When Bob Spitz began work on his major new biography of Led Zeppelin several years ago, he could only name two of their songs.
Despite owning a vinyl record collection that stretched to more than 20,000 rock albums, Spitz didn’t own a single Led Zeppelin record. So when Spitz’s editor called to ask him to begin work on a book about Led Zeppelin, he started learning about the band and its music from scratch.
Spitz’s book, “Led Zeppelin: The Biography,” was published earlier this month by Penguin Random House. In our review of the book, we praised veteran journalist Spitz’s comprehensive set of interviews with associates of the band, but warned that the book lacked new interviews with surviving band members as well as any major new insights into Led Zeppelin’s career.
LedZepNews spoke to Spitz via a video call in October prior to the publication of “Led Zeppelin: The Biography” to get the inside story of Spitz’s work, including how he tracked down associates of the band and why he tackled some difficult subjects in his biography.
We began by asking Spitz, who is known for similarly comprehensive biographies of The Beatles and Ronald Reagan, how the idea for his Led Zeppelin biography came about.
“I got a call from an editor who said to me ‘I need to sign you up to write a book now that I’ve always wanted to publish and it’s the band that has sold more albums than anybody but The Beatles,’” Spitz recalls.
“And I couldn’t name them. I knew it wasn’t The Stones or The Who. Elvis? No way. And then I thought ‘Oh god, he wants me to write about ABBA.’ I thought ‘I can’t do that.’ I had no idea that it was Led Zeppelin.”
Spitz previously worked with Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, but was almost totally unaware of Led Zeppelin’s music.
“I have 20,000 rock vinyl albums in my collection and I’ll admit it to you, there’s not a single Led Zeppelin album in it. If you had asked me at the beginning of this what I knew of their music, I could have named ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love,’” he says.
“I was on the road with Bruce Springsteen during this time and so Led Zeppelin was not in our orbit,” he says. “I came to this like an empty vessel and I thought ‘I’m just going to allow the entire process to fill me up. I’m going to learn about Led Zeppelin as if I’ve never heard them before.’”
Spitz wasn’t happy with existing books about Led Zeppelin
Spitz started by researching what had been written about Led Zeppelin before – and came away from his reading unimpressed.
“With Led Zeppelin there were about 150 [books]. I buy them all. I buy every one of them,” he says.
“The oeuvre of Led Zeppelin [books] really upsets me. It’s a bunch of fanboys, tabloid journalists who never list a source or guys who were journalists at some of the big music papers who were practically on their payroll,” Spitz continues.
“Not only did I decide to do away with a lot of what they did, but they don’t source any of it. You read a book, like the big Jimmy Page biography that was done. Where did he get that shit? Did he make it up? Did he pull it out of a magazine?”
The way Led Zeppelin has been covered in the media is a key theme of Spitz’s biography, which frequently relies on the accounts of critics who attended shows.
According to Spitz, “for 40 years they’ve dealt with a press that either prints everything they say verbatim or writes just fantastic baloney. There’s one very famous book, and I’m not going to mention his name, where he imagines what happens in these guys’ childhood. I mean, really?”
Spitz spent years tracking down Led Zeppelin associates
Another early stage for Spitz in his research for the book was contacting the representatives of the three surviving band members to ask if they would agree to be interviewed. Interestingly, both Robert Plant and John Paul Jones showed early interest in participating, Spitz claims.
“It looked like Robert and Jonesy were going to participate until Me Too hit,” Spitz claims. “The minute Me Too hit, nobody would talk to me. None of the artists would talk to me. They were told by their representatives don’t talk to us.”
Another promising potential interviewee who didn’t make it into the book was Richard Cole, Led Zeppelin’s road manager.
“By the time Richard finally said yes, the book was in galley,” Spitz says. “And he had to hear from 20 people that I was a good guy before he would talk to me.”
According to Spitz, “a couple of roadies who are still on the payroll didn’t want to talk.”
Another Led Zeppelin associate who proved to be impossible to track down was Dave Northover who worked as Jones’ assistant. “I never found Dave Northover,” Spitz says, “he’s in New Zealand. Couldn’t find him to save my life.” [ed: Northover appears to have moved back to England from New Zealand in 2011]
Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler was also interviewed for Spitz’s book, where he recalls hitchhiking to Led Zeppelin’s legendary January 26, 1969 Boston Tea Party show, which is used as the introduction for the book.
Spitz says he opened the book with that show in order to present a definitive moment for Led Zeppelin at the start of the biography.
“When I wrote about The Beatles,” he says, “I found a date that I thought defined The Beatles as when they became The Beatles. And that was a big concert at Litherland Town Hall. And I thought I wanted to find an opening that kind of shows you all the drama, the Sturm und Drang of the music. But at the same time says something about who this band was.”
“It was a band that had just been The New Yardbirds and they really didn’t know each other … they learned not only who they were but how they affected an audience. And so I wanted that to be the springboard.”
“I had found Henry Smith who was the roadie for Zep at that point. But [was] also Steven Tyler’s best friend. And so he could tell me the whole way that that evolved. I just thought that was a great way to introduce the band to the readership.”
Actually getting to Tyler to hear his recollections proved to be the most difficult interview in the book, however. “I said I needed 10 minutes,” Spitz recalls, “they said you can do it all in 10 minutes? I said 10 minutes. Maybe 40 interviews were arranged. He cancelled every one of them. It took a long time to get him.”
Conversely, one of the easiest interviewees to reach was record producer Shel Talmy who recalls in the book recording sessions that took place in the 1960s.
“I was living in Los Angeles during the pandemic and there was a guy who is kind of blind taking out his garbage every day across the street. It turned out to be Shel Talmy,” Spitz says.
Jimmy Page’s childhood friend was a particularly valuable interviewee
Arguably the book’s most insightful and valuable interviewee is Dave Williams, a childhood friend of Jimmy Page who was also his next door neighbour and introduced a young Page to musical artists that had a formative effect on him.
“The key to the whole process for me was understanding Jimmy Page [who was] really close, good friends with Dave Williams, who was his next door neighbour,” Spitz says.
“Dave Williams is the man who bought all the rock albums, bought the Chuck Berry albums, bought the Ricky Nelson albums, took them to Jimmy’s every day. They studied them together. Dave was there when Jeff Beck first showed up at Jimmy’s door and was there for Jimmy’s first professional gig.”
According to Spitz, he stumbled upon Williams almost by accident. “Somebody mentioned there was a guy who wrote an article about the blues. And I figured I’d call him just because I wanted to get a good sense of what was going on with electric blues in the UK in the early sixties,” he says. “And it turned out to be Dave Williams. He said ‘You know I was Jimmy’s next door neighbour?’ I went ‘No, I didn’t actually.’”
Spitz’s book explores the 1970s groupie scene
The other significant part of Spitz’s book which stands out to readers is its descriptions of alleged sexual misconduct, including allegations of relations with underage groupies.
“Rock and roll has gotten a huge pass in the Me Too thing. And I think it’s time that we show it for what it really was,” Spitz says. “Yes, these girls threw themselves at them, but what does a 14-year-old know about throwing herself at a 30-year-old man? It could be like a woman who has an affair with her father. God, it gives me the creeps. I’m the father of a daughter, so I looked at it in that respect.”
“My wife is a feminist and she said ‘Don’t you dare call those girls women. They are girls,’” Spitz says.
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.
“And then, to be fair, I went and talked to Lori Mattix, who was great,” Spitz says. “We had a long talk. I talked to ‘Sweet’ Connie and the Butter Queen and a lot of the women in the book to get their impression.”
“And basically what I found was a group of women who still saw nothing wrong in the relationship with these guys. Fair enough, if a 60-year-old woman tells you ‘I did this when I was 14,’ then, OK, they had their say.”
Spitz’s book goes into detail describing drinking and drug use during Led Zeppelin tours, but Spitz says he avoided providing readers with every single anecdote he heard.
“I played down a lot of the hijinks,” he says. “I got stories that would curl the hair on the back of your neck. But I learned when I wrote the Beatles biography that you can give the reader a taste of what was going on without dredging up every lurid ‘Hammer of the Gods’-type of thing.”
One interesting new nugget of information contained in Spitz’s book is an allegation that Page passed out before Led Zeppelin’s April 30, 1977 performance at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“We know that Jimmy overdosed before the Silverdome,” Spitz claims. “I don’t think anybody had ever put that in a book before and Janine [Safer, Swan Song’s publicist] told me how she and Richard [Cole] just dragged him across the floor until they slapped him awake.”
How does a Led Zeppelin novice begin learning the band’s music?
Aside from new interviews with people who knew Led Zeppelin, Spitz’s book delves into the band’s studio recordings, although its accuracy in descriptions of live performances sadly varies.
“I definitely listened to Led Zeppelin for two years and nothing else,” Spitz says. “First I distilled them as a listener, as somebody who was hearing a lot of this stuff for the first time. But then I took it apart as a musician. And so I went to Carmine Appice and I said to him, ‘Let’s sit down and listen to all Led Zeppelin together and tell me what Bonzo’s doing. Explain it to me. Why is he so great?’”
“If you want to know why Bonzo’s so great, aside from hearing it, then go to one of the great drummers of all time and let him tell you why he’s so great,” Spitz says. “That’s what I did in almost every case. I talked to other musicians. And so for two years, yes, I listened to so many bootlegs. Benji Le Fevre had a lot of tapes that were right off the board that I heard, like nobody else heard.”
The Drake Hotel robbery – case closed?
“Led Zeppelin: The Biography” claims to come close to closing the case on the Drake Hotel robbery, where Led Zeppelin was robbed of more than $200,000 in cash stored in the New York hotel’s safety deposit boxes on July 29, 1973.
“No less than five sources close to the band told this author that Grant had admitted spiriting the Drake money away,” Spitz writes in the book in a carefully worded section. It’s no surprise that Penguin Random House’s associate general counsel is specifically thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.
“I think we can pretty well assume that we know how it happened,” Spitz tells LedZepNews when asked about his book’s conclusion about the robbery. “I even put the dates of when they told me in the book.”
Led Zeppelin will be ‘stunned’ by the book
Spitz’s book is well-constructed but risks upsetting surviving Led Zeppelin band members such as Jimmy Page who have been dismissive of previous attempts to include off-stage antics in histories of the band’s career.
“I think they’re going to be stunned,” Spitz says of the likely reaction from Page, Plant and Jones when they read his book, in part because of the glowing coverage the band has had in previous titles.
“As Paul McCartney told me when he read my Beatles biography, he called me afterwards and he said ‘I was in tears when I read a lot of this.’ He said ‘We live in a bubble. And so we only know what we see. But everything that was going on around us, you brought to my attention.’ It fascinated him.”
“In fact, in that book, I had found an aunt of Paul’s who he had never met but who went with his mother the last day his mother left the house, got on a bus and went to the hospital where she died. And when he read that his mother went back in the house and laid his and his brother’s clothes out for school the next day, he said he burst into tears.“
“So I’m hoping that these guys will look at this book and say ‘Wow, there’s the story. He hit it right on the head.’”
Spitz is prepared for the reactions of Led Zeppelin fans
Perhaps a more pressing question is whether Spitz is prepared for a potential fan backlash to a book that looks at Led Zeppelin with a critical eye.
When asked by LedZepNews whether he’s ready for a potential fan backlash, Spitz replies confidently: “I am.”
“When the Beatles book came out, the real Beatles hardcore fans, they were not happy,” he says. “And it wasn’t because the book wasn’t good, it was because they had heard the stories so many times and they were bullshit stories and then I changed them. I went out there and spoke to the real people. And they weren’t buying it.”
“I’m going to get the same thing with Led Zeppelin fans. However, I think Led Zeppelin fans are going to say ‘He put us on the road with them, he put us in rooms with them, he put us in the rehearsals with them while they made their albums and he was fair to them. And he explained the music in a way that we’ve never heard it before.’ And then I’m fair game. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”