Led Zeppelin: The Balloon That Never Sank
By Shailendra Ahangama
The year was 1968 in England, guitarist James Patrick 'Jimmy' Page was keen to start a new band after the breaking up of The Yardbirds, a band that fused early rhythm and blues and psychedelic rock and included legendary guitarists such as Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Initially, Page desired to create a super-group with bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, both already well reputed musicians of The Who, along with Jeff Beck on guitar and Steve Winwood on vocals.
This desired super-group however, never came to be. After much searching for musicians, Page settled with front-man Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, both members of the Band Of Joy. The final recruitment of bassist John Paul Jones was the completion of the band that came to be Led Zeppelin.
The origin of the band’s name is a tale worth telling. In 1968, when it was well known amongst prominent rock musicians in England that Page was out looking for musicians to form a band, the aforementioned Moon humorously stated that the chances of the band going down would be like a lead balloon’s. Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham simply altered the phrase lead balloon for their band name; Misspelling lead as ‘led’ and replacing ‘balloon’ with ‘zeppelin’. If Moon’s words are of any consequence, then we could safely state, bringing the band’s legacy and cultural impact into consideration, then this balloon is on a very slow descent from the impossibly high altitudes of success and fame it first took flight to.
The band’s self-titled debut and second album (titled Led Zeppelin II) were both released in 1969, and while blues-powered rock n’ roll was no undiscovered sonic territory for the time, there was an undeniable identity and trademark sound that the band had achieved with this album. From the fiery, fierce force that is Communication Breakdown to the slow bluesy organ of Your Time Is Gonna Come, to the burnt-to-a-crisp bluesy breakdown of Whole Lotta Love, Zeppelin had already created a sound that would be mimicked by not only their contemporaries, but even by bands in many years to come.
Bonham’s drumming, constructively volatile and technical, Page’s fiery fretwork and Jones’s groove based basslines, topped off with the shrieks of frontman Robert Plant, created a new standard for rock music, and these four long-haired, hedonistic young men arguably were the next breakthrough for the genre after The Beatles, since they have had an indelible role in shaping the many different styles that would fall under the umbrella of rock music.
The band drew influence from an eclectic palette as well, and this was a driving factor that led them to experiment in the next few albums. Both Page and Jones were session musicians and as a result, were well versed in jazz. Page was also a great admirer of Celtic folk music, this influence can be very much heard on their third album which was released in 1970 and titled Led Zeppelin III, where the band reflected on their mellower soundscape with songs such as Tangerine and Gallows Pole. Yet even when they did not include blazing electric guitars in their songs, Zeppelin challenged their listeners by including story based lyrics into them.
Plant in particular loved the English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, and this was what led to him writing some of the band’s most heavily fantasy and philosophy influenced lyrics, like the band’s most iconic song Stairway To Heaven which was in their next album Led Zeppelin IV, released in 1971. Stairway To Heaven attacks shallow values like materialism and greed with a narrative like tone it adopts, starting with a folk influenced opening, to a grandiose hard rock epilogue. Yet the band’s fourth album also continues to dabble in folk (Battle Of Evermore and Going To California), hard rock (Rock And Roll and Black Dog) and a semi-ethereal, semi-heavy cover of Kansas Joe McCoy’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’, with Bonham providing a steadfast groove to carry out the flow of the song.
While Zeppelin’s first four albums did push technical envelopes and articulate a whole new ‘heaviness’ in rock music, the band showed that they were anything but stagnant in the development of their sound. Their next album, Houses Of The Holy proves to be much ahead of most other rock band’s output in 1973. Having attained a degree of fame, the band was able to travel more and grow more as musicians.
Houses Of The Holy was very much reflective of Page’s interest in world music, as the album consists of reggae influenced tracks (D’yerMake’r), Jones providing a bass-line for the funk song The Crunge, the ethereal epic No Quarter which opens up to space and atmosphere while, arguably the most interesting song on the album, Dancing Days main riff is based off a melody that Plant and Page heard in their trip to Bombay, India. This all shows the broad spectrum of tastes and open minds that Zeppelin’s members maintained to illustrate such a rich eclecticism in their sound.
With a band as unpredictable and bold as Led Zeppelin, it should only be natural that their ambition to further strive in developing themselves as musicians and constantly improve their sound should be admired by their contemporaries and musicians that came after them, despite their disbandment due to the death of drummer Bonham in 1980. The band was an indelible force in taking rock music to new heights. The band’s heaviest moments coupled with their intricate arrangements was a definite influence on metal music, and Bonham’s drumming style is the blueprint for many metal drummers even today.
Zeppelin also greatly contributed to the development of progressive rock music, since Page’s interest in folk and world music and his infusing it with the blues rock formula showed that rock music could be mature and unorthodox whilst maintaining the energy that many of its fans love. Some of the band’s longer songs (No Quarter, Stairway To Heaven and Kashmir) go over seven minutes long and the narrative nature they entail was also another aspect of their sound that influenced progressive rock bands such as The Mars Volta (an experimental rock project by two Mexican musicians) and the Canadian band, Rush.
Yet for one to get a comprehensive idea of Zeppelin’s legacy, one must recall the ‘glam metal’ movement in the '80s and the ‘grunge’ movement in the '90s that followed it. The spandex-clad, makeup wearing glam metal bands of the '80s, that many readers who grew up in this decade may be familiar with, worshipped Led Zeppelin. Naturally, Plant’s virile live performances and his undeniable presence as a front-man were an obvious influence in the hedonistic and ‘party-all-the-time’ nature of bands like Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue, who endorsed a ‘feel-good’ culture and reckless lifestyle with outrageous outfits and messy private lives.
The grunge movement that took place in the '90s was a reaction towards what hair metal stood for. Grunge musicians started to wear casual attire in response to the bright outfits worn by the glam bands, the lyrical topics of these grunge bands were more realistic and depressing in comparison to the fast cars and parties that glam metal bands loved to sing about; in essence, the grunge culture’s embracing of what was austere and rudimentary was a response to senseless excess that the glam metal bands engaged in.
Yet, here is when Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones’s legacy shows to be ever enduring, since stylistically speaking, the crunchy riffs and sombre and volatile drumming that many grunge bands were identified with, were heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. Bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots were all big fans of the British rockers as well. In my opinion, for a band to strongly influence a particular movement and to also influence the movement that rebelled against it, it shows that their legacy is an indelible component of music in general.
Perhaps the question should be asked; what remains so unique and brilliant about four young men who comprise a rock band? It had been done before Zeppelin. Ambitious young men who took salvation in music with such volume and presence, and undoubtedly it still takes place. What distinguishes Led Zeppelin from The Kinks, Grand Funk Railroad and the many other rock bands that came before them? One could say it is the ambitious and bold nature of Page as a musician to not conform to what was commercial, others could state that it was the image of themselves that they marketed and so on and so forth. With it being an art form at the end of the day, art tends to invite many different viewpoints and windows of opinions, so there could never be an objective reason for the band’s success and impact.
However, there is an undeniable passion and ardour that is heard in Led Zeppelin’s music, whether in their heaviest, their most ethereal or softest that can only be extracted from the most artistic soul. At times, the co-ordination and sonic territories that the quartet of Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones venture into make it hard to believe that just four young men are capable of this, as at times the enriched experimentation of their sound doesn’t make Led Zeppelin sound like a band, but rather, a force, a window to some everlasting creative spirit that still inspires many today and perhaps would go on to inspire others in years to come and one that I urge you, reader, to experience as well.