Oral History of Led Zeppelin
John Paul Jones
I have always liked Barney Hoskyns’ writing. He has a subtle and incisive way of getting to the seed of any story. His biography on Montgomery Clift, Beautiful Loser was sublime. More recently Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys In The L.A. Canyons was perhaps the best book written on West Coast music. He also wrote a commendable biography on Tom Waits, and written histories on Glam and Soul, particularly the exceptional Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted: Country Soul In The American South.
Now Hoskyns has delivered Trampled Underfoot: The Power and Excess of Led Zepelin, which is the best biography written about Zeppelin to date.
It’s the best because Hoskyns’ book is a mammoth oral history of the band, told through over 130 interviews, featuring the key players, the management, the wives, the girlfriends, the roadies, the producers, the engineers, the PR people, the record label, the security, the druggies, right down to the designers of the album sleeves and office staff. Where there have been gaps, caused by death (drummer John Bonham, manager Peter Grant) or refusal (Kenneth Anger), Hoskyns has lifted directly from the original, key interviews, to maintain the story’s immediacy.
In an exclusive interview with Dangerous Minds, Barney Hoskyns talked to about Trampled Underfoot and the power and excess of Led Zeppelin.
DM: Why did you choose Led Zeppelin?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘I chose Zeppelin because I love them. The mission really was not to preach to the converted, if you like, it was to an extent to preach to the unconverted. Obviously, I hope that the Led Zeppelin community will read it and take to it, and embrace it. But I think I wanted to pitch it at as much skeptics, to say look a) Zeppelin’s music was incredible and b) the story is extraordinary.
‘And I think there was an opportunity to demystify the story a little bit, just to sort of get away from glorifying the usual larks and antics, and Hell-raising, and to make the story a bit more real. I think, was the mission, and that’s kind of how the book mutated into an oral history. Because it didn’t start out like that, but the more interviews I did, I ended up doing over 130, the more it became clear to me there was an opportunity to tell the story in a different way, with the kind of immediacy you get from people just talking quite openly and candidly. And I thought let’s see if we can tell the story in a kind of continuous way, from start to finish. That was the mission and that was the methodology.’
Hoskyns starts the book from the with the earliest moments in the band member’s careers. This is a youthful Jimmy Page showing his prodigious skills on TV with his skiffle band, before going onto a brief career as a session musician.
Page was so talented a guitar player that unlike most session musicians, he played both acoustic and electric guitar. Jimmy could play anything, and was the guitar on records by The Kinks, Donovan, Lulu and even Val Doonican. As can be seen from Hoskyns’ book, Page dedicated himself so much to playing his guitar that he was removed from the world, becoming that slightly isolated, mysterious figure of his adult years.
Most session men were middle-aged, with an interest in angling and loft-conversion. Yet, it was at one session that Page met a bass player and sometime musical arranger, John Paul Jones. The pair got on because of their age, but also because they had a respect and admiration for each other’s talent.
While Page and Jones were connecting in recording studios, Robert Plant and John Bonham were performing with various bands across Birmingham, which in the mid-1960s was considered to be the next Pop Capital of Britain after Liverpool, as it had so many music acts (The Move, The Moody Blues, Steve Winwood) coming to the fore. Plant and Bonham were equally dedicated to their talents. Bonham was a self-taught drummer, who even then was showing the skill and innovation that his contemporaries found difficult to match. It’s interesting to note that all these years later how many people in Hoskyns’s book still describe Bonham as the best.
Robert Plant was also trying out his skills fronting various bands. He had a love of Blues and Rock, and was developing his powerful and unique way of singing.
The turning point came when Page joined The Yardbirds at Jeff Beck’s insistence, which led Page into the orbit of manager Peter Grant.
Grant had the reputation of a hard man, one that he liked to play up. When stories circulated he had hung some recalcitrant manager over a penthouse balcony by his ankles, Grant neither admitted nor denied the charge, only quipping, “Let’s say I acquainted him with the view.” This was the kind of whispered tale that created the fear and myth about Grant.
As manager, Grant became like a father to Page and helped support the young guitarist with his vision to create a new Supergroup, one that he could lead. Page contacted Jones, and then through different connections, Plant and Bonham were brought in. The foursome that was to become the biggest band of the 1970s was born.
Author: Barney Hoskyns
DM: Why did Led Zeppelin take-off? Was there a gap, say after The Beatles split?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘I think there was a gap there and Peter Grant spotted the opportunity, if you like. I think he intuitively knew there was room for a new band, a supergroup, you might call it, though Zeppelin weren’t a supergroup in the sense of Cream was a supergroup. The disbanding of Cream left a gap for Atlantic Records. Clapton had decided to mellow out and to calm down, and that allowed some other bands, or Zeppelin to step into the breach.
‘I think it was an evolution musically. ‘There are 4 guys with extraordinary talent, who have respect for each other. And they all kind of liked each other. They hung out with each other. There weren’t ego struggles, until the tensions start coming in as a result of many things, not just drugs. But until that moment, you know, these 4 guys, they weren’t punching each other in the dressing room. They’re having fun.
‘And, it was about the alchemy of these 4 musicians that was at the heart of everything. Without that you can hype a band to death and but it’s not going to mean much if there isn’t some substance and quality there form the outset, and there was that. But that’s not the whole story, as the book makes clear, there was an awful lot else that went on around this. There was the machinery, an extended family, that all contributed in creating this machinery, that all contributed to creating the phenomenon.
‘It was all very sudden and was done by sheer brute force in many ways. Peter Grant was a powerful figure who decided that Zeppelin was going to be his mission then nothing was going to stop him from turning that band into the biggest band on earth. And it was kind of brilliantly done. If the music hadn’t been as great as it was then even Peter Grant would never have succeeded in that mission.
‘The thing is there will always be a wave of adolescents, a new generation coming through that will need a band of its own. I’m not sure that’s the case now, as I think pop culture, rock culture, is very different, but then, there was a new generation, a semi-generation coming through, for whom bands like The Beatles and The Stones belonged to their older siblings, or boys and girls who were 4 or 5 years older. I think Led Zeppelin were the best in every sense technically and mythologically, as they sort of captured the imagination at that time, especially in North America, where there was almost a religious aspect, a mass cult of Zeppelin, the likes of which we will never see again.’
DM: How did Led Zeppelin achieve such incredible levels of excessive?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘I think they got away with it because they were so huge. But that’s hardly unique to them. People when they achieve enough success, they attain enough power to essentially get away with murder. And that had a lot to do with the Peter Grant mentality.
‘In the end, it’s hard for us now, and certainly for any young music fan now to imagine how huge Zeppelin were. When they were in America, they really were above the law. When they arrived in a city, they got into a fleet of limousines, and just sailed through every light between the airport and their hotel. And that didn’t happen for anybody other than the President of the United States.
‘So, essentially, they had everyone in their pocket - the DA in their pocket, the security service in their pocket. They were literally above the law. And there were some messy incidents, with the likes of Swan Song [Led Zeppelin’s own record label] acts, Bad Company, that just got hushed-up.’
‘The havoc and mayhem Bonham caused, you know, it was paid for. You know, it was just: ‘We can pay our way out of any trouble, any scandal’, and that’s what they did. It’s fairly corrupt It’s like a corrupt politician, you just buy your way out of trouble and they were able to do that. They were making huge amounts of money, not just from the tours but from the record sales, which were enormous. The records generated millions.’
DM: What are your favorite Led Zeppelin albums?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘The one I go back to more than any other is the third album, I love that the best. Then the second, then the first. It’s always the third I like the best because it’s the best of all worlds, it has a bit of everything there. I love the acoustic music. I love the Heavy stuff. I mean “The Immigrant Song” is probably their greatest, heaviest, funkiest track.
‘I don’t love the fourth album as much as many people do. And I don’t like Physical Graffiti as much as many people do. The first 3 are the greatest. I think the best mainstream album is probably Houses of the Holy, though some people can’t get their heads round it. It’s the most produced album, I think it’s great, even with the novelty elements of “D’yer Mak’er” and “The Crunge”, and sort of things like that. It’s a little experiment that is still pretty great. At least 5 or 6 tracks on there are among the greatest things they ever did. Bonham certainly didn’t like “D’yer Mak’er”, that would have been much more Robert’s gag, if you like, and may Jimmy to a degree. Robert would always be the one who wanted to try his hand at cod-Reggae, meets sort-of Do-Wop. I don’t think it works terribly well.
‘Presence didn’t perform as well as Physical Grafitti, there were a lot of remaindered copies. I remember seeing, come Punk, Presence you would see in every fucking second hand record store. I think they approved way too many copies of that. I don’t think it stands up very well. It’s a rather cold record, and I can’t put my finger on why that is, other than the camp was a not very happy camp. It was a pretty fucked-up place to be fucked-up. Bonham was fucked-up. There was a lot of Plant and Jones waiting around for these guys to get their act together.’
There are several narrative arcs throughout Trampled Underfoot, one in particular is the complex relationship between Page and Plant.
DM: Did it change from being Page’s band to being more about Plant?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘The tensions that were in that relationship, where obviously it started out Jimmy’s the boss and Robert has to defer to him. And then that begins to change. I think Robert is a natural leader. And I think if Jimmy thought Robert was going to be a malleable puppet, his singer, then obviously he had another think coming.
‘And certainly by 1975, if not earlier than that, Plant was as much as a star as Page. And in terms of power within the group, Plant had a co-leadership.
‘For Jimmy Zeppelin is like a love affair that he’s never got over, and he still wants to go back there, it’s the great fact of his life – as it would be for you or I. But it isn’t to Robert.
‘I think Robert is very different temperamentally, he’s like Neil Young, he always wants to move forward, he kind of never wants to look back. And I think that Jimmy hasn’t been able to look forward in the way that Robert has. And of course, this has led Robert to sometimes make a fool of himself and sometimes not.
‘But Jimmy has not found anything to carry him, to propel him forward from Zeppelin, you know. He’s always in a band called Led Zeppelin, he hasn’t found the right project, so he always stays, he’s always stuck in the past. Even though he’s clean and sober now, he’s kind of stuck in the past, and that’s a bit sad.
‘Temperamentally, I think he’s just not been able to find a new vision for himself. I don’t think there is anything new to come out of Jimmy. Hence, his great passion for his website and for special editions of this and that. It’s just like he’s re-cycling his own mythology. He’s entitled to do it, but it’s just not interesting to Robert really.’
‘Robert is comfortable in his clothes. He’s open to society, he is an open society, while Jimmy is a society of one.
‘Of course when Robert walks into a room the focus is on him, and he sense it and he like sit as well. But he sends himself up. I’ve been around him 2 or 3 times and he’s genuinely not a self-important man.
‘The key to Robert is that he is interested in the world, in culture and all that. Jones keeps himself to himself. Get beyond all that, that’s the key, there’s a whole world out there that’s not about you, it’s about all of us, it’s about everyone, it’s about all the riches of music culture that are there to be discovered and experienced.
DM: What’s Jimmy Page like?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘Page is a very internalized person. He’s the opposite of what Robert’s all about .
‘Robert’s the great extrovert Leo, he’s from the other side of the line, driving out there, and challenging himself, exploring the world, going to Timbuktu, and all this sort of stuff. And Page is kind of the opposite,
‘James was always kow-towed to. He was pampered. Whatever Jimmy wants, and that’s the key here. And Peter Grant saw him as kind of a son, or a brother. And Peter enabled him to be a fucking baby, and have tantrums and behave badly, I think. You know, there wasn’t anybody to say, ‘For fuck’s sake, Jimmy, you can’t behave like that, you can’t treat people like this.’ And that’s the problem with the Big Star. There’s no one to say, ‘I don’t care how powerful you are, or how famous you are, or how much money you make, or how brilliant you are, you can’t behave like this.
‘I think the human drama of Zeppelin is about the inter-relationships within the group and with Peter Grant, and with [Richard] Cole, and all the others. It’s a comedy, it’s a tragedy, it’s all of those things. And of course it has its Spinal Tap-esque moments, and there are an awful lot of laugh-out-loud things.
‘There are enough people, I hope, in the book saying, ‘My god, Jimmy was great, he was good fun, and had a great sense of humor.’ I genuinely believe he’s a musical genius, I think, his vision for this group, everything, is quite extraordinary. You take Page out of this equation and Zeppelin just doesn’t happen. So, we must recognize that.’
DM: Do you think Led zeppelin were as much trampled underfoot by the juggernaut of their fame as those around them?
Barney Hoskyns: ‘I do. I think fame and success on that level trampled most people. It’s rare to emerge unscathed from that. John Paul Jones was unscathed, but I think Robert having survived the terrible tragedy of his son’s death, and then the loss of Bonzo, I think Robert has made a good job of surviving Led Zeppelin’s legacy. He’s found a place for himself in the world, he’s not fucked-up by it, he’s able to step back and not take it that seriously. He can kind of smile at it, and that’s rare, that is very rare. Because most people, who get into any kind of show business, get into it because of something they lack. You know, something psychologically lacking in them, and I don’t think Robert did, I don’t think Robert got into it, because, as Danny Goldberg called him “the happy warrior”. Robert’s happy in his own skin.
‘One way of slicing the story of Led Zeppelin is to say there were two addicts in the band and there were two who weren’t addicts. Robert and Jones were more grounded, they had a healthier take on the whole thing. I mean, it’s going to go to your head walking out in front of 76,000 people at the Pontiac Silverdome, in Detroit, that is going to do things to your brain, and you need to be able to walk off that stage and say, ‘It’s all a fucking illusion.’
There are moments in Hoskyns’ excellent book, where voices contradict each other, but this isn’t a problem as it adds to the richness of the material Hoskyns has expertly woven together. More importantly, as he points out, Trampled Underfoot is not just a story about Led Zepelin, but about everyone around teh band.
Barney Hoskyns: ‘This is what happened, this is how people saw it, nobody is saying any person’s version of this is the gospel truth as everyone saw it in different ways.’
And this is what makes Hoskyns’ book better than any other Zeppelin biography, for he moves Zeppelin’s story away form the hyperbole and myth to one of humanity and talent. It’s a five star book and deserves to become a classic.
Trampled Underfoot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin by Barney Hoskyns is available in the UK here and is published in the US as ‘Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of World’s Greatest Rock Band’ and is available here.
Bonus: Led Zeppelin live in concert, 1st April, 1971, recorded at the Paris Theater, London. Transmitted on BBC Radio 1, as part of the In Concert series, on April 4th.
01. “Immigrant song”
03. Since I’ve Been Loving You”
04. “Out on the Tiles” / “Black Dog”
05. “Dazed and Confused”
06. “Stairway to Heaven”
07. “Going to California”
08. “That’s the Way”
09. “What Is And What Should Never Be”
10. “Whole Lotta Love”
(Medley including “Let That Boy Boogie”, “Fixin’ to Die Blues”, “That’s Alright Mama”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Mess of Blues”, “Honey Bee”)
11. “Thank you”
12. “Communication Breakdown” (including “Feel So Bad”)
Extra Bonus: Led Zeppelin - Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1970
01. “We’re Gonna Groove”
02. “I Can’t Quit You Baby”
03. “Dazed and Confused”
04. “White Summer”
05. “What Is and What Should Never Be”
06. “How Many More Times”
07. “Moby Dick”
08. “Whole Lotta Love”
09. “Communication Breakdown”
10. “C’mon Everybody”
11. “Somethin’ Else”
12. “Bring It On Home”