Clockwise, from top left: Page, Bonham, Plant, Jones
||Hard rock, heavy metal, blues rock, folk rock
(reunions: 1985, 1988, 1995, 2007)
||Atlantic, Swan Song
||Band of Joy, the Honeydrippers, Page and Plant
Led Zeppelin were an English rock band formed in London in 1968. The band consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The group’s heavy, guitar-driven sound, rooted in blues on their early albums, has drawn them recognition as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, though their unique style drew from a wide variety of influences, including folk music.
After changing their name from the New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin signed a deal with Atlantic Records that afforded them considerable artistic freedom. Although the group was initially unpopular with critics, they achieved significant commercial success with albums such as Led Zeppelin (1969), Led Zeppelin II (1969), Led Zeppelin III (1970), their untitled fourth album (1971), Houses of the Holy (1973), and Physical Graffiti (1975). Their fourth album, which features the track “Stairway to Heaven“, is among the most popular and influential works in rock music, and it helped to cement the popularity of the group.
Page wrote most of the music early in Led Zeppelin’s career, while Plant generally supplied the songs’ lyrics. Jones’ keyboard-based compositions later became central to the group’s music, and their later albums featured greater experimentation. The latter half of the band’s career saw a series of record-breaking tours that earned them a reputation for excess and debauchery. Although they remained commercially and critically successful, their output and touring schedule were limited in the late 1970s, and the group disbanded following Bonham’s death from alcohol-related asphyxia in 1980. In the decades since, the surviving members have sporadically collaborated and participated in one-off Led Zeppelin reunions. The most successful of these was at the 2007 Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in London, with Jason Bonham taking his late father’s place behind the drums.
Led Zeppelin are widely considered one of the most successful, innovative and influential rock groups in history. They are one of the best-selling music artists in the history of audio recording; various sources estimate the group’s record sales at 200 to 300 million units worldwide. With 111.5 million RIAA-certified units, they are the second-best-selling band in the United States. Each of their nine studio albums placed on the Billboard Top 10 and six reached the number-one spot. Rolling Stone magazine described them as “the heaviest band of all time”, “the biggest band of the ’70s” and “unquestionably one of the most enduring bands in rock history”. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995; the museum’s biography of the band states that they were “as influential in that decade [the 1970s] as the Beatles were in the prior one”.
The band’s logotype, used since 1973
In 1966, London-based session guitarist Jimmy Page joined the blues-influenced rock band the Yardbirds to replace bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Page soon switched from bass to lead guitar, creating a dual lead guitar line-up with Jeff Beck. Following Beck’s departure in October 1966, the Yardbirds, tired from constant touring and recording, began to wind down. Page wanted to form a supergroup with him and Beck on guitars, and the Who‘s Keith Moon and John Entwistle on drums and bass. Vocalists Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott were also considered for the project. The group never formed, although Page, Beck and Moon did record a song together in 1966, “Beck’s Bolero“, in a session that also included bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones.
The Yardbirds played their final gig in July 1968 at Luton College of Technology in Bedfordshire. They were still committed to several concerts in Scandinavia, so drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf authorised Page and bassist Chris Dreja to use “the Yardbirds” name to fulfill the band’s obligations. Page and Dreja began putting a new line-up together. Page’s first choice for the lead singer was Terry Reid, but Reid declined the offer and suggested Robert Plant, a singer for the Band of Joy and Hobbstweedle. Plant eventually accepted the position, recommending former Band of Joy drummer John Bonham. Jones inquired about the vacant position at the suggestion of his wife after Dreja dropped out of the project to become a photographer. He would later take the photograph that appeared on the back of Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Page had known Jones since they were both session musicians and agreed to let him join as the final member.
A 1937 photograph of the burning LZ 129 Hindenburg, similar to that used on the cover of the band’s debut album and extensively on later merchandise
The four played together for the first time in a room below a record store on Gerrard Street in London. Page suggested that they attempt “Train Kept A-Rollin’“, originally a jump blues song popularised in a rockabilly version by Johnny Burnette, which had been covered by the Yardbirds. “As soon as I heard John Bonham play”, Jones recalled, “I knew this was going to be great … We locked together as a team immediately”. Before leaving for Scandinavia, the group took part in a recording session for the P.J. Proby album, Three Week Hero. The album’s track “Jim’s Blues”, with Plant on harmonica, was the first studio track to feature all four future members of Led Zeppelin.
The band completed the Scandinavian tour as the New Yardbirds, playing together for the first time in front of a live audience at Gladsaxe Teen Clubs in Gladsaxe, Denmark, on 7 September 1968. Later that month, they began recording their first album, which was based on their live set. The album was recorded and mixed in nine days, and Page himself covered the costs. After the album’s completion, the band were forced to change their name after Dreja issued a cease and desist letter, stating that Page was only allowed to use the New Yardbirds moniker for the Scandinavian dates. One account of how the new band’s name was chosen held that Moon and Entwistle had suggested that a supergroup with Page and Beck would go down like a “lead balloon”, an idiom for disastrous results. The group dropped the ‘a’ in lead at the suggestion of their manager, Peter Grant, so that those unfamiliar with the term would not pronounce it “leed”. The word “balloon” was swapped for “zeppelin“, a word which, according to music journalist Keith Shadwick, brought “the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace” to Page’s mind.
Grant secured a $143,000 advance contract from Atlantic Records in November 1968, which was then the biggest deal of its kind for a new band. Atlantic were a label with a catalogue of mainly blues, soul and jazz artists, but in the late 1960s they began to take an interest in British progressive rock acts. Record executives signed Led Zeppelin without having ever seen them. Under the terms of their contract, the band had autonomy in deciding when they would release albums and tour, and had the final say over the contents and design of each album. They would also decide how to promote each release and which tracks to release as singles. They formed their own company, Superhype, to handle all publishing rights.
Early years: 1968–70
The band began their first tour of the UK on 4 October 1968, still billed as the New Yardbirds, and played their first show as Led Zeppelin at the University of Surrey in Battersea on 25 October. Tour manager Richard Cole, who would become a major figure in the touring life of the group, organised their first North American tour at the end of the year. The first show was in Denver on 26 December 1968, followed by other West Coast dates before the band travelled to California to play Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their debut album, Led Zeppelin, was released in the US during the tour on 12 January 1969, and peaked at number 10 on the Billboard chart; it was released in the UK, where it peaked at number 6, on 31 March. According to Steve Erlewine, the album’s memorable guitar riffs, lumbering rhythms, psychedelic blues, groovy, bluesy shuffles and hints of English folk, made it “a significant turning point in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal”.
Bron-Yr-Aur, the Welsh cottage to which Page and Plant retired in 1970 to write many of the tracks that appeared on the band’s third and fourth albums
In their first year, Led Zeppelin completed four US and four UK concert tours, and also released their second album, Led Zeppelin II. Recorded almost entirely on the road at various North American studios, it was an even greater commercial success than their first album, and reached the number one chart position in the US and the UK. The album further developed the mostly blues-rock musical style established on their debut release, creating a work with a sound that was “heavy and hard, brutal and direct”, and which would be highly influential and frequently imitated. Steve Waksman has suggested that Led Zeppelin II was “the musical starting point for heavy metal”.
The band saw their albums as indivisible, complete listening experiences, disliking the re-editing of existing tracks for release as singles. Grant maintained an aggressive pro-album stance, particularly in the UK, where there were few radio and TV outlets for rock music. Without the band’s consent, however, some songs were released as singles, particularly in the US. In 1969 an edited version of “Whole Lotta Love“, a track from their second album, was released as a single in the US. It reached number four in the Billboard chart in January 1970, selling over one million copies and helping to cement the band’s popularity. The group also increasingly shunned television appearances, citing their preference that their fans hear and see them in live concerts.
Following the second album’s release, Led Zeppelin completed several more US tours. They played initially in clubs and ballrooms, then in larger auditoriums as their popularity grew. Some early Led Zeppelin concerts lasted more than four hours, with expanded and improvised live versions of their repertoire. Many of these shows have been preserved as bootleg recordings. It was during this period of intensive concert touring that the band developed a reputation for off-stage excess. One alleged example of such extravagance was the shark episode, or red snapper incident, which is said to have taken place at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle on 28 July 1969.
In 1970 Page and Plant retired to Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, to commence work on their third album, Led Zeppelin III. The result was a more acoustic style that was strongly influenced by folk and Celtic music, and showcased the band’s versatility. The album’s rich acoustic sound initially received mixed reactions, with critics and fans surprised at the turn from the primarily electric arrangements of the first two albums, further fuelling the band’s hostility to the musical press. It reached number one in the UK and US charts, but its stay would be the shortest of their first five albums. The album’s opening track, “Immigrant Song“, was released as a US single in November 1970 against the band’s wishes, reaching the top twenty on the Billboard chart.
“The Biggest Band in the World”: 1971–75
The four symbols on the label and inside sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV, representing (from left to right) Page, Jones, Bonham, and Plant
In the 1970s Led Zeppelin reached new heights of commercial and critical success that made them one of the most influential groups of the era, dwarfing their earlier achievements. The band’s image also changed as the members began to wear elaborate, flamboyant clothing. Led Zeppelin began travelling in a private jet airliner, a Boeing 720, (nicknamed the Starship), rented out entire sections of hotels (including the Continental Hyatt House in Los Angeles, known colloquially as the “Riot House”), and became the subject of frequently repeated stories of debauchery. One involved John Bonham riding a motorcycle through a rented floor of the Riot House, while another involved the destruction of a room in the Tokyo Hilton, leading to the group being banned from that establishment for life. Although Led Zeppelin developed a reputation for trashing their hotel suites and throwing television sets out of the windows, some suggest that these tales have been exaggerated. Music journalist Chris Welch argues that “[Led Zeppelin's] travels spawned many stories, but it was a myth that [they] were constantly engaged in acts of wanton destruction and lewd behaviour”.
Plant and Page perform acoustically in Hamburg in March 1973, just before the release of the band’s fifth album, Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin released their fourth album on 8 November 1971. In response to the treatment the band had received from critics, particularly after Led Zeppelin III, the band decided to release the fourth album with no title, though it is variously referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, IV, or, due to the four symbols appearing on the record label, as Four Symbols, Zoso or Runes. In addition to lacking a title, the original cover featured no band name, as the group wished to be anonymous and to avoid easy pigeonholing by the press. With 37 million copies sold, Led Zeppelin IV is one of the best-selling albums in history, and its massive popularity cemented Led Zeppelin’s status as superstars in the 1970s. By 2006, it had sold 23 million copies in the United States alone. The track “Stairway to Heaven“, never released as a single, is sometimes quoted as being the most requested and most played album-orientated rock (AOR) FM radio song. The group followed up the album’s release with tours of the UK, Australasia, North America, Japan, and the UK again from late 1971 through early 1973.
Led Zeppelin’s next album, Houses of the Holy, was released in March 1973. It featured further experimentation by the band, who expanded their use of synthesisers and mellotron orchestration. The predominately orange album cover, designed by the London-based design group Hipgnosis, depicts images of nude children climbing the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Although the children are not shown from the front, the cover was controversial at the time of the album’s release. As with the band’s fourth album, neither their name nor the album title was printed on the sleeve.
Houses of the Holy topped charts worldwide, and the band’s subsequent concert tour of North America in 1973 broke records for attendance, as they consistently filled large auditoriums and stadiums. At Tampa Stadium in Florida, they played to 56,800 fans, breaking the record set by the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert and grossing $309,000. Three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City were filmed for a motion picture, but the theatrical release of this project (The Song Remains the Same) was delayed until 1976. Before the final night’s performance, $180,000 of the band’s money from gate receipts was stolen from a safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel.
In 1974, Led Zeppelin took a break from touring and launched their own record label, Swan Song, named after an unreleased song. The record label’s logo, based on a drawing called Evening: Fall of Day (1869) by William Rimmer, features a picture of Apollo. The logo can be found on Led Zeppelin memorabilia, especially t-shirts. In addition to using Swan Song as a vehicle to promote their own albums, the band expanded the label’s roster, signing artists such as Bad Company, the Pretty Things and Maggie Bell. The label was successful while Led Zeppelin existed, but folded less than three years after they disbanded.
In 1975, Led Zeppelin’s double album Physical Graffiti was their first release on the Swan Song label. It consisted of fifteen songs, of which eight had been recorded at Headley Grange in 1974 and seven had been recorded earlier. A review in Rolling Stone magazine referred to Physical Graffiti as Led Zeppelin’s “bid for artistic respectability”, adding that the only bands Led Zeppelin had to compete with for the title “The World’s Best Rock Band” were the Rolling Stones and the Who. The album was a massive fiscal and critical success. Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti, all previous Led Zeppelin albums simultaneously re-entered the top-200 album chart, and the band embarked on another North American tour, now employing sophisticated sound and lighting systems. In May 1975, Led Zeppelin played five sold-out nights at the Earls Court Arena in London, at the time the largest arena in Britain.
Hiatus from touring and return: 1975–77
Following their triumphant Earls Court appearances, Led Zeppelin took a holiday and planned an autumn tour in America, scheduled to open with two outdoor dates in San Francisco. In August 1975, however, Plant and his wife Maureen were involved in a serious car crash while on holiday in Rhodes, Greece. Plant suffered a broken ankle and Maureen was badly injured; a blood transfusion saved her life. Unable to tour, he headed to the Channel Island of Jersey to spend August and September recuperating, with Bonham and Page in tow. The band then reconvened in Malibu, California. During this forced hiatus much of the material for their next album, Presence, was written.
Plant and Page perform in Chicago in April 1977, during Led Zeppelin’s last North American tour
By this time, Led Zeppelin were the world’s number one rock attraction, having outsold most bands of the time, including the Rolling Stones. Presence, released in March 1976, marked a change in the Led Zeppelin sound towards more straightforward, guitar-based jams, departing from the acoustic ballads and intricate arrangements featured on their previous albums. Though it was a platinum seller, Presence received a mixed reaction among fans and the music press, with some critics suggesting that the band’s excesses may have caught up with them. Page had begun using heroin during recording sessions for the album, a habit which may have affected the band’s later live shows and studio recordings the band, although this has been denied by Page.
Because of Plant’s injuries, Led Zeppelin did not tour in 1976. Instead, the band completed the concert film The Song Remains the Same and the accompanying soundtrack album. The film premiered in New York City on 20 October 1976, but was given a lukewarm reception by critics and fans. The film was particularly unsuccessful in the UK, where, unwilling to tour since 1975 because of their tax exile status, Led Zeppelin faced an uphill battle to recapture the public’s affection.
In 1977, Led Zeppelin embarked on another major concert tour of North America. The band set another attendance record, with an audience of 76,229 at their Pontiac Silverdome concert on 30 April. It was, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest attendance to that date for a single act show. Although the tour was financially profitable, it was beset by off-stage problems. On 19 April, over 70 people were arrested as about 1,000 fans tried to gatecrash Cincinnati Riverfront Coliseum for two sold-out concerts, while others tried to gain entry by throwing rocks and bottles through glass doors. On 3 June, a concert at Tampa Stadium was cut short because of a severe thunderstorm, despite tickets indicating “Rain or Shine”. A riot broke out, resulting in arrests and injuries.
After the 23 July show at the Days on the Green festival at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California, Bonham and members of the band’s support staff were arrested after a member of promoter Bill Graham‘s staff was badly beaten during the band’s performance. The following day’s second Oakland concert was the band’s final live appearance in the United States. Two days later, as the band checked in at a French Quarter hotel for their 30 July performance at the Louisiana Superdome, Plant received news that his five-year-old son, Karac, had died from a stomach virus. The rest of the tour was immediately cancelled, prompting widespread speculation about the band’s future.
Bonham’s death and break-up: 1978–80
After the death of Bonham (pictured in July 1973) on 25 September 1980, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin decided to disband the group
In November 1978 the group recorded at Polar Studios in Stockholm, Sweden. The resulting album, In Through the Out Door, featured sonic experimentation that again drew mixed reactions from critics. Nevertheless, the album reached number one in the UK and the US in just its second week of release. With this album’s release, Led Zeppelin’s entire catalogue returned to the Billboard Top 200 in the weeks of 27 October and 3 November 1979.
In August 1979, after two warm-up shows in Copenhagen, Led Zeppelin headlined two concerts at the Knebworth Music Festival, playing to a crowd of approximately 104,000 on the first night. A brief, low-key European tour was undertaken in June and July 1980, featuring a stripped-down set without the usual lengthy jams and solos. On 27 June, at a show in Nuremberg, Germany, the concert came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the third song, when Bonham collapsed onstage and was rushed to hospital. Speculation in the press suggested that his collapse had been the result of excessive alcohol and drug use, but the band claimed that he had simply overeaten.
A North American tour, the band’s first since 1977, was scheduled to commence on 17 October 1980. On 24 September, Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios. During the journey, Bonham asked to stop for breakfast, where he downed four quadruple vodkas (450 ml/15 oz.), with a ham roll. After taking a bite of the ham roll he said to his assistant, “breakfast”. He continued to drink heavily after arriving at the studio. The rehearsals were halted late that evening and the band retired to Page’s house—the Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight, Bonham, who had fallen asleep, was taken to bed and placed on his side. At 1:45 pm the next day, Benji LeFevre (Led Zeppelin’s new tour manager) and John Paul Jones found Bonham dead. The cause of death was asphyxiation from vomit; an autopsy found no other drugs in his body. Bonham was cremated on 10 October 1980, and his ashes were buried at Rushock Parish Church in Droitwich, Worcestershire. A verdict of accidental death was returned at an inquest held on 27 October.
The planned North American tour was cancelled, and despite rumours that Cozy Powell, Carmine Appice, Barriemore Barlow, Simon Kirke or Bev Bevan would join the group as his replacement, the remaining members decided to disband. A 4 December 1980 press statement stated that, “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and 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”. The statement was signed simply “Led Zeppelin”.
Page performs at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California in 1983
Following the dissolution of Led Zeppelin, the first significant project for the band members was the Honeydrippers, which Plant formed in 1981. The group featured Page on lead guitar, along with studio musicians and friends of Plant and Page, including Jeff Beck, Paul Shaffer, and Nile Rodgers. Plant focused the band in a different direction from Led Zeppelin, playing standards and in a more R&B style, highlighted by their cover of “Sea of Love“, which peaked at number three on the Billboard charts in early 1985.
1982 saw the release of Coda, a collection of outtakes and unused tracks from the band’s career. It included two tracks taken from the band’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970, one each from the Led Zeppelin III and Houses of the Holy sessions, and three from the In Through the Out Door sessions. It also featured a 1976 Bonham drum instrumental with electronic effects added by Page, called “Bonzo’s Montreux“.
On 13 July 1985, Page, Plant and Jones reunited for the Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, playing a short set featuring drummers Tony Thompson and Phil Collins and bassist Paul Martinez. Collins had contributed to Plant’s first two solo albums while Martinez was a member of Plant’s group Band of Joy. The performance was marred by the lack of rehearsal with the two drummers, Page’s struggles with an out-of-tune guitar, poorly functioning monitors, and by Plant’s hoarse voice. Page described the performance as “pretty shambolic”, while Plant characterised it as an “atrocity”.
The three members reunited again on 14 May 1988, for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert, with Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, on drums. The result was another disjointed performance, after Plant and Page had argued immediately prior to coming on stage about whether to play “Stairway to Heaven”, and with the complete loss of Jones’ keyboards on the live television feed. Page described the performance as “one big disappointment”, and Plant said that “the gig was foul”.
Jason Bonham, who filled his late father’s throne for reunions in 1988, 1995 and 2007
The first Led Zeppelin box set, featuring tracks remastered under Page’s supervision, was released in 1990 and bolstered the band’s reputation, leading to abortive discussions among members about a reunion. This set included four previously unreleased tracks, including a version of Robert Johnson‘s “Travelling Riverside Blues“. The song peaked at number seven on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart. 1992 saw the release of the “Immigrant Song“/”Hey Hey What Can I Do” (the original B-side) as a CD single in the US. Led Zeppelin Boxed Set 2 was released in 1993; the two box sets together containing all known studio recordings, as well as some rare live tracks.
In 1994, Page and Plant reunited for a 90-minute “UnLedded” MTV project. They later released an album called No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded, which featured some reworked Led Zeppelin songs, and embarked on a world tour the following year. This is said to be the beginning of a rift between the band members, as Jones was not even told of the reunion.
In 1995, Led Zeppelin were inducted into the United States Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. Jason and Zoë Bonham also attended, representing their late father. At the induction ceremony, the band’s inner rift became apparent when Jones joked upon accepting his award, “Thank you, my friends, for finally remembering my phone number”, causing consternation and awkward looks from Page and Plant. Afterwards, they played one brief set with Tyler and Perry, with Jason Bonham on drums, and then a second with Neil Young, this time with Michael Lee playing the drums.
In 1997, Atlantic released a single edit of “Whole Lotta Love” in the US and the UK, the only single the band released in their homeland, where it peaked at number 21. November 1997 saw the release of Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions, a two-disc set largely recorded in 1969 and 1971. Page and Plant released another album called Walking into Clarksdale in 1998, featuring all new material, but after disappointing sales the partnership dissolved before a planned Australian tour.
2000s and beyond
2003 saw the release of the triple live album How the West Was Won, and Led Zeppelin DVD, a six-hour chronological set of live footage that became the best-selling music DVD in history. In July 2007 Atlantic/Rhino and Warner Home Video announced three new Led Zeppelin titles to be released that November. First was Mothership, a 24-track best-of spanning the band’s career, followed by a reissue of the soundtrack The Song Remains the Same, which included previously unreleased material, and a new DVD. Led Zeppelin also made their catalogue legally available for digital download, becoming one of the last major rock bands to do so.
On 10 December 2007 Led Zeppelin reunited for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in London, with Jason Bonham again taking his late father’s place on drums. According to Guinness World Records 2009, Led Zeppelin set the world record for the “Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert” as 20 million requests for the reunion show were rendered online. Music critics praised the band’s performance and there was widespread speculation about a full reunion. Page, Jones and Jason Bonham were reported to be willing to tour, and to be working on material for a new Led Zeppelin project. Plant continued his touring commitments with Alison Krauss, stating in September 2008 that he would not be recording or touring with the band. Jones, Page and Bonham reportedly looked for a replacement for Plant, considering singers including Steven Tyler, and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, but in January 2009 it was confirmed that the project had been abandoned. A film of the O2 performance, Celebration Day, premiered on 17 October 2012 and was released on home video on 19 November. The film grossed $2 million in one night, and the live album peaked at number 4 and 9 in the UK and US, respectively. Following the film’s premiere, Page revealed that he has been remastering the band’s discography with a release set for 2013.
John Bonham, on stage in the US in 1973, whose aggressive drumming style was critical to the hard rock sound associated with the band
Led Zeppelin’s music was rooted in the blues. The influence of American blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Skip James was particularly apparent on their first two albums, as was the distinct country blues style of Howlin’ Wolf. Tracks were structured around the twelve-bar blues on every studio album except for one, and the blues directly and indirectly influenced other songs both musically and lyrically. The band were also strongly influenced by the music of the British, Celtic and American folk revivals. Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch helped inspire Page, and from him he adapted open tunings and aggressive strokes into his playing. The band also drew on a wide variety of genres, including world music, and elements of early rock and roll, jazz, country, funk, soul and reggae, particularly on Houses of the Holy and the albums that followed.
The material on the first two albums was largely constructed out of extended jams of blues standards and folk songs. This method led to the mixing of musical and lyrical elements of different songs and versions, as well as improvised passages, to create new material, but would lead to later accusations of plagiarism and some legal disputes over copyright. Usually the music was developed first, sometimes with improvised lyrics that might then be rewritten for the final version of the song. From the visit to Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970, the songwriting partnership between Page and Plant became predominant, with Page supplying the music, largely via his acoustic guitar, and Plant emerging as the band’s chief lyricist. Jones and Bonham then added to the material, in rehearsal or in the studio, as a song was developed. In the later stages of the band’s career, Page took a back seat in composition and Jones became increasingly important in producing music, often composed on the keyboard. Plant would then add lyrics before Page and Bonham developed their parts.
Page with the double-neck Gibson EDS-1275 used for playing “Stairway to Heaven” live
Early lyrics drew on the band’s blues and folk roots, often mixing lyrical fragments from different songs. Many of the band’s songs dealt with themes of romance, unrequited love and sexual conquest, which were common in rock, pop and blues music. Some of their lyrics, especially those derived from the blues, have been interpreted as misogynistic. Particularly on Led Zeppelin III, they incorporated elements of mythology and mysticism into their music, which largely grew out of Plant’s interest in legends and history. These elements were often taken to reflect Page’s interest in the occult, which resulted in accusations that the recordings contained subliminal satanic messages, some of which were said to be contained in backmasking; these claims were generally dismissed by the band and music critics. Susan Fast argues that as Plant emerged as the band’s main lyricist, the songs more obviously reflected his alignment with the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s. In the later part of the band’s career Plant’s lyrics became more autobiographical, and less optimistic, drawing on his own experiences and circumstances.
According to musicologist Robert Walser, “Led Zeppelin’s sound was marked by speed and power, unusual rhythmic patterns, contrasting terraced dynamics, singer Robert Plant’s wailing vocals, and guitarist Jimmy Page’s heavily distorted crunch”. These elements mean that they are often cited as one of the progenitors of hard rock and heavy metal and they have been described as the “definitive heavy metal band”, although the band members have often eschewed the label. Part of this reputation depends on the band’s use of distorted guitar riffs on songs like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Wanton Song“. Often riffs were not doubled by guitar, bass and drums exactly, but instead there were melodic or rhythmic variations; as in “Black Dog“, where three different time signatures are used. Page’s guitar playing incorporated elements of the blues scale with those of eastern music. Plant’s use of high-pitched shrieks has been compared to Janis Joplin‘s vocal technique. Bonham’s drumming was noted for its power, his rapid rolls and his fast beats on a single bass drum. Jones’ basslines have been described as melodic and his keyboard playing added a classical touch to the band’s sound.
Page stated that he wanted Led Zeppelin to produce music that had “light and shade”. This began to be more clearly realised beginning with Led Zeppelin III, which made greater use of acoustic instruments. This approach has been seen as exemplified in the fourth album, particularly on “Stairway to Heaven“, which begins with acoustic guitar and recorder and ends with drums and heavy electric sounds. Towards the end of their recording career, they moved to a more mellow and progressive sound, dominated by Jones’ keyboard motifs. They also increasingly made use of various layering and production techniques, including multi-tracking and overdubbed guitar parts. Their emphasis on the sense of dynamics and ensemble arrangement has been seen as producing an individualistic style that transcends any single music genre. Ian Peddie argues that they were “… loud, powerful and often heavy, but their music was also humorous, self-reflective and extremely subtle”.
Plant, on stage in New York in 1973, whose vocal style has been highly influential in rock music
Led Zeppelin are widely considered to be one of the most successful, innovative and influential rock bands in the history of music. Rock critic Mikal Gilmore said, “Led Zeppelin—talented, complex, grasping, beautiful and dangerous—made one of the most enduring bodies of composition and performance in twentieth-century music, despite everything they had to overpower, including themselves”.
Led Zeppelin have influenced hard rock and heavy metal bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Rush, Queen, and Megadeth as well as progressive metal bands like Tool and Dream Theater. They influenced some early punk and post-punk bands, among them the Ramones and the Cult. They were also an important influence on the development of alternative rock, as bands adapted elements from the “Zeppelin sound” of the mid-1970s, including the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Bands and artists from diverse genres have acknowledged the influence of Led Zeppelin, such as Madonna, Shakira, Lady Gaga, and Katie Melua.
Jones performing with the band in Mannheim, Germany in 1980 on their last tour
Led Zeppelin have been credited with a major impact on the nature of the music business, particularly in the development of album-orientated rock (AOR) and stadium rock. In 1988 John Kalodner, then-A&R executive of Geffen Records, remarked that “In my opinion, next to the Beatles they’re the most influential band in history. They influence the way music is on records, AOR radio, concerts. They set the standards for the AOR-radio format with ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ having AOR hits without necessarily having Top 40 hits. They’re the ones who did the first real big arena concert shows, consistently selling out and playing stadiums without support. People can do as well as them, but nobody surpasses them”. Andrew Loog Oldham, the former producer and manager of the Rolling Stones, commented on how Led Zeppelin had a major influence on the record business, and the way rock concerts were managed and presented to huge audiences. The band have sold over 200 million albums worldwide according to some sources, while other sources state that they have sold in excess of 300 million records, including 111.5 million certified units in the United States. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Led Zeppelin are the second-highest-selling band, the fourth highest selling music act in the US and one of only three acts to earn four or more Diamond albums. Led Zeppelin remain one of the most bootlegged artists in the history of rock music.
Led Zeppelin also had a significant cultural impact. Jim Miller, editor of Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, argues that “On one level, Led Zeppelin represents the final flowering of the sixties’ psychedelic ethic, which casts rock as passive sensory involvement”. Led Zeppelin have also been described as “the quintessential purveyors” of masculine and aggressive “cock rock“, although this assertion has been challenged. The band’s fashion-sense has been seminal; Simeon Lipman, head of pop culture at Christie’s auction house, has commented that “Led Zeppelin have had a big influence on fashion because the whole aura surrounding them is so cool, and people want a piece of that”. Led Zeppelin laid the foundation for the big hair of 1980s glam metal bands such as Mötley Crüe and Skid Row. Other musicians have also adapted elements from Led Zeppelin’s attitude to clothes, jewellery and hair, such as the hipster flares and tight band t-shirts of Kings of Leon, shaggy hair, clingy t-shirts and bluesman hair of Jack White of the White Stripes, and Kasabian guitarist Sergio Pizzorno‘s silk scarves, trilbies and side-laced tight jeans.
Awards and accolades
Throughout their career, Led Zeppelin have collected many honours and awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2006. Among the band’s awards are an American Music Award in 2005, and the Polar Music Prize in 2006. Led Zeppelin were the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and four of their recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. They have been awarded five Diamond albums, as well as fourteen Multi-Platinum, four Platinum and one Gold album in the United States, while in the UK they have five Multi-Platinum, six Platinum, one Gold and four Silver albums. In addition to listing five of their albums among “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time“, Rolling Stone named Led Zeppelin the 14th-greatest artist of all time in 2004.
Page was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his charity work in 2005 and Plant was honoured as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to popular music in 2009. The band are ranked number one on VH1‘s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock and Classic Rock‘s “50 best live acts of all time”. They were awarded an Ivor Novello Award for “Outstanding Contribution to British Music” in 1977, as well as a “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the 42nd Annual Ivor Novello awards ceremony in 1997. The band were honoured at the 2008 MOJO Awards with the “Best Live Act” prize for their one-off reunion, and were described as the “greatest rock and roll band of all time”. The three surviving members (Page, Plant, and Jones) were named as 2012 recipients of Kennedy Center Honors.
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