One of the most intriguing things about Led Zeppelin was how hard Jimmy Page had to work to put the group together. Page was a leading session guitarist before he left that job to become the last great Yardbirds' guitarist, following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. But the original Yardbirds called it quits leaving the small matter of a Scandinavian tour up in the air. Page, more or less left holding the bag, looked for musicians for the immediate tour but he also had an eye toward building a whole new entity.
Page asked The Who's John Entwistle and Keith Moon if they wanted to join. Both were tempted but figured that one guitar prima donna was pretty much the same as another. So they stayed put. Shortly thereafter, The Who's fortunes turned around dramatically. He also asked Terry Reid and B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum.
They too declined but Reid suggested Page check out a young singer named Robert Plant. Plant made the cut and in turn, recommended drummer John Bonham. Page asked Yardbirds' bassist Chris Dreja but he, no longer enamored with the music business, decided to seek a career as a photographer.
In short order another session veteran, John Paul Jones, was recruited and the group headed north. Moon said Page's new band would "go over like a lead zeppelin." A lead balloon wasn't enough; it had to be a zeppelin (the biggest disaster of all). Page liked the phrase and dropped the 'a" out of "lead."
Instead of starting a supergroup, Page was starting from scratch. That certainly kept expectations low. "Led Zeppelin" bares more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Beck's "Truth" album. However, with "Communication Breakdown," "Good Times, Bad Times" and "Dazed and Confused" there was more of a Rock, rather than Blues edge. Famous touches like the blending of acoustic and electric instruments appear here and would be further developed. Going back to their roots, a couple of Blues covers, "I Can't Quit You" and "You Shook Me" (which also appeared on the Beck album) get worked over. You could also count "How Many More Times" though credited to Page, Jones and Bonham, actually contained portions of well-known Blues songs. Due to its unbridled sonic attack the album was a pretty hot debut. Especially considering it was recorded in approximately fifteen hours. Dreja took the back cover group photo.
It's hard to know exactly what critics expected but it certainly wasn't this bare-bones wailing Rock album. "Led Zeppelin" was universally panned. Despite the "thumbs down" reviews the album resonated with the Rock audience.
On January 31st, '69, Led Zeppelin opened for the Iron Butterfly, still riding high on the strength of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," at the Fillmore East. Zeppelin's performance so totally destroyed the audience the Iron Butterfly refused to go on.
More time was given to "Led Zeppelin II" even though it was recorded between tour dates. The album cemented the group's reputation has the premier Hard Rock/Metal outfit. But rather than capitalize on this, "Led Zeppelin III" took a more acoustic approach.
Though "Immigrant Song" and "Out On The Tiles" packed a punch the rest was not up to par. Critics jumped on the album as a sign this "Zeppelin thing" was an abomination that had run its course.
Over time and touring Plant had grown in vocal confidence and attack. "Untitled" or "Led Zeppelin IV" was the album where he became an equal contributor with Page. "Black Dog," "Going To California" and "When The Levee Breaks" are all classics. But the two songs that really stood out were "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Stairway To Heaven." By this time Led Zeppelin was so popular that they had their own touring plane.
Nothing could reasonably follow "Untitled" but Zeppelin gave it a shot with "Houses Of The Holy." As befitting a major Rock act, Led Zeppelin also started Swan Song Records to handle their releases and Bad Company's. "Physical Graffiti," a double album, was the first to show the band straining, though it held "Kashmir," "Trampled Underfoot" and the fun "Boogie With Stu."
Through the late '70s Zeppelin continued to record and tour. "Presence" went to #1 on the album charts. They also produced a live album and film "The Song Remains The Same." As a live act, Zeppelin was a bit past their prime. As a film, the best parts were the concert pieces. And that was the problem.
"In Through The Out Door," another commercial success, contained the very pop "Fool In The Rain." By the time Bonham KO'd himself with drink (vodka), Zeppelin was clearly in decline. Following Bonham's death (9/25/80) the surviving members wisely decided to call it quits. "Coda," cleared the decks of unreleased material. Plant and Page have toured and recorded together. Jones and a substitute drummer, occasionally Bonham's son Jason, have been included in Zeppelin appearances for charity (Live Aid) and other events (Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary).
As digital technology was coming into existence Page was asked if he'd take this opportunity to re-master Zeppelin recordings. He said 'no' insisting the albums sound the way they sound and there wouldn't be any re-working or re-packaging of Zeppelin material.
So all the Zeppelin fans went out and bought the CDs in their original configuration. Some time later Page reversed himself and decided to re-master all those recordings. That led to the release of "best of"/box set packages. So the Zeppelin faithful went right out and bought the new stuff as well. Talk about marketing!
But it doesn't stop there. The Plant/Page partnership, re-visited many Led Zep tunes, and did good business. In '03, Led Zeppelin finally released a live set worthy of their legend, "How The West Was Won."
After a quiet period, it suddenly seemed that Led Zeppelin, or perhaps more accurately, Plant and Page, were everywhere. First, Plant teamed up with Bluegrass performer Alison Krauss for the rootsy "Raising Sand" (which included "Please Read The Letter," a Plant/Page composition), a surprise commercial hit selling 112,000 units in its first week of release to debut at #2 on the Billboard 200. Country singer Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride" was in the top spot. Still, the #2 slot marked career highs for both Plant and Krauss as solo artists.
Then Page received the Living Legend Award at the 2007 Classic Rock Roll of Honour ceremony in London amid rumors of a Led Zep reunion tour.
Next up, Led Zeppelin continued their march to have more repackages than The Beatles with the release of "Mothership," a 2 CD compilation with 24 remastered tracks. In addition, a 165-song Zeppelin "digital box set" was available at iTunes. Also, individual songs in the band's catalog went on sale via the online music retailer. And finally, "The Complete Led Zeppelin" containing 13 studio albums plus "Mothership" rolled out for under $100.
In late '07, Zeppelin (with Jason Bonham returning) took the stage of London's O2 arena as the headliners of a tribute concert for Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who passed away the previous December. Eetegun was the one who signed Zeppelin in '68.
Zeppelin started with "Good Times Bad Times," the first track from their debut album. Their set included "Stairway To Heaven," "Black Dog," "Kashmir," and a song that had never been performed live previously, "For Your Life," from their "Presence" album. Foreigner and founding Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers were among the "opening" acts.
When Plant was not touring with Krauss he was downplaying the possibility of a Zeppelin reunion tour. Plant seemed to have found a new voice working with Krauss. "I'd always liked harmony singing but I'd never been a part of anything . . . that ever went anywhere near harmony work," said Plant.
It wasn't exactly like Page was just sitting home waiting for the phone to ring. He and Jones joined the Foo Fighters onstage during the group's '08 concert at London's Wembley Stadium for renditions of "Rock & Roll" and "Ramble On."
Later in the year Page appeared in the documentary It Might Get Loud with fellow guitarists The Edge (U2) and Jack White (White Stripes/The Raconteurs). The film premiered at the '08 Toronto Film Festival.
For over a year (since the O2 show in London), rumors percolated that Zeppelin was planning an extensive tour. This time though, it looked like it might actually happen. Page, Jones and Bonham were onboard. What about Plant? When finally cornered, Plant made it abundantly clear (once again) that he had no intention of abandoning tour plans with Krauss, for a romp with his former bandmates. OK, fine. So Page, Jones and Bonham began holding auditions for a singer. The famous, not-so-famous and has-beens-looking-to-rebound gave it a shot.
One of the more notable candidates was Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. However, this brought its own issues. Apparently, he'd failed to mention his audition to his fellow Aerosmith bandmates (which goes a long way toward explaining their issues with him). As it turned out, Tyler was not prepared for the audition and that was the end of that.
Nobody else made the cut (big surprise). In the end, the search for a frontman was abandoned as well as any tour discussions.
And right on the heels of that disaster, Plant and Krauss nabbed the Record of the Year ("Please Read The Letter" - which was co-written by Page and Plant) and Album of the Year ("Raising Sand") awards at the 51st Grammys in L.A.
Plant later spiked any talk of a Led Zep reunion. When presented with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal, for his musical contributions, by Prince Charles, questions inevitably popped up about a Zeppelin revival. Plant deflected those queries. "Sometimes I go a bit deaf in either ear, especially when people are talking nonsense."
Plant's protests aside, "Celebration Day," a documentary of the group's '07 O2 Arena show had a brief theatrical run in '12 and soon went to video. However, the set was widely praised and even picked up a Best Rock Album Grammy in '14.
Given Plant's profound disinterest in anything related to Led Zeppelin and Page's checkered solo career, the guitarist reacquired his mantle as the de facto keeper of the Led Zep legacy. Page set about re-mastering the entire Zeppelin catalog - yet again. His labors were rewarded in '14 with not one, but three, placements in Billboard's Top 10. '"Led Zeppelin I" entered the chart at #7, an mere 45 years after its original release, while "Led Zeppelin II" held #9 and "Led Zeppelin III" squeaked in at #10.
1969 Led Zeppelin
1969 Led Zeppelin II
1970 Led Zeppelin III
1971 Led Zeppelin IV (Untitled)
1973 Houses Of The Holy
1975 Physical Graffiti
1979 In Through The Out Door
Generally thought of as Heavy Metal founding fathers (if there is such a thing), Led Zeppelin, even in its earliest days, mixed acoustic and electric instruments.
Though it was recorded between tour dates, "II" has a more polished approach than "I." The songs are better and the performances, especially by Plant, are more assured.
"Led Zeppelin IV" or "Untitled" has often been heralded as the band's greatest achievement containing the acoustic/electric "Stairway To Heaven" and the blistering "Rock 'n' Roll." he follow-up "Houses Of The Holy" is nearly as strong with Led Zep expanding its sound. The double album "Physical Graffiti" has its moments but not enough of them. After that, forget it.
Nearly twenty-three years after they disbanded, Led Zeppelin offered fans yet another chance to spend money with the live "How The West Was Won." One might wonder whether there is a need for such a compilation (a handful of live sets had already been issued). The answer, surprisingly, is "yes." "How The West Was Won" does Led Zeppelin justice.