Rock gods who went down in a blaze of hubris and heroin addiction
Kevin Courtneyreviews When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led ZeppelinBy Mick Wall, Orion; 486pp, £20
‘I’M A golden god!” boasted Zep singer Robert Plant to Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe in 1975, as the band flew high above the rock firmament.
Zep were indeed the golden gods of rock, dark lords of all they surveyed. Their concerts broke attendance records previously set by The Beatles; their albums shifted in their millions (without even support from singles in most territories); and their on-tour antics challenged even the ancient Romans for sheer carnal decadence. When these giants walked the earth, the ground shook, hotel managers quaked, and the ladies quivered with anticipation.
No one was safe around Zep. Promoters would feel the wrath of corpulent, confrontational manager Peter Grant; hapless journalists and music biz people, the fists of a drunken John Bonham if they were unlucky enough to be in his rampaging path. And then there was guitarist Jimmy Page’s collection of whips.
By the end of the decade, however, Zeppelin had crashed in a blaze of vainglory, brought down by hubris, heroin addiction and a creeping irrelevance that saw them turn from towering pillars into tottering dinosaurs. They were finally put out of their misery by the death of Bonham following a particularly epic drinking binge.
We’ve read about the booze, drugs, devil worship and deviant sex – most of the lurid tales can be found in Steven Davis’s vintage biog Hammer of the Gods. Mick Wall delves a lot deeper into the dark stuff, going into academic detail about guitarist Jimmy Page’s obsession with Aleister Crowley, whose mantra “do what thou wilt” seemed to become a backstage motto for Zep and their entourage. Wall brings us a backstage view of the on-tour bacchanalia, which includes the notorious mudshark incident, when drummer John Bonham and tour manager Richard Cole used the catch of the day on the groupie of the hour. We also get a chilling glimpse into some weird goings-on at Boleskine House, the former home of Aleister Crowley which Page bought and turned into his own dark lair. And we get a peek into the band members’ respective pasts, courtesy of a series of “internal monologues” written in the second person singular.
Before Zep, Jimmy Page was a little-known but hugely respected guitarist, earning big bucks as the most in-demand session player around. That’s him on Donovan’s Sunshine Superman, Them’s Baby Please Don’t Go and Val Doonican’s Walk Tall. When he joined his mate Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds, he got a taste of rock stardom; when The Yardbirds fizzled out, Page hatched a plan to forge the one band to rule them all – and found willing warriors in the form of fellow session man John Paul Jones, Brummie hippie Robert Plant, and Planty’s mate, tub-thumping drummer John Bonham.
After fulfilling a few contractual obligations as The New Yardbirds, the band were rechristened Led Zeppelin after a joke by Who drummer Keith Moon, and signed to Atlantic Records, recording their debut album in just 30 hours over nine days. Astonishingly, Zep were hated by the critics, who branded them unsophisticated and unoriginal. They were certainly right about the latter; the full extent is laid bare here – songs credited to the band, including Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Black Mountain Side, Dazed and Confused and Whole Lotta Love, turned out to have been either plundered from some bluesman’s grave, taken from The Yardbirds’ unfinished sessions, or outright from such heroes as Bert Jansch.
But Zep were rock’s original force of nature, an unstoppable juggernaut powered by four horsemen of the apocalypse, who crushed all before them with piledriving guitar riffs, feral vocals and a booming bass and drum sound that came from somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth. Wall rides shotgun all the way to the band’s massively hyped but ultimately disappointing reunion show at the 02 Arena in December 2007, and explores the titanic battle of wills between Page, the self-appointed custodian of Zep’s legacy, and Plant, the hard-headed old groaner who has stubbornly refused to participate in a full-blown Zeppelin reunion tour, preferring to go on the road with his current singing partner Alison Krauss.
Perhaps it’s best for everyone concerned – band and fans alike – to just let this sleeping beast lie.
Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist