No band ever did more to propagate the stereotype of the drug-abusing, hotel-room-sacking, groupie-entertaining, occult-dabbling, daylight-shirking rock star — or to inspire the parodists of Spinal Tap — than Led Zeppelin.
Much of the band’s commercial dominance of the 1970s, as well as the fact that it operated (mostly) without legal consequences through a decade of deepening substance abuse and bad behavior, has been attributed to Peter Grant. As the group’s manager and fixer, the 300-pound former wrestler and screen actor enabled his clients’ self-destructive habits while fiercely protecting their financial and creative autonomy in an era when even big stars usually got screwed.
Grant died in 1995. The three surviving members of the band he steered to mega-stardom have reunited for only a handful of performances in the 38 years since drummer John Bonham literally drank himself to death. So there’s nothing especially timely about the dutiful-but-not-colorful new Grant biography “Bring It on Home,” nor much that Zeppelin die-hards are likely to find revelatory.
British music journalist Mark Blake, who has written books about Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Who and Queen, interviews two of Grant’s adult children and draws upon previously unpublished interviews he conducted with Grant in the ’90s, along with interviews with the three former band members from the past 25 years. Another of his major sources is Zeppelin tour manager Richard Cole, who like Grant acquired a debilitating drug habit while working for the World’s Biggest Band. Cole was also the primary source for Stephen Davis’s 1985 biography “Hammer of the Gods,” a book that solidified the posthumous image of Led Zeppelin as heathen reprobates. The musicians have all contested its veracity and later accused Cole of sensationalizing his subsequent memoir, 1992’s “Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored,” too.
The salacious nuggets from these old books and the arguments over their credibility are all such familiar bits of Zeppelin lore that it’s more than a little disappointing that Blake chooses merely to recap them with a shrug. When he comes around to “a deathless rock legend” following Zeppelin’s 1969 performance at the Seattle Pop Festival (an unprintable episode involving a hotel bathtub full of freshly caught fish and a teenage groupie remembered only as Jackie) he quotes lead singer Robert Plant as observing, “It was all a bit unsavory.” He then moves on to a quote from Jimmy Page about how the music is all that matters, man. Anyone seeking a post-#MeToo reflection of the way women were treated in those days — something akin to what film historian Karina Longworth has done with her examinations of Old Hollywood on her podcast You Must Remember This and her new book “Seduction,” for example — will have to look elsewhere.
The ostensible rationale for a new Led Zeppelin book would seem to be Blake’s belief that Grant was subordinate only to castle-dwelling guitarist Page on the Led Zeppelin org chart, and that even Plant — the very archetype of the preening, open-shirted frontman — took his orders from the manager. The infrastructure of being an act that can fill stadiums on multiple continents was primitive in the years when Zeppelin was jetting between gigs aboard a Boeing 720 dubbed “The Starship,” and Grant had just the force of personality to turn it into a sustaining business.
The hardball tactics he pioneered earned him enemies but also justified his 20 percent cut of the band’s earnings. He declined to release Led Zeppelin singles, forcing fans to buy the higher-priced LPs if they wanted to own the songs they heard on FM radio. He restricted Zeppelin’s TV appearances, preserving the band’s mystique and ensuring tickets for their concert tours would remain hotly sought after. He focused those tours disproportionately on the United States, home to a much larger audience than the group’s native England. And he got the band an unheard of 90 percent share of the ticket grosses, in an era when a 60-40 split between the artist and the promoter was more customary.
No wonder concert promoters hated him. Grant was a big man who liked to deal in cash and handshakes, and who threw his physical and fiscal weight around. As the ’70s wore on, his increasing dependence on cocaine and the breakup of his marriage made his loyalty curdle into suspicion and paranoia. It all culminated in an ugly 1977 incident in Oakland when John Bindon — an actor and bodyguard who starred opposite Mick Jagger as a London gangster in Nic Roeg’s 1970 film “Performance” — and Grant severely beat a member of promoter Bill Graham’s security staff.
Immediately after Grant, Bindon and Bonham were arrested for the assault, Plant’s 5-year-old son died of a viral infection, prompting the immediate cancellation of what would turn out to be Zeppelin’s final U.S. tour. While the backstage brawl and the sudden death of Plant’s child were of course unrelated, that didn’t stop Grant from phoning Graham to tell him, “Thanks to you Robert Plant’s kid died today.”
One Grant associate remembers getting a frantic call in 1992, shortly after the release of Graham’s memoir. Now sober, Grant was inconsolable over the way he had behaved 15 years earlier. But the tepid epiphany that Grant developed a conscience once he got clean and got old simply isn’t enough of a reward for most readers to invest 300 pages into an account of his life. In his prologue, Blake declares Grant’s story “a celebration, a cautionary tale, and a compelling human drama — far stranger than any fiction.” But the book he’s written is neither celebratory nor cautionary nor strange enough to support such an extravagant claim.
Chris Klimek is an editor with Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine and a freelance critic.
By Mark Blake
Da Capo. 304 pp. $27.