It was this week in 1980 when Led Zeppelin called it a day. Two months prior, drummer and resident wildman John Bonham had died after a day/night long binge, consuming the equivalent of 40 shots of vodka. It started with 4 quadruple vodkas and a ham roll. "Breakfast", he said.
A rehearsal for the upcoming tour, their first since 1977 followed and so did the drinking. After the band wrapped, Bonham passed out and was put to bed. He never woke up.
Pulmonary Asphyxiation was the official cause of death. A fancy way to say, that at the age of 32, he choked to death on his own vomit. Yeah, never a good look.
"We wish it to be known, that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were."
And with that, one of the most storied careers in rock n' roll came to an end.
During their 2012 Kennedy Honors ceremony, President Barak Obama said," When Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham burst onto the musical scene in the late 1960s, the world never saw it coming." He was right. Over the course of their first four albums Tolkien fantasies played out next to thundering interpretations of "borrowed" blues. They issued no singles. They rarely gave interviews. The press hated them.
I was in the 5th grade when my buddy Burke Morrison brought his older brother's copy of Led Zeppelin II to school. It had just come out. Mr. Stevens, our teacher, said it would be OK to play it during our break period. He tolerated the first 2 songs, but when the lads got deep into 'The Lemon Song', the phallic innuendo of fruit squeezin' and fallin' right outta bed, well...it was too much. He made us take it off. But the damage had been done. Our teenage years and puberty were right around the corner. We didn't need some posh condescending critic from Rolling Stone (or Mr. Stevens) to tell us what to like. We wanted our music loud, rough, direct, and decadent. We had found our soundtrack.
Heavy? Yes. Metal? Not really. While they would come to define the genre, Zeppelin was far more nuanced. They could draw inspiration from Joni Mitchell as well as Howlin' Wolf. The fourth untitled record, with 'Black Dog', 'Going to California', and the future warhorse 'Stairway To Heaven', would perfect the promise of the previous three.
"No-one ever compared us to Black Sabbath after this record."- John Paul Jones.
While Houses Of The Holy (a nod to the stadiums they now found themselves playing) was a fairly 'safe' album, Physical Graffiti, their sixth, and a double record to boot, found them at the top of their game. The blues were heavier, there were acoustic flourishes, plus pop, funk and eastern influences. Along with IV, it was a high water mark. It would also be the band's last great album.
The demise of Zeppelin probably started in 1975. Plant had become disillusioned with the constant touring and recording after a car crash that nearly killed his wife and left him confined to a wheelchair for months. He sang most of his vocals in that wheelchair for the album Presence. “I was furious with Page and [band manager] Peter Grant,” he told biographer Chris Welch. “I was just furious that I couldn’t get back to the woman and the children that I loved. And I was thinking, is all this rock and roll worth anything at all?”
The 1977 tour that followed was ugly. Bonham was drunk and violent, a written set of backstage rules warned journalists not to look him in the eye “for your own safety”. To make matters worse, Page was in the grips of a serious heroin habit. “There were bodyguards everywhere, and that was a real big sea change from ’75 to ’77,” journalist Jaan Uhelski told Barney Hoskyns for his 2012 oral history Trampled Under Foot. “There was just a cloud that seemed to hang over everybody.”
That tour was cut short after the death of Plant's son Karac, from a stomach infection. Much like in '75, the thought of prancing around a stage singing about big legged women, no longer held any kind of charm. “I lost my boy,” he told Rolling Stone, “I didn't want to be in Led Zeppelin. I wanted to be with my family.” He considered quitting music altogether and go into teaching.
That could have been it, but the gravitational pull of the band was too strong. "There was something going on, and it was lifting again," mused Plant. "We decided that we could work, and we should start all over again." Peter Grant booked the band into Abba's studios in Sweden and the result was 'In Through The Out Door'. Despite mixed reviews (more of a Plant/Jones album, Page largely absent) the record would top the charts. The band was booked for a headlining appearance at the Knebworth festival. Another tour would follow. Then came the death of John Bonham.
It's hard to say what might have happened next. Page, who had always been somewhat dismissive of 'In Through The Out Door' ( 'the keyboard album') had promised a more guitar heavy, trickier, follow up. We'll never know what that might have sounded like, although some tracks from the odds and sods 'Coda' do give an indication. What we do know from the post Zeppelin solo work, the parts were never greater than the whole. I mean, when was the last time you curled up with anything by The Firm? Of course that's not to over look the incredible success of Robert Plant's Raising Sand which he did with Allison Krauss or the fact that John Bonham's drums have been sampled by everyone from Eminem to the Beastie Boys...
But even if you were never a fan of Led Zeppelin (you're forgiven if riff heavy blooze complimented with banshee vocals over a plundering rhythm section was not your cup of tea) you certainly could give them credit for choosing music over money. Once they called it quits, that was it. Outside of a few one offs (Live Aid, awful; O2 concert, triumphant) they stuck to their guns and never reunited. That despite the millions upon millions they've been offered over the decades. That might be more Plant than anyone else, who has said a reunion would be like sleeping with your ex-wife, but not having sex...supposedly he ripped up an $800 million offer from Richard Branson.
Since then the myth has remained intact, unvarnished and unchanged. Sure, there's the underaged groupies, drugs, booze, mayhem, not to mention that incident with the red snapper, and rumored Satanic rituals. But in the long run, it's the music. Led Zeppelin reinvented the way the blues could be played. Their unique gumbo included folk, psychedelia, metallic funk, and they were pioneers of hard rock. Music that laid the foundation for hundreds that followed in their wake, from the Aerosmith and the White Stripes to the Black Crowes. And that's the legacy that counts. It's a legacy, like they once sang, that still stands taller than their souls.
The Independent, Ultimate Classic Rock, Allmusic, and my own warped opinion were sourced or this article.