Friday, July 23, 2004

Led Zeppelin

Among the rock groups to which I listened when I was growing up was Led Zeppelin. I suppose this should come as no surprise, as they were among the biggest rock groups of the Seventies, if not the biggest. Indeed, they released their first album when I was only five years old and disbanded (after the death of their drummer, John Bonham), when I was 17.

Led Zeppelin arose from the ashes of The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page had been among the guitarists who played with The Yardbirds. In 1968 The Yardbirds broke up. This created a bit of a problem for manager Peter Grant and Jimmy Page, as the group had contractual agreements for a small tour of Scandinavia. Page then had to form a new band out of necessity. Session musician and bassist John Paul Jones became part of the new group veyr early, having played with Page on various recording sessions throughout the years. Page still had to find a vocalist and drummer. Terry Reid directed them to a young, unknown singer in Birmingham, England named Robert Plant. Robert Plant brought with him to the group one of his friends, drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham.

Initially, the new group played under the name "The New Yardbirds." As they toured Scandinavia, however, it was obvious that they were different enough from The Yardbirds that they really needed a new name. They named themselves "Led Zeppelin" from a remark Who drummer Keith Moon had made years ago when Moon, Who bassist John Entwistle, Jimmy Page, and Steve Winwood were joking about forming their own band. Moon cracked that they should name the group "Lead Zeppelin," as it would go over like a "lead balloon." They used "led" instead of "lead" in the name to avoid any mispronunciations. Their first album attained Top Ten status in America in May of 1969. It remained in the Billboard Top 100 for literally ages. The rest, as they say, is history.

I really don't know when I was first exposed to Led Zeppelin, but I suppose it was very early. From the very beginning, Led Zeppelin was huge in the United States. Their first album had achieved Top Ten status. Their second album displaced The Beatles' Abbey Road for the number one spot on Billboard's album chart. A song from that album, "Whole Lotta Love," became a hit on FM radio. In fact, it may well have been the first Led Zeppelin song I ever heard. Led Zeppelin III also performed well, although the band's peak was probably with the unnamed fourth album (usually called Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso). It was on the fourth album that what many consider the band's signature song, "Stairway to Heaven," appeared.

For myself the appeal of Led Zeppelin was twofold. First, there was the fact that Led Zeppelin was one of the hardest rock groups of their time. While it might not be entirely accurate to describe Led Zeppelin as "heavy metal," many of their songs could certainly be characterised as such. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Led Zeppelin was one of the first groups to make extensive use of fantasy imagery in their lyrics. They had certainly felt the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the song "Ramble On' from Led Zeppelin II drew its inspiration directly from Tolkien. The song makes references to Mordor, the home of the evil Sauron, and Gollum, the creature who possessed the ring before Bilbo Baggins. Other Led Zeppelin songs also made use of fantasy or medieval imagery. "The Immigrant Song," one of my two favourite Led Zepp songs of all time, centred on Viking raids. "The Battle of Evermore" drew is inspiration from the Scottish border wars and Old English poetry. "No Quarter" returned to the Viking theme. "Achilles Last Stand" was based on The Illiad. Even their signature song, "Stairway to Heaven," drew upon folklore and legend for its lyrics. At the time Robert Plant was fascinated with the works of folklorist Lewis Spence. The lady seeking to buy the Stairway to Heaven is then inspired by such mythological and literary figures from Rhiannon to Spenser's "Faerie Queen." Of course, while "Stairway to Heaven" may be Led Zeppelin's most popular song, I have always preferred "Kashmir" myself. Led Zeppelin's preoccupation with fantasy and mythology even showed up in their concert film, The Song Remains the Same. In the movie, concert footage was interspliced with fantasy sequence, many of which had a medieval theme.

Of course, not all of the songs dealt with medieval imagery or fantasy imagery. "A Whole Lotta Love" was the prototypical, heavy metal, love/lust song. "Living Loving Maid" was about a woman who refuses to act her age. "Rock and Roll" was the quintessential rock anthem. "D'Yer Mak'er" was an odd parody of Fifties rock 'n' roll fused with reggae.

Regardless, of their musical achievements, Led Zeppelin was a controversial band. They were the very stereotype of rock stars who lived to excess. Drinking. Drugs, Groupies. The band did have some less than desirable habits that were very much a part of the Seventies rock scene. A less legitimate source of controversy have been claims that Led Zeppelin was linked to Satan. An early rumour was that the group, except for John Paul Jones, had sold their souls to the devil. After the band had broken up, there was a rumour that when "Stairway to Heaven" was played backwards a Satanic message could be heard (I've tried it--there is none). I really don't know how the rumours linking Led Zeppelin to the Devil emerged, as none of the band's songs deal with Satan or Satanism. I suppose it emerged in part due to Jimmy Page's fascination with notorius English "magician" Aleister Crowley and in part due to the sterotype, at least among Fundamentalist Christians, that all heavy metal or hard rock musicians must be devil worshippers.

Following the death of their drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin disbanded. By that time they had secured their place in rock history. Throughout the years a number of rock performers have displayed influences from Led Zeppelin, among them Aerosmith, Heart, Billy Squier, Def Leppard, and others. The medieval and fantasy imagery displayed in many of their songs became part and parcel of the heavy metal genre. To this day their albums still sell well and their songs still receive radio play. I think it is safe to say that Led Zepp won't be forgotten soon.

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