Led Zeppelin Biography

This pivotal heavy rock quartet was formed in September 1968 by British guitarist Jimmy Page (James Patrick Page, 9 January 1944, Heston, Middlesex, England) following the demise of his former band, the Yardbirds. John Paul Jones (b. John Baldwin, 3 January 1946, Sidcup, Kent, England; bass/keyboards), a respected arranger and session musician, replaced original member Chris Dreja, but hopes to incorporate vocalist Terry Reid floundered on a contractual impasse. The singer unselfishly recommended Robert Plant (b. 20 August 1948, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England), then frontman of struggling Midlands act Hobstweedle, who in turn introduced drummer John Bonham (b. 31 May 1948, Redditch, Worcestershire, England, d. 25 September 1980, Clewer, Windsor, Berkshire, England), when first choice B.J. Wilson opted to remain with Procol Harum. The quartet gelled immediately and having completed outstanding commitments under the name ‘New Yardbirds’, became Led Zeppelin following an alleged quip by the Who’s Keith Moon, who, when assessing their prospects, remarked that they would probably ‘go down like a lead Zeppelin’.

The quartet was guided and managed by Peter Grant (b. 5 April 1935, South Norwood, Surrey, England, d. 21 November 1995, England). He was best known as the heavyweight manager of all UK rock groups, both in size and stature. Armed with a prestigious recording contract with Atlantic Records, Led Zeppelin toured the USA supporting Vanilla Fudge prior to the release of 1969’s explosive debut album, Led Zeppelin, which included several exceptional original songs, including ‘Good Times Bad Times’, ‘Communication Breakdown’, ‘Dazed And Confused’ - a hangover from the Yardbirds’ era - and skilled interpretations of R&B standards ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ and ‘You Shook Me’.

The set vied with Jeff Beck’s Truth as the definitive statement of heavy blues rock, but Page’s meticulous production showed a greater grasp of basic pop dynamics, resulting in a clarity redolent of 50s rock ‘n’ roll. His staggering dexterity was matched by Plant’s expressive, beseeching voice, a combination that flourished on Led Zeppelin II. The band was already a headline act, drawing sell-out crowds across the USA, when this propulsive collection (also released in 1969) confirmed an almost peerless position. The introductory track, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, a thinly veiled rewrite of Willie Dixon’s ‘You Need Love’, has since become a classic, while ‘Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)’ and ‘Moby Dick’, Bonham’s exhibition piece, were a staple part of the quartet’s early repertoire. Elsewhere, ‘Thank You’ and ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ revealed a greater subtlety, a factor emphasized more fully on 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. Preparation for this set had been undertaken at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Gwynedd, Wales, overlooking the Snowdonia National Park (immortalized in ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ with unintentional mispelling), and a resultant pastoral atmosphere permeated the acoustic-based selections ‘That’s The Way’ and ‘Tangerine’. The tracks ‘Immigrant Song’ and ‘Gallows Pole’ reasserted the band’s traditional fire and the album’s release confirmed Led Zeppelin’s position as one of the world’s leading attractions. In concert, Plant’s sexuality and Adonis-like persona provided the perfect foil to Page’s more mercurial character, yet both individuals took full command of the stage, the guitarist’s versatility matched by his singer’s unfettered roar.

Confirmation of Led Zeppelin’s ever-burgeoning strengths appeared on 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, also known as ‘Four Symbols’, the ‘Runes Album’, or ‘Zoso’, in deference to the fact that the set bore no official title. It included ‘Stairway To Heaven’, a band tour de force. Arguably the definitive heavy rock song, it continues to win polls, and the memorable introduction remains every guitar novice’s first hurdle. The approbation granted this ambitious piece initially obscured other tracks, but the energetic version of blues standard ‘When The Levee Breaks’ is now also lauded as a masterpiece, particularly for Bonham’s drumming. ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Rock And Roll’ saw Zeppelin at their immediate best, while ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ was marked by a vocal contribution from Sandy Denny. The album was a critical and commercial success and has subsequently taken its place in the list of bestselling records of all time.

The effusive praise this album generated was notably more muted for 1973’s Houses Of The Holy. Critics queried its musically diverse selection - the set embraced folk ballads, reggae and soul - yet when the accustomed power was unleashed, notably on ‘No Quarter’, the effect was inspiring. A concurrent US tour broke all previous attendance records, the proceeds from which helped to finance an in-concert film over three nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden, issued in 1976 as The Song Remains The Same, and the formation of the band’s own record label, Swan Song. Bad Company, the Pretty Things and Maggie Bell were also signed to the company, which served to provide Led Zeppelin with total creative freedom. Physical Graffiti, a 1975 double set, gave full rein to the quartet’s diverse interests, with material ranging from compulsive hard rock (‘Custard Pie’ and ‘Sick Again’) to pseudo-mystical experimentation (‘Kashmir’). The irrepressible ‘Trampled Under Foot’ joined an ever-growing lexicon of peerless performances, while ‘In My Time Of Dying’ showed an undiminished grasp of progressive blues.

Sell-out appearances in the UK followed the release of Physical Graffiti, but rehearsals for a projected world tour were abandoned in August 1975 when Plant sustained multiple injuries in a car crash on the Greek island of Rhodes. A new album was prepared during his period of convalescence, although problems over artwork delayed its release. Advance orders alone assured 1976’s Presence platinum status, yet the set was regarded as a disappointment and UK sales were noticeably weaker. The 10-minute maelstrom ‘Achilles Last Stand’ was indeed a remarkable performance, but the remaining tracks were competent rather than fiery and lacked the accustomed sense of grandeur.

In 1977 Led Zeppelin began its rescheduled US tour, but on 26 July news reached Robert Plant that his six-year-old son, Karac, had died of a viral infection. The remaining dates were cancelled amid speculation that Led Zeppelin would break up. They remained largely inactive for over a year, but late in 1978 they flew to Abba’s Polar recording complex in Stockholm. Although lacking the definition of earlier work, the following year’s In Through The Out Door was a strong collection on which the multi-instrumental and arranging skills of John Paul Jones emerged as the unifying factor. Two concerts at the UK’s Knebworth Festival were the prelude to a short European tour on which the band unveiled a stripped-down act, inspired, in part, by the punk explosion. Rehearsals were then undertaken for another US tour, but in September 1980, Bonham was found dead at Page’s home in Clewer, Berkshire, following a lengthy drinking bout. On 4 December, Swan Song announced that the band had officially retired, although a collection of archive material, Coda, was subsequently issued.

Jones went on to become a successful producer, notably with the Mission, while Plant embarked on a highly successful solo career, launched with 1982’s Pictures At Eleven. Page scored the movie Death Wish 2 and, after a brief reunion with Plant and the Honeydrippers project in 1984, he inaugurated the short-lived Firm with Paul Rodgers. He then formed the Jimmy Page Band with John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham (b. 15 July 1966, Dudley, Worcestershire, England), who in turn drummed with Led Zeppelin on their appearance at Atlantic Records’ 25th Anniversary Concert in May 1988 (a previous reunion at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert on 13 July 1985 had featured Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums). Despite renewed interest in the band’s career, particularly in the wake of the remastered box sets issued at the start of the 90s, entreaties to make this a permanent reunion were resisted at the time. However, in 1994 Page and Plant went two-thirds of the way to a re-formation with their ironically titled Unledded project, though John Paul Jones was conspicuous by his absence (for want of an invitation). The duo cemented the relationship with an album of new Page And Plant material in 1998. During this period, the band was also inaugurated into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and an excellent double CD collection of the band’s BBC recordings was released.

The discovery and release of live tapes and video footage in 2002 carried the Led Zeppelin phenomenon over into the new millennium. Decades after their demise, the triple-live CD How The West Was Won (featuring edited versions of two American concerts from 1972) entered the Billboard chart at number 1 in June 2003. In February 2005 Led Zeppelin belatedly received their first ever Grammy, being honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Two and a half years later it was announced that the surviving members and Jason Bonham would reunite for a one-off performance at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute show in London, England. The concert, which finally took place on 10 December 2007, was greeted as a triumph by fans and critics alike.

Although their commercial success is unquestionable, Led Zeppelin are now rightly recognized as one of the most influential bands of the rock era and their catalogue continues to provide inspiration to successive generations of musicians.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.