Plant’s chest hair wilts. A golden god can have all the money, women, powder and pills he desires, but he can’t walk down the street and explore. Wearing the right hat, his less-conspicuous bassist can. Jonesy gives his front man a squeeze on the shoulder. Not an exultant Led Zeppelin moment by any stretch, but one that captures the two elements that make any novel worth reading and every Led Zeppelin album worth owning: empathy and adventure.
Across the ’70s, the members of Led Zeppelin spent countless afternoons like that, champing at the bit in their chandeliered cages, yearning to burst into sold-out arenas where they could triumph as the greatest rock band on Earth. They lacked the glamour of the Rolling Stones but had all of their lust. They couldn’t eclipse the humanity of the Beatles but had all of their courage. Of any band that ever made rock-and-roll — that gloriously imperfect American music that so many British groups hurled back across the ocean in unbelievable shapes — Led Zeppelin was the most perfect.
“Everyone was a superstar,” says guitarist Jimmy Page. “The key was that we played as a band.”
Where other rock troupes shook the landscape by grinding tectonic egos, the Led Zeppelin members listened to one another. Cue up their music today, and you’ll hear amplified thunder, snowflake balladry, drum fills that feel like your bones snapping in ecstasy, odes to the pleasures of the flesh and the mysteries of the universe — but you’re ultimately hearing the simple magic of four men listening to one another.
“We knew when to shut up and let somebody else lead and enunciate,” Plant says. “So for every big, strong, flamboyant moment, there would be, within it and around it, some kind of subtlety that set us apart.”
Apart and above. Trailing only the Beatles, Led Zeppelin became the second-highest-selling rock band in history, even more popular after they broke up than when they were together. The death of drummer John Bonham in 1980 brought the music to an unexpected halt, sending Jones, Page and Plant in disparate directions. But the three will reconvene at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington this weekend, where they’ll be feted for songs that exploded rock’s possibilities, for concerts that devoured superlatives, for albums that have sold an estimated 300 million copies worldwide and for their ability to listen.
Every band is its own first audience, and at Led Zeppelin’s first rehearsal in the basement of a London record shop on Aug. 19, 1968, they knocked themselves out.