beat an afternoon spent listening to their complete collection of studio recordings on the best audio system you can find, hearing the songs as they were intended to be released, as the band wanted them to sound, in full-length, long-play album order as they were meant to be heard. After 25 years, that’s what I finally did. I don't know what took me so long.