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RECORD SALES AND A WHOLE LOTTA LOVE: How is it that Led Zeppelin, a hard-living rock band that broke up 23 years ago, could still top today's chart

SOURCE: Maclean's 116 no31 34-6 Ag 4 2003


Legend tells that Led Zeppelin was named by John Entwistle and Keith Moon, bassist and drummer for the Who, respectively, in 1968. Burned out on teenage wasteland -- and the Who's infighting -- the two were discussing how they'd love to found a new outfit with Jimmy Page, who was then playing guitar in the Yardbirds. They joked they'd call the new band "Lead Zeppelin" because it'd go over about as successfully as a lead balloon. The Who didn't disband, but Page adopted the name for his own crew of miscreants, and Led Zeppelin went on to sell more than 200 million records world-wide. This past June, 23 years after the band's final concert, How the West Was Won, Zeppelin's latest CD box-set and the five-hour long Led Zeppelin DVD, debuted at Number 1 on Canadian charts. That's remarkable -- even admirers admit the band had more misses than hits. Two generations of Maclean's writers, Peeter Kopvillem, 48, and Jonathan Durbin, 27, assess Zep's enduring appeal.

KOPVILLEM: I was 15 when I first heard them. I was visiting a friend in Montreal in 1969, and I'd just bought the debut album of this hot new band on Ste-Catherine Street. The cover was something else -- the Hindenburg exploding in 1937. I took off my coat, blew my nose a few times -- it was a Montreal winter, after all -- and plunked Led Zeppelin down on my friend's parents' stereo. It was one of those single-unit jobs everyone had in those days, but a Telefunken. German, with a tweedy grill covering the front.


So was the album. At a time when rock was becoming ponderous, lost in pretentious conceptualization, here was a rough-and-ready quartet. No overproduction, endemic in the age of Sgt. Pepper, Electric Ladyland and Tommy. Not too much of the self-indulgence that marred even my favourite band of the time, Cream (Wheels of Fire, the album that hit us with Eric Clapton's now-classic take of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, also featured drummer Ginger Baker's seemingly endless solo, Toad, as well as the dubious Pressed Rat and Warthog). Zeppelin was thudding bass and drums (John Paul Jones and John Bonham), screaming voice and guitar (Robert Plant and Jimmy Page). Energy to burn, sparse studio takes sounding exotic because of that very minimalism. Even the slow songs felt fast.

So much for boomer paeans to lost youth. I was underwhelmed by Zeppelin's live performance when I saw the band soon after at what was then the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto. (For the record, I was wearing gold-coloured corduroy bell-bottoms. I was really proud of them, even though they made me look like some mutant Christmas-tree ornament.) Zeppelin was sloppy, seemingly more concerned with image than sound. It seemed as if they were taking the manic, compelling presence of a band like the Who, and turning it into preening and strutting.

I stuck with them, though, through Led Zeppelin II, when we all needed coolin'. By the third album, released in the fall of 1970, I was starting to lose interest. Then came the fourth album in late 1971, and the seemingly endless loop of Stairway to Heaven that continues to this day. It was about that time, winding on down the road, my spirit crying for leaving, that Zeppelin lost me.

Not that they noticed -- they went on to make five other studio albums and a gazillion dollars. But what happened to me and other former fans? Part of it was going on to university, where I don't remember Zeppelin being particularly big. Maybe lyrics such as, "The way you squeeze my lemon / I'm gonna fall right out of bed," lost their appeal when you were trying to make sense of the Riel rebellion. Pedestrian attempts to further mythologize what was already a modern mythology, The Lord of the Rings, also started to sound insipid. I love the book, pick it up every once in a while because it feels like pulling on a comfortable old sweater. But listening to, "T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair / But Gollum, and the evil one, crept up and slipped away with her" -- that was just silly.

Not to mention Stairway to Heaven. I know Led-en drummer John Bonham died in 1980, by most accounts drunk as a bustle in a hedgerow. But maybe the main reason there's never been a remaining-members reunion of the band is that Robert Plant can't bring himself to sing: "And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason."

Shadows taller than our souls. The biggest mythologizing has been around Zeppelin itself. Some commentators have waxed eloquent about the band bringing riff-rock into its own. You know: take a guitar line, work it, build it into a song. Guess they somehow missed Hendrix and Cream. And the Stones (The Last Time, to mention just one), the Beatles (Day Tripper, Ticket to Ride). And the notion that music is a continuum -- no band qualifies as Rock Gods of All Time.

As for the guitar genius of Jimmy Page -- OK, he played some neat stuff. But he was also pretty messy. Listen to what he does on the current Zeppelin release, How the West Was Won. On the seven-minute, 25-second version of Heartbreaker, he plays what was probably meant to be a show-stopping guitar solo, sans band. "Noodling" is the word that comes to mind. And I won't dwell on the West version of Whole Lotta Love. Even though it incorporates other songs (Gene Pitney's Hello Marylou, if you can believe it), it's still a whole lotta more love than anyone, apart from the most committed acid-head listening to classic-rock radio, could put up with. The song never ends.

And yet . . .

Often, in the car, I also tune in to the local dino-rock station. When I hear Zeppelin, I'll catch myself tapping along on the steering wheel, building up to forcing some Plant-like primal scream out of my middle-aged throat. Something raw, elemental, pulls me in, just like it did 34 years ago.

Thirty-four years ago. Recently, driving to work, I noticed a convertible in front of me, the driver sporting thick and curly blond hair. "It's either Foxy Lady or Robert Plant," I told my wife. Then I thought, "My God, is this me, 48 years old and reduced to making long-hair jokes?" Seemingly on cue, a radio commercial ended and the DJ put on What Is and What Should Never Be. I didn't run, and flick to another station. Instead, I told myself I hated the song.

And turned it up. Way loud.

DURBIN: Robert Plant looked like a girl, or so those of us too young to remember Led Zeppelin know from pictures. The British foursome's open-shirted lead singer twitched on stage, moaning, yipping and yowling like he was possessed by the very spirit of rock 'n' roll, seducing overachieving youth and dropouts alike with his blues-soaked voice and golden, Roger Daltrey-ish hair. Mmm. How womanish. But while the Who was about epic freedom rock, Zeppelin was about sex -- dirty, sweaty, nasty sex. And although many of Plant's lyrics were undeniably misogynistic ("Soul of a woman was created below," "Livin', lovin', she's just a woman," "Lyin', cheatin', hurtin', that's all you seem to do"), that didn't prevent his Norse mysticism and love for Tolkien from translating into raw sleaze appeal. That might not play in 2003 -- there's nothing more off-putting than hearing "Valhalla" in a pick-up line, save at a Dungeons & Dragons convention -- but, like Lou Reed said, those were different times.

The mighty Zep swaggered, wore obscenely tight trousers and didn't care who was spinning Stairway to Heaven backward to find hidden prayers to Satan. That's the easy formula for rock success, and it hasn't changed one iota in the 34 years since. They were self-centred and self-aggrandizing, brutally hard and wonkily experimental, and blueprinted the antithesis of the hippie-dippy peace-and-love generation -- which, by the time the band broke in 1969, had already begun to stink of sentimentality. Robert Plant's breast was no place to seek solace, unless you were tonguing his nipple. And, more than other stars of the age, he was safe for even homo-hating frat boys to find attractive. Not that there's anything wrong with being a frat boy.

Somewhere between Good Times, Bad Times and When the Levee Breaks, Zeppelin laid the foundation for thousands of bands to follow. Musically, they prepped audiences for acts like Aerosmith (who capitalized on Zeppelin's deep-fried wankery), Guns n' Roses (if November Rain isn't a paean to Stairway to Heaven, then Axl Rose has a full head of hair) and even Nirvana (Kurt Cobain's catalogue includes a rarity called Aero Zeppelin, which includes radio-unfriendly lyrics like "Steal a sound and imitate/keep a format equally"). The band is directly responsible for '80s hair-metal (the geniuses in Poison, for instance, figured that throwing a dash of Ziggy Stardust into a Zeppelin stew would produce record sales) and metal proper (Black Dog plus Black Flag, by way of the Misfits, equals Metallica). Even hip-hop followed suit: the Beastie Boys, P. Diddy and many more have sampled Zeppelin's work. Like Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground, Zeppelin didn't break the mould. It cast it.

And they helped set the bar for offstage excess, too. Road stories from Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham are invariably disgusting, involving groupies, drugs, groupies on drugs and druggy shenanigans. Allegedly, their worst behaviour occurred during a U.S. tour while staying at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle; a redheaded female fan and a red snapper became intimately acquainted at the band's behest. That's grody even by today's oozing, Courtney Love-depreciated standards.

After their '70s run, Zeppelin closed shop in 1980 when Bonham choked to death on his vomit. Dying for rock 'n' roll was nothing new by then -- Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon and AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott had all met ignominious ends. But unfortunately Bonham's demise only proved that the band was worthy of its legend, much like how a hip-hop artist's street cred is the basis for his market viability (i.e., Tupac Shakur lived -- and died -- the thug life). In a sad way, that sealed their admission into the Hall of Fame as much as classic rock radio did by getting the Led out at least once every 20 minutes for the past two decades. Zep's one of the rare bands that managed to burn out without fading away. Numerous reunions and best-of releases assured they'd remain omnipresent even as their influence waned and wrinkles grew deep enough to hold water.

Despite the merchandising, they never embarrassed their legacy. Unlike the Doors, whose recent "reunion" tour dissolved into a Kafkaesque mess of lawsuits, or Ozzy Osbourne's foray into reality TV, which succeeded in destroying almost everything cool about Black Sabbath, Zeppelin's integrity remains solid. Perhaps that's the reason three-decade-old songs still sound so fresh.

And hearing the old stuff filtered through new ears is precisely what's fun about rock music, anyway. Pop will eat itself and it's got a cast-iron stomach. Zeppelin itself was ripping off older bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. And by maintaining their legend, they've guaranteed that future bands will pay them homage. Even considering the skull-scraping ape sounds in Whole Lotta Love, having Zeppelin shape the next generation of guitar prodigies is better than leaving instruction up to, say, Huey Lewis and the News. And with their continued popularity, it's only prudent to observe that their time is gonna come. Again and again.

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