In Led Zeppelin’s heyday, the early 1970s, I noticed that certain women of my acquaintance seemed to shake with a near-visceral disgust when the band’s name was mentioned. Now I know why. At first, rock journalist Barney Hoskyn’s oral history of the band, “Led Zeppelin,” captivates, and then slowly it begins to horrify. Not everyone described in it is a villain, but enough of the main characters become so grotesque that it’s hard to avoid a sickly feeling that worsens as one turns the pages. As a group, the musicians and their entourage are like star athletes who turn up in the headlines as thugs; you can’t forget the thrills they gave you, but you’ll never feel the same about them again.
In the beginning, the four musicians were like any other hardworking lads besotted with a new sound. There was singer Robert Plant, a blues enthusiast who could go on for hours about his favorite American roots musicians when the rest of the band just wanted to party. Guitarist Jimmy Page was one of the most in-demand session players before he helped form the group. Page’s studio work sometimes had him playing next to the third member, John Paul Jones, a virtuoso on several instruments and a skilled arranger as well. Percussion was supplied by John Bonham, the loudest, fastest drummer of his and perhaps any era.
Planty, Pagey, Jonesy, Bonzo, as they called each other: Like thousands of other young Englishmen of that day, they devoured the blues that American musicians took for granted, but they took their fandom one step further and transformed the sounds of Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell into something never heard before.
In this they were enabled by Granty, that is, Peter Grant, the physical giant who became their manager and helped create a new business model that, in addition to the band’s talent and passion, is the other half of the formula that rocketed Led Zeppelin toward unimaginable riches as well as unspeakable decadence. Whereas earlier business people tried to wring the most out of bands before discarding them, the new crowd went all in to nurture and guide the groups.
Unless it’s happened to you, you can’t know what it’s like to be eating beans on toast one day and pheasant under glass the next. The Led Zeps became gods before they became men. Hoskyns quotes Page: “People say, ‘I grew up to Led Zeppelin.’ And I say, ‘So did I.’ ”
No wonder it all went to their heads. The sex and drugs were nonstop, as is to be expected. What appalls here is the violence. Bonham, Grant and tour manager Richard Cole veer out of control again and again; a journalist says, “I’ve never seen anyone behave worse in my life than Bonham and Cole. I once saw them beat a guy senseless for no reason and then drop money on his face.” True, cocaine and alcohol, especially in combination, make people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, but I’ve never read a musical history that uses the words “sociopath” and “psychopath” as much as this one.
Not everyone was in on the mayhem, of course. Plant and Jones come off as decent chaps, overall. And when he wasn’t leading the havoc, Grant was an extraordinarily successful manager. Part of his strategy was to keep the world’s most outrageous band a relative secret by not issuing singles or appearing on television or cultivating the press; that way, as legendary groupie Bebe Buell recalls, “You didn’t hear Led Zeppelin on the radio; you heard about them from the boys in your class. . . . I don’t know if the music was designed to give boys power and sexual prowess, but I do know that when boys listened to it, they would become extremely cocky and full of themselves.”
In the end, the songs speak for themselves: The permanent appeal of “Black Dog,” “Immigrant Song” and “Whole Lotta Love” make Led Zeppelin, along with the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd, one of the rare bands with intergenerational appeal.
Still, now I know why no woman ever asked me, “Who’s your favorite Led Zep?”
Kirby teaches at Florida State University and is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band
By Barney Hoskyns
Wiley. 538 pp. $35