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