To the Mothership: Catch up on 50 years of Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin is now 50. Unbutton your shirts, let your hair hang loose, party hard and ramble on. It’s gonna get loud

art and culture Updated: Feb 18, 2018 08:56 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Jimmy Page,Robert Plant,John Bonham
Detroit, Michigan. 01-31.1975. British rock band Led Zeppelin plays at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. They travelled from New York City to Detroit aboard their chartered Boeing jet nicknamed Starship. The aircraft is custom fitted and includes a sittingroom with a fireplace. A fan offers lead guitarist Jimmy Page a bottle of Four Roses bourbon while performing before the Detroit audience.(Michael Brennan)

How hard do you rock? Led Zeppelin, the London band that started coming together in 1968 and eventually comprised John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, rocked harder than most. They released nine studio albums and a string of noisy hits. They’ve sold 300 million albums. They’re considered one of rock music’s most risk-taking, influential and successful outfits. They defined the genre’s look and sound in ways so enduring they’re part of the canon.

  • Good Times Bad Times
  • Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Communication Breakdown
  • Whole Lotta Love
  • Immigrant Song
  • Since I’ve Been Loving You
  • Black Dog
  • Rock and Roll
  • Stairway to Heaven

Golden anniversary celebrations include an illustrated book, which the band will release this year. Born too late? Turn up the volume and catch up here.

The origin story

To be fair, 1968 had plenty of loud rock. The supergroup Cream, The Who and Jimi Hendrix were audible enough. But The Yardbirds were a few decibels higher. The band was already playing their last gigs when The Yardbirds’ guitarist Jimmy Page began planning a new band with musicians Jeff Beck, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle.

Moon didn’t care for the idea – he thought it “would probably go over like a lead balloon”. Entwistle added that it might be as successful as a “lead zeppelin”.

The band played briefly as the New Yardbirds, touring Scandinavia in October 1968 and returning to record an album. But by the next year, they were performing as Led Zeppelin, taking the name from ironic to iconic.

The Danish company that made zeppelins was not amused. Eva von Zeppelin, the founder’s granddaughter, threatened legal action if Led Zeppelin (a band that sounds like shrieking monkeys, she said) performed in Denmark. They played there as The Nobs in 1970.

The albums

Led Zep started off almost indie. Page funded their first self-titled album, to keep record labels from interfering. Their next, the bluesy Led Zeppelin II, came together as the band toured the US over six months, towing their master tapes along in a trunk.

Houses of the Holy with its surreal album cover is Led Zeppelin’s fifth album. It was a first in the albums to comprise only original material and was released in 1973 by the Atlantic Records.

Through the 1970s, however, things got really interesting.

Plant’s screaming was fortified by hazy, confounding lyrics. (‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. And she’s buying a stairway to heaven. When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for’). Bonham brought in instruments as varied as the timpani, timbales, cowbells and congas; Jones mixed in unusual keyboards, a triple-necked guitar hybrid, and a theremin. And Page roped it all together with epic guitar riffs and groundbreaking recording techniques – distortion, feedback, reverb, even noise – to produce some of rock’s most adventurous sounds.

They played around the world (travelling in a customised airplane – more on that later) refining the stadium-filling, thumping arena rock that seems inseparable from the genre today. And they produced now-classic records like Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti and Led Zeppelin IV (more on that later too).

The legacy

Every rocker cliche, ever: Long hair? Tight jeans and exposed chest? Shouty crescendos? Groupies? Debauchery? Long guitar riffs? If Led Zeppelin didn’t invent it, they certainly popularised it. Lyrics that go, “Baby, baby, baby”? Plant sings “Baby” 271 times over nine albums.

That ONE album title: The first album is self-titled. The next ones are called II and III. SO the fourth one is IV, right? Wrong. It is a set of four symbols, each chosen by a band member. Blame Page, who used the title to get back at music critics who dismissed Led Zeppelin as hype. Producer Atlantic Records catalogues it as Four Symbols or The Fourth Album. Fans go with Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled and Runes. There have been untitled albums before and since. Prince even changed his name to a symbol. But this is the stuff of legend.

Led Zeppelin’s first album was a self-titled one, followed by II and III. Whole Lotta Love (1969) featured on the band’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, and was also released as a single in many countries.

The otherworldly interests: Both Page and Plant were interested in mythology, folk music, the occult and Lord of the Rings. It shows up in their lyrics, album art and iconography.

The double-necked Gibson guitar: Because two guitars rock harder, baby!

Stairway to Heaven as chord practice: Sure you learned to play Eagles’ Hotel California on the guitar. But you practised your chords with the madrigal-like intro to Stairway…, arguably the most-played rock song of all time.

Art on the record: By 1973, the Rolling Stones’ album cover, featuring a denim-clad crotch and a working zipper, had already been around for two years. Led Zep took the idea further for Houses of the Holy, hiring the photo design company Hipgnosis. The result: a surreal shot of nude kids climbing the basalt columns in Northern Ireland, echoing the Arthur Clarke novel Childhood’s End.

The private jet: The rockers had their own Boeing 720-022, Starship, with a 30-ft bar with an attached electronic organ, a TV and video player, fur bedspreads on a king-sized waterbed and a fake fireplace. Did people get drunk and stoned? Sure. Was there oral sex during turbulence? Of course. Songwriting? Not a lot.

And of course the music: At the Mumbai LP store, The Revolver Club co-owner Jude de Souza says the band’s records are among the most sold, alongside those of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. “But The Beatles are like vanilla ice cream; even people who say they like Pink Floyd don’t impress me as much as those who are interested in Zeppelin,” he says. “To borrow a quote from [American rocker, and another guitar god] Jack White, ‘I don’t trust anyone who does not like Led Zep’. Contemporary music is missing high-quality rock.”

The India connection

A clipping from the Telegraph newspaper, reporting Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s impromptu 20-minute gig on October 16, 1972 at a grungy pub, Slip Disc in Mumbai.

They have a song called Kashmir (composed in Morocco). The band visited India three times in the early 1970s. Page and Plant dropped into Bombay after touring Japan in September 1971. In February the following year, they flew in en route to Australia, taking a taxi and filming the sights.

But October 16, 1972, is the date to remember. The band stayed at a suite at the Taj in Bombay – news reports say the room was in disarray, there was lots of beer “and hordes of girls and boys seeking kisses and autographs”. They also ditched the Taj’s members-only club, Blow Up, for grungy Slip Disc down the road (where the shuttered Voodoo now stands) and played an impromptu 20-minute gig.

Sidharth Bhatia, founder-editor of The Wire includes the event in his 2014 book India Psychedelic, the Story of a Rocking Generation. “From what I learned from tracking down the people who were there, the band was mistaken for a bunch of hippies and wasn’t being allowed in,” Bhatia says. “But someone recognised them and took them in.” They agreed to play a set after a few beers. “People queued up at the payphone to tell their friends to hurry because Led Zep was going to perform. Keith Kanga from the local band Atomic Forest, who was at the venue and set to jam with them, had to rush home and get some equipment. It was quite a rocking night – what fun to have been young in the ’60s and ’70s!” Three days later, they recorded with local musicians.

The B-side

Remember the critical dismissal that resulted in the untitled fourth album? That’s not all the hate Led Zeppellin endured. The band has lifted and charged up more bits of blues music than their contemporaries. They weren’t the strongest lyricists. Addictions to alcohol, heroin and the rock-star life were starting to take their toll on creativity. Towards the end, even Page’s crazy guitar work stopped offering anything new.

By the late 1970s, rock itself was changing. Eddie van Halen’s guitar skills were taking music in new directions. There were more long-haired wild rockers competing with Plant’s Golden God persona. In 1980, John Bonham died of drinking too much (literally; he passed away hours after a breakfast of 16 vodka shots) and Led Zeppelin split.

The band has released new material off and on since then, notably remastered versions of their nine albums, and played a few gigs.

The other Zeppelins

Pictured above is one of the better known tribute band, Lez Zeppelin, an all-woman band based in New York City, with a cult following of their own.

Led Zeppelin hasn’t gone quiet. It lives on in more than 200 lookalike, sound-alike tribute bands around the world.

The best-known ones are also the best-named ones. Take a look: 

Letz Zep is one of the most popular in the UK and claim that both Plant and Page have attended and loved their gigs. They’ve played in India too.

Lez Zeppelin is an all-woman band based in New York City, with a cult following of their own. Their albums are recorded on the same vintage instruments as the original band used in the ’60s and ’70s to recreate the vibe.

Led Zepagain, in Los Angeles (where tribute bands seem to thrive), have been around since 1988 and have an army of young fans too.

Hats Off To Led Zeppelin, a UK band, has won tribute-band contests and claim they’re more than “silly wigs and impersonations”.

Zeparella, another all-woman band from the US, claims to “explore their own improvised magic within the framework of Zeppelin’s mighty songs!”

Jason Bonham: The Led Zeppelin Experience was set up by John Bonham’s son, Jason, and has been paying homage through live gigs across the US since 2010.

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 20:05 IST