Led Zeppelin book excerpt: 'When Giants Walked the Earth'

This excerpt, “Chapter Eleven: We Are Your Overlords,” appears from "When Giants Walked the Earth" by Mick Wall.
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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

When Giants Walked the Earth

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?”

Learning from the Stones — who had quickly shoehorned the new ‘glam’ look of recent arrivals on the scene like Marc Bolan and David Bowie into the way the dressed onstage — the new Zeppelin show would be the first to feature a full-on professional lightshow, including lasers, mirror balls and dry ice, as well as a whole new set of stage costumes specially designed for each member — the most flamboyant being Page’s now famous glittering moon-and-stars outfit, the buttonless, wide-lapelled jacket flapping open, his flared trousers boasting three symbols down the side of the leg, the top symbol, like an ornate ‘7’ representing Capricorn, his sun sign, a bastardized ‘M’ representing Scorpio, his ascendant sign, and below that what looked like a ‘69’ representing his moon sign. Even the normally spotlight-avoiding John Paul Jones had his own specially designed suit, a commedia dell’arte-type jester’s jacket with little red hearts hanging from the frockcoat sleeves, while Robert became bare-chested, the lion in spring, his ‘third leg’ showing prominently through his ultra-tight jeans, his shoulders squeezed into a powder-blue puffed-sleeve blouse; even Bonzo was now done up in a black T-shirt with a big shiny star sequinned upon it, the hair now very long indeed, hemmed in by a darkly sparkling headband.

They now travelled by private jet, hired at a cost of $30,000 and christened the Starship — a Boeing 720B 40-seater owned by former singer Bobby Sherman, one of the creators of The Monkees. When they picked it up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, it was parked next to Playboy boss Hugh Hefner’s plane, the words ‘Led Zeppelin’ emblazoned down one side. Fitted with lounge-seats and dinner tables, a fully stocked bar and a TV lounge, there was also an electric Thomas organ, which Jonesy would sometimes entertain the ‘guests’ with, and, in a rear-cabin, a double-bed covered in shaggy white fur which became one of the most popular compartments on the plane — though few ever slept in it.

Back ‘home’ in L.A. at the end of May, they had sold all 36,000 tickets for their two shows at the Forum within hours of the box office opening. The Saturday, May 30, show had to be rescheduled for the following Wednesday after Page injured a finger on his left hand messing around climbing a wire fence at San Diego airport, while the Sunday night show, which went ahead as planned, was delayed by half an hour due to ‘traffic congestion’. In truth, neither show went as well as their two L.A. shows the previous summer, Jimmy clearly still struggling to play at the first show — visibly wincing with pain and dipping the injured digit into a glass of iced-water between numbers to keep the swelling down — the band surprisingly ragged during parts of the second. Behind the scenes, however, everything appeared to be hurtling along at full throttle.

The first show happened to coincide with Bonham’s 25th birthday. His present from the band: a new, top-of-the range Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “He just tore up the hotel corridors and made an incredible mess, apparently,” says his old pal Bev Bevan, who had left The Move and now joined ELO. “But he paid the bill the next day then told ’em — ‘Oh, and keep the bike.’ Unbelievable, but that was John.” The Forum audience had also given him a birthday cheer during his 20-minute rendition of ‘Moby Dick’. “Twenty-one today,” Plant had announced from the stage, and “a bastard all his life.” Afterwards there was a huge party thrown for him at the Laurel Canyon home of a local radio station owner. Guests included George and Patti Harrison, Roy Harper, BP Fallon, Phil Carson, and the usual gaggle of dealers, groupies and hangers-on. Writer Charles Shaar Murray, who was also there, recalled “Gallons of champagne, snowdrifts of cocaine, bayous full of unfeasibly large shrimp, legendary porn-flick Deep Throat looping on a videotape player at a time when VCRs were hugely expensive luxury items available only to the stupendously wealthy.” George Harrison crowned Bonham with his own birthday cake. Bonzo chased the former Beatle and threw him and his wife into the pool fully clothed, followed by anybody he could lay his hands on. Jimmy, meekly complaining he couldn’t swim, was allowed to walk into the pool in his new white suit with the ‘ZoSo’ symbol on the back. Harrison later claimed it was the most fun he’d had since the Beatles.

The L.A. music scene had moved on from the Laurel Canyon vibe the band had become so entranced by three years before. Just as in London and New York, the hip new sound of 1973 belonged to Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper and Roxy Music — glam rock. The complete opposite of the bewhiskered, down-at-heel ambience of the nouveau pastoralists, suddenly artists like Rod Stewart and Elton John were shaving their stubble and donning pink satin pants, stack-heeled boots and spraying their hair with glitter. The new cool hang-out was Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Hollywood Boulevard. Soon the walls of Rodney’s office at the club were decorated in pictures of him not just with Bowie et al but Phil Spector, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and, eventually, Led Zeppelin, attracted to the club not for the music but because of the teenage girls that packed the place seven nights a week. Although the glam scene had a large gay following, you’d never have known it sitting at Rodney’s table. “Rodney f**ked movie-star bitches you would not believe,” recalled Kim Fowley. “He got so much c**t that in his early 30s he had a stroke.” For which, claimed Fowley, “Led Zeppelin paid the hospital bill — a hundred thousand dollars.”

When Zeppelin hit L.A. now, they practically owned it. No longer content with booking the entire ninth floor at the Hyatt, they now took over the 11th floor, too, just a few steps from the rooftop swimming pool. They had permanently reserved tables at all the best-known Hollywood rock dives, not just Rodney’s but at their other favorite new hang-out, the Rainbow Bar & Grill, where they had their own special half-moon tables roped off at the back. With a fleet of limos waiting curbside, they also attracted star-name hangers-on such as Iggy Pop, sitting cross-legged in the corner of Jimmy’s suite, rolling joints as endless platoons of gorgeous, often very young, girls wandered in and out, happy to trade “favors” in return for access to the Zeppelin magic kingdom.

Rejected by the Laurel Canyon sophisticates — much to Plant’s chagrin — who were offended by Zeppelin’s sleazy reputation, the band simply took over Rodney’s or the Rainbow and treated them as they did the Hyatt: to use and abuse at will. For many chroniclers of the L.A. music scene, this was the beginning of its bleakest period. Nick Kent, another visitor to Rodney’s, claims he’d “never seen anyone behave worse [there] in my life than John Bonham and Richard Cole. I saw them beat a guy senseless for no reason and then drop money on his face.” Even Miss P — still on the scene but now reconciled to a life without Jimmy, except for those occasions when he suddenly remembered her number — would later tell writer Barney Hoskyns: “As much as I really loved Zeppelin, they kind of f**ked things up in L.A.. The magic really went out of rock ’n’ roll.”

None of which fazed Jimmy Page at all, who was entranced by the city’s dark side, boasting to Kent about “one of his Hollywood girlfriends [that] bit into a sandwich that had razorblades in it.” Even Robert began to exult in “the recklessness that for me became the whole joy of Zeppelin … 10 minutes in the music scene was the equal of a hundred years outside it.”

It was now that Page began the most notorious of his on-the-road relationships, lavishing attention on a 14-year-old habitué of Rodney’s named Lori Maddox. Tall, dark, skinny, with huge baby-seal eyes, Lori and her friend Sable Starr were two of the best known ‘dancers’ at the club. Having been turned on by pictures BP Fallon had taken of the young model the previous year, Jimmy once again ditched Miss P and turned his full attention to Lori. She later recalled being “kidnapped” by Richard Cole one night, who took her in a limo to the Hyatt, where she was brought to Page’s top-floor, candlelit suite. “I saw Jimmy, just sitting there in a corner, wearing this hat slouched over his eyes and holding a cane,” she said. “It was really mysterious and weird ... He looked just like a gangster. It was magnificent.”

But then, as BP Fallon says now: “The whole world was different then. Better or worse? You choose. The end of the ’60s, much of the ’70s, it was freer then, less uptight, less censorious. For a while, it seemed everything and anything was possible. For many young white people, anyway. And if you were a British band on the road in America — any band in America — it was, quite simply, sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Didn’t mean you were forced to partake but it was there on a plate — or a mirror — if you wanted it. There must be a couple of hundred old geezers dotted around Britain — and more in the States — who for a few years had the time of their lives beyond their wildest, craziest, maddest dreams, travelling and playing rock ’n’ roll and having fun, fun, fun in what was still then the Promised Land. You’d be locked up if you did that stuff now. Underage sex? Forget it, baby. And now at the Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, there are screens over the balconies, so you couldn’t even throw a peanut out the window. Ah, back then through the dented mists of time, rock ’n’ roll was a truly powerful potion! There were fresh, enthusiastic girls everywhere going completely mad for it, and there wasn’t the horror of AIDS. And no one much thought about the longer-term ramifications of doing hard-core drugs. You can see these anonymous old codgers in a pub now somewhere, looking aged by more than time, buying another round and saying ‘Did I ever tell you about these girls in Detroit who called themselves The Nymph Five? It was 1971 and …’ Yeah, yeah, drink up …

He goes on in typically feverish fashion as he recalls what it was like being part of the Zeppelin inner-sanctum. “Well, Zeppelin were the kings of the castle — the biggest, and, if you could believe your eyes and ears, the baddest — and they took it to a whole other level. You can imagine The Rat Pack at their height in Vegas — Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and their mad mob — all chasing women and going wild and being completely untouchable. Zeppelin were like that, with the volume turned up. There were placid moments but … c’mon! Wonderful. And the music? The music was beyond amazing, and the music’s still here to hear, will be forever, thank God, this Led f**king Zeppelin. You have to dig it. And them. Thank you, gentlemen.”

It wasn’t just L.A. that the band enjoyed themselves. Out on the road, groupies and drug dealers were now everywhere. They all now regarded cocaine as “rocket fuel,” though, wary of attracting too much attention, had begun to employ a full-time “coke lady” — a mysterious Englishwoman whose sole purpose was to administer cocaine with her index finger to members of the band then dab their noses with a pinch of cherry snuff and a drop of 1966 Dom Perignon. None of which was considered addictive, but rather sophisticated, even elegant.

Was that part of the buzz, I asked Jimmy in 2005. That different rules applied? “Sure, yeah, it was part of the reality of it. That’s the point, it’s part of the reality of it, and that was exhilarating, yeah. But it was very apparent that we were right on the cutting edge of everything that was happening.” Did it make it hard, though, for life away from the stage to match that kind of excitement and intensity? “No, I was still celebrating!” He grinned, “No, because things were in a balance. There was the intensity and energy and creativity that’s going on, that was the slot for that. The rest of the time was preparation or recovery. You know, most of it was so cocooned. We used to leave the stage, jump into the cars and get whisked off to the aeroplane, which would fly us to the next gig. Our feet never really touched the ground.” He paused. “There was always a lot of theatre. There always is on rock ’n’ roll tours, though I think we might have pioneered a lot of it. In fact, I know we did …”

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