Mick Wall | When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin (Orion)

Wall provides unprecedented access and does a decent job of not sensationalizing the subject matter, letting the principals tell much of the story in their own words.

 

 

 

 

The biography of Led Zeppelin by veteran British music journalist Mick Wall, When Giants Walked the Earth, might sound like it’s hyperbolically titled. But think about it; was there a rock band in the 1970s that was bigger—in both the positive and negative ways that the term can be applied—than Zeppelin? Their sound was huge and imposing (it gave birth to what would be later called “heavy metal”), their on- and off-stage excesses outsized and legendary. Sure, Ozzy was riding the crazy train with the head of a bat in his mouth, and Deep Purple and Zappa’s Mothers were burning recording studios to the ground, but in terms of sheer mass, Zep was it. They were—and are—giants, by any measure.

Stepping onto the crowded field of books and biographies about Zeppelin (there are in the neighborhood of twenty such volumes currently available on Amazon), Giants offers something unique in Wall’s relationship with the band members. He was literally there with them in Zeppelin’s heyday, and he maintains contact with the living members (Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones) to this day. With those close connections to the band, Wall provides unprecedented access and does a decent job of not sensationalizing the subject matter, letting the principals tell much of the story in their own words. This approach works well in that it gives a real sense of life to the story, much of which has been distorted and mythologized to the point of tired tawdriness. But this closeness also manifests itself in odd, detrimental ways: with "flashback" sections, for example, which intersperse insights (curiously written in first person present-tense and italicized) into the earliest days of the lives of each of the key players, including band manager/godfather Peter Grant. At first, these passages are quite effective, but as the book progresses and Wall hits the "stride" years of the band these interludes become distracting, if still informative.

Thankfully, access doesn’t turn Wall into a sycophant—or not much of one, at least. He details the variety of each member’s pre-Zeppelin career and recounts the ragtag collection of near misses that led to the group’s formation. He gives fair hearing to the idea that most of the first two Led Zeppelin albums were essentially ripped off from both blues legends and contemporaries. Ultimately, though, he mostly discounts these claims through a combination of rationalization ("everyone was doing it," which is mostly true) and the argument that the end result was so much greater than the sum of those stolen parts (probably also true, at least to fans) that it shouldn’t matter where the parts came from and everyone should just let it go.

Wall also approaches the section of the book detailing Page’s obsession with legendary occultist Alistair Crowley (probably the most mythologized part of the legend around Zeppelin) with clear, objective eyes. He offers a comprehensive overview of the life, times, and influence of Crowley and does so impartially, giving attention to both the wildly ridiculous aspects of the man and the parts of his life that seem at odds with that reputation (that he was a world-renowned mountain climber in his early life, holding many global climbing records in the earliest years of the 20th century, to cite one example). And he acknowledges Page’s weird, otherworldly tendencies and how this obsession with Crowley fit into that, but roundly discounts the idea that the band was somehow cursed for Page’s occultist leanings and pseudo-historical quirks.

Unsurprisingly, where Giants comes most alive is in the absolutely thrilling section on the recording of Zeppelin’s symbolically-titled fourth album (often referred to as IV or Runes), the most influential of the band’s output. With such a wealth of access to the principals, even the fairly well documented stories (such as the relentlessly perfectionist marathon guitar over-dubbing by Page) are infused with new life. And there are previously unknown stories such as how the recording of the song that came to be called "Four Sticks" was going badly until Bonham came in one night after seeing Ginger Baker play, downed a can of Double Diamond beer, picked up four drumsticks, and laid down the famous drum part in only two takes. He seemed to want to show Baker up. Page (quoted by Wall) said, "I can’t even remember what it was called, what the working title was. But it was sure as hell ‘Four Sticks’ after that." The direct insights of the band members and Wall’s breathless prose put the reader there with those four very different musicians who seemed to be well aware that they were carefully crafting a lasting masterpiece that was initially so fragile it could come apart at any moment.

Despite the rebuttal that the band wasn’t cursed through any means involving a modern-day warlock or the devil himself, Wall doesn’t shy away from detailing the troubled aspects of the band’s career and personal lives. He covers the evolving tensions between various members of the band (at the height of Zeppelin’s success and power, Plant threatened to quit unless John Bonham’s towering temper, fueled by his wholehearted embrace of his addictive excesses, could be brought under control); Plant’s debilitating car accident in 1974, followed by the death of his young son just three years later; Peter Grant’s thuggish management style that resulted in several violent incidents at Zep concerts; Page’s heroin-riddled, wasted physical presence toward the end of the ‘70s; and ultimately the pathetic, heartbreaking death of John Bonham in 1980 that also killed the band.

When Giants Walked The Earth has the additional unique advantage of being by far the most recent Zeppelin biography, which allows Wall the ability to cover the fits and starts of the band’s many potential reunions throughout the years and into the recent past. The brief one-offs from the ‘80s and the Page/Plant collaboration of the mid-‘90s are both well known and documented, but Giants sheds new light on the almost-was in the early ‘00s that culminated in a handful of reunion shows and then fizzled and died, primarily due to the timing of Plant’s unexpected emergence as an elder statesman of American roots music through his smash collaboration with Allison Kraus. The book ends with that success in full swing for Plant, with Jones hard and happily at work on his various projects, and with Page languishing at home, waiting for the phone call from Plant that will probably never come. Wall’s book provides a solid document—the best written to date—of the band of giants that was, which will seemingly never be again. | John Shepherd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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