Led Zeppelin book excerpt: ‘When Giants Walked the Earth’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This excerpt, “Chapter Eleven: We Are Your Overlords,” appears from “When Giants Walked the Earth” by Mick Wall. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. Now available in paperback, the book is available at macmillan.com

By Mick Wall

If the first four years in the life of Led Zeppelin had been about empire-building, the next four — from 1972 to ’75 — would find them overseeing their kingdom with all the splendid pomp and inherent arrogance of Pharaohs. Self-made millionaires so famous they now hid behind armed guards, employed their own drug-dealers and flew by private jet.

The 16-date U.S. tour that summer had again been phenomenally successful, including two blistering performances in L.A. at the Forum on June 25 and Long Beach Arena two nights later. Ticket-wise, Zeppelin was now outselling the Stones — touring their “Exile on Main Street” album that year — by a ratio of 2:1. In terms of publicity, though, Zeppelin still came a poor second to Jagger and Co., with their impossibly glamorous entourage that included Princess Lee Radziwell (sister of Jackie Onassis) and writer Truman Capote. As Jimmy moaned to the NME, “Who wants to know that Led Zeppelin broke an attendance record at such-and-such a place when Mick Jagger’s hanging around with Truman Capote?”

Now the biggest-selling band in the world, Peter Grant was boasting to anyone within earshot how the band would rake in “over 30 million dollars alone this year.” The fact that the band might, if all went well, make even a tenth of that sum was unheard of in those days when promoters still ruled the roost, taking the lion’s share of the gross with artists lucky to walk away with a small percentage. Grant was one of the first managers to stand up to such ‘standard’ practices. Having already faced-down the record industry by demanding — and getting — the most lucrative signing-on deal in history, G now took on the promoters, demanding an unprecedented 90 percent of gross receipts for every Led Zeppelin show.

“You have to understand the kind of man Peter Grant was,” said Plant, “He smashed through so many of the remnants of the old regime of business in America [when] nobody got a cent apart from the promoter. Then we came along and Grant would say to promoters, ‘OK, you want these guys but we’re not taking what you say, we’ll tell you what we want and when you’re ready to discuss it you can call us.’ And of course, they would call us and do things on our terms, on Grant’s terms, because otherwise they’d be stuck with Iron Butterfly.” As Plant told me, Grant not only rewrote the rules, “Peter Grant had written a new book. And we were right in the middle of it all. We were the kind of standard bearers, if you like, from which that kind of patent has been used so many times now, it’s become the general way that people operate.”

It was now in 1973 that the feeling of invincibility that Grant had helped foster really began to take hold of the band. No ’70s guitar god represented the extreme Byronic sensibility in person quite like Jimmy Page. He may have begun cultivating this dark mystique as a way of concealing his, in reality, more introspective, quietly spoken, earnestly-watching-from-a-distance nature, but by 1973 things had started to change. It was still just possible, for those that knew him, to tell the difference, but as the next few years skittered and jolted by, the mask would become harder and harder for him to peel off. While both Bonham and Plant invested in new farmhouse estates in the country — a hundred-acre pile in Worcestershire, for the former, which he employed his father and brother to help him develop into “a home fit for a king,” replete with livestock; a working sheep farm in the Llyfnant Valley on the southern fringe of Snowdonia for the latter, where he took Welsh lessons and pursued his fascination with Celtic mythology at the National Library of Wales in nearby Aberystwyth, naming his first son, born that year, Karac, after the legendary Welsh general Caractacus — Page flitted between his own newly acquired 18th-century manor in Sussex — another riverside abode named Plumpton Place, replete with moat and terraces off into lakes — and flying visits to Boleskine House, intent on furthering his “studies” into Crowley and the occult. It was as though, having conquered this world, Page and Zeppelin now looked for dominion of the next.

Their ninth American tour opened on May 4 with a huge outdoor show at the Atlanta Braves football stadium where a crowd of 49,236 paid a total of $246,180 to see them, beating the previous record of just over 33,000 set by the Beatles in 1965. The following night in Tampa, Florida, an even bigger crowd of 56,800 paid $309,000 to watch them perform — then the most lucrative single performance in show business history, again beating the Beatles’ previous high of 55,000 (and a gross of $301,000) at Shea Stadium eight years before. As the limousine pulled up at the backstage gates, Plant turned to Grant and said, “F**king hell, G! Where did all these people come from?” As Jimmy told me, “That was one of the most surprising times. We didn’t even have a support act, and we thought, hey, what’s going on? I mean, I knew that we were pretty big, but I hadn’t imagined it to be on that sort of scale. In fact, even now I still find it difficult to take it all in, just how much it all meant, you know?”

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