The Siren’s Call: ‘When Giants Walked the Earth’ by Mick Wall
Is there a more mythic band than Led Zeppelin?
At the pinnacle of their success, with Robert Plant’s hair lighted by stadium lights, they looked like they’d just come down off Mt. Olympus.
“Plant,” writes Mick Wall in his new book “When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin,” “was tall, blond and looked good enough to eat, a veritable golden god shaking what he’d got -- the perfect visual foil to [Jimmy] Page’s darker, more slender, slightly effeminate persona.”
“When Giants Walked the Earth” devotes a lot of time to this mythic image of the band, telling us about Page’s studies of magic and how this shaped their music -- maybe even contributed to the band’s decline.
It’s a hoary cliche, but one has to ask, did Led Zeppelin sell its soul for rock ‘n’ roll?
In the end, Wall doesn’t think so.
“Only someone who knew nothing about the occult could indulge in such an obvious fantasy,” he writes. “Page’s interest in occult ritual is so serious and longstanding it would be facile to suggest anything as feeble-minded as a pact with the Devil.”
Instead, the culprits are excess and the arrogance that comes with success -- although Wall does show why cultivating a dark image contributed to legends about the band’s demise and the personal tragedies of its members.
His book is many things -- a fan’s notes, a glimpse into the recording of each album, a rich chronicle that has the advantage of a long view. It takes us from the band’s beginnings, in 1968, out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, to what Page, Plant and bassist John Paul Jones have been up to since drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980.
Wall doesn’t linger too long (thank goodness) on the destructive antics -- especially those of “the beast,” Bonzo Bonham -- that gave many a hotel manager ulcers. Nor does he get mired in too many anecdotes about groupies. (For more on that, see Stephen Davis’ “Hammer of the Gods.”)
Instead, he tells us about the sessions, about Page’s novel use of hanging mikes in the studio -- so that the band “moved the air about the room,” he explained -- and the inspirations for songs (“Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Stairway to Heaven”) that have led to a string of plagiarism suits.
“Over the years, Page and Zeppelin’s appropriation of other artists’ material was to become a longstanding criticism,” Wall writes. But, the author adds, they weren’t the only ones -- “David Bowie ripped off the Stones . . . the Stones ripped off Bo Diddley . . . the Beatles ripped off Fats Domino” and so on.
Then, of course, there’s that matter of the occult.
I can remember as a kid sitting in a classroom listening to a guest speaker describe the symbolism and hidden meanings of bands like KISS and AC/DC or the creepy messages in a Beatles record played backward -- but the gem of the presentation was reserved for “Stairway to Heaven”: Line by line, the speaker unfolded the satanic messages in a song about “a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold.”
Anyone familiar with Page knows that he admires early-20th century Magus Aleister Crowley. This is not a passing fancy or a superficial flirtation: Page, Wall says, found in Crowley’s work a philosophy that embraced self-expression, not the devil. That, however, didn’t stop the band from being seen in that light.
Associating music with the devil didn’t start with Led Zeppelin. As Wall points out, the myth begins with bluesman Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul at a deserted crossroads so he could play guitar.
Page, Wall reminds us, forged his chops and style not at the crossroads but as a much-wanted session man who wanted to do more -- more than the pop hits that the Yardbirds were scoring when he joined them alongside fellow guitarist Jeff Beck.
Yet as Zeppelin’s success skyrocketed in the early 1970s, Page and Plant openly courted an unearthly, occult identity for the band. There seemed to be an obscure system of symbolism and ritual at work that seeped into the albums and performances, creating for Page “an energy . . . that the audience picked up on and sent back to us. Really powerful stuff. . . .”
They courted magical associations, then they paid for them -- at least, that’s one conclusion readers can draw as Wall follows their rapid climb to success, peaking with 1975’s double album “Physical Graffiti.” The band’s decline soon followed.
Wall gives many reasons: flagging sales for subsequent albums, the rise of punk and changing public tastes, heroin addiction, the tragic loss of Plant’s 5-year-old son and Bonham’s death.
Wall also notes that the decline coincided with the infamous “curse of King Midas” that Crowley disciple Kenneth Anger (in a long feud with Page) put on the group.
“It’s always been assumed that the curse Kenneth Anger placed on Jimmy Page didn’t work,” Wall writes. “Yet it’s interesting to note, in retrospect, how from that point on it was practically all downhill.”
In recent years, though, resurgent interest has led to the success of albums such as 2007’s “Mothership,” 24 tracks covering the band’s career, as well as the one-off benefit concert that reunited Page, Plant and John Paul Jones (with Jason Bonham on drums) at London’s O2 arena. Page and Plant have joined for new projects and performances (with mixed results) while Jones has become a successful, in-demand producer.
If a curse is supposed to lead to a dismal end, then Anger’s seems to have lifted, especially for Plant. The unexpected success he found recording 2007’s “Raising Sand” with country singer Alison Krauss has sent him down new creative channels and left him uninterested in the Led Zeppelin reformation Page has wanted.
And yet, when Page tells Wall, near the end of this entertaining, thoughtful biography, that “I thought we had at least one good album left in us,” it makes you think.
What would that “one good album” sound like?
Now, with all these years behind them, with studio technology at their command and chastened by various hardships, what would this album sound like?
You can’t help but wonder.