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Rock and Roll Saturday – Led Zeppelin

May 14, 2011

As we found out last Saturday certain dates in the timeline of rock and roll are epic. Like a steam locomotive the music was gathering momentum towards sounds like we’ve never heard before. Ground zero for the revolution was London.

The Beatles had already made their mark on the timeline. The Rolling Stones were on tour, and the Yardbirds were on the verge of breaking up. On August 12, 1968, Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds, singer Robert Plant, Bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham, played together for the first time at a small basement studio on London’s Gerrard Street.

Of that day each said:

John Paul Jones: “We first played together in a small room on Gerrard Street, a basement room, which is now Chinatown. There was just wall-to-wall amplifiers, and a space for the door – and that was it. Literally, it was everyone looking at each other – ‘what shall we play?’ Me doing more sessions, didn’t know anything at all. There was an old Yardbirds’ number called Train Kept a Rollin’… The whole room just exploded.” (1990 interview)

Robert Plant: “I remember the little room, all I can remember it was hot and it sounded good – very exciting and very challenging really, because I could feel that something was happening to myself and to everyone else in the room. It felt like we’d found something that we had to be very careful with because we might lose it, but it was remarkable: the power.” (1990 interview)

Jimmy Page: “At the end, we knew that it was really happening, really electrifying. Exciting is the word. We went from there to start rehearsals for the album.” (1990 interview)

John Bonham: “We had a good play that day and it went quite well. Even the first time we’d played together, there’s a feeling when you’re playing whether it’s going to be any good, and it was good – very good indeed. But at that time I had no idea it would achieve what it has.” (Feb. 1972 interview)

Over the next ten years Zeppelin would become one of the most popular bands in the world. Between 1969 and 1982, they would produce ten albums including the live compilation, The Song Remains the Same. With the exception of their last and arguably their worst studio album, Coda, each release went multiple platinum in the US and UK. (1982’s Coda still went single platinum in the US, silver in the UK)

They were a touring juggarnaut, filling up concert halls and stadiums each time they plugged in before a roaring crowd. My one and only time to see the super-group was May 5, 1973 in Tampa Stadium. I can still remember the packed venue and the hard driving blues of Jimmy Page — Robert Plant’s stage presence and deranged ferver worked the crowd into a rock frenzy few acts of the time could accomplish.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end and so it did for Led Zeppelin.

On September 24th, 1980, after a full day and night of hard drinking, drummer John Bonham was carried to bed at Page’s home to sleep off the intoxication. Early the following afternoon, John Paul Jones found Bonham dead, apparently asphyxiated sometime during the night in his own vomit. A subsequent autopsy found no other drugs in his body and it was ruled an accidental death.

An upcoming US tour was immediately canceled. Rumors circulated about a replacement drummer coming on board to fill Bonham’s role, however on December 4th of 1980, the band released a statement saying that they would not continue without their friend. The statement read, “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were,” and was simply signed “Led Zeppelin”.

Over the years the surviving members would rarely play together with a few noticeable exceptions. They played the “Live Aid” concert at JFK stadium in July of ’85, with Phil Collins on drums. Page characterized the performance as, “an atrocity.”

Then again on May 14th, 1988 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. This time, young Jason Bonham took his father’s place at the drum set. It is reported that Page and Plant had a fierce argument before the show on whether or not to play Stairway to Heaven. Between the pair’s resentment and the loss of JP Jone’s keyboard sound during the show, it is remembered as one of their worst appearances ever. Page described it as “one big disappointment”; Plant simply said, “foul.”

It would be difficult to really measure the impact Zeppelin brought to the landscape of rock. Their influence can be heard in the music of Black Sabbath, Rush, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and maybe even Lady GaGa.

Some of their awards and achievements include:

  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005
  • Polar Music Prize, 2006
  • Led Zeppelin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995
  • UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004.
  • The band is ranked number 1 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock
  • Classic Rock’s “50 Best Live Acts of All Time”.
  • Led Zeppelin remain one of the most bootlegged artists in the history of rock music.
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