Robert Plant sings on “Ramble On” that “mine’s a tale that can’t be told,” but over the years many authors have attempted to tell the story of Led Zeppelin, with varying levels of success.
The latest author to write a Led Zeppelin biography is Bob Spitz, a veteran American journalist best known for writing comprehensive and positively reviewed biographies of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Ronald Reagan.
In the grandly titled “Led Zeppelin: The Biography,” due to be released on November 9, Spitz charts a comprehensive course through Led Zeppelin’s career, relying on more than 50 interviews with associates of the band to build up a well-told story of their success.
But fans hoping for major revelations about Led Zeppelin, whether in the studio or on stage, are likely to be disappointed.
Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones declined to speak with Spitz, meaning he relies on previous interviews, existing books, and associates with differing levels of reliability and axes to grind to tell the story of Led Zeppelin.
A warts and all biography
If Page had his way, Led Zeppelin’s story would be told solely through the band’s music – whether studio albums or live recordings. This, he seems to feel, should be enough to satisfy curious fans.
In recent years, he appears to have relaxed this position, publishing an official photographic history of the band for its fiftieth anniversary in 2018 and co-operating with an authorised documentary film set to be released next year.
Previous proposals for a Led Zeppelin film “were pretty miserable,” Page said in September, “to the point where they would want to be concentrating on anything but the music.”
Reading “Led Zeppelin: The Biography,” one gets the distinct impression that Page is likely to also brand it “miserable” and consign it to the heap of existing unofficial biographies.
Spitz spends a significant proportion of the book discussing Led Zeppelin’s off-stage antics, examining their increasing drug consumption, the violence that surrounded them, and allegations of relations with underage groupies.
The book’s chapter titles give an early indication of the scope of Spitz’s interest: “Just Boys Having Fun,” “Flying Too Close to the Sun,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” and “Their Own Private Sodom and Gomorrah” are particularly telling examples.
Fans hoping for a book that examines Led Zeppelin’s on-stage musical development will be better served by reading Dave Lewis and Mike Tremaglio’s recently updated “Evenings With Led Zeppelin” book instead.
Fascinating details from people who knew Led Zeppelin
Spitz’s book is a comprehensive, warts and all look at Led Zeppelin that runs to 688 pages. It’s a readable volume that doesn’t get bogged down or sidetracked for too long in individual performances or recording sessions.
The book’s prologue describes the band’s legendary January 26, 1969 Boston Tea Party show, explaining its significance and the impact it had on a young Steven Tyler in the audience.
From there, Spitz goes on to discuss the history of blues music in England, examining its influence on generations of young musicians. The first 100 pages of the book chart Page’s life from his childhood through to becoming a budding musician and session professional.
It’s here where the book shines thanks to Spitz’s interviews with Dave Williams, a childhood friend of Page who provides fascinating anecdotes about Page’s first forays into the musical world.
“Jimmy and I both fancied Anna,” Williams recalls in the book. “So we drew straws to see who would take her home. The other guy was responsible for getting the pianist into a taxi.”
“Jimmy lost,” Spitz explains, “fifty-five years later, Williams is still married to Anna.”
Anna herself recalls travelling with a teenage Page to see Jerry Lee Lewis perform at Fairfield Hall in Croydon, presumably on May 9, 1963.
“We had seats in the front row of the balcony,” she says in the book. “Jim got so excited when Jerry Lee came on. He was standing up on his seat cheering and leaning dangerously over the balcony rail. I hung onto the back of his shirt so that he didn’t fall over into the stalls.”
When relying on these new interviews, Spitz’s book is at its best, with the author digging into well-known stories and asking witnesses what really went on.
Take the Drake Hotel robbery on July 29, 1973, for example, when Led Zeppelin was robbed of more than $200,000 in cash stored in the New York hotel’s safety deposit boxes. Spitz clearly intends to put the matter to bed for good.
“No less than five sources close to the band told this author that Grant had admitted spiriting the Drake money away,” Spitz writes.
Strange tales from the road
Spitz may not have had access to the three surviving Led Zeppelin band members, but his new interviews with associates including former Atlantic Records executive Phil Carson, Peter Grant’s former assistant Carole Brown, album cover designer Aubrey Powell and Plant’s PA Benji Le Fevre form a compelling narrative filled with recollections from people who were along for the ride as well.
Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg’s recollection of a drink and drugs session with Bonham, featuring cameos from Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol, is a particularly entertaining highlight.
Credit should also be given to Spitz’s scholarly approach to explaining his sources. Every quotation is cited, allowing readers to trace the source of stories to new interviews or previous material.
Spitz was unfortunately unable to uncover any previously unreleased interviews that could have given readers fresh insights from the members of Led Zeppelin or its manager, Peter Grant.
The book mentions a 1988 Malcolm McLaren interview with Grant which took place for an unreleased documentary, raising hopes that Spitz has uncovered previously unreported comments.
However, all of the quotes Spitz uses from the interview were previously published in Mark Blake’s excellent 2018 Grant biography “Bring It On Home,” itself a source for several other quotes used in Spitz’s book.
A Me Too-era reassessment of Led Zeppelin’s off-stage behaviour
Spitz’s reassessment of groupie culture is likely to prove the book’s most divisive and headline-grabbing theme.
Spitz clearly describes alleged acts, specifically accusing John Bonham of “attempted rape” of a flight attendant on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1975.
The book views Led Zeppelin through a post-Me Too lens. What has been dismissed for decades as typical indulgences befitting of the era is brought firmly into the light of 2021.
“On early tours with Led Zeppelin, there were many sexual encounters with underage girls,” Spitz alleges. “No one gave a thought to whether these girls were well below the age of consent. Some were eighteen, some were sixteen, some were fourteen—mostly no one bothered to ask,” he alleges elsewhere.
Representatives for Led Zeppelin and the band’s record label Rhino declined to comment to LedZepNews when approached about the book’s allegations of sexual misconduct.
Spitz leans heavily on critics’ opinions
The reader occasionally gets the impression that Spitz doesn’t particularly like Led Zeppelin’s music. He does explain the tracks on their studio albums, however, taking the time to give fresh and insightful analyses of what the band laid down on tape.
“There were few sounds more memorable than John Paul’s walking bass that lumbered along ominously like Lenny in Of Mice and Men,” Spitz writes about “Dazed And Confused.”
Concerning “Communication Breakdown,” Spitz writes that “the musicians sounded as if they weren’t in control of their instruments—a supernatural force had taken over and wired them directly into an atom smasher.”
But Spitz seems to treat Led Zeppelin’s live performances as a by-product, often hitting fast forward in his narrative so that he can spend more time discussing what went on backstage instead.
Instead of giving his own impression of shows based on recordings, or speaking to fans who attended these performances, Spitz frequently relies on what critics wrote at the time. As anyone who has researched Led Zeppelin knows, critical reception to the band’s shows varies wildly.
The book’s notes reference just four bootleg recordings that Spitz relied upon. His preference is to quote newspaper articles to reproduce their impressions of each show.
“Led Zeppelin played their hearts out, but the reviews didn’t reflect the crowds’ reactions. They got trashed by critics,” Spitz writes of the band’s 1972 US tour. This would have been an ideal opportunity for him to discard critics’ opinions, but they form the backbone of how he analyses the band’s live shows throughout the book.
“‘The audience was . . . bored,’ said the columnist for the Long Beach Independent,” Spitz writes to describe the band’s March 11, 1975 Long Beach show. The formula is repeated throughout the book, with Spitz quoting from four negative reviews of 1975 shows in quick succession at one point.
The only two fans quoted in the book to give their impression of a Led Zeppelin show are found in the book’s introduction. Spitz quotes from two different accounts of the show that were published on Led Zeppelin’s official website, although he manages to repeatedly misspell the name of one of the claimed attendees in his notes section.
We still don’t have an error-free Led Zeppelin book
It’s disappointing that Spitz included a number of errors in the book. A definitive biography of the band still seems to be unachievable.
For clarity, LedZepNews was provided with a digital copy of the book by Penguin Random House, not a final printed copy in which the errors may have been corrected.
Spitz claims in the book that “We’re Gonna Groove” on Coda was recorded in London in June 1969, seemingly sourcing the information from the album’s original liner notes.
Anyone familiar with live Led Zeppelin recordings knows the album track is actually from a recording of the band’s January 9, 1970 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, information that appears on recent releases of Coda.
Spitz twice refers to the London district of West Hampstead, although manages both times to misspell it as “West Hempstead.” He also writes that the band rehearsed in Manticore Studios in London in November 1977 in preparation for their 1977 US tour – clearly he intended to write November 1976.
Chris Charlesworth writes in his review of the printed edition of the book that there are errors in the 16 pages of photographs included, a section of the book which LedZepNews was not able to review.
Anyone disappointed by the errors may seek solace in the fact that Beatles fans experienced similar issues with Spitz’s 2005 biography of that band. “You need an enema,” Spitz allegedly emailed to a Beatles magazine editor who pointed out errors in that book, before instructing her to “do something useful with your life.”
“Led Zeppelin: The Biography” is very much an American book written for an American audience, which may dissuade some English fans from reading it.
“It was like having a relief pitcher come in from the bullpen with the league’s best hitter up at the plate,” Spitz writes at one point to describe Page’s session work, a baseball reference that’s likely to be lost on many English readers.
Similarly, Holloway Prison is described as “a women’s correctional facility,” living rooms are called “front parlors”, and glandular fever is labelled an “obsolete term”.
Spitz is fond of piling on the metaphors and similes to hammer home points to the reader. They often make the book more readable, but can grate on occasion.
“It was like painting with sound,” he writes at one point to describe Page in the studio, “the canvas was still vast and open to possibilities; Jimmy had only scratched the surface.”
An enjoyable account of Led Zeppelin’s career that will please fans
Should Led Zeppelin fans read Spitz’s book? It very much depends on their appetite for new media about the band. Hardline fans unwilling to pay for anything that doesn’t include meaningful new information about the band’s music or career are unlikely to come away from the book feeling satisfied.
But Led Zeppelin fans keen to spend hours reliving the band’s career in a well-written book filled with colourful anecdotes will enjoy “Led Zeppelin: The Biography.” Spitz has spent years on this project and his dedication shows.
Fans hoping for a fan-produced, glowing account of Led Zeppelin’s ascendancy to rock stardom will find themselves reaching for other books. Instead, Spitz frankly reassesses Led Zeppelin’s life and paints their career as dramatic and ultimately tragic.