When Giants Walked the Earth / a biography of Led Zeppelin
Reviewed: July 5, 2009
By: Mick Wall
Publisher: Orion Books
486 pages, $37.95
One thing I have to say in favour of this book. In order to make sense of what
Mick Wall has to say about the music, I had to dig out and listen to all my
Led Zeppelin tapes for the first time in some years. This reacquainted me with
the fact that the band was so much more than the 6 or 8 standards that get played
over and over on classic rock stations.
At the time he was writing the book, Wall estimated that "Stairway to Heaven"
had been played on American radio stations something like five million times.
Other iconic numbers like "Dazed and Confused", "The Immigrant
Song" and "Whole Lotta Lovin'" have also had massive exposure,
but there are many other great tunes I'd totally forgotten until I played those
Oh - I said "tapes" didn't I? That I have no vinyl for this group
tells you that I wasn't an early fan. That I have no CDs tells you that I'm
not obsessed. I have the original box set on four cassettes, Led Zeppelin IV,
the BBC Sessions and The Song Remains the Same. It's not a definitive collection
by any means, but it gives me an overview of their output, and several different
takes on some of the key songs.
I sat with some headphones and a walkman during about half the time I was reading
the book which, on and off, took about two weeks. Might have gone faster, but
I wanted to mix in the music, which I think was a good choice.
I finished reading it about two weeks before Michael Jackson died, which left
me in an interesting frame of mind when that news broke.
There is, of course, a pattern to books of this type. I think Gibbon might have
produced the template when he wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
only the biographies of celebrities have to have a prequel section dealing with
Wall's book provides a detailed analysis of where each member of the group came
from, how each one learned the skills that went together to make up the band,
what apprenticeships they served, how they met, what they wanted to do, how
they succeeded, and how success destroyed them.
They all got their chops the hard way: garage bands, bar bands, fill in jobs,
gigs as session men for established bands. Who knew, for instance, that when
Herman's Hermits were big with their skiffle/music hall style of rock, that
two members of what would become Led Zeppelin played on their studio sessions?
By 1968 it appears that Jimmy Page was one of the best known and least famous
guitarists in London, a master of many styles. John Paul Jones was already arranging
songs for other groups. John Bonham had been in and out of half a dozen bands,
often getting canned because he simply played too loud. Robert Plant had made
a record or two, but had never found a group he could really cut lose with,
nor had he overcome his stage insecurity.
Page became better known when he replaced his old chum Jeff Beck as the lead
guitarist in the Yardbirds just at the time when that group was imploding. Page
wanted to assemble a new band from the ashes of the old. Originally called the
New Yardbirds, the band's eventual name came from the Who's John Entwhistle
and Keith Moon, who had joked about their chances of success.
Wall's choice of narrative styles is interesting. The main text, in chronological
order, is in third person, past tense, standard narrative style. Major sections
of the book are in the second person (you) and in italics, as if the writer
is talking to the subject and bouncing ideas off him to see how they work. These
sections are, Wall notes, a bit more speculative than the rest of the book,
but they help bring the story to life.
Most casual fans of the band will not be aware of the role their manager, Peter
Grant, played in their success. Their sheer talent made them good but Grant's
managerial skills made them wealthy. Like Brian Epstein with the Beatles, he
was an essential ingredient. He gets as much space as each of the four band
There's a lot of interesting material in here, and there's also a lot of disturbing
material. It appears that Page was interested in the occult in ways that the
members of Black Sabbath only ever pretended to be. It appears that most bands
in the late sixties through the eighties could not handle fame, and turned to
excesses of drug use, sex and extreme living as ways to deal with the shock
and the hype of their violently altered life styles. Actually, it’s not
much different today for many; just ask Britney Spears.
John Bonham was living in a trailer in the yard at the back of his mother's
shop when he joined the band. Robert Plant was still living at home with his
parents. Page at Jones were relatively well off from their session work and
other gigs, but not millionaires by any means.
None of them every really recovered from the experience. Bonham died, of course,
and that killed the band. Page has been trying to resurrect it ever since. Jones
has gone back to his original name and seems to be doing all right. Plant has
left his rock god image behind and was most recently to be seen making a CD
of blues/bluegrass tunes with Allison Krauss.
The book is a good one. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but it sets
the music within its time and place and, all of Page's wishes aside, that's
probably where it belongs. Rock and Roll is a younger man's game after all and
Plant, the baby of the group, is now 61.