Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Led Zeppelin: The Oral History

It seems like the last few years have been a treasure trove for those who love all things Led Zeppelin. Beyond the DVDs and CDs, for many years all we had to occupy ourselves with on the literary front was a worn copy of the 1985 biography Hammer of the Gods. Recently there have been both a Jimmy Page biography (which I reviewed previously) and this new massive oral history compiled by Barney Hoskyns.

There has always been a bit of mystery around Led Zeppelin, which is why a book like this is so invaluable. In it we hear from the voices of the many people surrounding the band throughout their career - from childhood friends and early bandmates to secretaries, groupies and record company executives. For the most part Jimmy Page still remains the biggest enigma, though one also gets the sense that there is not much to understand about the man.

If one were to divide the band in half at the start it would be an axis of the longtime session musicians Page and John Paul Jones (whose importance in creating the band's sound is finally being recognized) on one side and Black Country (West Midlands, near Birmingham) mates Robert Plant and John Bonham. Originally launched as The New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin was originally seen mainly as a vehicle for Jimmy Page. Critically lambasted, they were immediately accepted by the fans who appreciated their loud volume extended jam approach to the blues. They first broke big in America despite refusing to release singles, and as their sound changed their fans followed.

Of course the stardom that the band quickly experienced brought along many problems. John Bonham, who is portrayed as a gentle working class man - more content in a garden than on a stage - descends into the alcoholism that will later claim his life. Page becomes a heroin addict and recluse, and while Jones and Plant escape relatively unscathed substance-wise, Plant nearly lost his wife in a car accident that took both of them many months to recover from and eventually his son died while he was on tour in America. One gets the sense that even if Bonham hadn't died the band was at a point where it was splitting and would have had to have made some massive changes to continue. It ends up being slightly ironic that Jimmy Page has been the surviving member to have done the least musically following Zeppelin's collapse, considering that the band was originally a showcase for his talents.

The real meat of this book revolves around the various cronies that surrounded the band. Peter Grant (their manager) is as a big a part of this story as any of the band members. Larger than life in both size and personality, Grant ruled the band's relationships with an iron fist, hiring many people with questionable connections into their inner circle and mentally abusing many decent people who only had the band's best wishes in mind. Unfortunately, as Led Zeppelin became bigger they also became more insular, and it seems like it may have led to some questionable hiring in managing the band and their failed Swan Song label.

Of course it wouldn't be a rock and roll book without groupies (many of whom are interviewed), parties and decadence. Hoskyns has put together a book that should be of interest to any rock music fan. It has the massive feel of an extended Page guitar solo but goes by quickly, as is often the case with oral histories.

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