Very few bands have had the impact and power of Led Zeppelin. The British invaders who sent shockwaves through their interpretation of American Blues are still quite the sensation. Led by some of the greatest musicians of all time, Led Zeppelin will always be a force to be reckoned with.
Who Are You?
The musicians in Led Zeppelin have always been quite collaborative. Prior to forming Zeppelin, Jimmy Page was a member of The Yardbirds. This band was a behemoth of 1960s rock and roll, featuring Jeff Beck, Page, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, and Chris Dreja. Later, Page worked alongside fellow British rockers, Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who, as well as Jeff Beck and John Paul Jones, on an instrumental track called “Beck’s Bolero.” They’d tossed around the idea of forming their own band, to which Moon allegedly responded, “that idea would go over like a lead balloon.”
While that band of soon-to-be-legends would never form, Page remembered the joke two years later. This led him to Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones joined on bass and keyboard, Robert Plant as a vocalist, John Bonham as drummer, and Jimmy Page as the guitarist.
Getting Led Zeppelin to Fly
The band rehearsed together for the first time in a room below a record store on Gerrard Street in London. Going back to his Yardbird roots, Page suggested that the first song they played should be “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” It was a jump blues song that the Yardbirds covered on their 1965 album “Having a Rave Up With The Yardbirds.”
The band quickly discovered that they had great chemistry. They knew they were going to make something fantastic together. Their manager, Peter Grant, negotiated a cash advance of $143,000 – over one million dollars today – to record the band’s first album with Atlantic Records.
They released their first album, Led Zeppelin, during their first U.S. tour in 1969. While it peaked at number 10 on the U.S. Billboard charts and at number 6 in the U.K., the album received lukewarm to negative reviews. Critics questioned the band’s authenticity, especially in a world of supergroups. However, critics do not have the final word; fans do. Led Zeppelin featured invigorating blues tunes like “Good Times Bad Times,” “Dazed and Confused,” and Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Fix You Baby.” Plant’s vocals soared over beautiful, cohesive instrumentation, and electrified the public with a version of blues that was uniquely their own. Despite its initial critical reception, Led Zeppelin was certified Gold within 7 months of its release.
Later that year, the band released their second album Led Zeppelin II. Here, they really begin to fly. They recorded this album at various studios while on their North American tour, and upon its release, launched to number one on the U.S. charts. They released “Whole Lotta Love” as their first single off the album, selling over one million copies by 1970, solidifying their popularity and setting the band’s new standard. This song is still wildly popular today.
Led Zeppelin Becomes The Biggest Band In The World
The lead single of their third album, Led Zeppelin III, “Immigrant Song,” peaked at 20 on the Billboard charts, and while the album received mixed reviews once again, it still peaked at number one. “The Zep” was becoming unstoppable.
Immediately, the band went to work on Led Zeppelin IV, which holds the quintessential Led Zeppelin songs, “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Black Dog.” In fact, the court of public opinion holds “Stairway to Heaven” as one of the top songs of all time with one of the greatest guitar solos in history. Their cultural impact led to the band receiving a Kennedy Center Honor in 2012, with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performing “Stairway to Heaven.”
In 1973, the band released Houses of the Holy, which topped the charts worldwide, and their following 1973 North American tour set new records for attendance. They performed to a sold-out audience of 56,800 fans in Tampa, Florida, shattering the record for the most attended concert, previously held by The Beatles’ show at Shea Stadium.
Led Zeppelin Leads Innovation
After Houses of the Holy, the band formed their own label, Swan Song. Swan Song distributed the band’s 1975 release, Physical Graffiti. This solidified the band’s artistic integrity and cultural impact, receiving praise from critics and fans alike. A band that was once lauded as inauthentic, and perhaps a fad, became one of the best rock bands of all time, contested only by The Rolling Stones and The Who.
Trying to remain in the cultural zeitgeist, in 1976, Led Zeppelin released Presence. While critics and fans alike met the album with little enthusiasm, the album still earned a platinum certification. The band deviated from their heavy, blues infused metal sound for a simplified guitar-driven sound. Critics suggested the band let the excess popularity get to their heads. The band maintained that they were simply reinventing their sound.
Legacies Ramble On
The band released their final album in November 1978, called In Through The Out Door. Their sonic explorations and reinventions led, once again, to mixed reviews. However, the fans adored the album, and its success made the band’s entire catalog chart on the Billboard top 200 for two weeks.
The band toured for the next two years, meeting enthusiastic fans and electrified crowds. This is the ideal send off for one of rock’s best drummers. Unfortunately, this would be Bonham’s final tour. He passed away on October 17th, 1980. Soon after, the band officially dissolved, making the announcement on December 4th, 1980.
After the band’s dissolution, vocalist Robert Plant focused on making more traditional R&B music, collaborating with renowned R&B and disco producer Nile Rodgers. He made his own rendition of John Philip Baptise’s “Sea of Love,” which peaked at number three on the charts in 1985.
In the meantime, Plant, Page, and Jones reunited for a performance at the historic Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1982. Legendary bands like Queen, U2, The Who, and David Bowie played the event, which helped raise $127 million dollars for famine relief in Africa. While this concert produced some of the most touching and memorable performances for bands like U2 and Queen, Led Zeppelin considers this performance to be one of the biggest blunders of their career. Still, though, their highly anticipated reunion made an impact, and those good deeds will always outweigh their qualms with their performance.
Times Are Changing
At the dawn of a new millennium, Led Zeppelin found themselves back in the spotlight. In 2003, they released a triple CD live album, How The West Was Won, and the Led Zeppelin DVD, which was a six hour set of live footage that became the best-selling music DVD of all time.
Later, in 2007, the band reunited once again for a special Ahmet Ertegun Tribute performance at London’s O2, with Jason Bonham taking his father’s place on the drums. Audiences anticipated this concert so highly that it set a record for “The Highest Demanded Tickets for One Music Concert,” with over 20 million requests. This major success led to widespread speculation that the band would tour again with Jason Bonham on the drums. These dreams of reunion, however, were short-lived. While Page, Jones, and Bonham were hoping to go back on tour, Plant had other commitments. This was a cause of major tension for the band.
Tough Times Don’t Last
While the reunion tour never panned out, the band continued to see major successes. In 2012, they released the footage of their concert at the O2, called Celebration Day. This film brought in $2 million dollars in one night! Further, the live album that accompanied the film reached number 4 on the U.S. charts and number 9 on the U.K. charts. The band’s legendary pull and connection with their audience continued to serve them well, even 43 years after their first U.S. tour. Ever a smart businessman, during this film’s success, Jimmy Page announced that he was remastering the band’s entire discography. He released the band’s nine remasters within a year and a half, between 2014 and 2015.
To commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary, Page, Plant, and Jones announced that they would release an official illustrated book, depicting the incredible journey the band underwent. They also released How The West Was Won, which was the first time that album was pressed for vinyl.
Even more cause for celebration, in 2020, the band confirmed the upcoming documentary, Becoming Led Zeppelin. This is the first time the entire band agreed to participate in an autobiographical documentary, and it is currently in post production. The film will be a monumental testament to the staying power of such an iconic band, detailing the highs and lows of being the biggest band in the world. It will serve as inspiration for the many bands that follow in their footsteps, whose careers were greatly influenced and impacted by their innovation.