“Our Shadows Taller Than Our Soul…”

Christie Eliezer looks at Led Zeppelin’s continued massive influence on modern day culture.

It’s a little known fact that when Led Zeppelin began rehearsing in September 1980 for a North American tour, they had been speaking to Australian promoters about playing here the year after.

But John Bonham’s death on September 24 was the end. He’d begun drinking at breakfast (a ham roll downed with four quadruple vodkas), through the day’s rehearsals and then at Jimmy Page’s house in Windsor until midnight when he was put to bed. The next day, about 1.45 pm, John Paul Jones and the band’s tour manager found him dead. He’d choked on his vomit.

On 4 December 1980 they announced they were disbanding.

This decision was also an “out” for Plant. He had not wanted to do that world tour. Today he is the single obstacle for another Zeppelin world tour. He’s hated the reunion shows they’ve done since. He called their set at Live Aid “atrocious”.

He even has bad memories of their much-lauded 2007 reunion in London: it was too much pressure. Afterwards, pop royalty like Oasis’ Gallagher brothers came backstage wanting to hang out. Instead, he fled to a nearby pub, polished off four bottles of lager and half a bottle of vodka and went home. He explained to Mojo: “Because I had to get away from it. I’d done it. Had to go. [It was] too heavy. Beautiful – but talk about examining your own mortality . . . Crazy.”

The expectations are not surprising, really. Led Zeppelin sold 200 million albums worldwide, half of these in America. Rock critic Mikal Gilmore suggested that “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”.

Thirty years after Bonham’s death, they hold a massive influence over modern rock. It’s still debated as to who invented “heavy metal” — Zeppelin? Jimi Hendrix? Blue Cheer? MC5? But an American reviewer took the line “heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” to describe the intensity of the first Zeppelin album. Since then every major metal/rock band from Metallica to Maiden to Van Halen have taken their sound, stage movements and even their stage costumes.

Zeppelin were more than just a metal band of course. They threw folk, country, reggae, rock, electro and funk into the mix. The artists who have covered their songs range from jazzers as King Curtis to troubadours as Jeff Buckley to pop singers as Gabriella Cilmi to hip hop acts as the Beastie Boys.

For Page, Zep’s crowning achievement was not any of the hard rock tracks but “Kashmir”, born more of Eastern drones and red deserts.

To Plant it’s the Presence album. “That’s got a lot of reality in it. I had a girlfriend, not that long ago, and we used to play ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ really loud. She said one day, ‘I wouldn’t like to be left alone in a room with this.’ That’s great.”

Through the boxed sets compiled personally by Page to give a better perspective of the scale of their vision, new generations discover how Page is one of the most exquisite and accomplished players. He approaches his riffs using architecture theories. His production of Zep records make them sound timeless. His passion and technique touch emotions in fans that few others. His solo on “Stairway to Heaven” was voted the greatest of all time. “Stairway” is the most requested rock song ever on American radio. Zeppelin are the most bootlegged in British history: in August 1999, there were 384 different bootleg titles around.

They are still both a teenager’s sex fantasy about being a rock star. They used violence to get their way. Yet at the same time they evoke the flower power of the mid-60s and the cosmicness of the ‘70s. Their hellraising, with shark tales and motorbike races inside five star hotels, are legendary. Yet Page was given an OBE medal by the British government in 2005 followed by Plant’s CBE four years later.

The awards keep coming. A Grammy lifetime achievement (2005), Polar Music Prize (2006), voted the best live act ever by the readers of Mojo (2008), ranked #1 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock, and third greatest band of all time by Spin. In June this year, the BBC Two series I’m In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band! named them best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time.

Zeppelin changed the way bands do business. They invented stadium rock alongside the Stones, and took the grosses. Their album artwork broke new ground. They refused to do TV or release singles in the UK.

They popularized interest in the works of Tolkien and satanist Aleister Crowley (the snake on Page’s pants? The “fallen angel” logo? Does “Stairway” really say “I live for Satan” when played backwards?).

Fashion designers are mesmerized by the Zep look. Simeon Lipman, head of pop culture at Christie’s, observed, “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.”

They cast their shadow on film makers who use their music in Shrek the Third, One Day in September, School of Rock and Small Soldiers among others. Video game developers want them too but the band has turned them down.

But to Jimmy Page it’s just the music. “It’s been a great legacy. That’s what I’m proud of is the legacy of it. The fact that it’s turned so many people on to want to play. That’s what pulled me into playing, is hearing musicians who really really sent shivers down my spine. So that’s it. That’s the legacy and that’s what I’m really proud of.”

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