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Led Zeppelin: The first, the biggest, and still the best...

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Led Zeppelin in their Seventies heyday

Led Zeppelin in their Seventies heyday

Led Zeppelin in their Seventies heyday

They were the biggest, the best, the loudest, the most popular, the least compromising, the most influential, and the most commercially successful band in the history of recorded music.

But then, Led Zeppelin were always about extremes, from the mind-boggling album sales and tour receipts racked up by the band through their Seventies heyday, to the unparalleled excesses in which their private lives and public image were steeped. So it's no real surprise that their imminent reunion for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at London's 02 Arena on Monday should have triggered an unprecedented clamour for tickets – depending on which report one consults, anywhere between 20 million and a billion requests for the 18,000 available seats, at £125 per seat (booking fee extra). That's two and a quarter million of your English pounds for one night's work: just another statistic to add to the bulging sackful of hyperbole of the band's legend.



I'll certainly be there. But I'm rather surprised to find myself anticipating the Zep reunion quite as keenly as I am, since, back in the Seventies, they were the band that I abandoned. I wasn't alone, either: like many thousands of music fans during that decade, I grew to resent Led Zeppelin and all they stood for. When punk came along, it found a ready audience primed to unburden itself of what had, by then, become an embarrassing pantomime, one usually being staged somewhere else far across the globe. The irony that punk's basic riff-rock was largely grounded in the musical style that Zep had been instrumental in establishing, barely registered at the time; but play "Communication Breakdown", from Zep's eponymous 1969 debut album, alongside the Damned's "New Rose", the Clash's "White Riot" or the Pistols' "God Save The Queen", and there's no great aesthetic gear-change required to negotiate the eight-year gap between riffs.



But the music wasn't the big bone of contention by that point. Not their music, at least, although Led Zeppelin must share some of the blame for the turgid heavy-metal bands that appeared in their wake, few of whom had even a fraction of Zep's dedication and musical ambition – though this is the showbiz equivalent, I suppose, of blaming Nietzsche for Nazism. The main sticking-point, for those of us disillusioned with the band, was what Led Zeppelin had come to represent, the dismissive distance their ponderous dirigible appeared to have floated away from anything to do with one's life. And there was no point calling, as Morrissey and The Smiths would a decade later, for the DJ to be hanged, as Led Zeppelin were barely ever played on the radio.



Radio silence was ensured by the band's decision, at the outset, never to release singles. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time this seemed a stand worth taking, as clear an indication of intent as the length of one's hair. As the Sixties had faded, the divide between pop and rock had grown into an unbridgeable gulf: pop was all about love songs, singles and miming on Top of the Pops; rock, on the other hand, was consumed in the album-length chunks commensurate with what its audience considered the more challenging matters in which it dealt.



Pop and politics, for instance, didn't mix well, but rock wielded the kind of grandiose, self-important bombast and flamboyant dynamics that could effectively animate political issues; and, although there was no such barrier separating pop and fantasy, nevertheless, for some reason – probably drugs – fantasy found its perfect vehicle in long-haired rock, with the works of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and similar fabulists routinely ransacked for inspiration.



Sure, there were love songs in rock, too, but they tended to be more carnal than romantic, more about sex than love: not for nothing did the tightly trousered, snake-hipped manner of Robert Plant's stage demeanour help the band's performances acquire the graceless sobriquet "cock-rock". Many of the themes and euphemisms he employed had previously been coined by black blues artists, but instead of their usually light-hearted, flirtatious manner, in Zep's hands the terminology developed a more aggressive, predatory character – in retrospect, taking the first step along the road ultimately leading to the brutish misogyny so commonplace in hip-hop.

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That attitude soon came to characterise the band's dealings with women. In the post-Pill, pre-Aids Seventies, sexual promiscuity was rife, with groupies forever seeking new notches for their bedposts; and as the biggest band in the world, Led Zeppelin were in a position to indulge more regularly, and more kinkily, than most. After reading former road manager Richard Cole's scurrilous account of the band's excesses, Stairway to Heaven, one is left feeling sullied and unclean, simply through learning of how low they were prepared to go.



In the old joke about the man who had sex with dogs, the punchline to this query is "As low as a Jack Russell terrier", but the dog which the Zep entourage persuaded one groupie to (unsuccessfully) engage with was rather bigger – a Great Dane who, to his credit, seems to have been more disgusted by the proposal than any of the humans involved. Their search for inter-species sexual hi-jinks didn't just stop at dogs, either, but on a couple of notorious occasions involved live fish and octopuses being erotically involved with submissive groupies.



This sort of gross behaviour provided the tipping-point for many fans' disaffection with the band. The usual rock-star shenanigans involving the defenestration of televisions and wanton destruction of hotel rooms was one thing, easily characterised as simple high spirits; but as social attitudes became increasingly informed by feminism, their kind of carnal humiliation seemed increasingly sick and antediluvian. You didn't have to be a card-carrying prude to find it all quite revolting, the warning signs of a moral compass spinning wildly out of control.



Another factor prompting some fans' loss of faith in the band was the impression of contemptuous superiority cultivated by the band and its menacing manager, Peter Grant. Right from the start, Zeppelin had deliberately targeted the American market and, although they continued to play UK dates in their early years, their relentless overseas touring schedule rendered such opportunities increasingly scarce. After their 1972/3 tour ended in January 1973, Led Zeppelin would only appear in their native land another seven times, with five 1975 shows at Earls Court followed four years later by two outdoor concerts at Knebworth. The scale of these events illustrated clearly how the distance between the band and its fans had become a yawning gulf. And since Zeppelin never released singles in the UK, there was no chance of seeing the band on TV, either.



The upcoming reunion concert will be only the second time I've seen Led Zeppelin perform, following a small club date so long ago that I can barely remember it. But it was clear that the band possessed a unique poise and self-assurance, and a musical ambition that went way beyond most of their peers. It was the first time that I saw a double-necked guitar, the first time I saw a guitarist use a violin bow on an electric guitar, and the first time I had seen or heard a theremin at all. It was also the first time I encountered the sort of hysterical vocal shriek that would become de rigueur in subsequent years, as legions of singers aped Plant's distinctive wail. And it was loud, the kind of ear-splitting, tinnitus-inducing volume you are no longer allowed to experience in such a small club. My ears rang for days.



It was fairly obvious, however, that Led Zeppelin had based their dynamic sound on The Who. Both bands' power was rooted in the juggernaut propulsion of an extrovert, explosive drummer (Keith Moon in The Who, while Zep's John Bonham played the loudest drums in rock); and with his leonine mane and lean, exposed midriff, Plant was a fringed suede jacket away from Roger Daltrey. And, like Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page clearly understood rock guitar as a medium of large-scale, tectonic movements, blending together lead and rhythm parts into massive riffs. Possibly because of this, both bands required bassists who could occupy the spaces with interest, and although John Entwistle was more flashily virtuosic in approach, John Paul Jones had an arranger's instinctive sense of the band's overall sound, augmenting it as required with organ or bass.



Page, in particular, was a new type of guitar hero, restricted to neither the purist blues strictures of a Clapton, nor the futile blizzards of notes produced by speedsters like Alvin Lee of Ten Years After. A recent compilation of the band members' pre-Zep recordings, Your Time Is Gonna Come: The Roots of Led Zeppelin 1964-1969, focuses largely on the young Page's session work during the mid-Sixties beat boom, a parade of diverse invention that finds him adding 12-string guitar to an early Kinks track, "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter", peeling off a razor-sharp blues-rockabilly lead solo on The First Gear's "Leave My Kitten Alone", smearing slide guitar across Heinz's "Diggin' My Potatoes", and lacing fearsome fuzz-guitar through Carter-Lewis & The Southerners' "Skinny Minnie", all at a time – 1964 – when the possibilities of guitar distortion had barely been acknowledged, such "noise" usually being ruthlessly excised by the lab-coated engineers who ruled recording sessions back then.



It was this kind of versatility that made Page a natural partner, and then replacement, for Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds. Beck was one of rock's first "stunt guitarists", his parts comprised not so much chord sequences and lead lines, but a series of dynamic flourishes in the showboating manner of R&B guitarists like Ike Turner and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, augmented by pioneering effects such as fuzz-tone, feedback and distortion, that laid much of the groundwork for psychedelia. In tandem with Page, the effect was extraordinary, though besides the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", they recorded little together. But their work on that, and on "Beck's Bolero", which appeared as the B-side of Beck's hit "Hi Ho Silver Lining", gave Page the idea for a supergroup featuring himself and Beck backed by The Who's rhythm section of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, with Steve Marriott as vocalist. Moon was dubious about such a band's prospects, proclaiming that it would probably go down "like a lead Zeppelin". The name stuck, Grant opting to remove the "a" from "lead" so that "thick Americans" wouldn't mispronounce it to rhyme with "deed".



In the event, Page's plans had to be modified, with the eventual line-up of Led Zeppelin first coming together to fulfil the remaining commitments of the disintegrating Yardbirds. Their first recordings together, in October 1968, were on sessions for a PJ Proby album, Three Week Hero; but, by the following January, they were able to release their own debut album, whose muscular take on blues-based rock was notable for the almost sculptural attention to sound.



The songs may have been thinly-disguised glosses on standard blues themes, but they had been primped and preened into lengthy, sophisticated pieces in which Page's guitar, in particular, was used with spectacular versatility, a variegated clangour of chunky chords, piercing lead parts and mournful, lowing, bowed notes. The album was followed a few months later by Led Zeppelin II, which refined the blues-rock formula to provide the template for all subsequent heavy rock music, right up to the present day.



But alongside the flamboyant hard rock songs and heavy riffs, there were glimpses of the diversity that set Zeppelin apart from their emulators – in "Black Mountain Side", Page's acoustic guitar piece (based on a Bert Jansch tune) from the first album, and in their development of the classic hard/soft dynamic utilised on Led Zeppelin II, songs such as "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Ramble On" – elements that would be more deeply investigated on the more restrained Led Zeppelin III, reaching their most complete expression on Led Zeppelin IV's "Stairway to Heaven".



The early Seventies was a period in which the rock consensus – originally forged in reaction to cheesy, middle-of-the-road chart pop – was itself splitting into various different camps, with the new extrovert heavy rock at one extreme, while, at the other, the singer-songwriter boom was bringing new depths of introspection to popular music. Led Zeppelin, however, were the only heavy rock band able to accommodate these apparently contradictory tropes, thanks to Page's affinity for acoustic stylists like Bert Jansch and Dick Rosmini, and Plant's interest in folk music and fantasy tales.



As their career progressed, these elements would be further augmented with stylistic appropriations from Celtic, Arabic and Indian modes, and other non-rock forms such as funk and even reggae.



And, while the 300 million album sales and the record-breaking audiences play their own part in the Zep legend, it's this diversity, as much as anything, that keeps their position in rock history unassailable, and which makes the prospect of their reunion so intriguing.



The CD 'Your Time Is Gonna Come: the Roots of Led Zeppelin 1964-1969' is out on Castle; 'Mothership: The Very Best Of Led Zeppelin' is out on Atlantic. The Led Zeppelin 'Reunion Collector's Box Set' DVD is released today through Classic Rock Legends


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