Led Zeppelin: There was a whole lotta love on tour

Naked and bound groupies, under-age sex, brutal violence...Simon Hardeman examines the underbelly of the beast

In a poll of "The 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock", printed by Spin magazine in 2000, an incident involving members of Led Zeppelin, pieces of shark (or was it a whole red snapper?) and the lower orifices of a bound, naked groupie was in top place, more than three decades after it allegedly happened. It is just one of many such Led Zep legends. Hordes of sniggering, awestruck male teenagers from the 1970s onwards have swapped tales of the British band that set the standard, created the model, even, for debauched rock'*'roll partying.

But was it a party for everyone? The history of Led Zeppelin, and particularly their tours of America, involves much worse than just the sexual degradation of fans. There's the brutal violence, the accusations of attempted rape, the child abuse; and that's before we get to such modern-day mundanities as drugs and occultism.

The fish episode took place at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, on Led Zeppelin's second tour of the USA in 1969, in the room of the tour manager Richard Cole. In his unauthorised biography Hammer of the Gods, Stephen Davis explains how one could catch fish out of the window of Cole's room. He then quotes Cole as saying: "These birds were coming up to my suite wanting to fuck, and me and Bonzo [the drummer, John Bonham] were quite serious about catching these fish." Cole then describes the "victim": "She might have been hit by the shark a few times for disobeying orders, but she didn't get hurt." Let's hope she saw it the same way.

But these were different, unreconstructed days days when Robert Plant's voice could be described in a Rolling Stone review, for instance, as "imitation spade". And Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones (who often travelled separately) and Bonham were like kids in a candy shop.

As Plant has said: "I was young when I first went to America. I was 19 years old, and I went crazy. I met The GTOs and my mind just snapped. I'm from a nowhere town in the Midlands and here were these girls with bare breasts blatantly coming on, and of course we went crazy".

The GTOs Girls Together Outrageously were an LA clique led by Pamela des Barres (then called Miss Pamela). "When you saw Led Zeppelin play," she relates in her book Let's Spend the Night Together, "it was all over bar the orgasm". There were many other regular groupies who hooked up with Zeppelin when they arrived in the USA and, particularly, Los Angeles (the Hyatt House hotel there became known as the Riot House). Cynthia Plaster Caster, for instance, specialised in casts of the erect penises of rock stars. She describes how, while she fellated Plant, Cole urinated on her. Bebe Buell, a Playboy Playmate, told Playboy magazine that her time with Page was a meeting of minds, and how she felt Page's habit of "spewing saliva" into her mouth during sex was "his way of putting some of himself in me".

There's lots more where that comes from: tales of young, pretty, rich rock stars having weird sex, buying motorcycles to ride along hotel corridors, having more sex, throwing televisions out of hotel windows, having more sex still, attacking George Harrison with cake, having yet more sex, and, perhaps most extraordinarily, getting drunk on imported Watneys Red Barrel and still being able to have sex.

So far, so smutty, and so much to be expected. After all, Led Zeppelin did invent cock-rock, creating some of the most overtly sexual music ever recorded "way down deep inside, I wanna give you my love"; "squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg"; and they had a singer with the most orgasmic vocal style yet.

But there are more disturbing stories. Page, for instance, had a relationship with a 14-year-old called Lori Maddox, who relates in Hammer how Richard Cole kidnapped her on Page's orders and brought her to the Riot House. She claims she fell in love with Page almost immediately. She also tells how she had to be locked up, albeit willingly, most of the time so that word of this illegal relationship statutory rape could not get out.

Cole figures a lot in the more unsavoury episodes of Zep's career. The British journalist Nick Kent describes him as "genuinely terrifying". But unless you are scared by Page'sinfatuation with the English occultist Aleister Crowley and the consequent cartoon-diabolic aura surrounding Zep, the most unsettling member of the band itself was Bonham, whose other nickname was The Beast. The American journalist Ellen Sander describes how on the last night of Zep's second America tour, band members, led by Bonham, ripped her clothes off, "shrieking and grabbing". She goes on: "They were in a frenzy. I was absolutely terrified that I was going to be raped..." Zep's former-nightclub-bouncer manager, Peter Grant, bodily pulled Bonham off her. She describes life with the band as like being inside cages at a zoo where "you get to smell the shit first-hand".

Another terrifying Bonham incident occurred aboard the Starship, the Boeing 720 passenger aircraft that the band fitted with luxurious bedrooms for their 1973 and 1975 tours. Plant says his fondest memory of the craft is "oral sex in turbulence", but one stewardess will have a different take. Stephen Davis describes how Bonham, after drinking a bottle of whisky, appeared in a robe, grabbed the attendant, bent her over forwards in an arm lock and announced that he was going to "have her from the rear". He then threw open his robe. At the girl's screams, Cole and Grant appeared and dragged him off.

Maddox said Bonham was the nicest guy in the world when sober, but a maniac when drunk. Once, in a Los Angeles bar, a woman looked at him and, apparently recognising him, smiled; he went over and punched her in the face. And in 1977 he, Cole, Grant and a former London gangster called John Bindon were arrested in San Francisco after a security man was beaten unconscious and left in a pool of blood. A $2m legal action ensued, and the night lives in Led Zep legend as "The Oakland Incident".

The American promoter Bill Graham later described Grant's security men as "just waiting to kill". If Zep created the template for the music and antics of bands that followed, from Aerosmith through Mtley Cre and even to the drug-addled groupie-madness that was The Eagles then Grant, the original manager to put bands in charge of their own income, created his own legend of excess. He is often called the fifth member of Led Zeppelin, and his legend is inseparable from theirs.

Instead of having the band's shows promoted by local businessmen in each town, Grant promoted Led Zeppelin himself, simply hiring the venues and then giving the people who once would have taken the lion's share of the profit as little as 10 per cent. So far so good (in 1996, the Music Managers Forum award for outstanding achievement in management was renamed the Peter Grant Award in his honour), but his methods were often questionable. His 6ft 5in frame, mountainous physique and uncompromising nature was often enough to cow venue managers into handing over cash. And woe betide anyone he spotted in the audience with a recording device (in Vancouver in 1971 he destroyed what he thought was a taping device only to discover it was sound-monitoring equipment installed by the local council). Record shops selling Zeppelin bootlegs could also expect his own brand of personal attention. To his credit, he did describe his use of Bindon as "security co-ordinator" of the 1977 US tour as his greatest managerial mistake.

Zep's later years involved increasingly hard drugs Page and Grant particularly with cocaine, and Bonham adding them to his formidable alcohol consumption and Plant says the exuberance of the early tours was lost. Bonham's death, choking on vomit after an alcohol binge, brought the band to a squalid halt in 1980. Grant died of a heart attack in 1995.

Now Plant, Page and John Paul Jones are to wheel the Zeppelin out again. Is it just the music that is the attraction for those hundreds of thousands of men of a certain age who have tried to get tickets? Or do the inner remnants of those sniggering, awestruck teenagers of the 1970s still secretly want a piece of that extraordinary, sordid action, however proxy?

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