It's been a long tome since they rock 'n' rolled

By Scott Kara

A hefty new illustrated history of Led Zeppelin has a New Zealand connection. Scott Kara reports

As a new book about Led Zeppelin proves, they don't make bands like that anymore.

For starters, look at the long list of tour dates printed sporadically throughout music writer Jon Bream's Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin, a big, scrapbook-style illustrated history of the band with photos, copies of concert tickets, posters, magazine covers and best of all, accounts of the band by fellow musicians, groupies, journalists, and writers like William S. Burroughs.

It follows coffee-table wreckers like the Beatles Anthology and 2006's U2 by U2.

In 1969, the same year Led Zeppelin II was released, the band hit the road in June. Apart from a break in September and December, they toured constantly until April the following year. Between March 21 and April 18 they played 26 shows, with three days off, from Vancouver to Phoenix.

And you can bet they weren't tucked up in bed early after each gig.

Fuelled by booze, drugs and libidos, Led Zeppelin's on-the-road exploits are the stuff of rock 'n' roll folklore.

There has been much written about Led Zeppelin, the most notorious and insightful being Stephen Davis' 1985 book, Hammer Of the Gods and Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, a warts-and-all account of the band by former tour manager Richard Cole.


Excerpts from both are included in Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin but overall Bream's book is more about music than extracurricular activities.

So while famous groupies Pamela Des Barres and Bebe Buell, most famous now for being the mum of actress Liv Tyler, recount their liaisons with guitarist and creative force Jimmy Page ("He was my type - very English, very dashing, very Renaissance," was one of Buell's more sanitised memories), there's also an excellent piece on engineer Eddie Kramer, best known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, who worked with Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin II, Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti.

Another of the book's contributors is London-based New Zealand music journalist Garth Cartwright, who wrote biographies on Page, singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, bass player and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones and manager Peter Grant for Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin.

Cartwright says in contrast to the Davis and Coles books - "they shagged this and snorted that" - Bream's work is "about the music and the beauty of it".

"And it's not just one person either, you've got a lot of different writers writing about the band. And it's not sycophantic, so you don't get a book that's painting them as saints and gods. It talks about their best and worst material, what they were like as people - their good and bad sides."

There were monstrous sides to the band, especially drummer John Bonham who, aged 32, drank himself to death and ended the reign of Led Zeppelin.

Cartwright, who researched the legendary drummer thoroughly in the process of writing his bio for the book, believes Bonham became an "animal".

"They got so famous and so rich and he, by all accounts, became a real monster, a really unpleasant person. He drank himself to death and my feeling is he knew the Jekyll and Hyde thing within him, that once he got on the road the worst side came out. That's why he was drinking so heavily in the sense that the inevitable was going to come."

Cartwright says Plant and Jones walked away from Led Zeppelin and went on to have successful careers, especially Plant, who is enjoying acclaim following his collaboration with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss on last year's Raising Sand.

Page has not been so fortunate, and apart from a handful of Led Zeppelin reunions hasn't done anything of note since the band ended.

"The band sucked everything out of him, which is interesting as he was the most creative musician of the lot."


He saw Page on stage during the Plant-Page reformation of the 90s and it was not a pretty sight.

"He looked a mess. He'd lived that lifestyle too long and it shows, and it shows in his playing."

He considers John Paul Jones "very pleasant and well-spoken - you'd think he was a school teacher - and very un-rock star."

Singer Robert Plant goes to a lot of gigs and "looks like a rock star with that long permed blonde hair, but he's totally un-rock star too".

Cartwright likes Led Zeppelin but isn't an avid fan. "They had some great stuff, but I think I've heard too much of them in my life. I grew up in Mt Roskill," he says.

And he reckons the band's legacy is not as clear-cut as it might seem.

"Their legacy in the 80s was terrible because all the awful American heavy metal bands were saying Led Zep was their favourite band. Then it got more interesting when Rick Rubin and all those guys started sampling their stuff on Beastie Boys records.

"Their legacy is some of the most dynamic hard rock music made and some great creativity.

"But it's a double-sided coin because at one point you admire them a lot, and at other points they were a bit of a curse because you end up with these stadium rock bands who scream and shriek and wreck hotel rooms," he says.

"But the stuff they did is really potent to rock 'n' roll and it's lasted."

LOWDOWN

What: Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time by Jon Bream, out now, $90.
Who: London-based New Zealand music journalist Garth Cartwright is a contributing writer.
Also: This isn't the only new Led Zeppelin book - When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall is also out soon.

- NZ Herald

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