Books

You Wanna Whole Lotta Zep?

Led Zeppelin onstage in 1975, at the height of their powers, when it seemed like nothing could stop them.
Led Zeppelin onstage in 1975, at the height of their powers, when it seemed like nothing could stop them. Photo by Tom Morelli, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Bob Spitz has written massive biographies of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, so it’s no surprise that the best-selling journalist and author has turned his reportorial attention to Led Zeppelin. You might say that the group is finally getting a Spitz take.

Led Zeppelin: The Biography (673 pp. $35.00, Penguin Press) presents the story of the groundbreaking band with a level of detail unseen in any previous volume. There have been any number of books written by and about the band itself, its individual members, its manager, and even its roadies, so this represents a significant accomplishment.

Spitz, is, if nothing else, a dedicated researcher. The Notes section of his book indicates that he conducted new interviews with dozens of Zeppelin intimates, though none with any of the surviving band members. Every conversation, every quote is conscientiously referenced, in such a manner as to bring joy to the hearts of college professors everywhere.

Depending on the type of reader (casual listener or obsessive fan), Led Zeppelin could be considered either plodding or revelatory. Spitz describes the events leading up to Zeppelin’s formation in more depth than any other Zeppelin biography to date, devoting the first quarter of his book to the period prior to the band’s first album. For those who are eager to get to the stories of groupies and fish (more about that later), this lengthy windup may be frustrating. But for Zeppelin devotees, there is new information which makes clear that Zeppelin’s phenomenal success was far from a sure thing.

Having said that, Spitz is not much of a literary stylist. His prose is workmanlike, not terribly engaging, and his occasional attempts at humor generally fall flat. He does have the perspective of a historian, though, and he combines a perceptive overview of Zeppelin’s rise and (sort of) fall with a litany of details which support his assertions. He delivers frequent moments of insight, e.g. “Led Zeppelin was less a single creative entity than a collection of musicians performing distinct roles.”

The musicians in the collection were singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. Page and Jones were seasoned London session players, while Plant and Bonham had not played much outside their hometown of Birmingham and the surrounding Midlands.

BOOK COVER
Book Cover
Zeppelin founder Page has long been considered a shrewd businessman in addition to a talented guitarist and record producer. He foresaw the changes taking place in rock and roll following the Summer of Love and theorized (correctly) that flower power was on its way out. The kids, he believed, were ready for something harder, something louder, something with a bit of a swagger. As Page put it at the time, “Fuck the sixties, we’re going to chart the new decade!”

Spitz does an admirable job of walking the reader through the business and personal machinations that led to the formation of the Zeppelin juggernaut following Page’s manifesto. Page knew that he needed a solid team to realize his aspirations, and he set about collecting a group of disparate but crushingly effective overachievers.

Chief among them was Peter Grant, a former bit player (he can be glimpsed for a fraction of a second in the film Cleopatra), professional wrestler, and music biz go-fer. Once Grant was installed as Zeppelin’s manager, plans began to move along swiftly. Where Page was cunning and ruthless, Grant was violent and intimidating. It was a perfect combination of intellect and brawn. “I would step on anyone who fucks with my band,” Grant often said.

But what goes up, they say, must come down. This is certainly true in the music business, particularly in the case of a band whose name is based on that of an inflatable airship. After a seven-year run of platinum albums and sold-out concerts, things began to sour for Zeppelin around the release of the double album Physical Graffiti in 1975. Consequently, the latter portion of Led Zeppelin depicts the band members dealing with addictions, violence, and tragedy.

Spitz certainly has commercial instincts, and he spends plenty of time focusing on the prurient side of the band’s days on the road. Page’s fascination with occultist, magician, and general perv Alistair Crowley, who billed himself as “The Great Beast 666,” is detailed at some length. Following Crowley’s dictum “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” Page embarked on an epic journey of decadence, justifying his sybaritic self-indulgence with quotes from the Master.

“Jimmy was obsessed with the Marquis de Sade and his perversions,” Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty recalls in an interview with Spitz. “He had a bag of stuff he’d bring on tour – whips, handcuffs, chains, and the like.” Which doesn’t necessarily make Page a bad person, but, as Spitz points out, there were ongoing questions regarding consensuality and legal age on the part of female participants. Some in the Zeppelin camp even blamed Page’s dabbling in black magick (the Crowley spelling) for the death of Plant’s young son.

"Your music was about sex, Vikings, and Vikings having sex."

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Spitz delves into the seemingly inexhaustible collection of lore regarding the band and its groupies, whose number was legion. The infamous “mud shark incident” is recounted with a painstaking (so to speak) level of detail not seen in previous Zeppelin biographies. Drummer Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge was there, and he tells Spitz, “Man, it was gross. We were all pretty disgusted.” And when you can disgust a touring rock and roll musician – and a drummer, no less – well, let’s say you have entered the big leagues of kink.

Zeppelin has frequently been criticized (and sued, for that matter) due to their lack of qualms the band has exhibited in freely taking “inspiration” from a number of artists. The list of songs in which Zeppelin “borrowed” motifs from other songwriters (without giving credit) is lengthy: “Whole Lotta Love,” “The Lemon Song,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “How Many More Times,” to name just a few.

Spitz methodically lays out the many examples of what some might term “plagiarism” with an even hand. He cites examples, delineates the similarities between the Zeppelin version and the source material, and then reports on what legal action, if any, was taken in each instance. Clearly, this was far more than a matter of cultural appropriation on the part of the band.

But for every tune of dubious origin, there were many songs that were uniquely Zeppelin: “The Immigrant Song,” with its references to Vikings and other pillagers, “The Battle of Evermore,” a Tolkien-inspired acoustic number, “Communication Breakdown,” a proto-punk raver, and, of course, “Stairway to Heaven.” No, wait, they got sued for the one too. Ok, bad example.

Led Zeppelin: The Biography is a worthy addition to the Zeppelin literary canon, if not necessarily an elegant piece of writing. With so many books chronicling the history of such an influential and legendary band, embarking on this sort of challenge requires both commitment and chutzpah, and Spitz possesses those qualities in spades.

Many have tried to encapsulate the essence of Led Zeppelin, and Spitz has given it more than a decent shot. But on the side of brevity, one must give credit to Jack Black.
When the band appeared on David Letterman’s show after being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012, the host recounted Black’s introduction at the ceremony. “He said your music was about sex, Vikings, and Vikings having sex. Is that a good evaluation?” Ever the cheeky Brit, bassist Jones replied, “Well, you missed the bit about Vikings having sex with Hobbits.”
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Contributor Tom Richards is a broadcaster, writer, and musician. He has an unseemly fondness for the Rolling Stones and bands of their ilk.
Contact: Tom Richards