There have been a number of books about Led Zeppelin, some more accurate than others. The most notorious, Hammer of the Gods, had a bad habit of conflating Robert Plant’s stoner hippie mysticism with Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult. Mick Walls. on the other hand, simply tells the band’s history as he heard it from the band, with the hindsight of the past 40 years. The result is When Giants Walked the Earth, an unauthorized but not unflattering biography of Led Zeppelin.
Walls traces the band from its beginnings in the Yardbirds. As the seminal British blues band disintegrated, Page and his predecessor Jeff Beck experimented with various musicians to come up with a logical successor. Indeed, if you listen to Beck’s first album, Truth, with Rod Stewart, future Rolling Stone Ron Wood, and Journey founder Ansley Dunbar, you get a somewhat unfinished glimpse of what would become Led Zeppelin. Page and John Paul Jones even appear on “Beck’s Bolero.”
But the story of Zeppelin isn’t just about two session men, Page and Jones, recruiting two prodigies from the midlands, Plant and John Bonham, into the logical successor to the Beatles as the kings of rock and roll. It is also about Peter Grant, the gentle giant trained by the gangsteresque Don Arden (Black Sabbath’s manager and Sharon Osborne’s father.) Grant learned the hard side of the music business at Arden’s feet and cut his teeth as business partner to Mickey Most, manager and producer of the Yardbirds. Grant saw that Led Zeppelin could be huge if Page and Jones could have creative control. So he negotiated hard with Atlantic Records to let Zeppelin function autonomously. We make the music; you sell the records. This eventually would result in Swan Song, more than a vanity label as it also produced Bad Company.
Walls tracks the beginnings of Zeppelin as the proto-typical heavy metal band, through their risk taking trio of albums, Led Zeppelin III,the untitled fourth album, and Houses of the Holy, through the excess of the the mid-1970s, and into their decline after 1976, which began when Robert Plant and his family were in a serious car accident. Page’s affinity for the occult, really a fan obsession with Aleister Crowley influences just about everything the band puts out but is not the final word. Also touched on is the band’s eventually contentious relationship with noted occultist Kenneth Anger, who takes credit for Zeppelin’s downfall. (For the record, Page blames his own heroin addiction and Bonham’s drinking, a theory supported by Plant, Jones, and Grant.)
Walls, a frequent interviewer of the surviving members of Zeppelin, writes less an unauthorized tell-all than an unofficial memoir in the band’s own words. Jones is shown to have a much bigger role in the band’s sound than other biographers (I’m looking at you, Richard Cole) credit him. Plant goes from a naive young singer terrified he’ll become an accountant to the band’s posthumous leader. Zeppelin is pretty much Plant’s band after the death of John Bonham. Subsequent reunions have largely been along his demands, including rarely performing “Stairway to Heaven.”
And while a more recent evangelical assessment of “Stairway’s” Satanic meaning is given a rather generous treatment by framing it in Crowleyesque terms, most accusations, particularly the massively idiotic myth of backwards messages, are treated with the scorn and derision they so richly deserve.
Where Walls grated me the wrong way was his apologism for Zeppelin’s weakest album, Presence, at the expense of In Through the Out Door, which was a preview of Robert Plant’s early solo work. But overall, Walls has written an even-handed history of the founding fathers of heavy metal.