There are a few different approaches one can take in chronicling Led Zeppelin, the larger-than-life hard rock band that blazed through the 1970s like an out-of-control comet. You can stick to the music, the approach taken by the worshipful upcoming documentary “Becoming Led Zeppelin.” You can go salacious, as in Stephen Davis’ highly unauthorized 1985 book “Hammer of the Gods.” Or you can bite off the whole story, the glory and the mayhem, the train wreck and the true bliss.
That’s how Bob Spitz approaches his sprawling account, “Led Zeppelin: The Biography” (Penguin Press, 688 pp., ★★★½ out of four, out now). Spitz, whose previous subjects include The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Ronald Reagan, knows he needn’t exaggerate the band’s abhorrent behavior, from drummer John Bonham’s blind-drunk sexual assaults to guitarist Jimmy Page’s petulant entitlement. He also knows said behavior doesn’t eliminate Led Zeppelin’s mighty musical triumphs as the most popular rock band of its generation (they routinely outsold The Rolling Stones). The good, the bad and the ugly coexist in the Led Zeppelin story, and Spitz knows well enough to report and tell it all.
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It all starts with the blues, an obsession for English white boys of the ’60s looking to break free from safe pop strains. “For a generation of British teenagers looking to leave their mark,” Spitz writes, “the blues had become a state of mind.” Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and others made these young musicians’ hearts go pitter-patter, including a skinny, outrageously talented guitarist named Jimmy Page.
Before long Page was jamming with The Yardbirds alongside his friend Jeff Beck. To his credit, Spitz doesn’t portray this pairing as some kind of collaborative paradise. One stage wasn’t big enough for those two egos. Besides, Page had something bigger on his mind: a super group, boasting the kind of talent and profile no one else could match.
From the London studio scene he plucked bassist John Paul Jones. In the blue-collar Midlands pub scene he found wailing singer Robert Plant and ferocious drummer John Bonham. There’s a relative innocence to these early, assemble-the-troops times. Zeppelin had yet to become a collection of divas. The mountains of cocaine, rivers of booze and piles of cash hadn’t yet curdled the quartet. Their demands and expectations hadn’t yet become ridiculous. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, hadn’t yet become a coked-up bully. Zeppelin just wanted to be louder, and better, than anyone else. And oftentimes they were.
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Zeppelin obviously wasn’t the only band of its time and milieu to partake in ’70s rock ’n’ roll excess. But they did seem to push hedonism to unusually destructive lengths. The book details two instances of attempted rape by Bonham, who drank himself to an early grave at the age of 32. Page was a connoisseur of underage groupies: “Robert’s girlfriends weren’t as young as Jimmy’s; many hovered around the age of consent,” Spitz writes. Regarding the groupie scene, it was Plant who said, “One minute she’s twelve and the next minute she’s thirteen and over the top.”
“It’s telling of attitudes of the time that cultural commentators didn’t call out such sentiments as offensive,” Spitz writes. “Rock ‘n roll bands – especially Led Zeppelin, perhaps the most egregious in the behavior department – were given a pass.”
Spitz, on the other hand, gives nobody a pass. Hovering above all the parties and all the jams and the richly detailed accounts of creating each album is an abundance of abominable behavior that only grew worse as Zeppelin’s fame exploded. Blame the drugs and the alcohol and the enabling if you wish, but this is one group portrait that doesn’t flatter.