The band was originally formed in 1968 by guitarist Jimmy Page under the name “the New Yardbirds” in order to fulfill some performance commitments booked before the break up of the original Yardbirds. Robert Plant was the singer. After those concerts the band’s name was changed to Led Zeppelin after Keith Moon, drummer with The Who, suggested they would “go over like a lead balloon”. They turned out to be one of the most popular and influential rock bands of the 1970s.
Shortly after their first tour the group’s first eponymous album was released. Its combination of blues and rock influences with distorted amplification made it one of the pivotal records in the evolution of heavy metal music and kick-started the band’s career, especially in the United States, where they would frequently tour and where their album sales totals are second only to The Beatles. The second record, simply titled Led Zeppelin II followed in the same style, and included the bludgeoning riff of “Whole Lotta Love”, which, driven by the rhythm section of John Bonham on drums and John Paul Jones on bass, defined their sound at the time.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were blues fanatics; two of Led Zeppelin’s early hits, “Whole Lotta Love” and “You Shook Me”, were actually written by Willie Dixon (however, they were used without crediting Dixon and it was not until Chess Records brought suit 15 years later that proper credit — and a monetary settlement — was given). The band also loved American rock and roll and would perform songs originally made famous by Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. Onstage, Led Zeppelin concerts could last over three hours; expanded, improvised live versions of their song repertoire often incorporated tight workouts of James Brown, Stax, and Motown-influenced soul music and funk (favorites of bassist Jones and drummer Bonham).
For the recording of their third record, Led Zeppelin III, the band retired to “Bron-Yr-Aur”, a remote house in Wales Celtic and folk music, and which revealed a different side of guitarist Page’s prodigious talent.
“The Biggest Band in the World”
The band’s varying musical tendencies were fused on the fourth album, which although officially untitled, is usually called either Four Symbols or IV. The record included hard rock such as “Black Dog”, Tolkienesque folksy mysticism on “The Battle of Evermore“, and a combination of both genres in the lengthy song “Stairway to Heaven“, a massive FM radio hit. The album winds up with one of thier best blues songs, When the Levee Breaks. without electricity. This would result in a more acoustic sound (and a song, “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” – misspelled as “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” on the album cover) which was strongly influenced by
Their next studio record, 1973‘s Houses of the Holy, featured further experimentation: longer songs, expanded use of synthesizers, and string sections arranged by Jones. With songs like “The Song Remains the Same”, “No Quarter”, and “D’yer Mak’r” Led Zeppelin were again pushing the limits defining rock music. Their 1973 tour of the U.S. again broke records for attendance: at Tampa Stadium, Florida they played to 56,800 fans (more than the Beatles‘ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium). Three sold out New York shows at Madison Square Garden were filmed for a concert motion picture, but this project would be delayed for several years.
In 1974, Led Zeppelin launched their own record label called Swan Song. Besides using it as a vehicle to promote their own albums, the band expanded the label’s roster, signing artists such as Bad Company, Pretty Things, Maggie Bell, Detective, Dave Edmunds, Midnight Flyer, Sad Caf? and Wildlife.
1975 saw the release of Physical Graffiti, their first double album set, on the Swan Song label. The album included songs recorded in studio sessions from the last 3 albums plus new songs. Again the band showed impressive range with songs like the melodic “Ten Years Gone”, the acoustic “Black Country Woman”, the driving “Trampled Underfoot”, and the thundering, Indian–Arabic tinged “Kashmir”.
Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti the entire Led Zeppelin catalog of six albums was simultaneously on the top 200 album chart, a feat never before accomplished. The band embarked on another U.S. tour, again playing to record-breaking crowds. To top off the year they played 5 sold out nights at the U.K‘s Earl’s Court (these shows were recorded and would be released on DVD some 28 years later). At this peak of their career, Led Zeppelin were the biggest rock band in the world.
If the band’s popularity on stage and record was impressive, so too was their reputation for excess and off-stage wildness; Zeppelin traveled in a private jet, rented out entire sections of hotels, and became the subjects of many of rock’s most famous stories of debauchery: trashed hotel rooms, sexual escapades, and heavy use of drugs and alcohol. Several people associated with the band would write books about the wild escapades of the group, who disavowed many of the tales.
In 1976 the band took a break from the road and began filming “fantasy” segments for the as-yet unreleased concert film. During this break Robert Plant and his wife were in a car crash which broke Plant’s ankle. Unable to tour, the band returned to the studio and, with Plant sitting on a stool during the sessions they recorded their sixth studio album, Presence. Though the album was a platinum seller it was considered by many to be a disappointing effort. The intricate arrangements of previous albums had been replaced by jams including “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the epic-length “Achilles Last Stand”. Some critics speculated that the band’s legendary excesses had caught up with them at last.
Late 1976 finally saw the release of the concert film The Song Remains the Same and its soundtrack. Though the concert footage was from 1973 this would be the only filmed document of the group released for the next 20 years.
The summer of 1978 saw the group recording again, this time at Swedish Polar Studio; this album would be titled In Through the Out Door and would showcase the talent of drummer John Bonham on the epic “Carouselambra”. The album also featured rockers like “In The Evening” , the tropical “Fool in the Rain”, and the balladic tribute to Plant’s son, “All My Love”. After a decade of recording and touring, the band was now considered a dinosaur in some quarters, as mainstream musical tastes had moved in favor of disco and critical focus had turned to punk rock, but the band still commanded legions of loyal fans, and the album reached #1 in the US and UK.
In the summer of 1979, after 2 warm up shows in Copenhagen, Led Zeppelin were booked as headliners at England’s Knebworth Fest in August. Close to 400,000 fans witnessed the return of Led Zeppelin and with the release of In Though the Out Door in November They were ready to tour again, planning a short European tour followed by another American tour.
The 1980 American tour was not to be, however. On September 25, 1980, shortly before embarking on the U.S. leg of the tour, drummer John Bonham died of an accidental asphyxiation after an alcohol binge.
The remaining band members refused to continue as Led Zeppelin after Bonham’s death, although there have been ongoing rumours of a reunion and various collaborative project.
Two years after Bonham’s death the band released Coda, a collection of out-takes from previous recording sessions. In the years to follow a steady stream of boxed sets and greatest-hits collections would keep the band on the charts, as Led Zeppelin continued to garner heavy airplay on rock radio.
In 1985 Page, Plant, Jones with drummers Tony Thompson and Phil Collins performed a short set at Live Aid. A year later in 1986, Page, Plant and Jones gathered at Bath, England for rehearsals with drummer Thompson with a view to play again as a group, however a serious car accident with Thompson put an end to that plan. Bonham’s son, Jason, joined the remaining three in 1988 for Atlantic Records‘ 40th Anniversary concert.
The British press reported in 2002 that Plant and Jones had reconciled after a 20-year feud that had kept Led Zeppelin apart, and rumours of a reunion tour in 2003 surfaced. Drummer Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters was named as a potential replacement for Bonham, a claim later denied by Page.
2003 saw yet another resurgence of the band’s popularity with the simultaneous release on CD and DVD of live concert material from the band’s heyday.
- Jimmy Page — guitar
- Robert Plant — vocals, harmonica
- John Bonham — drums
- John Paul Jones — bass guitar, keyboards
The band has often cited influential manager Peter Grant as a “fifth member.
- Led Zeppelin (1969)
- Led Zeppelin II (1969)
- Led Zeppelin III (1970)
- Four Symbols (1971) (unofficial title)
- Houses of the Holy (1973)
- Physical Graffiti (1975)
- Presence (1976)
- The Song Remains the Same (1976)
- In Through the Out Door (1979)
The following albums were issued after the band ceased recording:
- CODA (1982)
- Remasters (1990)
- Profiled (1990)
- Box Set (1990)
- Box Set II (1993)
- Complete Studio Recordings (1993)
- BBC Sessions (1997)
- Early Days: Best of Led Zeppelin Volume One (1999)
- Latter Days: Best of Led Zeppelin Volume Two (2000)
- How the West Was Won (2003)