originally published July 4, 2014
With practically the entirety of recorded music’s history available at the touch of a trackpad, it’s hard to find a lot of common ground among the masses. Back in the sepiatone days when I was in high school, there was certainly a cultural splintering effect afoot – some grooved to Hammer-time, others nodded angrily and forcefully to Nirvana, while still others begged C+C Music Factory to make them sweat upon a hormone-clogged dance floor – but there remained some sacred touchstones.
For whatever reason – and I pray a sociological study will one day uncover the mystery behind this collective madness – the girls in my high school were united under the secret thrill of ABBA. The boys, however discreetly some of them held back their own cravings for retro Swedish vocal-pop, united under an unwavering commitment to one of the greatest rock bands in ear-thumping history: Led Zeppelin.
Most of us had bands we liked more. For me, there was always the Beatles, while my other friends leaned toward Pink Floyd, Roxette or Extreme (yes, Josh, I’m talking about you). But we all sang along when Robert Plant belted out the first “Hey hey, mama” of their conspicuously untitled fourth album. Today Zep nets a kilograph, if for no other reason than as a thank you for the respite they provided after five straight listens of “More Than Words.”
The group’s origin story funnels straight back to this guy, one of the most awe-inspiring yet least well-known (among today’s younger rock-lovers) guitar gods of the 1960’s. Jeff Beck had joined up with the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton had left the group in frustration. Now Jeff was feeling the pull of sweet freedom, and his frustration led him to record his own thing, away from the rest of the group. He invited his buddy (and future Yardbirdian) Jimmy Page to play guitar.
Drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle of the Who were similarly irked at their band situation, and they agreed to join in. When John couldn’t make the session (which Keith Moon attended in full disguise, just in case), studio musicians John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins (he’s the guy who plays the piano solo on the Beatles’ “Revolution”) joined in and the brilliant single, “Beck’s Bolero” was born.
There was talk of forming a super-group featuring these musical stars (and stars-to-be), but as the legend goes, either Keith Moon or John Entwistle joked that the idea would “go down like a lead zeppelin.” There is debate over whether or not this quote came from this session or whether a journalist might have first uttered it, but it stuck with a fate-filled mud-slap to Jimmy Page’s mind.
After the Yardbirds’ final gig in Bedfordshire in 1968 (Beck was long gone at this point, but Page helmed the band’s lead guitar spot), they were still committed to playing a few gigs in Scandinavia. Page and bassist Chris Dreja were up for it, but the rest of the band was out. Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham were brought on board as replacements, and John Paul Jones completed the group. They finished the tour as the New Yardbirds and were already at work on their first studio album under that name when Chris Dreja reminded them via a cease and desist letter that they’d only been allowed to use the name ‘Yardbirds’ for that last tour. Page remembered the ‘lead zeppelin’ quote and the rest is history. Actually, it’s all history – that’s a stupid expression.
The spelling was changed out of worry that people would pronounce it ‘leed zeppelin’. Probably a smart move.
No excessively truncated history of Led Zeppelin would be complete without at least a passing mention of Bron-Yr-Aur. Robert Plant did not grow up poor; his family owned a quaint little cottage in Wales that they’d visit on holidays during the 1950’s. The place was called Bron-Yr-Aur, which is Welsh for either “golden hill” or “breast of the gold” (which is way hotter), and Plant brought Page there for a little down-time after their brutally busy 1970 tour. With no running water and no electricity, the duo had little else to do but write music and have sex. With their women, I mean – not each other. Come on.
This little getaway led to at least nine songs that would end up on future Led Zeppelin albums, and they even brought in a generator so that they could record a few tracks that would end up on Led Zeppelin III. This wouldn’t be the first or last time a band would use a rural retreat for inspiration: The Band had fled to Big Pink in 1968 and Phish would find recluse in The Barn some thirty years later. There’s something magical about getting the hell away from the world to write music.
By the time they embarked on their 1973 tour, Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band on the planet, and rightly so. They got tired of the excessive turbulence on the little Falcon jet they’d been using, so the group stepped it up. The Starship was a repurposed United Airlines Boeing 720, outfitted to look as little like a plane on the inside as possible. There were two back rooms (one a bedroom with a working shower), a bar, an electric organ, a TV and VCR (not common in the early 70’s), and enough comfortable seating for a huge party.
The Starship was used by the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and a host of other stars with money to burn. When Led Zeppelin couldn’t use it for their 1977 tour (the thing was tired and spent and permanently grounded), they rented out a retrofitted Boeing 707 owned by Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Caesar’s Chariot was even snazzier, with an on-board Hammond organ and separate rooms for all four band members. These guys knew how to travel.
I’ve got to mention it. I know, I know – it’s probably rock’s most ubiquitous urban legend, but it deserves at least a tiny blurbble in this million-word project.
The story goes that the band was staying at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, a building perched on the shoulder of the Pacific so that guests could literally fish out their windows. It involves a girl, a wild party with all the band as well as their opening act, Vanilla Fudge, and either a freshly-snared red snapper or a mudshark. Richard Cole, Zeppelin’s road manager, claims it was he who introduced the nose of the fish to the woman’s inner nether regions (front and back doors – this little sea-creature got the full tour of the facilities). Others have claimed it was John Bonham who yielded the infamous aquatic beast. Most claim it never happened.
But it might have. No one has confirmed it and no woman has stepped forward to claim her place in rock history as the notorious fish-fucker, so I’m inclined to believe that this is no more than a myth. But it’s a juicy one.
Myths and excess and exquisite music. This is why Led Zeppelin was the beloved thread of common approval among males at my school in the class o’ ’92. Also, they were a hell of a lot better than ABBA. Or Extreme. Sorry, Josh.