“Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing.” – Led Zeppelin.
“Been dazed and confused for so long it’s not true…” – Led Zeppelin.
In 1974, I was living in London, sharing a damp, dingy, mouse-infested room with two young English drop-outs and earning about 13 pounds a week.
The facilities were basic. We did our cooking on a hot plate while the ablutions were in a small cubicle at the end of the passage-way. I used to go to the launderette down the road to do my washing.
I dressed in a style I thought appropriate to the then emerging “underground” culture: mostly grandpa vests and bell-bottom jeans. I sported a pair of sideburns and a moustache (inspired by Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) while my hair curled coquettishly around my ears. On top of it I wore a Donovan cap.
As an adjunct, I listened to a lot of loud rock music, treating it with all the seriousness usually reserved for classical music – all the while nurturing a vision of myself as part of a new generation of politically and socially aware young hipsters. The fact that I didn’t know nearly as much as I claimed to didn’t prevent me from persisting with the pretence.
Back then, Led Zeppelin were the King Kong of the genre, towering so large over the landscape they dwarfed almost everybody else. Naturally, I was a fan.
Fresh from the backwoods of Rhodesia, I had been first introduced to them during my varsity days by the rather mysterious young man who lived in the room next to mine.
The university I had enrolled in was primarily known for its agricultural faculty and, not too surprisingly, most of its students were fairly conservative in both dress and outlook..
My neighbour defied this image. He was part of the “long-haired revolution”, turning his back on conventional mores and wearing his outsider status as a badge of honour.
Because of his red mane, I called him the Little Red Rooster, after the old Willie Dixon blues song (later covered by the Rolling Stones). The name stuck.
I will always remember him, with affection, slouching down the road to and from lectures, his long hair enclosing a thin, pale face, his eyes broodingly directed in front of him. Occasionally he would nod as he passed a group of women among whom he might see a potential conquest.
He made quite an impact. It is hard to believe, in this age when anything goes, that there were folk, back then, who got so inflamed by the sight of men with long hair that they wanted to beat them up. They would drive past our residence and, leaning out their car windows and shaking their fists, shout: “You fokken communists” or “You look like bleddy girls” in their thick South African accents, revealing their rampant misogyny.
You could see the hate glowing in their eyes. It was quite unsettling.
The Rooster took his rock music seriously. Eager to learn as much as he could, he bought LPs by the dozen. To make sure the quality was just right he usually insisted on buying the more expensive “imports” in preference to the locally produced versions.
His extensive collection were arranged neatly next to his pride and joy – his Hi Fi set. Only he was allowed to handle them.
It was through the Rooster that I got my baptism in to Led Zeppelin. I was writing an essay one evening when he burst in to my room, glowing with excitement.
“I’ve got it!” he said brandishing an LP triumphantly above his head. My flat mates and I were all invited to his room to hear it.
The album was simply called Led Zeppelin
Allegedly named by Keith Moon of The Who, the band was essentially the creation of ex-Yardbirds guitar virtuoso, Jimmy Page and featured Robert Plant on vocals, bassist John Paul Jones – who had done session work with the Rolling Stones – and John Bonham on drums.
To get us in to the right mood, the Rooster insisted we all lie on the floor, in his room, with the lights switched off.
From the opening track, Good Times, Bad Times, it was a shock. The shrieks and demented guitar playing, overlayed with feedback and amplifier distortion, as well the excessive drumming, was more loud and overpowering than anything I had heard on record before. It was like an earthquake, opening up a whole new chapter in my musical education.
I was immediately hooked.
If the first album was an eye-opener, the second, Led Zeppelin II, which the Rooster duly bought, was the one that established them as the unchallenged premier hardcore rock band.
Blithely combining power-house melodies with industrial strength noise, the group continued to overload their songs to the point of explosion, creating a startling rush of momentum.
Nor was it all just raw noise, the band alternating between electric and acoustic instrumentation with a finesse few other performers managed. From Plant’s impassioned screaming on the opening track, Whole Lotta Love, to To Ramble On with it Tolkein-esque references to ‘the darkest depths of Mordor‘ the songs also displayed considerable variety and content and a unique chemistry.
In an era notable for its love of musical novelty, it was amongst the most novel of them all. Rolling Stone Magazine perhaps put it best when they described it as “rock as sculptured noise”.
This ability to alternate between ripping guitar leads and achingly tender melody lines was perhaps nowhere better shown than on their best known track, Stairway to Heaven, which would go on to become a staple on the radio and one of the most requested songs ever.
Not everyone reacted to their thunderous volume and edge-of-mayhem theatrics the way I did.
I remember, on one occasion, my brother Pete, a final year agricultural student, opening the door and looking on us with a mixture of bafflement and amusement as we lay there on the floor in the dark.
Pete, being Pete, did not try and save me from myself. He may not have liked or understood the music but he realised this unholy din meant something to me and left it at that.
The Rooster hung around at university until the release of the fourth Led Zeppelin album and then dropped out of our lives in the same mysterious way he had appeared. Despite that, my passion for the band carried on undimmed.
For their part, Led Zeppelin continued to lead the pack, their wildly charismatic live performances, which often featured Page’s novel use of the violin bow, going on to cement the legend. Unfailingly energetic and vital they played with such verve and skill they outshone most everyone else – a fact that led to some lesser acts refusing to appear on the same bill as them for fear they would be found wanting.
In spite of their enormous success – or perhaps because of it – they received no small criticism over the years. The music press, at first, was decidedly sniffy; there were charges of plagiarism while Jimmy Page’s well documented fascination with the occult and openly expressed admiration for the writings of the infamous Satanist, Aleister Crowley (whose Loch Ness residence Page bought), led to accusations that they were acting in league with the devil.
Their off-stage antics also won them a great deal of notoriety. In true Seventies rock-star style, cocaine was consumed by the cartload and distilleries drunk dry. Between them they slept with literally thousands of groupies, hotel rooms were regularly trashed and their were several unsavoury incidents involving the band’s thuggish bodyguards.
With all this controversy still swirling around them Led Zeppelin still found time to make some of the most exciting, potent and powerful music of all time (Led Zepellin II, Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti are now generally accepted to be rock classics).
I, meanwhile, had left university and got drafted in to the army. Very possessive of my hard won independence, I did not react well to either the discipline or the highly restrictive, regimented military way of life.
Desperately wanting to get back to living life on my own terms, I fled to England shortly after I completed my National Service.
Having hitherto only listened to British rock and blues on records and tapes, part of my reason for going there was because I wanted to experience the music live in its natural habitat. As it turned out, however, I spent my entire year living so close to the breadline I never could afford to go to any concert.
The biggest disappointment of all was when Led Zeppelin appeared live, just down the road in Earls Court, in a concert that is now generally regarded as marking the pinnacle of their career. I was out of work at the time with not enough money to even pay my rent so I was forced to give it a miss – something I have spent the rest of my life lamenting.
Thereafter, the relentless touring, drug-fuelled lifestyle and the inevitable personality clashes took their toll and the band began to slowly unravel. Drummer John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham’s death, after choking on his own vomit – an inquest in to his death calculated he had drunk in the region of 40 measures of vodka – spelt the end, although the surviving band members did briefly reunite in 2008 in a much publicised, kill-for-a-ticket, live reunion concert.
After they split up there were rumours that Plant and Page were going to form a band called XYZ but nothing ever came of it. Instead each of the remaining members of the group that spawned heavy metal decided to pursue solo careers ( Plant and Page did go on to make an album together in in 1994). For me, though, much of the romance had gone out of it and thereafter I only took a spasmodic interest in their various musical journeys.
That changed in 2007 when Robert Plant released Raising Sand, his surprise hit collaboration with blue-grass singer, Alison Krauss, which would go on to be nominated the Sunday Times’s album of the year. As unlikely as the pairing might have seemed on paper, their disparate voices and backgrounds made a brilliant meld. Filled with lyrical love songs and gently strident social anthems it is a strongly affecting work, full of style and character and a worthy summation of his career.
I think it is a wonderful album. I play again and again.
Looking at the cover picture of Plant, a lot craggier than the Adonis-like, golden-haired screamer of yore, made me realise that age had caught up with us all. It also reminded me of the time when, like the poet Robert Frost, I too, stood at the crossroads of my life and chose to take the road less travelled.
Led Zeppelin formed part of that. For me, their music had something to do with freedom. It accompanied me out in to the world at a time when I felt a bit lost and had no real interest in making money or having a career. It helped me expunge unwanted aspects of my past and gave my life a significance it might not otherwise have had.
It was also a whole lotta fun…