Led Zeppelin. Probably the biggest band of the 1970s and certainly one of the best-selling music artists in history, especially in the USA, where they had to introduce a new Diamond status for their record sales – on top of Silver, Gold and Platinum – for in excess of 10 million. Five of Zeppelin’s nine studio albums qualify – I, II, IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. And yes I know Physical Graffiti is a DOUBLE album.
There’s been quite a lot of Led Zep activity in 2014: a very good new album from Robert Plant; a splendid photo book from Jimmy Page imaginatively titled ‘Jimmy Page’; even Paul Smith Led Zeppelin Limited Edition scarves, six designs of just 50 of each and only £395. And they’ve have released also digitally recombobulated versions of their first five albums on CD, with extra tracks and alternative mixes. The updated Led Zeppelin IV came out this week, 43 years after the original was released. It’s straight in the UK album charts this week at number 6 and is apparently outselling Taylor Swift in some quarters. Which is a very good thing.
Led Zeppelin IV is the high water mark for Led Zeppelin, who had already set the bar pretty high. It’s probably the sheer variety of the album: there’s an Old English ballad (‘The Battle of Evermore’), an experimental piece (‘Four Sticks’), some airy fairy hippy dippy stuff (‘Going To California’and the first four minutes of ‘Stairway to Heaven’) and the requisite number of chest out rockin Zep tunes (‘Black Dog’ ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and the last four minutes of ‘Stairway to Heaven’). Plus a big blues tune to finish (‘When The Levee Breaks’) with an incredible drum sound that most drummers would give their right arm for.
An interesting mix of soft shandy drinking Southerners, who just happened to be two of the most prolific session players of the 1960s, and two hard-as-nails, beery Herberts from the Black Country, Zep got together in 1968 as The New Yardbirds. Worn out by the drudgery of session work, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – they’re on anything from Lulu’s Shout to Tom Jones It’s Not Unusual to literally thousands off others – got together with 19 year old Robert Plant and his 20 year old mate John Bonham in a Chinatown basement rehearsal studio and never looked back, only surfacing two and a bit years later when they had trousered pretty much all of America’s money, with three Number One albums and six sell out tours. Despite the wealth, the power, the Olympic standard debauchery, the press hated them, thinking it was all hype, so by late 1970, they felt had something to prove.
In December they went to Island Studios in Basing Street, Notting Hill and despite already having a few of the tunes we came to know and love later, they got nowhere, so they took a break for Christmas. In January 1971, they thought about renting a country house to record with the Rolling Stones mobile recording truck. They enquired about getting Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s house near Newbury but Jagger wanted a grand a week and the biggest band in the world didn’t want to pay that much. Instead their manager’s secretary found an ad in The Lady for a former poorhouse called Headley Grange just south of Godalming. It was cheap and free of distractions. They rehearsed for a week then recorded for six days and by the end had the album, more or less.
The opener ‘Black Dog’ became the archetypal open-shirted-to-reveal-hairy-chest Led Zeppelin song and was named after a sexually adventuresome black Labrador Retriever that wandered around Headley Grange. ‘Rock and Roll’ was John Bonham playing the drum intro to Little Richard’s ‘Keep A Knockin’ and everyone else joined in and improvised. They did 3 takes and the whole thing took 15 minutes. ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ was John Paul Jones’ piano riff written one morning when he got up earlier than everyone else and started noodling. The rest of the band joined in still in their pyjamas and wrote the song there and then. Why’s the weird experimental one called ‘Four Sticks’? Because John Bonham used two sets of drumsticks to pound out the rhythm. ‘Going to California’, the album’s ballad, was written as a tribute to Joni Mitchell and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is probably the second most most important song in Zep’s career. It never worked properly till Bonham created the massive drum intro, recorded when he moved his new Ludwig drums into the three-story open stairwell, added a bit more echo and pressed ‘record’. What a sound! It’s possibly the second most sampled drum break after James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’.
But the key song on the album is ‘Stairway To Heaven’, on FM radio somewhere in America 24 hours a day. We have George Harrison to thank for it. Beatle George confessed to John Bonham one night that the pity about Zep was that they had no ballads. Bonham told Page and Page decided to write a tune that was ballad, power ballad and headbanger all-in-one. The mystically leaning Plant came up with some nonsense about pipers, hedgerows and May Queens and there it was.
But not at Headley Grange. Something wasn’t quite right so they went back to Notting Hill and completely remade it a week later. In the huge Studio 1 – where the Live Aid record was later made – they did one fabulous take, so fabulous that Bonham thought they were finished and put his coat on to go to the pub for a celebratory beverage. Page thought they could improve it a little bit though and ushered the group back into studio for one last go. And that’s the one we hear. A few overdubs, including three different recorders, then the guitar solo. Standing in the middle of the room, in between four large speakers turned up very loud, with no headphones and a fresh cigarette dangling from his lips, he knocked out rock’s greatest solo.
February 1971, album done.
So let’s get the damn thing out and start making tons of money, you’d think. Nope, it didn’t come out till November, thanks to months of brinkmanship with Atlanrtic Records over the cover. Zep wanted the music to speak for itself, so wanted a sleeve with no title, no lettering, no record company logo, no nothing. It’s commercial suicide, said Atlantic, who you’d think would be a little more grateful given the shedloads of money they’d made off Zep. There was a standoff for months and in the end the band simply refused to hand over the master tapes until they gave in, which they eventually did.
The front cover is a framed picture, bought from an antique shop in Reading by Plant, of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back on a flocked wall, but when you open up the gatefold, you see it’s on the wall of a semi-demolished house in a rather grim inner city landscape (actually Dudley in the West Midlands and they don’t come any grimmer, believe me, I’ve been to Dudley). The inside cover is a drawing of a hermit on a mountain top holding a lamp and the inner sleeve has the four mysterious symbols, Zoso, feathers and all that. They all chose their own and there may be some symbolism, but John Bonham’s three intertwined circles is almost identical to the logo of his favourite American beer, Ballantine.
The album was released on 8 November 1971 and to celebrate the band held two ‘Electric Magic’ shows at what I still call the Empire Pool, Wembley on November 20 and 21 1971. For a ticket price of 75p, you got a 5 hour circus extravaganza that included clowns, acrobats, platespinners, performing pigs on trampolines, two support acts and a three hour set by the Zep.
The album of course went number one everywhere it could and as at 2014 has sold 37 million copies. Everything they did after Zep IV was bigger. They started getting 90% of the takings from their shows as opposed to 50% of old. They used a private plane, The Starship, a converted Boeing 720 with marble fireplaces, bars, bedrooms and showers. And their debauchery was usually bigger than anyone else’s. In LA at the Riot House, they took over the top two floors, threw most of the furniture out of the windows and played cricket and rode motorcycles along the long corridors. They just paid the damage when they checked out and the hotel got to redecorate the rooms free. A win win, in a perverse way. One civilian in a convertible who complained that drinks and bottles were being thrown into his open car from the top floors came back to find his car flattened by a dining table thrown from the top floor.
Heartbroken by the death of their irreplaceable drummer John Bonham in September 1980, they packed it in. In December 2007, when they reformed for one night only at The Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, they got a million requests for the 20,000 £125 tickets available, the ‘Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert’. Look it up – it’s in the Guinness Book of Records.