It would seem that within each decade of rock and roll’s colorful history, there resides a handful of artists who reinvent the genre and make it their own. In the 1950′s, it was Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The 1960′s belonged to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. And when it came to the hard rock sound (that would eventually morph into heavy metal), no band in the 70′s had a more profound influence on where rock and roll was headed than the four Englishmen who called themselves “Led Zeppelin”.
At the heart of Led Zeppelin was an undeniable sexual energy, an uncanny sense of improvisation, and a style flexible enough to bombast like an aerial assault one moment, and provide soothing ethereal orchestrations in the next. Within the decade, Led Zeppelin would release nine albums, including a single that became the anthem of a generation, and tour the world many times over. Ever following the band were rumors of drunken excess, extravagant orgies, and dabblings into black magic. The sordid tales regarding the band members reached mythical proportions, although the band has always denied that any of it ever happened. What is an undeniable fact is that Led Zeppelin was one of the most popular, highest paid, and talented bands to ever emerge in the world of rock and roll.
Led Zeppelin was the brainchild of renowned English session guitarist, Jimmy Page, who had made his mark playing on recordings for The Kinks, Donovan, and most notably, The Yardbirds, whose alumni included guitar greats Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. It was during these sessions that Page became friends with a keyboard/bass player and arranger named John Paul Jones. Determined to start a group, they sought out a singer and drummer who would complete their vision. They found what they were looking for in two young, relatively inexperienced musicians named Robert Plant and John Bonham. Plant held in his possession an incendiary powerhouse of a voice, fed by a solid diet of the blues, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. His friend, John Bonham was a former bricklayer who could play drums louder and faster than most, and with a graceful finesse and rock solid groove that few drummers had the ability to match.
The four musicians met up at a local rehearsal studio and decided to break the ice by diving into the classic Yardbirds tune, “Train Kept a’ Rollin”. The chemistry became immediately apparent and was later described by various members as “magical”, due to the unique, heavy-hitting sound and an uncanny improvisational talent that each member excelled at. All they needed was a name. Jimmy Page happened to remember a comment he had once heard made by “The Who” drummer, Keith Moon, who had described a monumental failure as being one that “went over like a lead balloon”. Not sure if this new enterprise would be successful or not, Page branded the group, “Led Zeppelin”. The band began performing in small local venues to cut their teeth and develop new material for what would be their first album together. They hired an intimidating bear of a manager named Peter Grant. He proceeded to secure a $200,000 advance from Atlantic Records and the band began work of the first of their nine albums.
Borrowing heavily from their blues mentors such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, Led Zeppelin finished their debut album entitled “Led Zeppelin” and released it in January 1969. Although panned by critics, the album was well received by fans of the genre. From rockers like “Communication Breakdown”, to the bluesy “I Can’t Quit You Baby, to the haunting “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, Zeppelin pulled out all of the stops. “Dazed and Confused” was perhaps the most ambitious, and most popular, track. Starting as a sinister sounding blues, then morphing into a surreal middle section that featured Page playing his guitar with a violin bow, It was an impressive display of the band’s virtuosity.
A mere ten months later, the band followed up its debut with “Led Zeppelin II”, another strong album that relied less on the blues and more on fast paced material, chock full of heavily distorted guitars and thunderous drums. Exceptions were the ballad “Thank You”, a nod to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” in the song “Ramble On”, and the naughty blues-derived “Lemon Song”. The hit from the album, which reached #4 on the US charts, was “Whole Lotta Love”, a hard driving song with a catchy guitar hook and screaming vocals. Towards the middle of the track, the music evolves into a psychedelic cacophony of sounds panning left to right (including synthetic wails from a little known electronic instrument called a theramin) before returning explosively to the main theme.
The strong American response to “Led Zeppelin II” caught the band’s attention and North American touring was kicked into high gear. Filling huge venues from coast to coast, Led Zeppelin had taken America by storm.
They kicked off the 70′s with the release of “Led Zeppelin III” in October 1970. The hard driving “Immigrant Song” provided the opening track, giving no hint to the acoustical direction that the album ultimately takes. Songs such as “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way” showed a band whose writing skills were gaining depth and maturity. Led Zeppelin was on the verge of something monumental.
It was the album “Led Zeppelin IV” (known alternately as “Four Symbols” and “Zoso”), released in 1971 that catapulted the band to the level of super-stardom that few bands ever achieve. A rock-solid collection of some of the strongest material to date, this album was to become one of the biggest selling in rock history. Songs such as “Rock and Roll”, “Black Dog” and “Misty Mountain Hop” became instant classics but one particular track stole the show; an enigmatic anthem for a generation called “Stairway to Heaven”. Even at a non-radio friendly nine minutes in length, this song would go on to become the most requested rock and roll song of the 1970′s. Any lingering doubts of the band’s success were completely erased with this landmark album.
It would be almost two years before the band released a new album, entitled “Houses of the Holy”, an ambitious recording with a sound that was tailor made for FM radio. Songs such as the hard hitting “The Ocean”, the haunting “No Quarter”, and the lushly orchestrated “The Rain Song”, gave the fans what they expected from a Led Zeppelin album. Still, “Houses of the Holy” showed a band also willing to explore new territory with songs such as the reggae influenced “Dyer Maker” and a James Brown homage in the funk inspired, “The Crunge”.
Zeppelin’s creativity showed no sighs of slowing down and neither did their popularity. They had grown accustomed to mammoth North American tours that broke attendance revenues in the largest concert halls and stadiums available. During the touring for “Houses of the Holy”, the band would film their performances at New York’s Madison Square Garden and from the footage, release a film four years later entitled “The Song Remains the Same”. The film later became a cult classic among fans.
1975 would bring Led Zeppelin fans a double album entitled “Physical Graffiti”, a prolific recording that showed a band in peak form and with a seemingly never-ended reserve of creative energy. Songs such as “Houses of the Holy” and “Custard Pie” were pure unadulterated rock and roll, while “In My Time of Dying” paid homage to the blues style that helped launch the band’s career. Most notably was the Indian influenced “Kashmir” a song that would trail closely behind “Stairway to Heaven” in terms of popularity. The album was a massive critical and financial success whose popularity managed to return each previously released Led Zeppelin album back into the top 200 charts. Unlike the previous albums which had all been with Atlantic Records, this one was released on the band’s newly formed and ominously named, “Swan Song” label.