Led Zeppelin: The Biography [Review]

Led Zeppelin: The Biography

by Bob Spitz
Penguin Press, 2021

When the first Led Zeppelin biography, Hammer of the Gods, by Stephen Davis, was published in 1985, it caused a sensation. Riding on the coattails of the equally sensationalistic No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Jim Morrison autobiography published in 1980 that caused a Doors revival, Hammer of the Gods bared to the world the debaucheries behind Led Zeppelin’s cooler-than-shit façade. Such as the groupie/mud shark tale which happened right here in Seattle, at the Edgewater Inn. I had read Hammer of the Gods even before I moved to Seattle, and can say for sure the book confirmed the many sordid stories I’d read hints of from the rock and roll magazines of my high school days.

Except, not really. Much in that book was claimed as exaggeration or fabrication. The authors relied on the recollections of Richard Cole, Led Zep’s ex-roadie, who had a motive to sell them out: money. The Zep members denounced it, in the same way the Beatles denounced the memoir of their first manager Allan Williams, who wrote about their wild times in the Reeperbahn District music clubs of Hamburg. (That book,  too, set off a wave of retro Beatlemania.)

Led Zeppelin: The Biography doesn’t entirely avoid the sensationalism, which is too bad. But it’s also a much more thorough history, and for the most part avoids the snark of Hammer which was considered essential in rock journalism at the time. (The otherwise excellent Beatles bio Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation also had this problem.) For that alone I rate the book highly.

Indeed, if you read only one Led Zep biography, read this one. Everything is there, who did what and when and where, enabling the reader to connect the dots to a wider range of players in the music industry and how they all interacted. Dusty Springfield, for example, rated John Paul Jones so highly a session player on her albums that a chance remark by her let the band to secure a highly favorable record deal.

Even better, the business machine behind the band is laid bare, making it a case study in music management 101. Manager Peter Grant receives a strong case for being the unlauded fifth member of the group. Grant didn’t discover them like Epstein did the Beatles. He accrued them because he managed the Yardbirds who Jimmy had first played with, and, impressed with his talent, stole the proto-Zeppelin out from under Micky Most’s nose. How hard of a sell Jimmy did on Grant the book doesn’t say, but I’d bet his talent spoke for itself. It was only through Grant’s unwavering faith and strong-armed tactics the group became the powerhouse it was, along with the casual connections, lucky encounters, and twists of fate. Everything just clicked into place.

The book also gets right what Hammer did not. Page’s family did not own a car dealership in the Epsom section of London, he came from humbler beginnings. The band did not call them themselves the Nobs for a gig in Scandinavia because it was slang for balls, but because it was the name of an associate of theirs. The mud shark incident did not involve the Zep band members; it was conceived by Richard Cole and Carmine Appice, the drummer for Vanilla Fudge. Though that they watched and did nothing to stop it was questionable; whether there was anything to be stopped the book leaves up in the air, leaving the reader to decide if it was sexual assault on an out-of-it victim or willing participants in raunchy play.

Which to me was the biggest fault of the book, rehashing those old incidents at face value. Though the author adds moralizing from a present day viewpoint, no new spin is put on them. For example, in  one part it’s hinted that underage groupie Lori Maddox (I’m using the earlier spelling of her name) was pimped by her mother to bag a rock star, but this is not explored any further, which is a shame. In fact none of the female associates of the band are explored in any depth. This might be an omission of the author’s, or the women might have been unwilling to talk. But one day I hope to hell to see the band’s history told from the viewpoint of the wives, girlfriends, and female associates of the band.

Also mildly annoying was the reinteration of the phrase “do as though wilt” — a saying of Aleister Crowley, an occult figure Jimmy had a fascination with — at certain times whenever the band does a morally questionable thing. But basic reading of Crowley and Thelema shows that it doesn’t mean do all the evil you possibly can without fear of reprisal. That’s the meaning Spitz put upon it. What it does mean is a sort of self-actualization, in the form of cause and effect. Which must have attractive to the young Jimmy Page who claims he read one of Crowley’s books around the age of 11.

The in-depth basic information makes the book very readable for a newbie, but for Zep aficionados there are many new revelations. Like how Swan Song records, the band’s vanity label, passed on rock groups Heart and Queen because everyone running the label was too drugged and apathetic to run it properly. Post-Zep history is barely touched on, but then that would require a whole other book.

Comparing the book to Mick Wall’s 2008 When Giants Walked the Earth, also a very thorough biography, I’d say Spitz’s book comes out better, though it’s missing the personal touches of the band member’s lives. Though not the “you are [insert band member’s name]” fanfic chapter preludes, which had me cringing in secondhand embarrassment for the writer. In spite of that I enjoyed the book, but the Spitz book does the history better.

The book includes about two dozen well-chosen photos, among them a lovely pic of a very young Jimmy and Jeff Beck tuning their guitars, courtesy of one Linda Eastman, later known as Linda McCartney.

After all that I am seriously zepp’d out.  But at some point I’ll continue on with a Jimmy Page biography I started.

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