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Dancing Days

REVIEW: ‘Led Zeppelin: The Biography’

Bassist John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin perform onstage at the Forum on June 24, 1977 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
• December 5, 2021 5:00 am

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"Sexual intercourse began," the British poet Philip Larkin once wryly put it, "In nineteen sixty-three." The Old Bailey, England’s central criminal court, had three years prior overturned an obscenity charge against D.H. Lawrence’s titillating novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Beatles were due to release their debut album. And rock ’n’ roll, with its celebration of force and free love, was dominating the airwaves. Larkin said he missed the boat for the sexual revolution. But if there was a chief beneficiary of the change in mores, it was the English rock group Led Zeppelin.

That is the estimation of Bob Spitz, the band’s biographer, who has written an unflinching account of their wild, emotionally fraught, and ultimately tragic tale. Led Zeppelin: The Biography is the latest book by the veteran music journalist, who once managed Bruce Springsteen and Elton John and has written distinctive biographies of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The book tells the story of one of the most original bands of the century rising to fame and fortune on the countercultural wave of the 1960s. But, equally, it tells the story of a group of talented men corrupted by their vices, driven apart by their vanities, and ruined by their grief over a series of untimely tragedies, culminating in the death of one of the greatest drummers in rock history.

Conceived as a sort of "supergroup," Spitz explains, Led Zeppelin began on a lark. The name, taken from a common joke, was coined by Jimmy Page, its leader, to describe the unlikely quartet. An accomplished guitarist, Page was already famous for playing alongside Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, Zep’s precursor. Then there was John Paul Jones. Like Page, Jones was a session-honed musician but with multi-instrumental talent. His rhythmic precision generated some of the band’s most memorable riffs, like the EKG-sounding bass line that opens "Immigrant Song." And there was Robert Plant, a singer, and John Bonham, a drummer, two self-taught musicians from the British Midlands, whose liveliness gave the group a necessary edge. Bonham, or "Bonzo" as he was called by his bandmates (slang for "skillful" but also "crazy"), lived up to his name and brought an explosive quality to performances. But while the group may have gotten itself up in England, its feet would always be firmly planted in America.

Here, Spitz does a superb job retelling how the band secured its transatlantic influence. Through musical and technical innovation, ruthless management, a bit of shameless self-promotion, and luck, Page, Jones, Plant, and Bonham in a few years became the undisputed gods of rock ‘n’ roll.

It started from mutual admiration. When they first met, Plant and Page had exchanged their favorite records, and each found they’d brought a copy of Joan Baez’s "Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You." It was a good omen. A cover of the song found its way onto their first album, with other American influences on later albums. Robert Johnson’s Mississippi Delta, Muddy Waters’s Chicago, even Joni Mitchell’s California—Plant’s soaring voice explored them all. The vast territory of American folk, soul, rockabilly, funk, and blues shaped the band’s unique sound.

And what a sound it was! From the beginning, they were virtuosic, with a tendency toward lengthy improvisations, and, above all, loud. At their debut U.S. show in Denver, Spitz writes, "kids in the front rows literally ducked for cover" as Page, Jones, and Bonham tore into the opening bars of "Good Times Bad Times." The key was in the "dynamics," Jimmy said, "whisper to thunder." Fans flooded stadiums to hear that exchange. But Spitz shows how many of the band’s iconic songs—"Whole Lotta Love," "Stairway to Heaven," "Kashmir"—first succeeded because of a discovery during a jam session in the recording studio. On their first album, for example, Page moved the drum microphones away from Bonzo’s kit, somehow intensifying the sound. The innovation would forever change the way drums were recorded.

In its infamous review of the first album, though, Rolling Stone hit Zeppelin for its "weak, unimaginative songs" and Plant’s "howling vocals." Mick Jagger and George Harrison both found it "awful." But "FM radio was just beginning to have a huge influence" in America, according to John Paul Jones, and a generation of sex-crazed teens just wanted to hear Plant howl, "I’m gonna give you every inch of my love." There was big money in it, and the band would eventually buy off journalists by letting them join in on the action aboard their tour plane, nicknamed the Starship. One such journalist was a 15-year-old high school student named Cameron Crowe, who would go on to dramatize the experience in his movie Almost Famous. The band’s manager bribed another into burying a story about Bonham trying to rape a flight attendant by letting him take a turn at the plane’s controls.

Such flights of libidinal excess were frequent. Underage girls prowled hotel lobbies where the band would stay. "The groupies in Los Angeles were shockingly young," Spitz writes at one point. And just as often, that same libidinal energy would turn to rapine: "When sex grew tiresome, when boredom set in, one of the guys might heave a television out the window." Bonzo, a raging alcoholic, was predictably destructive, once hurling an upright piano out a window and narrowly missing a car. The band’s "pharmacist" fueled the mayhem with bags of reefer, boatloads of Quaaludes, and mountains of cocaine. Needless to say, over time, the players languished, and the music suffered.

Zeppelin still exhibited its "pastoral" side in Britain, taking refuge at Bron-Yr-Aur, the Plant family’s cottage in Wales. (Page and Plant would write much of the music for Led Zeppelin III and IV there.) The band was always of two minds about touring, Spitz notes. John Paul Jones had tried to quit the band before the 1975 tour. And Bonham was particularly tortured by his time away from home. But, in the end, they chose to reign as rock gods in America.

It would prove their undoing. As the tours rolled on, the drinking and drugging grew worse. Violence was common. During their last tour in the States, Bonham was arrested for assaulting a stage manager. Page became a wraith—heroin, which Bonzo had begun to use as well, had ruined him. At times, he was so bombed out of his mind he chorded the wrong neck of his double-neck Gibson while performing on stage. "The band was splitting between people who could turn up on time for recording sessions and people who couldn’t," as John Paul Jones put it. There were personal vanities at play too. Concerts dragged on as Page and Bonham fumbled through lazy solos. By the end of the 1977 tour, "the musicians no longer left gigs together," Spitz writes. "Each man had his own limo."

What makes this book so terrific is Spitz’s ability to show the band’s severe recklessness while retaining their humanity. There were warning signs. While Plant was vacationing in Greece with his family, a near-death car crash gave him a wakeup call. Two years later, the death of his five-year-old son changed him entirely. But the reader gets the sense that when Bonham was found dead one morning after choking on his own vomit, Plant, Page, and Jones knew it could have been any one of them. In its portrait of near-invincible youth, Led Zeppelin shows each had been living on borrowed time, caught in a dance with death.

Led Zeppelin: The Biography
by Bob Spitz
Penguin, 688 pp., $35

Published under: Book reviews