Top 10 Pillars of Led Zeppelin Mythology

Led Zeppelin a long time ago

At London's 02 Arena Monday night, rock gods Led Zeppelin will attempt to recreate the special alchemy that made them one of the most legendary live bands of their era.

Zeppelin were notoriously inconsistent on tour, with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham often exploring extended jams on band classics to varying effect. I've talked to people who were lucky enough to have seen them live, and the reactions range from "They didn't sound like the records" to "best 20-minute drum solo ever."

There was no doubt, however, that when the band was on they were like nothing else on earth. Zeppelin was doing three-hour-plus shows complete with acoustic sets when Bruce Springsteen was still playing bars in Asbury Park. And unlike contemporaries The Who and Pink Floyd, Zeppelin never used backing tapes or additional musicians, relying instead on sheer audacity, volume and Jones' underrated multi-instrumentalism (the man played everything from the Mellotron to the mandolin to a triple-necked acoustic monstrosity, often while performing the bass lines with his feet on custom bass pedals!).

And while the jury's still out on whether age and the lack of a huge element of their sound (Bonham) will render them incapable of getting a modicum of that magic back, in some ways it doesn't matter. For once again, the mighty Zeppelin have proved their incredible ability to stay relevant.

For those of you who aren't old enough to remember Lester Bangs dissing them in Creem magazine or the magic of bringing home the brown paper bag that held In Through the Out Door (or in an extreme example, being RU Sirius and having your first acid trip while listening to "Dazed and Confused"!), here are ten reasons I believe the mythos of Led Zeppelin remains etched in stone at a time when anything of lasting quality in pop culture seems almost impossible.

10. "Here's to My Sweet Satan … " Although you'd never know it by their slanderous remarks, America's more extreme branches of Christianity (Pentacosts, Baptists) never met a better friend/punching bag than Led Zeppelin. When crackpot preachers started playing rock records backwards in a desperate attempt to scare parents into burning their kids' records (the scene where Kathleen Turner does this to Kirsten Dunst's records in the film The Virgin Suicides shows the unintended hilarious results of this ridiculous act), Led Zeppelin was one of their first targets.

And what better tune to focus their bogeyman search on than "Stairway to Heaven?" The most famous "backwards masking" message meant to turn little Bobby from Buffalo to the side of Beelzebub was the alleged "Here's to my sweet Satan," warbled by Robert Plant.

Of course, the band denied this, and you don't have to be a Grammy-nominated sound engineer to hear what is clearly a big pile o' Christian crap.

9. The Bill Graham Beatdown Before thuggish hip hop was even an art form, let alone an industry, Led Zeppelin had a posse in full effect. Led (no pun intended) by Richard Cole, a coke-fueled maniac whose powers of physical intimidation were only outmatched by Zep's manager Peter Grant, their security was half drug-and-teen-procuring entourage, half security force.

Despite a mutually advantageous relationship in which both parties suckled at the new teat of stadium rock, the muscle behind both Zeppelin and Bill Graham Presents had run afoul of each other, by the very nature of their need for control. In 1977, during a multi-night stint at the Oakland Coliseum, the shit hit the fan.

When a BGP goon vied for a Darwin Award by roughing up the 400-lb Grant's young son backstage, the manager, Cole and Bonzo gave the poor sap and another employee a beatdown that ended in long hospital stays. Graham, ever the entrepreneur, kept charges from being filed long enough for Zep to finish the Oakland Stadium gigs.

8. This Album Has No Title Though commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV, Zep's fourth record not only had no actual title, but failed to display even the band's name on its cover. Instead, the band developed runes that stood for each member – Plant's consisted of a feather within a circle and is supposedly the Feather of Ma'at (the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness); Jones' was three interlocking ovals; Bonzo's was also three interlocking ovals, and could either be a symbol for "man-wife-child" or the logo for Ballantine beer, depending on whom you ask; Page's (called "Zoso," which has also been used as the album's title by some fans) is the only one created by its bearer, and so its mystical significance remains a mystery.

Obviously, brass at Atlantic Records weren't exactly aroused by the unprecedented lack of identifying reference anywhere on the record. But the band's insistence on this concept formed the basis not only for their reputation as a fiercely anti-commercial artistic force, but also provided much of the mystique that was vital during the band's existence, and crucial to their continued legacy.

7. Led Wallet When Zep fans first heard the unmistakable bashing of John Bonham's drum intro to "Rock and Roll" in a Cadillac ad a couple of years ago, many were heard to utter a groan. But closer analyses of the handling of the catalog of the world's biggest rock band reveals a relatively tasteful restraint.

Especially when you consider that Jimmy Page was once referred to as "Led Wallet" for his unwillingness to part with a pence.

Still, the band has never performed again apart from a handful of mediocre events, all for charity (Live Aid, the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary). Jack Black was seen in the film "School of Rock" begging Page and Plant to allow Richard Linklater (who was also thwarted from using their songs in his film bearing an actual Zeppelin track name, "Dazed and Confused) to use their music for the soundtrack. They declined.

In fact, use of Zeppelin's music in film has been confined to the films of their pal, Cameron Crowe. Some argue this restraint is excessive – one could imagine the impact of a Zeppelin track in, say, a Scorsese film. It certainly would be nice for the guy not to have to mine the Stones all the time!

6. Peter Grant Led Zeppelin might have been the first rock band to make the business of being in a rock band a … business. Previously, bands like The Beatles would make money only when the number of records sold reached a staggering amount, and even then often under duress. Their contracts favored the record company to an obscene extent.

Zep's ability to establish a revenue producing powerhouse employing record sales, touring and merchandising was largely due to the wiles and weight of its manager, Peter Grant. A former pro wrestler, Grant was the basis for fictitious band manager Ian Faith's cricket bit in This is Spinal Tap. Further evidence of his style of communication can be seen in the new re-release of The Song Remains the Same, where Grant is seen practically ripping the head off a "cunt" who, at a show in Cleveland, failed to stop bootleggers from selling posters.

5. John Bonham Could Zeppelin have continued after its influential drummer died from choking to death on his own vomit after 40 measures of vodka?

Two words prove the perils of such an endeavor, had the band even had the heart and spirit to carry on – Keith Moon.

It's an easy argument to make that The Who's two post-Moon albums (Face Dances and It's Hard) diminish the band's catalog by causing it to sputter to an inglorious end. And while this might owe as much to a fading of Pete Townshend's genius (Zeppelin were more like Queen than The Who in this respect, with Jones making significant contributions throughout the band's career), Moon took more than just the drummer's throne with him to the grave.

He also took a huge part of the band's spirit, and while Moon was slightly more of an extroverted character, the fact that Bonham's simple "fantasy sequence" in The Song Remains the Same (showing such high-concept footage as him urging his cow along the pasture as well as intimate peeks into his home life) is the only one that isn't totally laughable either in concept or execution speaks volumes.

And even though there is something clearly fitting in having his son on the kit, in all respect, there is only one J. Bonham anyone will be thinking about when the band pulls out his showcase, "Moby Dick," as they're expected to.

4. Don Kirschner's Rock Concert with Led Zeppelin It never happened, and when I saw an old TV clip of Deep Purple recently, the wisdom of Zeppelin's avoidance of the medium of television (due both to the limitations of sound quality at the time as well as their desire to control their image and increase their mystique, not easy to do when you're playing for housewives on "The Mike Douglas Show") becomes very clear.

3. The Mud Shark An underground legend that went public with Frank Zappa's toss-off reference to it in "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" ("destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology!"), the story of a young band fucking a groupie with a small shark that had been caught while fishing out the window of Seattle's Edgewater Inn provided a blueprint for debauchery hardly equaled even today.

2. The Devil and Led Zeppelin In the commentary for his film The Man We Want to Hang, dedicated to the art of occult icon Aleister Crowley, filmmaker Kenneth Anger rather sheepishly admits that many of the pieces were seen courtesy of Jimmy Page, who had managed to consistently outbid Anger at auctions of the magician's work.

Then there's Page's acquisition of Crowley's Loch Ness mansion, in which many sinister acts of magick were perpetrated.

The guitarist's obsession with Crowley wasn't shared by the rest of the band, whose interest in the past didn't go much further than Elvis and "The Lord of the Rings." Still, a salacious media didn't hesitate to lump all in together, especially as Zep's fortunes seemed to turn dark toward the end (Plant's car accident in 1975, followed by troubled tours and the death of Plant's son in 1977).

1. What's in a Name? While the story goes that Keith Moon named the then-New Yardbirds "Lead Zeppelin" because he thought they'd go over like a lead balloon (badly), Page and Plant were immediately drawn to the inherent dynamics of light and heavy, which fit into their conversations about where they wanted to band's music to go.

Zeppelin weren't the first heavy rock band (and please don't call them heavy metal!), but they were the first to really understand and exploit the fact that heavy sounds even heavier when paired with lighter influences. Since then, rock bands from Iron Maiden to the Pixies to Nirvana have added new twists to the basic loud-quiet-loud dynamic.

Robert Plant once said the reason he thought people reacted to "Stairway to Heaven" favorably even after hearing it thousands of times is that it starts quietly and steadily builds in complexity and intensity throughout the duration of the song. At the same time, songs like "When the Levee Breaks" and "Kashmir" establish an intensity that never flags, but is still splashed with shades of shadow and light.

And that's the magic of Led Zeppelin, Charlie Brown.

See also:
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16 thoughts to “Top 10 Pillars of Led Zeppelin Mythology”

  1. My teenage obsession with Led Zeppelin contributed to my interest into magick and the occult. I saw them live in ’77, with a seat right above Jimmy Page and it was one of the best live concerts I’ve ever seen. As for Jimmy’s symbol on Led Zep IV, it’s rumored to be taken from Austin Osman Spare’s ideas on magick sigils (Erik Davis’ book “331/3” gets into this). Although, if you look at some of the ancient magickal alphabets you’ll find some similar symbols/letters there as well.
    And don’t know about Don Kirschner, but I thought I had seen them on some TV shows way back in the day, before they hit the “big time”. I was a little kid then so my memory on this is a bit off.

  2. “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read”

  3. the only problem with that Led Wallet idea is when Jimmy Page redid Kashmir with Puff Daddy for the new Godzilla movie. It was terrible. I remember being only 13, recognizing the song, and knowing that it was a dark day for music.

  4. “Jack Black was seen in the film “School of Rock” begging Page and Plant to allow Richard Linklater (who was also thwarted from using their songs in his film bearing an actual Zeppelin track name, “Dazed and Confused) to use their music for the soundtrack. They declined.”

    They actually allowed it and you will hear “Immigrant Song” on both the movie and the soundtrack!

  5. Am I the only one who recalls a commercial for Radio Shack back in the very late 1970s or very early 1980s that used Zeppelin music? I can’t recall just which song (Black Dog? Rock and Roll?) but the commercial ended with a guy standing in an empty parking lot outside the store at night, looking more than a bit like Pagey, wailing away. Surely that was the first instance of their music being used in a commercial — not the Cadillac ad.

    i may have only been a little kid at the time, but i knew who Zeppelin was, and that song was everywhere.

    Speaking as a fan, i have to say that i am NOT in favor of them touring as Zep again. Please do the classy thing and honor the promise all of you made when Bonzo died. Zeppelin is not complete without him.

  6. Although I am old enough to remember how, as a freshman in high school (70/71), I told my fellows that ‘I knew them before they went commersch’, they were done by their 5th album, and I could never bear to watch Plant strut nor Jimmy play one mostly indistinguished solo after another.

    That said, The Beatles had broken up, The Who lost it long before Moon died, and Hendrix’s ghost was being mummy-wrapped in one bad unfinished release after another, a sad thing to see after the promise of his last (mostly finished) studio album, The Cry of Love. Someone had to mount the podium, and there they was.

    As for which J. Bonham serves best: credit where credit’s due. John taught Jason well, and Jason is not only a worthy heir to his father’s drum throne but is also the only drummer who ever sat in Keith’s vacant seat and made it sound righteous.

    Finally, one can only gasp in embarrassedly unabashed pleasure and awe at songs like Ramble On, which provide such luscious autumnal nostalgia and exquisite song construction/recording production but somehow lets Plant wail how “Gollum the Evil One crept up and slipped away with her-er, her-er, her, yeah…”

    But then, theirs (the Led Zeppers) was then first generation to grow up with comic books.

  7. speaking as a life-long fan, i was completely against them getting together under the zeppelin monicker, either with jason bonham or not, because i felt it would sully the memory of bonzo. that being said, i was completely surprised — and readily ate my words — when i saw how completely kick ass jason was in his dad’s place. i’m ready to see them now. please tour!

    also, i’ll add an addendum to my post from last week or so: i dug through my misty memories, and i’m certain that the song heard in that radio shack commercial was heartbreaker. i mean, how could it be anything else, ending with a famous zep guitar solo?

  8. “Led Zeppelin RULES!” — Otto Mann, bus driver on “the Simpsons”, as he is washed out to sea.

    I’m glad they lasted ‘just’ as long as they did, even their last LP is pretty good, and wish the Stones had given up after “Tattoo You” (which is still pushing it.)

    The “Mud Shark” incident was described in detail on The Mother’s “Live at Fillmore East 1971” LP, in fact I’ve known fans to call that the “Mud Shark” album (which many mistake for a bootleg due to its simple cover art), it was only mentioned in passing in “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” I believe the mud shark story is related to one of Zappa’s bandmates by someone in the Vanilla Fudge who was witness– though not mentioned in the song, it was apparently one of Zep’s road managers that actually did it, and with a red snapper and not a shark.

  9. Side note: The song The Mud Shark is on Frank Zappa & The Mother’s Fillmore East: June 1971 album. The CD version of the album is missing the track Willie the Pimp pt. II, better to find the vinyl.

  10. Finally, one can only gasp in embarrassedly unabashed pleasure and awe at songs like Ramble On, which provide such luscious autumnal nostalgia and exquisite song construction/recording production but somehow lets Plant wail how “Gollum the Evil One crept up and slipped away with her-er, her-er, her, yeah : )

  11. Zap 1 is my fav album of all time and when I tried to get tickets for the 02 I really thought I might get to live my dream…but no ticket for me.

    Just tweeted this…

    Bob x

  12. So many myths and legends surround them, and for good reason…they are a legendary band! Some good stuff here that I had never heard before.

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