The Led Zeppelin Guide to Creative World Domination

Robert Plant

Image by Dina Regine

There has never been a bigger, badder or better rock band than Led Zeppelin. And there never will be.

Now we’ve got that straight, let’s take a look at how they did it – and what you can learn from their example.

1. Think Big, Act Big

It’s easy to think of Led Zeppelin as Titans bestriding the globe, but have a close look at some of the film footage from the 70s and you’ll see they weren’t the biggest guys in the world. Their heyday was long before gyms became popular in the UK, and if you stood Robert Plant side by side with some of today’s musclebound stars, you might say he could do with beefing up a little. But that didn’t stop him from being a God on stage.

In a radio interview, Plant made a revealing comment about his transformation from talented singer to rock legend. In 1969 Zeppelin supported the band Vanilla Fudge. Watching the Fudge perform, Plant says he realised that compared to them he had “a great big ‘excuse me’ written across my face”. To become a top performer, he had to get rid of that ‘excuse me’ and strut his stuff with confidence.

Early in his career, Jimmy Page had to take a break from touring because he found it physically too draining. It took a lot of persistence to build himself up to handle the rigours of life on the road:

As dedicated as I was to playing the guitar, I knew doing it that way was doing me in forever. Every two months I had glandular fever. So for the next 18 months I was living on ten dollars a week and getting my strength up. But I was still playing.

(Cameron Crowe, ‘The Durable Led Zeppelin’, Rolling Stone 13 March 1975)

Led Zeppelin didn’t arrive on the scene as fully-formed rock giants. It took guts as well as talent to achieve what they did. And their attitude was key. Listen to any of their albums and you’ll hear a larger-than-life sound that came from attempting something on a vast scale.

Takeaway: Wipe that great big ‘excuse me’ off your face. Now get out there and show them what you’ve got.

2. Be the Best – in Every Department

Many top bands have one or two superstars who are the main source of creative energy. Morrissey famously described Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, bassist and drummer with The Smiths, as “mere session musicians, replaceable as parts of a lawnmower”. Not all stars are so ungracious about their colleagues, but rumour has it that even among The Beatles, talent was not distributed entirely evenly.

Led Zeppelin were different. The four members of the band were like the four corner pillars of an ancient temple, bearing the creative load equally. With his voice, flowing locks and ‘Viking overlord’ stance, Robert Plant was the ultimate front man. The phrase ‘guitar genius’ might have been coined to describe Jimmy Page. Drummers are often heard and not seen, but John Bonham was a larger-than-life character whose drumming was as distinctive part of the Led Zeppelin sound as Plant’s voice or Page’s guitar. John Paul Jones was less flamboyant than the other members, but his contribution was just as vital, on bass, keyboards and mandolin, as well as his imaginative approach to songwriting and arrangements.

Takeaway: Don’t have a weak link in your team. Have the best in the world filling every role. And yes, that includes you.

3. No Quarter

Led Zeppelin took an uncompromising attitude to every aspect of their work – including the business side of things. Their manager Peter Grant was almost as big a legend as the band members. In 1968 he secured the biggest signing fee that had ever been paid for a new band – $200,000 from Atlantic records. The terms of the contract also gave the band control over the contents, design and release schedule of all their albums, as well as their touring schedule. Grant is reputed to have ensured that the band received a staggering 90% of the takings from their concert tickets.

Grant also enforced the band’s strict ‘no singles’ policy, in the face of enormous pressure to cash in on the band’s popularity by releasing singles. In the event, a handful of singles were released against the band’s wishes, but Zeppelin’s reputation as an ‘albums band’ was firmly established, helping to boost their respect among serious rock fans, who looked down their noses at the pop charts.

Now, we’re not suggesting you set out to ‘screw the other guy’ in your business deals. Clearly that’s not a good idea. But bear in mind that Zeppelin were operating in an environment where recording artists were routinely exploited by the powers that be in the music industry, so their ability to stand up and fight their corner was one of the things that made them remarkable. According to Dave Lewis and Simon Pallet, Peter Grant “single-handedly pioneered the shift of power from the agents and promoters to the artists and management themselves”. (Led Zeppelin: Concert File)

Takeaway: Don’t sell yourself short by under-charging, or by accepting a second-rate deal because you don’t want to appear ‘difficult’.

4. Be the Definitive Article

I find it laughable that some people dismiss/stereotype Led Zeppelin as ‘heavy metal’. Yes, tracks like ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’ help to kickstart the genre, but the copycat metal bands who followed in their wake completely missed the subtlety and complexity of Zeppelin’s work. Even their heaviest albums routinely featured acoustic tracks, and drew on a wide range of musical genres and influences.

Led Zeppelin were in a category of their own. That’s why they still have no competition.

Takeaway: Don’t follow the crowd. Lead them. Trust your instincts – you may find you’re more original than you realise.

5. Build On the Past

I’ve got a bit more time for the music enthusiasts who tell me that Led Zeppelin piggybacked to fame on the shoulders of blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, and that if I want to experience authentic blues, I should listen to the originals. But to me, this misses a fundamental point about creativity – all artists borrow from previous creators. We’ve previously featured T.S. Eliot and David Bowie on Lateral Action – two classic examples of ‘magpie creators’, who made their borrowings very obvious (and attracted similar allegations of plagiarism).

According to blues expert Robert Palmer, “It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own”. (‘Led Zeppelin: The Music’ – liner notes.) Whether or not Zeppelin took too many liberties with their source material was debated in court on more than one occasion, but it shouldn’t obscure the basic point that very few artists create something new out of thin air.

Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to borrow from your heroes. But make sure you put your own stamp on the material. And be generous in acknowledging your influences.

6. Be Perverse

No, I’m not talking about some of the kinkier anecdotes from the book Hammer of the Gods. Lateral Action isn’t that kind of publication. 😉 I’m talking about Led Zeppelin III. After the success of Led Zeppelin I and II, the band were expected to deliver a third album bursting with powerhouse rock. They weren’t expected to retire to a remote cottage in Wales and record an acoustic-flavoured album featuring a song about two little boys who weren’t allowed to play together any more, on Mom’s orders. But that’s exactly what they did – to decidedly mixed reviews.

As usual, the critics were missing the point. Both of the first albums had featured haunting acoustic(ish) numbers, and Led Zep III opened with ‘Immigrant Song’, a track heavy enough for even the most bloodthirsty of headbanging Vikings. The third album was more of a shift of emphasis than a complete change of direction. And it was one of their best, whatever anyone tells you.

Takeaway: Be yourself, not just the part of yourself certain people want you to be.

7. Fail Spectacularly

Zeppelin’s over-the-top approach made them an easy target for critics and comics, such as the makers of Spinal Tap. It’s fairly obvious I’m a fan, but that doesn’t mean I sit through all the drum solos. Or that I can keep a straight face at the fantasy sequence in the film The Song Remains the Same, climaxing with a dwarf on a mountain peak wielding a multicoloured lightsaber. Even Robert Plant has said that, given his time again, he’d probably reconsider writing lyrics about “Gollum the evil one”. 🙂

But consider the alternative: a band who played it safe in order to avoid criticism, who reined in their enthusiasm and imagination for fear of looking silly. There are plenty of bands like that, but you and I have never heard of most of them.

Takeaway: Whatever you do, somebody, somewhere will have a go at you. Personally, I’d rather be criticised for being over-ambitious than over-cautious. How about you?

8. Know When to Draw the Line

In December 1980, following the death of John Bonham, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin released a press statement:

We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.

There would be solo careers, collaborations and the occasional reunion. But by drawing a line under the original Led Zeppelin, they preserved the integrity of the band. We didn’t get bored of them. Some of us never will.

Takeaway: Don’t stick with something when your heart tells you it’s over. Ramble on, to pastures new.

To create your own personal brand of world domination, join us on the Lateral Action Entrepreneur Course.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action.

How to stay creative while gaining money, fame, and reputation

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. A very timely post for me. This hit on some key points as I begin to create some new partnerships.

    I think I will use some of this in my daily coaching series as well.

    Thanks

    Darrell

  2. Takeaways from every item: have courage. Have integrity.

    Making a commitment to a creative practice always requires courage. It will always be easier to cave in for quick cash, to follow the herd, to hold your nose and do something you’d rather not to avoid taking a risk. But then you stop growing as an artist.

    This is a great post, Mark. I don’t think I could manage the big hair, but the rest of the advice is excellent.

  3. Excellent excellent excellent Mark! SO good. Man you and Brian are good at takeaways from seemingly completely off-track sources but ones so popular they’re overlooked.

    I’m starting to do a bunch of this finally with my art, with Zeppelin in fact!

    http://vinylart.info/paintings/zepp_u.htm

    Peace,
    @vinylart

  4. Yup… the greatest band ever.

  5. @ Darrell – My pleasure, may your coaching sessions rock!

    @ Stacey – “have courage. Have integrity”. That’s it! How come it took me so many words? As for the big hair… once upon a time. 😉

    @ Daniel – Not surprised it (ahem) touched a chord for you!

    @ Robert – You have impeccable taste, sir.

  6. Love Led Zeppelin and love the post.

    Certainly get the feeling that the band had a clear idea of what they enjoyed, what they wanted to achieve and had picked the right team to get them there.

    It’s comforting however to take note that they weren’t cracked out of the mould this way, but were determined to grow and develop their behaviour to make them more likely to achieve their goals.

    I think sometimes we limit ourselves by basing our goals on who we are today, rather than considering how much potential we have to grow and develop into our own version of rock gods.

  7. …and now I’m sitting at my desk just singing”ramble on” repeatedly…

    so thank you for that 🙂

  8. Heh, my pleasure!

  9. David Emmerson says:

    Interesting choice with Led Zeppelin – a band that I believe was totally driven by the manager and who as you acknowledge set the way for other bands to actually earn an income.

    Peter Grant’s philosophy on life was “take no prisoners” and it’s worth reading about his own growing up in the music business and the importance of mentors (his own being one of the toughest guys around). Just avoid the hanging people by their ankles outside the window until they sign on the dotted line.

    The music industry has presented some good (and bad) business models over the years and like it or hate it, X Factor is possibly the ultimate right now, able to identify ways to create money every way it turns.

    As to whether there is much musical creativity, I guess it’s a matter of personal taste! However, it is very creative in the way it generates multiple income streams, extracting money from the public, through advertising, record labels eager to see their acts appear on the show, branding, and so the list goes on.

    As for Led Zeppelin, will forever remain Rock Gods and I will forever remember the O2 gig.

  10. David – I shudder to imagine how tough Peter Grant’s mentor must have been!

    V envious of the O2 gig! I tried to get tickets, but to no avail. I did see Page and Plant twice, which was awesome (in every sense).

  11. I can’t really think of any rock band that has had as much influence as Zep. I don’t really count The Beatles as rock.

    Sadly, Bonham passed away a couple of months before they were going to play close enough for me to go see them in concert.

    Working on that 4 pillars concept right now with a tight circle of friends.

  12. excellent work, my work [and unpaid activist work] involves a lot of change agent stuff, and this kind of approach [using an existing cultural reference] is invaluable in creating a connection with people who might not want to engage with dry, theoretical material

  13. @ Dave I kind of agree that the Beatles weren’t rock. Although they surely were pioneers to popular music of pretty much any kind.

    Unfortunately I was never able to see the guys – I was born shortly before they called it a day. So I’m pretty much suck watching the DVD’s – which always come out after a few drinks.

    The last lesson is well worth learning, not only to know when to call it a day, but also don’t become an imitation of yourself. I think it was Plant that said that should Zeppelin ever reform they would simply be a cover band of themselves.

  14. “Good times, bad times, you know I’ve had my share
    When my woman left home for a brown-eyed man
    but I still don’t seem to care.”

    Still love it! Thanks for the great post, Mark.

  15. Zep is one of the examples I use (along with Pink Floyd, Queen, Joy Division and others) with my teenage daughters.

    I encourage them to “hear the complexity” and look for that in the bands they are listening to today… now THAT’s a tough assignment. (Oh man, did my Dad just say that?)

    Creative brilliance and technical capability (brilliance not required) generate powerful, valuable works.

    We should all work that way.

  16. I think all of these points (except maybe #8) fit U2, as well.

  17. Well done and spot on. I would add one more lesson: be willing to push yourself and everyone around you to get better. Jimmy Page is justly famous for his guitar playing, but he also produced every Led Zeppelin album and in doing so took the band to the next level through gritty, hard work. As a producer, he applied uncompromising standards to create sounds that no one else could come close to matching. It’s also interesting to note that few bands have successfully produced themselves like Led Zeppelin did. Thank you for the post.

  18. Sorry I missed this! Been gone for Thanksgiving but you really hit this head on! Although I’m younger and not from the rock n’ roll generation, I get what you’re saying. Led Zeppelin was damn good and there’s reasons for that.

    Great guide, just tweeted 🙂

  19. Thank you for this insightful post, Mark. I love this band and their incredible music.

    Led Zeppelin exemplifies it isn’t just one thing that creates success (of the musical or any other variety). Rather it’s preparation meeting opportunity and a willingness to define and stay your own course that gets you there.

    The courage to take a stand (even if it means to stand alone), to believe (even when your beliefs fly in the face of the norm or any form of reason), to refuse to compromise (even when to do so would be expedient, more efficient and less expensive), to simply keep moving forward in the direction that is right for you (even when you can’t see the road ahead) — these are the things the average person won’t do and the committed entrepreneur must do.

    I experienced Led Zeppelin as musicians (being of that generation). You’ve helped me see them as some of my early teachers. Thanks for opening my ears to that.

    Linda M. Lopeke

  20. Good insight. A few thoughts…

    Zep was larger than life. Stories abound of motorcycle rides through hotel lobbies, TVs being tossed out of windows, and decadence and mayhem at 35,000 feet aboard The Starship.

    Think about how much they contributed in twelve short years, or what they created in their first three (Zep 1-4). Oh man, how they harnessed that wave of youthful, raw energy, riding the momentum until it came crashing down on itself.

    I love the fact that they knew when to call it quits and move on. The magic forumla could never be replicated without Bonzo.

    I expose my kids to all kinds of music… current pop, opera and classical, heavy metal, vintage and modern rock. But my six-year old son’s favorite song is Rock-n-Roll.

    40 years and 200 million albums later, they still leave you wanting more…

    -joe

  21. This post rocked, Mark! You really know your Zeppelin and made it relevant with terrific lessons.

    Your insights and encouragement are exactly what I needed to shore up confidence in my freelance copywriting pursuits, which is what brought me to you in the first place.

    Incredibly, though, another side creative endeavour of mine is to help my brother promote the book he wrote about Zeppelin. So your post was an especial delight.

    It’s also GREAT to know that so many people here are lovers of Led, too!

    As their song says, “THANK YOU”!

  22. Mark thank you for this post!

    Brilliant choice of showing us what means to be passionate, innovative and stick to you’re soul desire.

    Most of mine best atwork come out among listening rock music… whole lotta love.

    Have fun, Martina

  23. Yet another example of the really weird coincidences (or NOT!) that happen in my life. I watched a program on Led Zepplin just last week on the Bio channel. So I know exactly what you are talking about. (Although I was familiar with their music and who they were from when I was a kid).

    Just the week before, I was reading about how U2’s lyrics were influenced by people like Jimi Hendrix. That same week Jimi’s bio was on tv and, having been a huge fan of U2 since day 1, I can now look back and see his influence on their music.

    Like Mary I find U2 and Bono to be very creatively inspirational, more so than LZ.

    And yes, the music of today is so NON-creative and lacking in originality. What happened? Do we need drugs as a muse? Hopefully not, but there certainly seems to be a connection.

  24. @Lynn well… today’s music (I’m talking mainstream here) is mostly written by those that were big in the 70’s (think ABBA and BeeGee’s). While not entirely my cup of tea, I’ll argue that they lack creativity.

    Mostly as a friend of mine used to say, “If the artist puts something in, I’ll get something out.” Strangely enough I feel that bands that were breaking ground such as Metalllica have now sold out to “The Man” so badly so that others such as Britney get a higher ranking on my scale (a least she’s honest about it).

    Times change, again another reason to either call it quits or to re-invent yourself. Guess that’s where Michael Jackson was really great.

    As for drugs being a muse, they always were, heck why do you think so many artists are constantly in rehab, or writing about that struggle?

    One of my all time faves, Ozzy, need I really say more?

  25. Thanks for the great comments guys, great to see everyone’s passion for their favourites coming through.

    I’ll have to respectfully disagree about U2 though. 😉

  26. One thing I’ve found, and I’ve had someone confirm this recently, is this: if you want to sound like someone/something, don’t try to sound like them. Try to sound like whomever THEY were trying to imitate. (adaptation decay is the reason for this) It’s like paraphrasing a quote when the quote itself was paraphrasing. After a few carbon copies, it starts to lose the luster. Just watch Multiplicity.
    Anyway, I read this shortly after it was first posted up here (thanks to Achilles Last Stand), and it is very good! Thanks for the tips!

  27. “Adaptation decay” – I like that! Could be another article…

  28. I got the term form TV Tropes. (be warned, that site can be a massive time drain. One thing leads to another, and so on… as shown in http://xkcd.com/609/ )

  29. I really enjoyed this post, we as fans love the music of Led Zeppelin and many of the greats but many don’t realize how profound their lives and experiences can be to our own to keep us going and draw from. It wasn’t until recently I started reading beyond the music and into the legends behind the beauty of what our ears take in, it’s like re-discovering my favorites again, opening my eyes even wider.

    It’s the after fact of the writers who carry on the meanings behind these legends including those involved in their entourage that will live on from generation to generation giving that added taste of perfection with the genius behind the legend musicians, like an excellent tasting wine and the perfect cheese to compliment. The ‘takeaway’ after each tidbit of history is very inspiring since it applies to our everyday lives in everything we do. Great read! Cheers!