Led Zeppelin were an English rock band formed in London in 1968. The group consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The band's heavy, guitar-driven sound, rooted in blues and psychedelia on their early albums, has earned them recognition as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, though their unique style drew from a wide variety of influences, including folk music.
After changing their name from the New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin signed a deal with Atlantic Records that afforded them considerable artistic freedom. Although the group was initially unpopular with critics, they achieved significant commercial success with albums such as Led Zeppelin (1969), Led Zeppelin II (1969), Led Zeppelin III (1970), Led Zeppelin IV (1971), Houses of the Holy (1973), and Physical Graffiti (1975). Their fourth album, which features the track "Stairway to Heaven", is among the most popular and influential works in rock music, and it helped to secure the group's popularity.
Jimmy Page wrote most of Led Zeppelin's music, particularly early in their career, while Plant generally supplied the lyrics. Jones' keyboard-based compositions later became central to the group's catalogue, which featured increasing experimentation. The latter half of their career saw a series of record-breaking tours that earned the group a reputation for excess and debauchery. Although they remained commercially and critically successful, their output and touring schedule were limited during the late 1970s, and the group disbanded following Bonham's death from alcohol-related asphyxia in 1980. In the decades that followed, the surviving members sporadically collaborated and participated in one-off Led Zeppelin reunions. The most successful of these was the 2007 Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in London, with Jason Bonham taking his late father's place behind the drums.
Led Zeppelin are widely considered one of the most successful, innovative, and influential rock groups in history. They are one of the best-selling music artists in the history of audio recording; various sources estimate the group's record sales at 200 to 300 million units worldwide. With RIAA-certified sales of 111.5 million units, they are the second-best-selling band in the US. Each of their nine studio albums placed in the top 10 of the Billboard album chart and six reached the number-one spot. They achieved eight consecutive UK number-one albums. Rolling Stone magazine described them as "the heaviest band of all time", "the biggest band of the Seventies", and "unquestionably one of the most enduring bands in rock history". They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995; the museum's biography of the band states that they were "as influential" during the 1970s as the Beatles were during the 1960s.
In 1966, London-based session guitarist Jimmy Page joined the blues-influenced rock band the Yardbirds to replace bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Page soon switched from bass to lead guitar, creating a dual lead guitar line-up with Jeff Beck. Following Beck's departure in October 1966, the Yardbirds, tired from constant touring and recording, began to wind down. Page wanted to form a supergroup with him and Beck on guitars, and the Who's Keith Moon and John Entwistle on drums and bass, respectively. Vocalists Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott were also considered for the project. The group never formed, although Page, Beck, and Moon did record a song together in 1966, "Beck's Bolero", in a session that also included bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones.
The Yardbirds played their final gig in July 1968 at, Luton College of Technology in Bedfordshire. They were still committed to several concerts in Scandinavia, so drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf authorised Page and bassist Chris Dreja to use "the Yardbirds" name to fulfill the band's obligations. Page and Dreja began putting a new line-up together. Page's first choice for the lead singer was Terry Reid, but Reid declined the offer and suggested Robert Plant, a singer for the Band of Joy and Hobbstweedle. Plant eventually accepted the position, recommending former Band of Joy drummer John Bonham. Jones inquired about the vacant position at the suggestion of his wife after Dreja dropped out of the project to become a photographer. Page had known Jones since they were both session musicians and agreed to let him join as the final member.
The four played together for the first time in a room below a record store on Gerrard Street in London. Page suggested that they attempt "Train Kept A-Rollin'", originally a jump blues song popularised in a rockabilly version by Johnny Burnette, which had been covered by the Yardbirds. "As soon as I heard John Bonham play", Jones recalled, "I knew this was going to be great ... We locked together as a team immediately". Before leaving for Scandinavia, the group took part in a recording session for the P. J. Proby album, Three Week Hero. The album's track "Jim's Blues", with Plant on harmonica, was the first studio track to feature all four future members of Led Zeppelin.
The band completed the Scandinavian tour as the New Yardbirds, playing together for the first time in front of a live audience at Gladsaxe Teen Clubs in Gladsaxe, Denmark, on 7 September 1968. Later that month, they began recording their first album, which was based on their live set. The album was recorded and mixed in nine days, and Page covered the costs. After the album's completion, the band were forced to change their name after Dreja issued a cease and desist letter, stating that Page was allowed to use the New Yardbirds moniker for the Scandinavian dates only. One account of how the new band's name was chosen held that Moon and Entwistle had suggested that a supergroup with Page and Beck would go down like a "lead balloon", an idiom for disastrous results. The group dropped the 'a' in lead at the suggestion of their manager, Peter Grant, so that those unfamiliar with the term would not pronounce it "leed". The word "balloon" was replaced by "zeppelin", a word which, according to music journalist Keith Shadwick, brought "the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace" to Page's mind.
In November 1968, Grant secured a $143,000 advance contract from Atlantic Records, which was then the biggest deal of its kind for a new band. Atlantic were a label with a catalogue of mainly blues, soul, and jazz artists, but in the late 1960s they began to take an interest in British progressive rock acts. Record executives signed Led Zeppelin without having ever seen them. Under the terms of their contract, the band had autonomy in deciding when they would release albums and tour, and had the final say over the contents and design of each album. They would also decide how to promote each release and which tracks to release as singles. They formed their own company, Superhype, to handle all publishing rights.
Early years: 1968–1970
The band began their first tour of the UK on 4 October 1968, they still were billed as the New Yardbirds, and played their first show as Led Zeppelin at the University of Surrey in Guildford on 25 October. Tour manager Richard Cole, who would become a major figure in the touring life of the group, organised their first North American tour at the end of the year. Their debut album, Led Zeppelin, was released in the US during the tour on 12 January 1969, and peaked at number 10 on the Billboard chart; it was released in the UK, where it peaked at number 6, on 31 March. According to Steve Erlewine, the album's memorable guitar riffs, lumbering rhythms, psychedelic blues, groovy, bluesy shuffles and hints of English folk, made it "a significant turning point in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal".
In their first year, Led Zeppelin completed four US and four UK concert tours, and also released their second album, Led Zeppelin II. Recorded mostly on the road at various North American studios, it was an even greater commercial success than their first album, and reached the number one chart position in the US and the UK. The album further developed the mostly blues-rock musical style established on their debut release, creating a sound that was "heavy and hard, brutal and direct", and which would be highly influential and frequently imitated. Steve Waksman has suggested that Led Zeppelin II was "the musical starting point for heavy metal".
The band saw their albums as indivisible, complete listening experiences, disliking the re-editing of existing tracks for release as singles. Grant maintained an aggressive pro-album stance, particularly in the UK, where there were few radio and TV outlets for rock music. Without the band's consent, however, some songs were released as singles, particularly in the US. In 1969 an edited version of "Whole Lotta Love", a track from their second album, was released as a single in the US. It reached number four in the Billboard chart in January 1970, selling over one million copies and helping to cement the band's popularity. The group also increasingly shunned television appearances, citing their preference that their fans hear and see them in live concerts.
Following the release of their second album, Led Zeppelin completed several more US tours. They played initially in clubs and ballrooms, and then in larger auditoriums as their popularity grew. Some early Led Zeppelin concerts lasted more than four hours, with expanded and improvised live versions of their repertoire. Many of these shows have been preserved as bootleg recordings. It was during this period of intensive concert touring that the band developed a reputation for off-stage excess.
In 1970 Page and Plant retired to Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, to commence work on their third album, Led Zeppelin III. The result was a more acoustic style that was strongly influenced by folk and Celtic music, and showcased the band's versatility. The album's rich acoustic sound initially received mixed reactions, with critics and fans surprised at the turn from the primarily electric arrangements of the first two albums, further fuelling the band's hostility to the musical press. It reached number one in the UK and US charts, but its stay would be the shortest of their first five albums. The album's opening track, "Immigrant Song", was released as a US single in November 1970 against the band's wishes, reaching the top twenty on the Billboard chart.
The Biggest Band in the World 1971–1975
During the 1970s, Led Zeppelin reached new heights of commercial and critical success that made them one of the most influential groups of the era, eclipsing their earlier achievements. The band's image also changed as the members began to wear elaborate, flamboyant clothing, with Page taking the lead on the flamboyant appearance by wearing a glittering moon-and-stars outfit. Led Zeppelin changed their show by utilising things such as lasers, professional light shows and mirror balls. Led Zeppelin began travelling in a private jet airliner, a Boeing 720 (nicknamed the Starship), rented out entire sections of hotels (including the Continental Hyatt House in Los Angeles, known colloquially as the "Riot House"), and became the subject of frequently repeated stories of debauchery. One involved John Bonham riding a motorcycle through a rented floor of the Riot House, while another involved the destruction of a room in the Tokyo Hilton, leading to the group being banned from that establishment for life. Although Led Zeppelin developed a reputation for trashing their hotel suites and throwing television sets out of the windows, some suggest that these tales have been exaggerated. According to music journalist Chris Welch, "[Led Zeppelin's] travels spawned many stories, but it was a myth that [they] were constantly engaged in acts of wanton destruction and lewd behaviour".
Led Zeppelin released their fourth album on 8 November 1971. In response to the treatment they had received from critics, particularly after Led Zeppelin III, the band decided to release the fourth album with no title, though it is variously referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, IV, or, due to the four symbols appearing on the record label, as Four Symbols, Zoso or Runes. In addition to lacking a title, the original cover featured no band name, as the group wished to be anonymous and to avoid easy pigeonholing by the press. With 37 million copies sold, Led Zeppelin IV is one of the best-selling albums in history, and its massive popularity cemented Led Zeppelin's status as superstars in the 1970s. By 2006, it had sold 23 million copies in the United States alone. The track "Stairway to Heaven", never released as a single, is sometimes quoted as being the most requested and most played album-oriented rock (AOR) FM radio song. The group followed up the album's release with tours of the UK, Australasia, North America, Japan, and the UK again from late 1971 through early 1973.
Led Zeppelin's next album, Houses of the Holy, was released in March 1973. It featured further experimentation by the band, who expanded their use of synthesizers and mellotron orchestration. The predominantly orange album cover, designed by the London-based design group Hipgnosis, depicts images of nude children climbing the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Although the children are not shown from the front, the cover was controversial at the time of the album's release. As with the band's fourth album, neither their name nor the album title was printed on the sleeve.
Houses of the Holy topped charts worldwide, and the band's subsequent concert tour of North America in 1973 broke records for attendance, as they consistently filled large auditoriums and stadiums. At Tampa Stadium in Florida, they played to 56,800 fans, breaking the record set by the Beatles' 1965 Shea Stadium concert and grossing $309,000. Three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City were filmed for a motion picture, but the theatrical release of this project (The Song Remains the Same) was delayed until 1976. Before the final night's performance, $180,000 of the band's money from gate receipts was stolen from a safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel.
In 1974, Led Zeppelin took a break from touring and launched their own record label, Swan Song, named after an unreleased song. The record label's logo, based on a drawing called Evening: Fall of Day (1869) by William Rimmer, features a picture of Apollo. The logo can be found on Led Zeppelin memorabilia, especially T-shirts. In addition to using Swan Song as a vehicle to promote their own albums, the band expanded the label's roster, signing artists such as Bad Company, the Pretty Things and Maggie Bell. The label was successful while Led Zeppelin existed, but folded less than three years after they disbanded.
In 1975, Led Zeppelin's double album Physical Graffiti was their first release on the Swan Song label. It consisted of fifteen songs, of which eight had been recorded at Headley Grange in 1974 and seven had been recorded earlier. A review in Rolling Stone magazine referred to Physical Graffiti as Led Zeppelin's "bid for artistic respectability", adding that the only bands Led Zeppelin had to compete with for the title "The World's Best Rock Band" were the Rolling Stones and the Who. The album was a massive commercial and critical success. Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti, all previous Led Zeppelin albums simultaneously re-entered the top-200 album chart, and the band embarked on another North American tour, now employing sophisticated sound and lighting systems. In May 1975, Led Zeppelin played five sold-out nights at the Earls Court Arena in London, at the time the largest arena in Britain.
Led Zeppelin (1969)
Led Zeppelin II (1969)
Led Zeppelin III (1970)
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Houses of the Holy (1973)
Physical Graffiti (1975)
In Through the Out Door (1979)
Jimmy Page – guitar (1968–80; 1985, 1988, 1995, 2007)
Robert Plant – lead vocals (1968–1980; 1985, 1988, 1995, 2007)
John Paul Jones – bass guitar, keyboards (1968–1980; 1985, 1988, 1995, 2007)
John Bonham – drums (1968–1980)
Tony Thompson – drums (1985)
Phil Collins – drums (1985)
Paul Martinez – bass (1985)
Jason Bonham – drums (1988, 1995, 2007)
Michael Lee – drums (1995)