Music

Led Zeppelin's 50th anniversary: the legend lives on

In 1968, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham formed a band — and changed the course of rock 'n roll history forever

13 May 2018 - 00:00 By Shannon Sherry

On September 25 1980 one of the greatest musicians in rock music was found dead in his bed. He had vomited and choked to death in his sleep. An autopsy found no drugs other than huge amounts of alcohol in John Bonham's blood. It was recalled by friends that he had consumed a copious amount of vodka the previous day.
He was 32, and had already been acclaimed as the greatest and most influential drummer in rock 'n roll, for his speed of both hand and foot, power and overall sound that legions of drummers tried to emulate.
Bonham's death all but ended the reign of his ground-breaking band, Led Zeppelin, whose record sales have been estimated between 200 million and 300 million.Twelve years earlier Bonham had got together with three other extraordinary musicians to form a band. They released their first album in January 1969, with a dramatic picture of the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 in Manchester Township, New Jersey, on the cover.Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham had arrived, and rock 'n roll would never be the same again.
In the years that followed the band would be credited with creating what became known as heavy metal. It was an assessment that singer and harmonica player Plant would later take issue with, sniffing that "at least 30% of our music was acoustic".
LISTEN TO | Whole Lotta Love by Led ZeppelinIndeed, Zep's music was as much blues and even folk as it was heavy rock - though when they got heavy, nothing heavier was to be found anywhere.
The band drew a straight line connecting their brand of heavy rock to the blues, of which Page (lead guitar), Plant and Jones (bass) were devotees. Bonham had been heavily influenced by jazz drummers such as Gene Kruppa, Max Roach and Buddy Rich.
Led Zeppelin garnered almost every accolade available, both critical and commercial. In critics' and in readers' polls in the music press, Plant was consistently ranked in the top three - often No1 - of all rock singers.
A powerful instrument, Plant's naturally high-pitched voice was always sure, effective and affecting, alternating at times between howls and moans in the upper and lower registers. On stage he was mocked for his preening - indeed, there never was a frontman who liked showing off his nipples more.
Page, likewise, was regarded among the greatest guitar players in rock. Bassist Jones was similarly feted.
As with most great bands, though, it wasn't what the quartet did separately but their awesome musical output together that stunned critics and won them legions of devoted fans all over the world.It was Page who chose the iconic Hindenburg picture for the debut album - and to this day it remains among the most recognisable of all rock album covers.
The guitarist has also been the custodian of Led Zeppelin's great legacy, in recent years remastering all of their nine studio albums and reissuing each, accompanied by a "companion disc" containing mostly alternative takes of the songs.
"There were very few outtakes," Jones said. "We didn't leave much out. We used everything."
The first album in reissue is accompanied by the band's recording of a Paris concert in October 1969. This performance is notable for a hard 15-minute jam on Dazed and Confused, possibly the centrepiece of that debut. But the album is filled with great songs and has deservedly taken its place as a rock classic.
The debut was followed later the same year by Led Zeppelin II, which kicks off with one of the band's biggest hits and most instantly recognisable riffs, Whole Lotta Love. It cemented the band's reputation as a serious force in rock.
After the release in 1970 of Led Zeppelin III, fans were beginning to suspect that the band might be having trouble with titles for their albums.Nonetheless, it was yet another winner from the quartet, taken by many to be their greatest album yet. It might be a measure of Zep's quality that even among their biggest fans there is no consensus on what their greatest album is.
III also contains Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, referring to a small cottage (apparently without electricity or running water) in Snowdonia, Wales, where Page and Plant spent time recuperating after a hard schedule of recording and touring.It was apparently also where, before a roaring fire, Plant sang the as-yet-unheard lyrics of a song for which Page had been working on the music: Stairway to Heaven.
The song became Led Zeppelin's signature tune and their most acclaimed - strange for the "inventors of heavy metal".Part acoustic, part electric, the song was the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit for plagiarism, which concluded only a couple of years ago.
It would appear on the next album, called ... well, nothing. The cover didn't bear even the band's name, just a picture of an old peasant man bent over with a load of firewood on his back.
But fans were not fooled - they decided this was clearly Led Zeppelin IV. And that was how it became known to everyone.
Stairway was never released as a single, but it became the most-requested song on US radio stations throughout the '70s and it overshadowed everything else on IV.
LISTEN | Stairway To Heaven by Led ZeppelinMore records followed, invariably excellent, including the double album Physical Graffiti, notable for Kashmir and a great 12-minute cover of blues standard In My Time of Dying.
But Bonham's death seemed to drain all the enthusiasm from the band. For a while his son, Jason Bonham, joined the band on stage on drums.
A last studio album, Coda, made up of a few oddities, was released in 1982 - the last opportunity to hear Bonham. There were various solo projects and combinations of band members afterwards, but it always sounded a bit half-hearted.
Led Zeppelin respected the music and the intelligence of their audiences. There is rarely a cheap gimmick employed anywhere and their musicianship remained majestic.
Their nine studio albums are remarkably even in quality, each having at least something to commend it. The least of them are thought of as minor only in comparison to the rest of the band's output - many other groups would have proudly laid claim to In Through the Out Door and Presence...

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