Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK heavy rock band, one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Lineup: Jimmy Page, guitar (b 9 January 1944, Heston, London); Robert Plant, vocals (b 20 August 1948, Bromwich); John Paul Jones, bass (b John Baldwin, 3 June 1946, Sidcup); John Bonham, drums (b 31 May 1948, Redditch; d 25 September 1980). The name was allegedly suggested by Keith Moon. They first came together for a session with P. J. Proby on Three Week Hero '69; Page's credits included the Who, Kinks, Them, Donovan as well as Yardbirds (in fact a top session guitarist, he also recorded with Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones); he met Jones sessioning. His original choices allegedly included drummers Clem Clemson and B. J. Wilson (later Procol Harum), vocalist Terry Reid; Reid declined but recommended Plant, who urged Bonham for the drum chair (both had been in Midlands group Band of Joy).

With the inability of Jeff Beck to form a steady group and the demise of Cream and Yardbirds, Led Zep plugged a gap in the rock arena and took the USA by storm, resenting their initial lack of UK success (early gigs billed them as the New Yardbirds; descended from them, they fulfilled their gigs). Their rise was due in part to their aggressive manager Peter Grant (d 21 November 1995, aged 60), who virtually invented the 'supergroup' by demanding and getting the best for his boys (according to one story, Grant was settling up with a hotel owner who said he'd always wanted to throw a television from an upper window; Grant gave him a wad of money and said 'Have one on me.') Their eponymous debut album was made in 30 hours and set the tone '69: bone- crunching rock'n'roll with guitar hero Page, Plant's passionate singing and a solid rhythm section. Led Zeppelin II '69 included the anthem 'Whole Lotta Love', drum marathon 'Moby Dick', rock mysticism in 'Ramble On'. To some they seemed over the top, but the era of rock as ritual was underway and they soon broke the Beatles' box-office records; in any case they had more going for them than later imitators: III '70 was a hybrid LP, with hallmark riffing on 'Immigrant Song', slow blues 'Since I've Been Loving You', largely acoustic side two indicating a folk direction they were often tempted to take (some described them as a very loud folk band): both Page and Plant were fans of Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band, long-term champions of folk-poet Roy Harper (tribute on 'Hats Off To Harper'). IV '71 was known as the Runes LP: their name appeared nowhere on sleeve; it included stage favourites 'Black Dog', 'Rock And Roll', the folk direction pursued with 'The Battle Of Evermore' (Plant's duet with Sandy Denny), anthemic 'Stairway To Heaven' at first stately and acoustic, climaxing in orgiastic trademark mêleé: their best-known song, still heard on U.S. radio and a favourite of air guitarists. Houses Of The Holy '73 was still more diverse, putting off some fans with eclecticism but finally fuelling their reputation. They took '74 off, started their own Swan Song label for Bad Company, Dave Edmunds, Maggie Bell as well as their own albums, but doing little in the way of discovering new acts. Physical Graffiti '75 was an awesome two-disc set for fans, while Presence '76 was regarded as disappointing; two-disc The Song Remains The Same was a live soundtrack of a self-indulgent mystical film (Page obsessed with the occult); there were only eight tracks including marathon workouts of stage favourites. In the punk era they continued to fly above fluctuations; In Through The Out Door '79 was a reassuringly loose collection of blues and rock'n'roll which delighted fans. They played big shows at Knebworth UK, their first in four years at home; Plant appeared with Edmunds at Kampuchea benefit in London '79, singing 'Little Sister'; Bonham was a member of Paul McCartney's 'Rockestra': when he died it was rumoured that the band would continue with a new drummer, but a terse statement announced that Zep could not continue without him. Coda '82 included previously unreleased tracks from '69-79.

Page and Plant joined Foreigner onstage May '82 in Germany; there was talk of a supergroup with them and members of Yes, but nothing happened. Jones retired to his studio, surfaced in McCartney's soundtrack to Give My Regards To Broad Street '84, scored tacky horror film Scream For Help '85 (the soundtrack included Page). Plant undertook low-key gigs with scratch band the Honeydrippers, revelling in anonymity to perform R&B and rock standards; Pictures At Eleven '82 with help from Phil Collins had his vocal histrionics notably subdued from Zep peak; The Principle Of Moments '83 included the 'Big Log'; The Honeydrippers Vol. I '84 included guests Page and Beck, Plant on entertaining selection of R&B standards including 'Sea Of Love', 'Rockin' At Midnight'. His Shaken'n'Stirred '85 showed a continued willingness to experiment. Page emerged with soundtrack for risible film Death Wish II '82, appeared with Beck, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood and Eric Clapton at ARMS benefit show for MS victim Ronnie Laine in UK/USA '83, surprising everybody with an instrumental version of 'Stairway'; finally unveiled new band the Firm '85, including former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers; single 'Radioactive' was likeable but The Firm Means Business '86 was loudly panned. He kept a commitment to the acoustic side appearing with Harper at the Cambridge Folk Festival '84 and on his LP Whatever Happened To Jugula '85. Page, Plant and Jones were reunited with Collins on drums at Live Aid '85; strong rumours that Power Station drummer Tony Thompson would join trio in re- formed Zep again came to nothing.

Halfway through the '80s their reputation was in the ascendant; though vilified by punks their full-throated stuff was back in favour, having influenced Saxon, Van Halen etc. There was a Plant solo album Now And Zen '88; rumours of Zep reunion were stronger than ever. Books: Power And Glory '85 by Chris Welch was a history; Hammer Of The Gods '85 by Stephen Davis is an insider's view of their rise, with occult links explained (deaths of Bonham, Plant's son, etc). Page recorded with Plant soundalike David Coverdale; Jones was known for production work (R.E.M. and others) and not speaking to Page and Plant '94, so they did a decidedly plugged-in MTV 'Unplugged' programme without him but with guests Egyptian Hossam Ramzy and Asian vocalist Najma Akhtar, released two-CD album No Quarter (Unledded) on Atlantic/Fontana. The BBC Sessions '97 compiled two CDs of live gigs recorded in mono '69, stereo '71. Page and Plant made Walking Into Clarksdale '98 on Mercury, produced by Steve Albini with a live-in-the-studio ambience.

There finally was a one-off reunion 2007 in London, with Bonham's son Jason on drums, for a memorial tribute to Ahmet Ertegun. Plant made Raising Sand with bluegrass singer Allison Krauss; it won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2009. His Band of Joy 2011 included guitarist Buddy Miller, mandolinist Darrell Scott and singer Patty Griffin. There was still talk of more Zep reunions.