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.”