We tend to not think of Led Zeppelin as actual human beings.
The reason, of course, is that they are not. At least not in the ways that can be accurately measured compared to others who made rock music. Only the Beatles have a more pronounced influence and unblemished record of achievement. Interestingly, this is at least in part because both bands called it quits long before they could (should?) have, and as such, they went out at the height of their powers unlike, say, The Who and The Rolling Stones, who have spent the latter decades making mostly forgettable music.
One of things that keeps Zeppelin so special, so bad-ass and so inimitable—and inconceivable in today’s social media over-share environment—is that they literally let their music speak for them. No hit singles, no quarter given to myopic and/or willfully obtuse critics, a minimum of glad-handing, and a modus operandi radical in its simple audacity: let the fans decide. The fans did decide, and Led Zeppelin dominated the ‘70s, playing three hour concerts before The Boss made such affairs standard.
As a result, little survives in the way of actual insight, from the band, in terms of what happened, how it was done, etc. There remains an air of mystery that can only be admirable in our contemporary environment where TMI is the default setting. To add to the intrigue, it’s not that the men of Zep were shy or boring fellows; indeed, their exploits, if half of them are to be believed, were truly the stuff of legend; equal parts Spinal Tap and Caligula. Adding still more style points, the three surviving members have been reticent bordering on tight-lipped in the years following the band’s heyday.
Think about how remarkable that is. What are the chances, by sheer percentage and possibility, that at least one of them wouldn’t feel left out of the limelight, or feel the temptation of untold millions for a tell-all tome too enticing to resist? Or, how many bands of this magnitude have not had inevitable bad blood leading to “he said/he said” potshots in the press, or autobiographies, or the horrific spectacle of a reality TV show?
For those who like their scandal supersized, Richard Cole did some heavy lifting as demon on the shoulder of Richard Davis, providing much of the lurid and heavily contested detail found in 1985’s Hammer of the Gods. Sensational and shameless, this book plays up and seeks to perpetuate every sordid story (The Mudshark Incident) and stone-brained saga (Jimmy Page as devil worshipper!). Despite being lambasted by the lads from the moment it hit the shelves, it metastasized as a de-facto, best-selling biography of the band.
During the last 30 years, plenty more books have appeared claiming to tell the authoritative story. As always, the matter of what’s reliable or worthwhile (mileage always varies when critics tell readers which songs are most significant, and why) is always an issue. So Hank Bordowitz’s collection of interviews, appropriately entitled Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin, offers what has been missing all this time: a no-frills account, compiling the actual words of the band during and after the course of their career.
If there’s precious little insight or analysis to be found here, none is especially necessary. Do we need yet another writer trying to elucidate why Zep continues to matter? Hearing the scoop, as it was recorded in real time, by the players themselves is invaluable in its way and, like the music, needs minimal explication. It is, by turns, instructive to hear the musicians (primarily Plant and Page, whose words dominate the proceedings) talk about how it felt, and feels, to be rock immortals. It’s touching to see the naiveté expressed in the very early days and the humility on offer throughout.
Yes, these incalculably wealthy and dominant demigods are consistently human, in every sense of the word, almost without fail. This telling is refreshing and does the unthinkable: it makes Led Zeppelin, beloved to the point of worship, actually likeable.
More for the Zeppelin aficionado than the casual fan, there’s plenty of information to absorb, regardless of the reader’s familiarity. Most of the writers / interviewers range from agreeable to fawning, some are refreshingly lucid and, of course, some are predictably daft. The worst of the lot has to be NME’s Chris Salewicz, whose execrable piece from 1979 is like all the worst bits of Hammer of the Gods writ (extra) small. We get the typical, and typically myopic, snipes at Presence, invocations of the anti-street cred Zep generated amongst the lean and hungry, and quite opportunistic punks during the late ‘70s.
We also get the still-difficult-to-fathom mention of bad luck and the occult, and how and why such activity may played a part in the death of Plant’s five-year-old son. Execrable stuff but good to have on record, so we can accurately point fingers and place ridicule where it’s most richly deserved. There’s a nice, entirely fitting touch toward the end of the interview when Salewicz laments that Page met him in a studio, denying him (and the fans!) an opportunity to see “how he really lived”. Well-played, Mr. Page. Seems like another instance of mission very much accomplished, and props to Page for always keeping the hysterics and bigmouths at bay.
More than a handful of quotes emerge that confirm what an intelligent, thoughtful and—under the circumstances, based on his obvious ability and popularity—humble, grounded guy Page always was: “My ultimate objective and challenge is to excel in all spheres as a guitarist and I want to attempt all styles. Maybe it will mean I will end up as a Jack of all trades and master of none but at least I will have sampled the different sweets available.” (1971).
We learn that John Bonham was an early (1975) detractor of disco, as if we needed more reason to admire Bonzo; we get to envision Plant and Page, traversing Morocco in a Range Rover, listening to Bob Marley. We get Plant not-so-fondly recovering from a major car accident in Greece, frantically sweeping cockroaches off the bed while a drunken soldier in the bed next to him, after recognizing the singer, loudly serenades him with a rendition of “The Ocean”.
Perhaps the number one service of this particular book, for fanatics and cynics alike, is our overdue ability to put to end, definitively, the farcical notion that Zeppelin denied old blues legends proper credit, with malice aforethought. In an assessment of the band’s eponymous debut, I discussed the issue of “rhyming and stealing” in some detail. (”What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces”):
Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums, especially the first one, the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim (made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair) has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.
In point of fact, the group talks repeatedly, and respectfully, about influences, naming names and turning each occasion into an opportunity to celebrate their heroes. Asked in 1971 how he felt (still) singing the infamous “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg”, Plant offered the following thoughts: “It’s borrowed, admittedly, but why not? I really would like to think that someone who heard that and then saw some clever critic writing about Plant living off the far superior Robert Johnson… would go and listen to Robert Johnson as a result.”
So, can we put this tired matter to bed, at long last?
A few highlights must include the stylized, very outside-the-box feature on Jimmy Page by William S. Burroughs (a fish out of water interviewing Moby Dick).
Sample #1: “I was thinking of the concentration of mass energy that you get in a pop concert, and if that were, say, channeled in some magical way… a stairway to heaven… it could become quite actual.”
Sample #2: “Rock music can be seen as one attempt to break out of this dead soulless universe and reassert the universe of magic.” (And who said professional rock critics had the market cornered on overly earnest purple prose?
Sample #3: All is redeemed by the very last line of the lengthy piece when, after hearing Page describe a three hour concert, Burroughs replies (and when you hear it in his droll, inimitable voice, it’s perfection) “I’d hate to give a three hour reading.”
John Paul Jones, speaking of Bonham in 1970, is poignant, and almost painfully prescient: “I can’t remember anyone like him… it’s obvious why these people have ended up in the same group… if anybody had to leave, the group would have to split up. Each of us is irreplaceable in this band.”
Once he was gone the band never wavered, especially in the years immediately following Bonzo’s death. A personal favorite, from Plant in 1982: “Led Zeppelin was a four-man band, we played as a four-man band, and recorded as a four-man band. And now that’s over. Led Zeppelin will never play or record again.”
As useful and enlightening as the interviews from the ‘60s and ‘70s are, it’s a welcome decision to include post-Zep interviews, as we see how the song and dance has largely remained the same. Plant sticks to his guns, mostly uninterested in any type of reunion and not above taking (fair, accurate) pot shots at the Pink Floyds and Rolling Stones and Whos who keep doing it despite the ever-diminished returns. It’s worth reading the various explanations (rationalizations?) for the Coverdale/Page collaboration, the Page/Plant “Unledded” thing, and why they didn’t invite John Paul Jones. There have unsurprisingly been some communication breakdowns during the ensuing decades, but the sense of respect (of one another, of what they achieved) is unconstrained.
The timing of this tome seems fortuitous: the entire Led Zeppelin catalog is undergoing a loving and painstaking album-by-album remastering, overseen by Jimmy Page (naturally); interest in a Led Zeppelin reunion, or even another one-off gig, has never been higher; and every year the band refuses (impressively and wisely in this writer’s opinion) to make new music, the subsequent status of their proper releases accrues value. Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is a useful resource and a necessary corrective: no matter how grandiose the legend gets, hearing the golden gods tell their tale is at once more astounding and more real than anything anyone could ever make up.