Early DaysThe band was originally formed in 1968 by guitarist Jimmy Page under the name The New Yardbirds in order to fulfill some performance commitments booked before the break up of the original Yardbirds. Robert Plant was the singer. After some concerts, the band's name was changed to Led Zeppelin, after Keith Moon, drummer with The Who, suggested "you'll go over like a lead Zeppelin". The word "lead" is misspelled deliberately to avoid confusion, fearing it might be conceived of as the "lead Zeppelin" (as in "lead singer"), as opposed to a Zeppelin constructed of the metal lead.
Shortly after their first tour, the group's first eponymous album was released in 1969. Its combination of blues and rock influences with distorted amplification made it one of the pivotal records in the evolution of heavy metal music. This kick-started the band's career, especially in the United States, where they would frequently tour and where their album sales totals are second only to The Beatles. The second record, simply titled Led Zeppelin II, followed in the same style later that year and included the bludgeoning riff of "Whole Lotta Love", which, driven by the rhythm section of John Bonham on drums and John Paul Jones on bass, defined their sound at the time.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were blues fanatics; two of Led Zeppelin's early hits, "Whole Lotta Love" and "You Shook Me", were actually written by Willie Dixon. (However, they were used without crediting Dixon, and it was not until Chess Records brought suit 15 years later, that proper credit--and a monetary settlement--was given.) The band also loved American rock and roll, and would perform songs originally made famous by Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. Onstage, Led Zeppelin concerts could last over three hours; expanded, improvised live versions of their song repertoire often incorporated tight workouts of James Brown, Stax, and Motown-influenced soul music and funk (favourites of bassist Jones and drummer Bonham).
For the recording of their third record Led Zeppelin III, the band retired to "Bron-Yr-Aur", a remote house in Wales without electricity. This would result in a more acoustic sound (and a song "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp"--misspelled as "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" on the album cover) which was strongly influenced by Celtic and folk music and which revealed a different side of guitarist Page's prodigious talent. In November of 1970, Led Zeppelin's record label, Atlantic Records, released "Immigrant Song" against the band's wishes. It included their only b-side, "Hey Hey What Can I Do". The band had nine other singles released all without their consent, as they saw their albums as indivisible. Curiously, "Stairway To Heaven" was never released as a single, in spite of its massive success on radio. (Part of their frustration about singles came from manager Peter Grant's aggressive pro-album stance, and the fact that Atlantic had earlier released an edit version of "Whole Lotta Love" that cut the 5:43 song to 3:10. Furthermore, the band resisted television appearances, preferring that their fans see them live in person).
"The Biggest Band in the World"The band's varying musical tendencies were fused on the untitled fourth album, which is usually called either "Zoso", "Four Symbols", or just "Led Zeppelin IV". (Not only does the album not have a name, on the original packaging, there is no indication of who the band is). The record included hard rock such as "Black Dog", Tolkienesque folksy mysticism on "The Battle of Evermore", and a combination of both genres in the lengthy song "Stairway To Heaven", a massive FM radio hit that has been acknowledged by some as the all-time greatest classic rock song. The album winds up with one of their best blues songs, a Memphis Minnie cover titled "When the Levee Breaks".
Their next studio record, 1973's Houses of the Holy, featured further experimentation: longer songs, expanded use of synthesisers, and string sections arranged by Jones. With songs like "The Song Remains the Same", "No Quarter", and "D'yer Mak'er" (a pronunciation of "Jamaica"), Led Zeppelin was again pushing the limits defining rock music. Their 1973 tour of the U.S. again broke records for attendance: at Tampa Stadium, Florida they played to 56,800 fans (more than the Beatles' 1965 concert at Shea Stadium). Three sold out New York shows at Madison Square Garden were filmed for a concert motion picture, but this project would be delayed for several years.
In 1974, Led Zeppelin launched their own record label called Swan Song, named after one of only five songs that the band never recorded for commercial release (the track was re-tooled as "Midnight Moonlight" by Page's post-Zeppelin band The Firm on their first album). Besides using it as a vehicle to promote their own albums, the band expanded the label's roster, signing artists such as Bad Company, Pretty Things, Maggie Bell, Detective, Dave Edmunds, Midnight Flyer, Sad Café, and Wildlife.
1975 saw the release of Physical Graffiti, their first double album set, on the Swan Song label. The album included songs recorded in studio sessions from the last three albums plus new songs. Again the band showed impressive range with songs like the melodic "Ten Years Gone", the acoustic "Black Country Woman", the driving "Trampled Underfoot", and the thundering, Indian-Arabic tinged "Kashmir".
Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti, the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue of six albums was simultaneously on the top 200 album chart, a feat never before accomplished. The band embarked on another U.S. tour, again playing to record-breaking crowds. To top off the year, they played five sold out nights at the UK's Earl's Court (these shows were recorded and would be released on DVD some 28 years later). At this peak of their career, Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band in the world.
If the band's popularity on stage and record was impressive, so too was their reputation for excess and off-stage wildness. Zeppelin travelled in a private jet, rented out entire sections of hotels, and became the subjects of many of rock's most famous stories of debauchery: trashed hotel rooms, sexual escapades, and heavy use of drugs and alcohol. Several people associated with the band would write books about the wild escapades of the group, who disavowed many of the tales.
Latter daysIn 1976 the band took a break from the road and began filming "fantasy" segments for the as-yet-unreleased concert film. During this break, Robert Plant and his wife were in a car crash while vacationing in Greece which broke Plant's ankle. Unable to tour, the band returned to the studio and, with Plant sitting on a stool during the sessions, they recorded their sixth studio album Presence. Though the album was a platinum seller, it was considered by many to be a disappointing effort. Jams including "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and the epic-length "Achilles Last Stand" had replaced the intricate arrangements of previous albums. Some critics speculated that the band's legendary excesses had caught up with them at last.
Late 1976 finally saw the release of the concert film The Song Remains the Same and its soundtrack. Though the concert footage was from 1973, this would be the only filmed document of the group released for the next 20 years.
In 1977, Led Zeppelin embarked on another massive U.S. tour, again selling out up to 5 nights in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. (Seattle and Cleveland shows from this tour were the basis for highly regarded bootleg albums.) Following a show at the "Day on the Green" festival in Oakland, the news came that Robert Plant's son Karac had died from a stomach infection. The rest of the tour was cancelled, and superstitious critics whispered of a "curse" said to be related to Page's interest in the occult.
The band did little recording or live work during 1978; the sombre mood was extended with the death of their friend, Who drummer Keith Moon.
The summer of 1978 saw the group recording again, this time at Swedish Polar Studio; this album would be titled In Through the Out Door and would highlight the talent of drummer John Bonham on the epic "Carouselambra". The album also featured rockers like "In The Evening", the tropical "Fool in the Rain", and the balladic tribute to Plant's son, "All My Love". After a decade of recording and touring, the band was now considered a dinosaur in some quarters, as mainstream musical tastes had moved in favour of disco and critical focus had turned to punk rock. Nevertheless, the band still commanded legions of loyal fans, and the album reached #1 in the US and UK.
In the summer of 1979, after two warm-up shows in Copenhagen, Led Zeppelin was booked as headliner at England's Knebworth Festival in August. Close to 400,000 fans witnessed the return of Led Zeppelin, and with the release of In Through the Out Door in November, they were ready to tour again, planning a short European tour followed by another American tour.
The 1980 American tour was not to be, however. On 25 September 1980, shortly before embarking on the U.S. leg of the tour, drummer John Bonham died of an accidental asphyxiation after an alcohol binge. He was said to have ingested over three dozen shots of tequila over the course of hours. Some have estimated his blood alcohol content to be .50, an exceptionally high level.
Because of Bonham's death, the remaining band members determined they could not continue as Led Zeppelin. For many years after, there had been ongoing rumours of a reunion and plans for various collaborative projects.
CodaTwo years after Bonham's death, the band released Coda, a collection of out-takes from previous recording sessions. In the years to follow, a steady stream of boxed sets and greatest-hits collections would keep the band on the charts, as Led Zeppelin continued to garner heavy airplay on rock radio.
On 13 July 1985, in a historic moment in rock history, Led Zeppelin reunited at the Live Aid concert for a short set featuring Page, Plant, and Jones, with drummers Tony Thompson and Phil Collins standing in for the late John Bonham. A year later in 1986, Page, Plant, and Jones gathered at Bath, England for rehearsals with drummer Thompson with a view to play again as a group, but a serious car accident with Thompson put an end to that plan. However, Zeppelin did reunite one last time, with Jason Bonham (standing in for his father, John) joining the remaining three in 1988 for Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary concert. In addition, they played with Jason at Carmen Plant's 21st birthday party, and Jason's wedding.
Page and Plant, without Jones, reunited in 1994 for an MTV Unplugged performance (dubbed Unledded) which eventually led to a world tour with a Middle Eastern orchestra, and two albums.
1997 saw the release of the first Led Zeppelin album in over 15 years--BBC Sessions. This two-disc set included almost all of the band's recordings for the BBC, but unfortunately cut out one session from 1969 that included the unreleased "Sugar Mama". At this time Atlantic also released a single edit of "Whole Lotta Love" making it the only Led Zeppelin CD single.
Beginning in the 1980s, the iconic nature of many Zeppelin riffs made them a popular target for sampling, initially unauthorised but later sanctioned by the surviving band members, to mixed reactions from fans. Hip-hop group the Beastie Boys sampled Bonham's crushing beat from "When the Levee Breaks", and also borrowed parts of "The Ocean" for "She's Crafty". For the movie Godzilla 2001, guitarist Jimmy Page collaborated with Puff Daddy, reworking the famous riff from "Kashmir" in the hit song "Come With Me"--Page also has a brief vocal part in this song. "Whole Lotta Love" was, for a time, sampled and used as the theme music for the BBC's chart show Top of the Pops. Additionally, hints of the "No Quarter" riff can be found in Sublime's "Smoke Two Joints".
The British press reported in 2002 that Plant and Jones had reconciled after a 20-year feud that had kept Led Zeppelin apart, and rumours surfaced of a reunion tour in 2003. Drummer Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters was named as a potential replacement for Bonham, a claim later denied by Page.
2003 saw yet another resurgence of the band's popularity with the release of a live album featuring material from the band's heyday (see How the West Was Won album and Led Zeppelin DVD. At year's end, the DVD had sold more than 520,000 copies, easily making the list of the most popular DVD's of the year.
- Jimmy Page -- guitar
- Robert Plant -- lead vocals, harmonica
- John Bonham -- drums
- John Paul Jones -- bass guitar, keyboards, mandolin
- The band has often cited influential manager Peter Grant as a "fifth member"