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Led Zeppelin

At any point in the last 40 years I could have written you a thousand words about the biggest rock beasts of them all, the great Led Zeppelin, a band that have never been far away from my metaphorical and actual turntables since 1975. I could give you 10,000 words without too much difficulty right now but have limited myself to 1400 words here. I have mentioned the band in seven of the pieces so far on this Blog but it could just as easily have been 70.

They received two mentions on these pages in the first 15 days’ worth of posts, first in this piece which mentioned how my brother and I do not have the same musical tastes, and then here, with the advice that you should never trust a man who claims to hate either Led Zeppelin or Elvis Presley. I offered my daughter the same advice yesterday morning in the car in what turned into a 20-minute discussion (or maybe that should say “lecture”), prompted by hearing “Whole Lotta Love” on the radio after we had dropped my son to school. She asked me about the band: how many of them were there, when were they around, did I like them? Answers: four (John Bonham on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards, Jimmy Page on guitar, Robert Plant on vocals), they were most prominent between 1968 and 1975 (though they carried on through till 1980 when John Bonham died), and yes, I like them a lot. This discussion with my daughter and other unplanned encounters with the band have prompted this piece. Last month she and I explored the world of Glam, last weekend it was Liam Gallagher, and for the last few days it’s been all about Led Zeppelin.

It’s many years since I read the Stephen Davis biography of the band, “Hammer of the Gods”, but many of the stories have stuck with me. A year or two back someone chose Led Zeppelin as his Special Subject on “Mastermind”. As I recall, out of a possible 15 points he got 11 and I got 13, without revising, and I expect many of my old school-friends would have scored the same or more. (I failed to remember the name of Terry Reid, the singer who reportedly turned down the chance to be in the band but recommended Robert Plant as vocalist instead.) That’s an indication of how much we knew and had absorbed about the band through the 1970s. We were all a little too young to see any of their 1975 shows at Earl’s Court. I was not yet a teenager but had been to a couple of gigs by then, Sparks and 10cc, both at the Hammersmith Odeon. Earl’s Court was different, a completely unfamiliar venue, and Led Zeppelin were a completely different prospect. My brother (three years older than me) wasn’t into them and had no interest in seeing them, though some of his classmates went. Four years later the band played their last UK shows with their original line-up, at Knebworth. I was not the same person in 1979 that I had been in 1975. I had been to Knebworth the previous summer (Frank Zappa, The Tubes, Boomtown Rats, Wilko Johnson and more) and in 1976 (The Rolling Stones, 10cc, Lynyrd Skynrd) but didn’t feel like going in 1979. They played two shows: Saturday 4 and Saturday 11 August. My 1979 diary tells me that I went to the Proms on 4 August (the only time I have ever been to the Royal Albert Hall for one of these summer concerts). One of my school-friends invited me. He and I had been to the Knebworth gig the previous year but in 1979, while Led Zeppelin were rocking Hertfordshire, we were listening to classical music at the Royal Albert Hall (his dad worked for a company that had a box at the venue). My 1979 diary has no entry for 11 August, nor for 18 August, when the Who played at Wembley Stadium. A year earlier I would have jumped at the chance to see Led Zeppelin one weekend and The Who the next. I wouldn’t have missed either show. A year earlier Keith Moon was still alive. (He died on 7 September 1978.) I’m not aware that any of my school-friends saw Led Zeppelin in 1979 but it’s possible.

Returning to the present day, having explained much of the band’s history to my daughter (who has just turned 11), I looked briefly for my CD copy of “Led Zeppelin III” to play her all 2’19” of “The Immigrant Song” on the brief drive to her school. I couldn’t locate it so instead we listened to “Rock ’n roll”, a song she was already familiar with, from the album we call “Led Zeppelin IV”. I reminded her of a time back in 2011 when we had friends to lunch, a Canadian family who were about to return to Vancouver. She had become good friends with their eldest daughter at nursery and as our lunch ended I asked if they were familiar with the song. The dad turned out to be a huge fan. We cranked it up (skipping past “Black Dog” and straight onto Track 2) and we saw another side of him, giving it the full rock star treatment in our kitchen. His younger daughter, who was about to turn three, had never seen him this way.

Later last Thursday evening we played most of the rest of the album, stuck in traffic on the way to another secondary school open evening. I began with the last track, “When the Levee Breaks”. It’s the song I have played most often from that CD in recent years, knocked out by the drumming in particular. My son turns 13 next month and has just started drum lessons. If he becomes as big a fan of Bonham’s percussive style as I am we can look forward to some decent noise in the years ahead.

On Friday morning Robert Plant was a guest on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Radio 2 and provided the best four minutes of radio that I have heard in a long time. The Friday morning shows have an entirely different feel to those earlier in the week. The last hour is taken up with live performances and interviews with guests promoting movies, books or TV shows. It’s more like a chat show than a regular breakfast show. Last week Liam Gallagher performed. This week Robert Plant was in the studio. The live music did not come from him, however. It came from a band called Shed Seven, about whom I know very little. Pop Master has taught me that their biggest hit, and only Top 10, was called “Going for Gold”. If you have four minutes to spare, to hear my favourite piece of radio for a long time, click on this iPlayer link to the show (it’s available till 11 November 2017) and forward to 2:44:10. Natalie Dormer (from “Game of Thrones) asks Robert Plant who he would most like to have collaborated with, dead or alive. He talks about Elvis Presley, his hero when he was a kid, and a man he met in the 1970s. If I’m organized enough I’ll transcribe the audio so that you can at least read it after 11 November, but in the meantime have a listen for yourself. [UPDATE: 11 November has come and gone; you can read the transcription here, “Robert Plant, transcribed”.] I love stories about Elvis and Led Zeppelin. “Hammer of the Gods” tells how the band met him in his hotel room, sat on a sofa in front of the TV, playing an acoustic bass. It prompted me to buy an acoustic bass too and spend the odd evening picking out bass-lines in front of the TV.

Finally, and the thing that prompted me to draft these words, Johnnie Walker started his “Sounds of the 70s” show on Radio 2 earlier today with “Rock ‘n Roll”. We were playing it through the TV. I had been trying to persuade my son to do some drum practice and when it came on I brought his practice pad in, rewound to the start, and got him to play along. When it was over, and to ensure that he did at least 10 minutes’ practice before we went out to play some pinball, I gave him the option of playing along with it again or playing along to the next song on the show (Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”, which he is also familiar with). He chose the “Rock ‘n Roll”. It’ll sound even better when we have a full drum-kit.



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