Led Zeppelin, the Definitive Biography, by Ritchie Yorke



Led Zeppelin, the Definitive Biography, by Ritchie Yorke – I’ve read Hammer Of The Gods, which has been attacked by Led Zeppelin camp insiders, while Yorke’s is considered more informed, given Robert Plant’s praise that “Ritchie’s alright… he’s been one of us from the bloody beginning.” Nice plug, worth putting on the cover. Which Yorke has done, of course – something like that is a gift from heaven for an author, man!!

It doesn’t make it an exciting book, though, and like most books about Led Zeppelin there’s only one short mention of backstage debauchery (for that, you’re better off to read the Pamela Des Barres books), with a lot of praise for things that the band did well. It also conveys the sense of denial coming from parts of the rock world that Led Zeppelin was any good at all, when it was clear that they were a smashing success with the fans (hard to believe that they were once looked down upon, but yes… it seems to be true). It took a while for people to catch on, and by the fourth album it was undeniable. Of course, by that time, it was nearly over, and what Yorke remains vague about is the last few albums… weren’t very good. Led Zeppelin had run out of steam somewhere after Physical Graffiti, but that’s sort of glossed over here. Lots of great quotes with people who are long-dead, like Glyn Johns or Peter Grant (who died only two years after the book was published, but who seems very much alive here, and ready to undertake grand new plans – a bit more on that later).

The book starts out, as all good bios and auto-biographies do, with a personal recollection, and this is a good one – it is about Yorke getting to introduce the band to 18,000 fans at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens one night in 1970. “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rock and roll band in the world… Led Zeppelin.” He describes the roar of the crowd that hit him at that point before the band split the night open with their music. Must have been quite an experience, and he makes the interesting observation that while many have written about how Led Zeppelin made people feel, not many have written about how people made Led Zeppelin feel, and Yorke gets into this throughout the book. Yorke is Canadian, of course, and one of the first critical supporters of the band, and he even describes Toronto as “one of the earliest North American markets to take the band to heart in 1969.” Weird how they never played there again after that 1970 show (even weirder how on that same tour they also played Kitchener!!!).

Awesome 1969 tour programme to be found here.

Of course we get a lot of bio stuff about the four fellas, and for me it was the sections about John Paul Jones that were the most revealing – I had not known what a brilliant production guy he had been for many years before the band got going. Some stuff on Jimmy’s session years (which I thought Marianne Faithfull covered better in her book than Yorke does here) are here too, like when he recorded “The Worrying Kind” and “Bald-Headed Woman” with Brian Howard and the Silhouettes, or with millions of other bands (and then he also he launched fuzz tone on The Who’s version of “Bald-Headed Woman”). Page also played “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” with Faithfull.

Before Led Zeppelin, Page had only cut four songs under his own name as part of a group, with the Yardbirds. Then comes the first album, which they cut in only 30 hours for £1,700. It was a smash, and so was the follow-up, which was part of some pretty amazing musical times.

By the 27 December chart listing, Led Zeppelin II had knocked Abbey Road off the pinnacle and into the number two sot. Led Zeppelin II spent seen weeks on the top spot before being dislodged by Simon and Garfunkel’s classic folk-rock bestseller, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Wow – those were interesting times!! Weird how Eric Clapton disliked the band in those early years, thinking them too loud.

Interesting anecdote of the band’s only tour of Japan, and hijinx on the bullet train, as well as a visit to Thailand (you can only imagine what they got to in the red light districts there).

In Thailand all the kids followed us around calling out “Billy Boy, Billy Boy” which means queer – all because of our long hair. But it was friendly stuff. When we landed in Bangkok, we saw a sign saying that the band Marmalade were coming to play here soon. Led zeppelin had never even been heard of in Thailand, but here was Marmalade playing there, and then heading off somewhere else exotic. It made us think.

That was probably also the tour of Asia when they were denied entry to Singapore because of their long hair, something that is not mentioned here (The Stones played Singapore in 1966 or so). Interesting to note that “Going To California” was secretly dedicated to Joni Mitchell, whom Robert Plant was in love with. Commenting how on the acoustic feeling on the fourth album, with “Stairway To Heaven”, moved things into another dimension, John Paul Jones is quoted as saying “No one ever compared us to Black Sabbath after this record.”

Weirdly, Houses Of The Holy was badly savaged by the critics:

“This album seems to have less guts than earlier Led Zeppelin material” South Wales Echo; “Awful” PRM; “For the most part, mediocre” Rock; “It would appear that the boys have calmed down” Circus; and “They’ve been going downhill ever since the first perfect outing” Charleston Gazette.

The Rolling Stone review approximated what the group had cynically expected: “Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, the Groundhogs, Robin Trower – the list is long and they all fare musically better than the Zep because they stick to what they do best. Page and friends should similarly realise their limitations and get back to playing the blues-rock that moves mountains. Until they do, Led Zeppelin will remain a Limp Blimp.” To which Playboy magazine hollered, “The blimp’s a long way from limp.”

They went on opulent tours, they trashed hotel rooms (in a while everyone would be doing this), but they had an extra level of class because they had an extra layer of money – even their groupies chartered planes to follow them from gig to gig. And after a while boring old Robert Plant even begins to believe his own hype. “I like [the audience] to go away feeling the way you do after a good chick, satisfied and exhausted. Some nights I just look out there and I want to fuck the whole front row.” Classy, Robert, classy. Then Jimmy Page took up with Ron Wood’s wife Chrissie Wood, with Ron’s acquiescence. Weird!

A crazy 1980 – Richard Cole fired, arrested in Rome and sentenced to six months in a maximum security jail for drugs, a young boy overdosing in Jimmy Page’s home. But by then the end is near.

After Bonham’s death, the band falls apart, and so does the narrative of this biography. Peter Grant and Jimmy Page go into a dark funk and mourn for several years, lost in a drug haze, Robert Plant keeps his career going (and by now he’s recorded many more solo albums than he had with Led Zeppelin), and John Paul Jones retired to his castle and other eccentricities. Nice. Funny drama around various musical Plant and Page’s pairings over the years, especially that time when Page decided to work with David Coverdale – and now we hear Plant get really catty:

You can’t do it forever, so if it looks good and it sells records for David Geffen, then somebody’s got to do it, you know. A lot of people have done. Coverdale’s the latest, and he’s making a lot of money. Now Page and I get offered everything – women, little boys, money, cocaine, the lot, to just go back and do that again. I passed the vacancy on to Coverdale. He’d spent the last couple of years being Paul Rodgers, so he had to move on. In ten years, he’ll be George Michael.

But I don’t mind what David Coverdale is doing, to be perfectly frank, because he’s never going to get it right.

Not everybody liked Plant’s solo stuff. “How did I react to it? I felt that maybe he’d go on to greater things,” quipped John Paul Jones. Never realised that Frankie Goes To Hollywood had sampled John Bonham’s drums for “Relax.” Weird how the book tries to ground things in the modern day by quoting Jason Newsted of Metallica on the significance of Led Zeppelin, along with the “amiable but acutely intelligent” Def Leppard vocalist Joe Eliot (quoting Def Leppard on Led Zeppelin after they ripped off the name concept!!!). Then Robert Plant is quoted saying “I’ve always got ot sing. Even she I go bald, I’ll go on singing” (hasn’t happened yet, although the mane is looking a bit droopy these days… and the soul patch really isn’t working either. Oh well).

Yorke tries to get journalistic, finally, near the end, reporting on both sides of Peter Grant’s personality – the angel and the demon – and finally lets the reader decide, but pausing still to tell a personal anecdote when the limo partiers raced a police officer through the last parts of Ontario to lose him at the Quebec border… yeah, I know. We’re not always so lucky, though, and the praise sometimes just gushes and gushes: “The fascinating film project – plus [Peter Grant's] plans to also write a book based on his saddlebags of experiences – ensure that we’ll be hearing a lot more from Peter Grant before too long.”

Ultimately, though, the book has become very dated, and too full of long, quaint, lovingly boring quotes by the surviving Led Zeppelin members. It is also badly in need of updating having been published in 1991 (which itself was an update of the 1980 version), and an edit – plenty of typos, and time-stamped words like “recently”, which should have been edited out in the first place anyway…

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