There are a few different approaches you can take when describing Led Zeppelin, the larger-than-life hard rock band that swept through the 1970s like a comet out of control. You can stick with the music, the approach of the adorable upcoming documentary ‘Becoming Led Zeppelin’. You can get lustful, as in Stephen Davis’ highly unauthorized 1985 book, Hammer of the Gods. Or you can bite off the whole story, the glory and the chaos, the train wreck and the true bliss.
This is how Bob Spitz approaches his comprehensive report, “Led Zeppelin: The Biography” (Penguin Press, 688 pp., out of four, out now). Spitz, whose past subjects have included The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Ronald Reagan, knows he doesn’t have to exaggerate the band’s abhorrent behavior, from drummer John Bonham’s blind-drunk sexual assaults to guitarist Jimmy Page’s petulant right. . He also knows that this behavior doesn’t take away from Led Zeppelin’s mighty musical triumphs as the most popular rock band of its generation (they routinely outsold The Rolling Stones). The good, the bad, and the ugly coexist in the Led Zeppelin story, and Spitz knows well enough to report and tell it all.
‘The lyrics’:Paul McCartney reveals crush on Queen, how John Lennon ‘happy’ quit the Beatles
It all starts with the blues, an obsession for ’60s English white boys looking to break free from safe pop styles. “For a generation of British teenagers who wanted to make their mark,” writes Spitz, “the blues had become a state of mind.” Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and others made the hearts of these young musicians beat faster, including a skinny, insanely talented guitarist named Jimmy Page.
It didn’t take long for Page to jam with The Yardbirds along with his friend Jeff Beck. To his credit, Spitz doesn’t portray this pairing as some sort of collaborative paradise. One stage wasn’t big enough for those two egos. Plus, Page had something bigger in mind: a supergroup with the kind of talent and profile that no one else could match.
He picked bassist John Paul Jones from the London studio scene. In the blue-collar Midlands pub scene, he found wailing vocalist Robert Plant and ferocious drummer John Bonham. There is a relative innocence in these early times of troop gathering. Zeppelin was yet to become a collection of divas. The mountains of cocaine, rivers of booze and piles of money had not yet solidified the quartet. Their demands and expectations had not yet become ridiculous. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, hadn’t turned into a bully yet. Zeppelin just wanted to be louder and better than anyone else. And often they were.
More:‘Sopranos’ actors write definitive look at HBO show: ‘You get it from two guys who were there’
Zeppelin clearly weren’t the only band of its day and milieu to take part in ’70s rock ‘n’ roll. But they seemed to push hedonism to unusually destructive lengths. The book describes two cases of attempted rape by Bonham, who drank himself to an early grave at age 32. Page was a connoisseur of underage groupies: “Robert’s girlfriends weren’t as young as Jimmy’s; many hovered around the age of majority,” Spitz writes. As for the groupie scene, it was Plant who said, “One minute she’s twelve and the next she’s thirteen and overdone.”
“It tells of the attitude of the time that cultural commentators did not label such feelings as offensive,” Spitz writes. “Rock ‘n roll bands — especially Led Zeppelin, arguably the most blatant in the behavior department — got a pass.”
Spitz, on the other hand, doesn’t pass anyone. Above all the parties and all the jams and the richly detailed descriptions of the making of each album floats a plethora of horrific behavior that only got worse as Zeppelin’s fame exploded. Blame the drugs and alcohol if you will, but this is a group portrait that doesn’t flatter.