Guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and bassist John Paul Jones formed Led Zeppelin in August 1968. One year later, the group had broken through to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and its self-titled debut album had reached the U.K. and U.S. Top Ten.
At its inception, Led Zeppelin was derided by some critics as an overbearing, overloud, and mindless “heavy metal” band. In fact, their music has little of the spiritual gloom and gothic atmosphere characteristic of metal bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Zeppelin’s repertoire drew upon diverse influences and traditions including blues from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, folk songs of the British Isles, funk and soul, mid-1960s psychedelic rock, and strains of Indian and North African music.
Nonetheless, Led Zeppelin exponentially increased the sonic intensity and visual flash of rock music with dramatic results. The group was at the forefront of a “third wave” in British rock music following the breakthrough of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1963–65 and a subsequent crop of blues-oriented bands like Cream and the early Fleetwood Mac in 1966–68. In the case of many English groups of the first wave, the musicians grew up in the same locale and the bands sometimes played out a good part of their careers within that region. But the musicians who formed Led Zeppelin hailed from two disparate regions (suburban London and the West Midlands) and came together as aspiring professionals rather than as friends who’d grown up playing together.
Zeppelin largely avoided face-to-face contact with the music press and eschewed certain standard industry practices. The band rarely performed on television and maintained a policy (at least in the United Kingdom) of not releasing singles from its albums. Rather than limiting its popularity, the band’s stance lent it an aura of principled musical artistry and a reputation for not giving in to pop trends or commercial pressures.
Led Zeppelin was an enormously popular “people’s band” that also personi-fied the wealth, privilege, and arrogance of international rock stardom at its 1970s apex. Particularly in the United States, their music appealed to teenagers for whom the Beatles and Stones, even Cream and Jimi Hendrix, represented the musical tastes of older siblings. This new generation of rock fans embraced Zeppelin and flocked to its concerts in increasingly larger venues, from 400-capacity clubs to open-air sports stadiums. When its career came to a sudden and tragic end in 1980, Led Zeppelin was one of the most popular and influ-ential rock bands of all time.
JIMMY PAGE (GUITAR)
Led Zeppelin was a collective musical effort from its inception but guitarist Jimmy Page was its instigator, record producer, and driving force. Born January 9, 1944, James Patrick Page grew up in the London suburbs of Heston and Epsom. He was largely self-taught on his instrument that he picked up at age twelve when he fell under the spell of guitarist Scotty Moore’s licks on Elvis Presley’s Sun recording of “Baby, Let’s Play House.” From the 1950s rock and roll of Elvis and Gene Vincent, Jimmy worked his way back to electric blues guitarists like B.B. King and Otis Rush and such pre–World War II country blues artists as Robert Johnson and Skip James. He was also a fan of British folk music and in particular the acoustic guitar players Davy Graham and Bert Jansch.
Page’s formal education ended at age fifteen and he joined a beat group called Neil Christian and the Crusaders with whom he made his earliest studio recordings including the 1962 single, “The Road to Love,” and a cover of Big Joe Turner’s R&B standard, “Honey Hush.” When a bout of glandular fever curtailed his touring career, Jimmy enrolled in art school to study painting while continuing to sit in on jam sessions at the Marquee club in London. Mike Leander, a staff producer for Decca Records, was impressed with Page’s talent and began to employ him on numerous recording sessions beginning in early 1963 with “Diamonds” by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, which became a number one hit in the United Kingdom.
Accompanying performers both celebrated (Donovan, Brenda Lee) and obscure (the Lancastrians, Gregory Phillips), Jimmy Page is estimated to have played on 50–60 percent of the hit records recorded in London in the years 1963–66. Studio life, although often tedious and mechanical, afforded Page the chance to play different styles of pop music with a wide array of arrangements and instrumentation. Working with the producers Mike Leander and Shel Talmy, he absorbed the finer points of overdubbing, mixing, tape editing, microphone placement, and other technical aspects of recording. Page later applied this knowledge as a staff producer for Immediate Records where he worked with British blues singer John Mayall and former Velvet Underground vocalist Nico.
In May 1966, Jimmy joined guitarist Jeff Beck (a friend since primary school) for a “super-session” that also included Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who and another London sessioneer, John Paul Jones. Although their raucous instrumental, “Beck’s Bolero,” would not be released for another two years, the creative camaraderie of the session gave rise to talk of a new group with Beck, Page, and the Who rhythm team. When Keith Moon jokingly predicted that the band would “go over like a lead balloon,” John Entwistle chimed in, “more like a lead zeppelin.”
A few weeks later, Page joined Jeff Beck in a new configuration of Beck’s group, the Yardbirds (guitarist Chris Dreja switched to bass). Among the lineup’s few recordings was a careening version of the Johnny Burnette rockabilly classic “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” made for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup. This track ranks with the Yardbirds’ greatest studio performances and was a signpost on the road to Led Zeppelin: Two years later, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” would be the very first song ever played together by the four members of the new group.
In October 1966, when Jeff Beck exited in the midst of an American tour, the Yardbirds were poised to disintegrate. But Jimmy Page, at last extricated from the London studio scene, was thrilled to be on the road in the birthplace of blues, R&B, and rock and roll. The Yardbirds’ 1966–67 gigs at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco were Jimmy’s introduction to the nascent American rock ballroom scene and a far cry from the screaming teenyboppers that still made up a good part of the band’s British audience.
The guitarist participated in the Yardbirds’ final studio album, Little Games, but it failed to revive the band’s fading fortunes and in July 1968 drummer Jim McCarty and lead singer Keith Relf called it quits. Jimmy Page and Yardbirds manager Peter Grant hastened to assemble a new band to fulfill the contractual obligation of a two-week tour of Scandinavia. When Chris Dreja left to pursue a career in photography, bassist John Paul Jones was the first to sign on.
JOHN PAUL JONES (BASS AND KEYBOARDS)
John Paul Jones was born John Baldwin to musician parents on January 3, 1946, in the London suburb of Sidcup, Kent. John went on to study music at boarding school where he was equally influenced by blues, modern jazz, and classical music. In 1960, while serving as the organist and choirmaster at a local church, he bought his first bass guitar; two years later he joined his first professional rock band, fronted by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. On Meehan’s recommendation, Jones began receiving regular offers of studio session work.
In the period from 1964–68, John played bass guitar and/or keyboards on hundreds of sessions. His credits include the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Cat Stevens, and Rod Stewart. Both Jones and Jimmy Page played on Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” a number one U.S./number two U.K. hit in 1966. It was not unusual for John to compose a score for horns and strings the night before, pass out the music at the next day’s session, and then conduct the ensemble for the recording.
By 1968, Jones was burnt out from the grinding routine. “I was making a fortune but I wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” he told Dave Lewis in a 1997 interview. “It was my wife Mo who noticed an item in [English music paper] Discsaying that Jimmy was forming a new band out of the old Yardbirds. She prompted me to phone him up. It was the chance to do something different at last.”
“I knew [Page] well from the session scene, of course, he was a very respected name. So I rang him up. He was just about to go up to Birmingham to see Robert.”1
ROBERT PLANT (VOCALS, HARMONICA)
Robert Plant was born August 20, 1948, in West Bromwich and grew up in Halesowen. Both towns are in the West Midlands region of Britain, near the city of Birmingham and close to the rural area known as “the Black Country.” This name may have derived from the above-ground seams of coal that ran through the landscape or from the black smoke that poured from its factories and mines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the forbidding region of Mordor is said to be based on the historic ambience of the Black Country. Despite its history of environmental degradation, the area also contains swaths of beautiful countryside that, along with Tolkien’s trilogy, would later inspire some of Plant’s pastoral fantasies as a songwriter.
Beginning in his mid-teens, Robert eschewed a career in accounting to sing with a succession of Birmingham-based bands whose styles reflected his eclectic musical states. The Crawling Kingsnakes played blues in emulation of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; Listen was a white-soul outfit that released a cover version of the Young Rascals’ U.S. hit “You Better Run.” Band of Joy, with John Bonham on drums, mixed original material with circa-1967 covers of psychedelic rock songs by Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (“Hey Joe”). None of these groups achieved notable success beyond the Midlands but they gave Robert the chance to strengthen his naturally powerful voice and gain invaluable stage experience.
Plant was working with yet another Midlands band, Hobbstweedle, when Jimmy Page traveled to Birmingham to hear him. The guitarist’s first thought was that Plant must have some fatal personality defect: Why else would a vocalist of his caliber still be toiling away in provincial obscurity? As it turned out, the two musicians got on famously from their first record listening Session. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” by Joan Baez and “You Shook Me” by Muddy Waters were among the tracks that Jimmy played for Robert as examples of the kind of material he aspired to perform with his new band.
Jimmy Page remembers discussing with Plant “what the band’s driving force should be, the acoustic and electric. Then I saw John Bonham playing with [American singer-songwriter] Tim Rose at a London club and I knew I didn’t have to look any further.”2
JOHN BONHAM (DRUMS)
John Henry Bonham was born May 31, 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, in the heart of the Black Country. By the age of five, he was banging incessantly on tin cans and empty boxes using forks and knives for drumsticks. His exasperated mother, Joan, bought the boy a snare drum when he was ten; at fifteen, Jack Bonham gave his son the gift of a cheap, badly rusted drum kit which was soon replaced by a professional-quality Premier set. John had been expected to follow his father into the building trades but now there was no turning back: “I was determined to be a drummer as soon as I left school. I was so keen [that] I would have played for nothing. In fact I did for a long time.”3
Bonham was only seventeen when he married Patricia Phillips; when their first child, Jason, was born in 1966, the impoverished couple was living in a cramped fifteen-foot house trailer. But the power and precision of his drumming Page 384 | Top of Articlewith regional bands like the Blue Star Trio, the Senators, and Way of Life made “Bonzo” into a local legend in the West Midlands.
Bonham played so loudly that at least one club owner refused to hire any band that included him. But in tandem with his brute power there was a propulsive sense of swing. As in the big-band drumming of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, two of his percussive idols, this element of John’s playing lifted Led Zeppelin’s music rather than simply nailing it to the floor—and he could swing whether playing with sticks or brushes or even his bare hands. Bonham was one of the first “name” drummers in rock to utilize a smaller kit with very large diameter shells (including his trademark oversized twenty-six-inch bass drum) but many observers agreed that he could produce his huge sound on almost any drum set.
“The Band of Joy had been the real schooling for Bonzo and myself for taking material and stretching it, breaking down the general order of the pop song,” Plant later recalled. “So meeting Jimmy and Jonesy was like a gathering of souls, because Jimmy had been doing that with the Yardbirds in a different form.”4
On August 19, 1968, the four musicians gathered for the first time in a small rehearsal room at 22 Gerrard Street in London. Since no one had any original material at hand, they ended up playing the Yardbirds’ arrangement of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” along with some other blues and rockabilly numbers. John Paul Jones later described this inaugural jam as “quite a stunning experience—wonderful, very exhilarating.”5
As “The Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page,” the quartet commenced a two-week tour of Scandinavia that began with their first public performance on September 7 in Copenhagen. On October 15, they made their live debut as Led Zeppelin at Surrey University. With an eye already cast in the direction of the United States, Jimmy Page and band manager Peter Grant had decided to drop the “a” from “lead” in the belief that Americans would mistakenly pro-nounce it “leed.”
Peter Grant (born November 1, 1935) had worked around the edges of British show business in the 1950s as a talent booker, bouncer, semi-professional wrestler, and film actor. In 1963, he went to work for pop music promoter Don Arden as a tour manager accompanying visiting American rockers including Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, and the Everly Brothers. Grant took over management of the Yardbirds in late 1966 after Jimmy Page had joined the band and later hired Richard Cole as the band’s road manager for its final American tour in 1968. Both men would play key roles in the Led Zeppelin story.
Standing approximately six feet, six inches and weighing more than 300 pounds, Peter Grant was an imposing figure—and an extremely intimidating one whenever he chose to be. He was completely and unceasingly devoted to Led Zeppelin: Its four members placed their careers, their fortunes, and sometimes their very lives in his meaty hands. It is emblematic of the faith and trust they shared that no written contract ever existed between Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin.
1. Lewis, Dave, Led Zeppelin: The “Tight But Loose” Files—Celebration 2 (New York: Omnibus Press, 2004).
2. Jimmy Page quote from “Led Zeppelin” by Mat Snow, Q Magazine (December 1990).
3. Chris Welch and Geoff Nicholls, John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2001), p. 14.
4. Plant quote from “Led Zeppelin” by Snow.