Before there was hard rock, grunge or alternative, there was Led Zeppelin. Before there was heavy metal, there was Led Zeppelin. Before there was Creed or Soundgarden, Korn or Slipknot, Metallica or Megadeth, Black Sabbath or Ozzy Osbourne, there was Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin is widely considered one of the, if not hands down the most successful, influential and innovative bands in rock history. Perhaps the Greatest Of All Time! Their early use of Jimmy Page’s razor sharp guitar riffs and solos, John Bonham’s thunderous, polyrhythmic drumming, John Paul Jones’ deep, heavy and technically diverse bass lines and Robert Plant’s soulful and versatile vocals as the first foundations to heavy laden rock music. Led Zeppelin is recognized as the progenitors of hard rock and heavy metal. Without their masterful contributions, who knows what the state of metal, rock-n-roll and music in general would be today.
Formed in 1968, the band was originally as the New Yardbirds, due to Scandinavian concert commitments needing to be honored by Plant’s old group, the Yardbirds. Before Led Zeppelin was formed, Plant tried to put together a supergroup featuring fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck and Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who on drums and bass respectively. Perhaps very fortunately for rock music as we know it, Page had to “settle” on what would become Led Zeppelin. Though the supergroup never formed, Page, Beck and Moon did record a song together in 1966 entitled “Beck’s Bolero” featuring John Paul Jones as a session bassist/keyboardist.
After the Yardbirds called it quits in 1968. Page and bassist Chris Dreja received permission from the other members of the Yardbirds to fulfill the bands Scandinavian tour dates under the moniker the New Yardbirds. Terry Reid was Page’s first choice as lead singer, but Reid suggested Robert Plant, then singer for the Band of Joy and Hobbstweedle. After Plant accepted the offer he recommended former Band of Joy drummer John Bonham. Shortly after, Dreja quit the group in order to pursue interests in photography. With this development, the wife of John Paul Jones suggested that he offer his services to the group. They accepted Jones as the final member of the New Yardbirds, and after fulfilling their Scandinavian tour dates, the band sought to change their name. It is rumored that Moon and Entwistle had suggested that a supergroup with Page and Beck would go down like a “lead balloon”, an idiom for disastrous results. Thus, after some creative tweaking of the moniker, Led Zeppelin was born.
The band released their eponymous debut, Led Zeppelin, in the US on January 12, 1969, during their first US tour, and in the UK on March 31, 1969. The band had earlier signed a very lucrative and artist favored contract with Atlantic Records. Under the contract conditions the band had full control of all artistic and promotion aspects. One of their strong beliefs was that their albums were indivisible, thus they took a practice of very rarely releasing official singles. Despite this, Led Zeppelin produced classic hits such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Good Times Bad Times”. The album peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts and number 6 in the UK; it also has been certified 8x Platinum by the RIAA.
The bands follow-up effort, Led Zeppelin II, was released the same year. It was an ever greater commercial success than its predecessor, topping at number on in the US and the UK. Led Zeppelin featured the classics “Whole Lotta Love” and “Ramble On”. Led Zeppelin II has been certified Diamond by the RIAA, selling more than 12 million copies. The album further developed the mostly blues/rock musical style established on their debut album, creating a work with a direct sound that was “heavy and hard, brutal and direct” and which would be highly influential and frequently imitated. Steve Waksman has suggested that Led Zeppelin II was “the musical starting point for heavy metal”.
In 1970, Page and Plant retired to now famed Welsh cottage Bron-Yr-Aur to write Led Zeppelin III. The influence of this unique creative environment place an acoustic sound on the record, featuring influences from folk and Celtic music. This showcase of Led Zeppelin’s versatility initially received mixed reviews, and was not as successful as Led Zeppelin II, but Led Zeppelin III has stood the test of time, selling six million copies in the US alone. It also peaked at number one on the US and UK charts, though held the shortest stay of the band’s first five albums. The album was not without controversy, as the classic track “Immigrant Song” was released as a single in the US without the band’s consent.
Their next release was the officially untitled album that is colloquially known as Led Zeppelin IV. The band decided to release the record anonymously after previous criticisms. The band chose to choose/design symbols for each band member. The four symbols are considered as the most recognizable art associated with the band, especially Page’s “Zoso” symbol; the symbols have been replicated countless times on posters, stickers, t-shirts, tattoos, you name it. The untitled album is widely considered to be the Led Zeppelin’s greatest album, featuring such all time classics such as “Black Dog”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Going to California” and the band’s signature song “Stairway to Heaven”. The untitled fourth album was a mega commercial success. It peaked at number 2 on the Billboard charts and stayed on the Billboard charts longer than any other of the band’s releases. Selling more than twenty-three million records as of 2006, the album is the highest selling record of all time not to reach number 1 on the Billboard charts.
In 1975, Led Zeppelin’s double album Physical Graffiti was their first release on the band’s own Swan Song label. A review in Rolling Stone magazine referred to Physical Graffiti as Led Zeppelin’s “bid for artistic respectability”, adding that the only bands Led Zeppelin had to compete with for the title “The World’s Best Rock Band” were the Rolling Stones and the Who. Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti, all previous Led Zeppelin albums simultaneously re-entered the top-200 album chart, a great achievement in and of itself.
By this stage of their storied career, Led Zeppelin was the world’s number one rock attraction. They frequently broke concert attendance records, including those held by The Beatles; they even got to the point were they outsold the Rolling Stones on a regular basis. n 1977, Led Zeppelin embarked on another major concert tour of North America. The band set another attendance record, with an audience of 76,229 at their Pontiac Silverdome concert on 30 April. It was, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest attendance to that date for a single act show. In August 1979, after two warm-up shows in Copenhagen, Led Zeppelin headlined two concerts at the Knebworth Music Festival, playing to a crowd of approximately 104,000 on the first night.
On 27 June, at a show in Nuremberg, Germany, the concert came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the third song when Bonham collapsed on-stage and was rushed to hospital. It was speculated by the press that his collapse had been the result of excessive alcohol and drug use, but the band claimed that he had simply overeaten. A North American tour, the band’s first since 1977, was scheduled to commence on 17 October. On 24 September 1980, Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios. During the journey Bonham asked to stop for breakfast, where he downed four quadruple vodkas (15 oz.), with a ham roll. After taking a bite of the ham roll he said to his assistant, “breakfast”. He continued to drink heavily when he arrived at the studio. The rehearsals were halted late that evening and the band retired to Page’s house, The Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight, Bonham, who had fallen asleep, was taken to bed and placed on his side. At 1:45 pm the next day Benji LeFevre (Led Zeppelin’s new tour manager) and John Paul Jones found Bonham dead. The cause of death was asphyxiation from vomit, and a verdict of accidental death was returned at an inquest held on 27 October.
After the Bonham’s death, the band disbanded and Led Zeppelin as the world know and loved it was never to be again. The surviving members went on to embarked on solo careers and projects. They have had a handful of one-shot reunion concerts, most notably May 14, 1988, for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert, with Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, on drums. The result was another disjointed performance, after Plant and Page had argued immediately prior to coming on stage about whether to play “Stairway to Heaven” and with the complete loss of Jones’ keyboards on the live television feed. Page described the performance as “one big disappointment”, and Plant said that “the gig was foul”. Jason Bonham also joined the band on stage for their 1995 induction into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and in 2007 for the one-off Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at The O2 Arena in London.
Led Zeppelin’s career is full of stories that truly embody the pop culture of “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll”. They are rock legends when it comes to debauchery, including numerous tells of hotel room destructions, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and the famed shark episode (we will not go into details about the shark episode, but the legendary story can be readily found by a simple search engine inquiry). The band has garnered countless accolades, including more than its share of “best of lists”. Their members are widely considered to be some of the most influential and innovative musicians of their respective instruments. Page and Plant’s influences are well documented by mainstream standards; but many fans are not aware of Bonham and Jones’ mark on music. John Paul Jones has influenced such notable bassists like John Deacon of Queen, Geddy Lee of Rush, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gene Simmons of Kiss, and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, among many, many others. The late, great, John Bonham has influence a slew of amazing musicians as well; such as Roger Taylor of Queen, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana, Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, Eric Carr, formerly of Kiss and Danny Carey of Tool.
Where would the music scene be without these four rock gods? They have laid the stairway to metal music heaven. Their sound is timeless. Their success is much so unparalleled. Their influences are wide spread throughout all rock music genres. Their personas are larger than life. They are Led Zeppelin. And they just may be the greatest rock band of all time.