Led Zeppelin: The rise to heavenly heights

Out of the ashes of The Yardbirds rose the biggest, loudest, most successful rock band in the world. Keith Shadwick reveals how the guitarist Jimmy Page created Led Zeppelin
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The Independent Culture

Call it bad luck, bad timing or whatever, but, in just 18 months, The Yardbirds went from being a cutting-edge band listened to and imitated by every wannabe to a spent force that, in May 1968, were ready to call it a day.

By now managed by Mickie Most's RAK-label partner Peter Grant, they made their last appearance at San Francisco's Fillmore Ballroom on a bizarre bill that included the uncompromising jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and the electric-violin-led rock band It's A Beautiful Day. The dope-heads in the audience must have been even more confused than usual on those three nights.

And it was all played in the knowledge that, whatever happened, The Yardbirds were over. News of an impending split had been leaked in the music press in the UK. Melody Maker carried a brief note. "Break-up of The Yardbirds is expected on their return from America... Lead guitarist Jimmy Page is to reform the group with a new lead singer and drummer, to replace Keith Relf and Jim McCarty."

The following week's music press carried stories of the group's two-way split, alongside rave reviews of The Jeff Beck Group's US concert debut. Beck's band, newly signed to Peter Grant's management and with the virtually unknown Rod Stewart on vocals, was booked by Grant into the Fillmore East in New York City for two nights in June. The group's wild, blues-based sound was an instant hit with the underground audience there - an uncanny anticipation of the impact that another Peter Grant band would soon have at the same venue.

Early in the summer of 1968, back in the disintegrating Yardbirds camp, it was now Jimmy Page and bassist Chris Dreja's job to find new personnel. Page told Go magazine they'd keep the Yardbirds name because "people have associated a type of sound with the name. It's a heavy beat sound and I want to keep that". The beat would remain; but the name would not.

Grant had already made forward bookings for The Yardbirds, with an autumn tour of Scandinavia sketched in over the summer and a projected brief US college tour in October. Page and Dreja knew that Grant would be the ideal manager. He was as ambitious as Page. He prized loyalty, he wanted a small stable of acts, all of whom he felt personally close to, and who had the ability to make a breakthrough to phenomenal success. But he had not yet fixed on the act that he thought would do it. Grant and Page were quick to recognise fellow spirits: their informal chats changed Grant's angle on The Yardbirds and what might follow them, and The Jeff Beck Group was increasingly left to Mickie Most to steer.

One early decision taken by Page and Grant was that the new band would not need an outside producer any more. Page, by then an experienced hand in the studio and with definite ideas of his own, would take over the producer's role. It was also clear that a clean break was needed with current record company arrangements. After all, Epic had not exactly landed The Yardbirds any recent Stateside hits, while in Britain Columbia had not even released 1967's Little Games LP or the final couple of singles.

Page asked Terry Reid, a singer managed by Peter Grant, to take on the role of vocalist. Reid wanted to stick to a solo career but Page and Grant claim he suggested they check out a singer he knew from the Midlands, Robert Plant. Others (including Plant himself) claim that Page and Grant were directed Plant's way by the musical matchmaker Alexis Korner, who had seen Plant in London in 1967 and played with him later in the Midlands.

Meanwhile, on 19th July 1968, Jimmy Page received a speculative phone call from John Paul Jones, a highly accomplished young session musician that he knew well from his days in the studios. Jones had worked with Page on many Mickie Most sessions (including a number of Donovan hits). Jones, who also knew Peter Grant well from visits to the RAK office, was offering himself primarily as a bassist but had a combination of talents and accomplishments rare on the rock scene of the day.

Page made no immediate commitments on the phone, but within a few days he would have reason to call Jones and make him an offer that the musician, jaded by years of studio work, would be only too keen to accept.

The day after Jones's call, Page, Dreja and Grant drove to Birmingham to check out Terry Reid's recommendation. The singer Robert Plant had spent most of his time in and around Birmingham and nearby Midlands cities fronting a series of groups but, so far, he had failed to progress further than a couple of singles for CBS that did nothing, occasional gigs with Alexis Korner, and a long stint leading the Birmingham outfit The Band of Joy. At the time of Terry Reid's recommendation, Plant was fronting another group, Hobbstweedle, which he admitted later "wasn't very good. The band overplayed and there was a lot of hubbub and flash but no real content."

Contacted by Grant to undergo a working audition, Plant had arranged for the Yardbirds contingent to see him in action onstage. On the evening of July 20th 1968, standing in the hall of Birmingham Teacher Training College, all three men agreed that Plant had something worth developing: he had a very strong voice, good pitch, a wide range, natural rhythmic feel and good stage presence. His harmonica playing was authentic and enthusiastic. Jim McCarty later remembered Chris Dreja being markedly less impressed with Plant than Page or Grant had been. Still, after a quick discussion between the three men they decided they would try him out.

Jimmy Page asked Plant to spend a few days at his boathouse on the River Thames at Pangbourne. Once ensconced at Page's boathouse, Plant discovered that he and the guitarist had a near-instant communication on common musical ground. He said later: "I looked through his records one day when he was out and I pulled out a pile to play, and * * somehow or other they happened to be the same ones that he was going to play when he got back... to see whether I liked them!"

Plant's own musical inclinations led him to two differing sources for his singing style: British folk music and earthy American blues, both acoustic and electric. This was an unusual combination at the time. Although completely unschooled, Plant had good instincts and an arranger's ear. The two found that they could work together quite naturally. "I could suggest things", Plant remembered years later, "and the two of us re-arranged 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' - although it doesn't say that [on the LP] because I was under contract to somebody else... It was good to be able to hit it off like that." The Page/Plant collaboration would be crucial on several levels to the way the band was to develop. Plant said Page's "ability to absorb things and the way he carried himself was far more cerebral than anything I'd come across before, and so I was very impressed."

In the search for a drummer, the on-probation Robert Plant proved his worth by dipping into the Birmingham pool of talent. Plant later commented: "Everyone in Birmingham was desperate to get out and join a successful band. Everyone wanted to move to London." On the brink of just such a move, Plant decided that the Birmingham drummer John Bonham, who was then touring with the US folk-rocker Tim Rose, might quickly get his new band out of a hole.

At the end of July 1968, Page, Dreja and Grant went to watch the Tim Rose band, with Bonham on drums, at the Country Club in West Hampstead. Jimmy Page in particular was impressed. Later he said: "When I saw what a thrasher Bonzo was, I knew he'd be incredible. He was into exactly the same sort of stuff as I was." Bonham was asked to come down to Page's Pangbourne boathouse and meet the others. But what constituted "the others" changed quickly. Sometime between Page's invitation to Bonham and the meeting itself, Dreja was eased out of the band and John Paul Jones installed in his place. The changeover took place on the first weekend in August 1968.

Page knew that Plant was his singer and was not going to be playing an instrument onstage. This meant that Page needed an accomplished all-rounder who would major on bass but who could, when required, move quickly to other roles, both onstage and in the studio. Dreja, as a bassist and guitarist, would have filled the role adequately, but he was not a keyboard player. He was also a holdover from the first band and, in theory at least, the senior partner.

The way things were developing, Page was no longer sure he wanted to put together a new band with such potential for conflict arising from the old. Dreja's involvement in developments was allowed to wither, with Peter Grant drafted in to find him another musical project, managing a country band that never got off the drawing board. Dreja quickly turned to another passion, photography, kick-starting a new professional career. He would take the photograph of Led Zeppelin that appeared on the back cover of their first LP.

On 5 August Grant issued a press statement in New York confirming the arrival of Plant and Jones. That week, John Bonham followed up the West Hampstead invitation to come down to Page's boathouse at Pangbourne for a meeting and an informal jam. Bonham recalled: "It was quite strange meeting John Paul Jones and Jimmy, me coming from the Midlands and having only played with local groups... I was pretty shy and I thought the best thing was not to say much but suss it all out. We had a play, and it went quite well."

After the success of the second Pangbourne meeting, Page was convinced Bonham was a perfect fit. He quickly told Grant and the London office to contact the drummer with a firm offer. Although Bonham had completed his commitments with Tim Rose, he proved elusive for a few days, having picked up some work on a Chris Farlowe tour. Lying low and weighing his options, the drummer finally responded to one of a number of telegrams addressed to his local pub.

Bonham knew it was a good move musically, but at that time he was feeling the financial strain of being a jobbing drummer from Birmingham with a history of short-term commitments to bands in return for average wages. He was already married and a father. Jimmy Page's band was - potentially at least - a very different proposition. Bonham needed to know it would not all evaporate overnight: he also needed some reassurance about income. Robert Plant recalled later that there were "all sorts of negotiations about retainers and so on, and Bonzo was very keen to get an extra £25 a week to drive the Transit van." Around a week after the Pangbourne meeting, Bonham agreed to give it a chance. A London rehearsal was quickly set up with the other three members of what was becoming an entirely new band.

The combination of ordinary luck and Page's astute choices for the personnel of his new venture is all too easy to take for granted. It is thrown into relief when compared with the tribulations of The Jeff Beck Group, already a success that summer and seemingly headed for glory. Beck was never happy with his choice of drummer and kept swapping around, while his relationship with his singer Rod Stewart was so tenuous as to find them not speaking for much of the time. The strain was exacerbated by Mickie Most's refusal to allow Stewart a headlining role in the band. US Epic Records executives in all innocence greeted Rod Stewart backstage after one concert as "Jeff".

In contrast, Jimmy Page was building his new band from the ground up, carefully and thoroughly, making sure that things gelled properly on every level and that the support machinery was both efficient and equitable. It was no accident that the personnel of Page's new band would remain stable for 12 years.

All four musicians have said that the first official rehearsal was an unqualified success. It took place in a small basement rehearsal space in Gerrard Street, Soho. According to John Paul Jones: "We set the amps up and Jimmy said, 'Do you know "Train Kept A-Rollin'' by The Yardbirds?' I said 'no', so he said, 'Well, it's a 12-bar with a riff on G.' That was the first thing we ever played."

Within two months Jimmy Page's new line-up had completed a low-profile tour of Scandinavia and recorded their first album, all booked under the old Yardbirds name. But they had still not played as much as a single gig in Britain.

The first London booking was at London's famous Marquee club in Wardour Street, on Friday 18th October. That, and a Liverpool University gig the following night, were the band's last as The Yardbirds. Some weeks earlier, Page had given an interview to Melody Maker to announce the formation of "a New Yardbirds" as the article put it. It appeared just a few days before these gigs. He said: "The new chaps are only about 19 and full of enthusiasm. It was getting a bit of a trial in the old group."

The article's author, Chris Welch, then listed the band's new members, mentioning in passing that Page was "not sure whether to call them Yardbirds or not". "We dropped that name," he was to say later of "The Yardbirds" - "we felt it was working under false pretences."

No name - especially a band name - comes out of a vacuum, and the one quickly agreed upon, Led Zeppelin, is no exception. A long tradition of anecdote ascribes the name to two members of The Who, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Back in 1966 The Who's rhythm team had seriously contemplated forming a new supergroup with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. In conversation one night Entwistle and Moon had joked that such a line-up, if it ever become a reality, would go down like a lead balloon. Elaborating on the joke, the image became altered to a lead Zeppelin - an even more spectacularly amusing image of self-immolation. Page liked not only the idea but also the image conjured - the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace. Filed away for future reference, according to this account, two years later he decided it fitted his needs entirely.

There are, of course, alternative stories. Friends recall that, during 1968, Page, like many stars of the day, often sported badges, trinkets, and other accessories on his clothes. One of these was a small replica Zeppelin made of - you guessed it - lead. Perhaps Page found what he was looking for pinned to his own shirt: London 1968's answer to Iron Butterfly. The as-yet unreleased album thus became Led Zeppelin's first, while the band's debut under the new name came at Bristol Boxing Club on Saturday, 26 October, 1968. The unsuspecting members of the audience that night witnessed the birth of what was to become a rock phenomenon, regularly breaking tour attendance and income records worldwide throughout the next decade, and racking up sales of albums along the way that are today reckoned in the scores of millions... and still counting.

'Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music 1968-80' is published by Backbeat at £19.95

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