Personalities | Introducing Led Zeppelin

Nobody who has heard Led Zeppelin would ever need their memory jogged. As somebody once said of the band’s music: ‘Hoary blues motifs were pumped up to enormous proportions, clubbed senseless by Bonham’s colossal wallop, panicked to distraction by Page’s crazed air-raid riffs, pummelled by Jones’s slum-demolishing bass-lines, and strangled by Plant’s lascivious shrieks of lust.’

And they mentioned, just for good measure: ‘thick, churning streams of molten noise and melodic patterns of tortuous intricacy, vocals clawing up the octaves or crawling piteously, low and moaning.’

Descriptions of Led Zeppelin can seem somewhat over-the-top (and I confess the examples above were both my own fault) but what of it? Here was a band who traded in superlatives of every sort. They were the biggest, the best, the worst-behaved, the most contrary, the loudest and yet the most delicate, the most of everything you cared to name. It is impossible to speak of Led Zeppelin without some sense of awe at what they achieved, even if it failed to touch your heart or stir your soul. But then, if Led Zeppelin have never stirred your soul, you’re unlikely to be reading this. So let’s just assume we’re among friends and press on joyfully with a celebration of the greatest hard-rock band of all time.

Led Zeppelin combined power and subtlety better than anyone before or since. They understood drama and they understood dynamics. They were a magical conflation of four exceptional performers who were profoundly different personalities. They took mastery of the recording studio to new levels, but it was the live shows that made them a phenomenon. On stage, John Bonham’s drums were described by Jimmy Page as sounding ‘like cannons’. Page himself, the musical generalissimo, had only to don the twin-necked Gibson guitar that signalled ‘Stairway To Heaven’ for entire stadia to erupt. Robert Plant’s rock-god limbs would emerge from his skimpy blouse and he grasped the mic like a lover. And in the shadows, the bass of John Paul Jones conspired with Bonham’s drumming to forge a rhythm section tighter than anything except their singer’s trousers. Light and shade, then. As another description of Led Zeppelin has it: ‘Leningrad meets Laura Ashley’.

It’s safe to assume their music will live for ever more, but Led Zeppelin left another sort of legacy besides. They left legends. They created a sort of epic adventure tale that still looms large in rock mythology. I don’t claim for a moment that all those stories are true, for much of Led Zep’s notoriety stemmed from the wishful thinking of young male fans and the requirements of sensationalist publishing. But the rumours arising from their American tours, especially, were an unstoppable force. The band, so we were told, returned after gigs to their fabled lair on Sunset Boulevard’s Continental Hyatt House, known thereafter as the ‘Riot House’. Installed in all their glory, so the scenario continues, the decadent princelings devoured virgin sacrifices and refined the varied arts of rock’n’roll debauchery – with...

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