Showing their mettle

2009-02-25 00:00

BACK in the late sixties and early seventies, Led Zeppelin were the King Kong of rock music, looming so large over the landscape they dwarfed almost everybody else. Essentially the creation of ex-Yardbird’s guitar virtuoso, Jimmy Page, the band displayed a unique chemistry from the outset and over the course of eight studio albums they charted an extraordinary pioneering journey through blues, metal, folk, world music, funk and mysticism.

Their wildly charismatic live performances helped cement the legend. Unfailingly energetic and vital they played with such verve and skill they outshone most everyone else — a fact that led to some lesser acts refusing to appear on the same bill as them for fear they would be found wanting.

In spite of their enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic — or perhaps because of it — they have received no small criticism over the years. The music press, at least initially, was decidedly sniffy; there were charges of plagiarism while Jimmy Page’s well-documented fascination with the occult and openly expressed admiration for the writings of the infamous Satanist, Aleister Crowley (whose former Loch Ness residence Page bought), led to accusations that they were acting in league with the devil.

Their off-stage antics also won them a fair amount of notoriety. In true seventies rock-star style, cocaine was consumed by the cartload and distilleries drunk dry. Between them the various band members slept with literally thousands of women (in keeping with his somewhat sinister reputation Page used to travel with a collection of whips that he would use, he explained, to tame any groupies he found to be “teasing and acting haughty”), hotel rooms were regularly trashed and there were several unsavoury incidents involving the band’s thuggish bodyguards.

With all this controversy swirling around them Led Zeppelin still somehow found time to make some of the most exciting, potent and powerful music of all time (three of their albums — Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti — are now generally accepted to be rock classics). Ultimately, though the relentless touring schedule, drug-fuelled lifestyle and the inevitable personality clashes took their toll and the band began to unravel slowly. Drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham’s death, after choking in his own vomit — an inquest into his death calculated that he had drunk in the region of 40 measures of vodka — spelt the end, although the surviving band members did briefly reunite in 2008 for a much publicised, kill-for-a-ticket, live reunion concert.

Written by one of Britain’s most respected journalists, When Giants Walked the Earth is probably the most comprehensive, full-length

biography of a remarkable band that, for more than a decade, consistently managed to shatter expectations and defy the odds, wreaking havoc but refusing to buckle despite an enormous amount of adversity, much of it self-induced. Thorough and entertaining, it offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone age.

Anthony Stidolph

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