A stunning ride through the excess of the seventies through the lens of one of the biggest rock bands of all time.
Never in the history of rock has a band created such a mythology around them as Led Zeppelin. While The Beatles certainly come close, the four moptops were relatable in a kind of goofy way—at least to begin with. This is clearly not the case with Zeppelin who, right from the beginning, exuded an other-worldliness that set them apart from us mere mortals.
Founded by Jimmy Page from the wreckage of The Yardbirds, Zeppelin amassed a frenzied, and often violent, following. After working as a session musician, Page became outstandingly good at his guitar to the point where he felt limited by what he was doing. Along with fellow session player John Paul Jones, they recruited Adonis-like Robert Plant on vocals and the brutal John Bonham on drums in order to create Jimmy’s vision of the ultimate band. All four of them were top-tier musicians but they also were young and hungry, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that meant a life of success and excess.
Spitz’s outstanding retelling of the decade of Led Zeppelin’s reign is never shy in coming forward. He paints the four band members as decidedly unsavoury people who were too full of narcotics, booze and themselves. He tells many tales of their hedonistic parties involving underage girls and the thugs that surrounded them, including their larger-than-life manager, Peter Grant, who only knew violent means to achieve his aims. One particular story told near the end of the book showcases his violent nature when he bashes a road crew member to within an inch of his life because he tried to stop his son from stealing a plaque.
Spitz wastes little time delving into back story like so many biographies do. Within five chapters, the band has formed and is creating tidal waves on the music scene with the release of their first album. What follows is a 600-page car wreck of a narrative that you can’t help but keep turning the pages for. Just when you think the band and its entourage cannot get any dirtier they somehow manage to do it. Barely a page goes by without a mention of cocaine by the truckload or barrels of alcohol being consumed. Then there are the violent outbursts from drummer Bonham who is portrayed in an increasingly unflattering light as the story progresses. All the while, their concerts continue to bring out hordes of followers and their albums continue to sell by the millions.
That Zeppelin and their management largely avoided jail is a miracle … or a sign of how easily authority could be “bought” to look the other way. In the end, it is Plant who, after a car crash that nearly kills him, reflects on his behaviour and decides enough is enough. But it would be the death of Bonham that ultimately wound up the band.
Whatever they were like as humans, they created a small (less than 100 songs) catalogue of material that has eclipsed most of what has come since. The number of bands formed by followers of their music continues to grow as each new generation discovers the wonders of songs like ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Kashmir’ and, of course, ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
Spitz is a remarkable storyteller and his meticulous research (there are over 60 pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography) brings to life this incredible story. It is doubtful, however, that hardcore Zep fans will find much new within these pages and it goes without saying that none of the remaining band members contributed personally to this book—but maybe that is for the better.
After reading this book, you may find it much harder to separate the music from the artist, so vivid is the picture painted by Spitz. This will undoubtedly become the new standard for Led Zeppelin biographies from here on out.
Reviewed by Rodney Hrvatin
Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: November 2021
This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.