"I went up to see him sing," Jimmy reminisced to England's ZigZag, "he was in a group called Obstweedle or Hobbstweedle, something like that [actually, Obbstweedle], who were playing at a teachers training college outside of Birmingham - to an audience of about twelve people... you know, a typical student set up, where drinking is the prime consideration and the group is only of secondary importance." He didn't care for the band's San Francisco outlook, "but Robert was fantastic, and having heard him that night, and having listened to a demo he had given me [of songs recorded with his previous group, Band of Joy], I realized that without a doubt his voice had an exceptional and very distinctive quality.
Plant was indeed a find, a multi-octave spread built on a freewheeling vocal attitude that would often discard words for rococo improvising, spiraling upwards in tandem with Page. Robert recommended another ex-Band of Joy member, drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham, and when Chris Dreja decided to pursue a career in photography, John Paul Jones was added on bass, an acquaintance from Jimmy's session days who had arranged, among other things, Donovan's 'Mellow Yellow'. They dropped the name of the New Yardbirds - "We felt it was working under false pretenses" - and, courtesy of Keith Moon, became Led Zeppelin.
In a small rehearsal space in London, they put the pieces together. "We played for a while, and then we started laughing at each other. Maybe it was from relief or maybe from the knowledge that we knew we could groove together. But that was it. The statement of our first two weeks together is our first album. Between us we wrote seven of the tracks and it only took us thirty hours to cut it. I suppose it was the fact that we were confident and prepared which made things flow so smoothly in the studio. We recorded them almost exactly as we'd been doing them live."
And live, Led Zeppelin had quickly established themselves as a powerhouse of stage charisma and pyrotechnics. Coming across the ocean in an uproar of guitar and vocal mayhem, their earliest and most apparent roots were blues, Willie Dixon songs ('You Shook Me', 'I Can't Quit You Baby') mingled in sexual metaphor and electronic extension, pinioned by the folk-ish calm of 'Black Mountain Side' and 'Communication Breakdown's amphetamine acceleration. Page, frustrated in his attempts to imbue the Yardbirds with his personality, had taken calculated vengeance here, showcasing a mastery of his instrument that instantly rearranged the pop hierarchy of Clapton, Hendrix and Beck. Led Zeppelin had their antecedents - Beck himself had scored heavily with his own Yardbirds' spin-off, featuring vocalist Rod Stewart - but the vacuum created by the demise of Cream called for nothing less than the colossal. With the short-lived fad of the supergroup (Blind Faith) seemingly shaky, Led Zeppelin demonstrated they could not only be the biggest, but the best.
Primeval, not primitive, the march of the dinosaurs that characterized their first release broke open the flattened planes of Zeppelin's appeal. They seemed to bask in the glory of stardom, swashbuckling and daring rock and rollers. For American audiences, much of England's lure had always been its slightly decayed air of kinky glamor, and as Robert sang of having his lemon squeezed, strange stories circulated of dead sharks being found in deserted Zeppelin hotel rooms. The promise of lifestyle drew as many adherents as their music drew critics, "Who said that white men couldn't sing blues?" queried critic John Mendelssohn in a devastating Rolling Stone parody of Led Zeppelin II. "I mean, like, who?"
"That's the sort of thing we used to get," Page noted. "The public was always 100 percent behind us, but we had few allies in the press." The last is an understatement. As the beachhead of what would become a full-blown metallic invasion (Deep Purple, Humble Pie, as well as Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad), Led Zeppelin were unmercifully called to task, victims of their own abrupt rise and decibel attack. Much of the criticism was unfounded; they might have been blatant, but there was conscientious effort behind each of the tracks on their albums, especially after Plant began writing lyrics. His strain of Celtic mysticism surfaced in Led Zeppelin III, whose material grew to life in "a small derelict cottage in South Snowdonia," Bron-Y-Aur, a bucolic setting of gallows poles and highwaymen.
By late 1971, even the critics had to reconsider. Were Zeppelin as crass as portrayed, the expectation might have been a hurried succession of albums and tours, exploiting their formula to indifference. Instead, there was no formula, and Zeppelin showed a distinct willingness to remove themselves totally from the public eye when it came time to work, "You can compare it to a successful author," Plant told Hit Parader's Lisa Robinson. "If he writes a book and it's a fantastic success - then he's not expected to follow it up immediately with something else, because that makes him a slave to the wrong thing... it has to be presented to the people when it's ready. It's the same with us."
Their wait was rewarded with 'Stairway To Heaven', on a fourth album which bore no name but a series of runic symbols, one for each member. The song was written in stages, beginning at the Bron-Y-Aur cottage, moving from acoustic soft to slashing electric in deliberate movements, its verses reminiscent of The Faerie Queene, opening to a miles-long depth and resolve. On the same album, 'Rock and Roll' let their fans know that megatonnage could never be forgotten.
It is this ability to be in all places at once that has allowed Led Zeppelin to outlast their many imitators. Future albums (Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti) have shown an even greater leaning to the unexpected, an absorption of structures from Moroccan to Jamaican to James Brown rhythm and blues that transforms each into the stylized energy emphasis of Zeppelin's own. Arguably the world's most popular group (in the sense that there are only unreliable measuring sticks), they travel in style: a private jet, one of the world's largest sound systems, their own record company (Swan Song), and a manager, Peter Grant, whose burly ex-wrestler's figure befits their image. Along with platinum albums, even misfortunes take on grander scales: while performing the final concerts of their 1973 tour in New York, their hotel safe-deposit box was milked of $180,000 in cash.
And yet they've never talked of solo careers - "Once you've done a 'Stairway,' and you've listened to it after you've recorded it," says Robert, "you've reached a point where you can't play with anybody else" - or given any less than their utmost.
"It's a bit awe-inspiring," admits Page." You drive up and see all those people and it hits you that you're the people they've all come to see. To coin a phrase, it's your arses that are on the line. But then I suppose that's one of the reasons people always come to see us and always came to see us in the past, is that we try our hardest. We've never ever gone out there and chewed gum and sort of messed about, we've always played our bullocks off. Whether you like it or not is another issue altogether. When you've done all you can do, then you're happy with what you're doing and you're not compromising." Beset by a broken left finger before a recent tour, he promptly developed a three-finger style to compensate, seemingly unaffected.
© Lenny Kaye and David Dalton 1977
excerpted from Rock 100, Cooper Square Press, 1999
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