After his band Yardbirds suddenly disbanded, Jimmy Page was a rock star without a band. He had a mission, though, and it was to conquer America. He watched the Beatles and the Rolling Stones do it in their own way, and Page also knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. But before he could head across the pond with his future band, he needed to create it first.
And so, Page recruited three guys for his New Yardbirds reboot, and, in the process, he made rock history. This is Led Zeppelin’s origin story, the story of Jimmy Page and Peter Grant, the manager that turned the band into a group that, over the years, has inspired as much myth and misinformation than any other.
Let’s begin in 1968…
On September 7, 1968, Led Zeppelin played their first-ever live show in a converted gym in Denmark. But they weren’t yet known as the soon-to-be world-famous band. At that point, they were performing as the New Yardbirds, a relaunch of the British Invasion rock group that Jimmy Page played in which had just imploded months before.
The only known face in this new lineup was guitarist Jimmy Page, and he was funding the whole Scandinavian tour out of his own pocket. Still, it was enough to draw a young crowd to the gym-turned-venue, known as the Teen Club. The Teen Club’s monthly newsletter stated that the band’s “performance and their music were absolutely flawless.”
That debut show featured songs that would eventually appear on the band’s first album, songs like Communication Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, and You Shook Me. But this show paled in comparison with the ones they would later have at the Forum in Los Angeles or at Earls Court in London.
Still, that gig in the Teen Club was a defining moment that can’t be overstated. It was Led Zeppelin’s first step in their rise to the top. And if anyone deserves credit, it’s Jimmy Page for making it all happen. But there’s also another man who is worthy of a nod, and that’s Peter Grant. Grant was the band’s manager and the one who made them rich. Really rich.
By early 1968, Page was at a crossroads in his career. The famed guitar ace was yet again a rock star without a band. He had spent the last two years playing in the Yardbirds, which initially was a dual-lead passion project with his childhood friend Jeff Beck. But when Beck upped and left in the middle of an American tour, Page was put front and center.
After another brief tour through the US, the band suddenly called it a day. Different members of the group said they wanted to pursue other artistic paths. Of course, Page was upset. But he had an idea of what he should do next. And this next move was going to be a big one.
The guitarist decided to move away from being an anonymous rocker in London studios working with some of the biggest stars of the early ‘60s. Instead, he steered towards playing sweaty gigs at American universities and gyms-turned-clubs across the pond. The move was thrilling, but Page was feeling smothered. The Yardbirds’ manager and producer Mickie Most was becoming a burden.
Most was old school – a strict follower of the three-minute pop song. He and Page butted heads more often than not. Page was paying close attention to what the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix were doing at the time. He noticed what they were doing with the album format and wanted to do the same with his band.
There was one recording session that particularly inspired Page. He and Beck were part of a recording session in 1966 that produced the song for Beck’s Bolero. John Paul Jones was on bass, Nicky Hopkins was on piano, Keith Moon on drums, and Page and Beck on guitars. “This session was absolutely magnificent, like a force of nature,” Page recalled in a 2012 interview.
According to Page, Moon was having troubles in The Who, and he was saying to the guys, “We should form a band with this.” They started to toss around ideas about what they could call themselves. That’s when Moon came up with an ironic idea. “We can call it Led Zeppelin,” Moon reportedly said (Page remembers him saying it). “Because it can only go down, like a lead balloon.” The name was strong and it stuck in Page’s head.
Page was talented; he had a strong reputation and a wealth of experience, but he also had a secret weapon. And that weapon was a man named Peter Grant, a 300-pound former pro-wrestler and Mickie Most’s business partner. Grant took over the Yardbirds’ daily management in their final years.
Once the band was no more, Grant recognized that his best chance of success in the dog-eat-dog world of the music industry would be to stick with the young guitarist with the long black hair. Grant stayed devoted to Page for the next 12 years, and when Page started thinking about forming a new band, he knew that Grant had his back.
Page knew that he could rely on Grant to secure the necessary recording contract to help him conquer America, which both men realized was rock’s next great frontier. Okay, so the mission was set: they were going to be the next best British rock band in the US. But first things first – they needed a lead singer.
They looked towards The Small Faces’ Steve Marriott as a strong contender, but his manager axed the idea right away. He even threatened bodily harm to Page if he took it any further. Another option was Terry Reid, the former singer of the Jaywalkers, who was one of Mickie Most’s “disciples.” He, too, declined. But at least he recommended someone else first…
Page and Grant were told about a promising 19-year-old up-and-coming singer named Robert Plant. At the time, Plant was fronting a group named Hobstweedle, so Page and Grant went to check this kid out for themselves. Hobstweedle was playing at a teacher’s training college near Birmingham to an audience of about 12 people, as Page recalled.
He also remembered that Robert was fantastic. After hearing him that night and listening to a demo, Page realized that “without a doubt” that his voice had an “exceptional and very distinctive quality.” He knew Plant’s voice wasn’t going to be an issue. What he needed to be sure of was whether the singer could get on board with the direction he wanted to take the band in.
Page invited Plant to his boathouse on the Thames River, where they spent the afternoon chatting and playing music. At one point, they were listening to Joan Baez’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, and the two eagerly talked about how they would love to rearrange the song and basically blow it out. It was clear by that point that Plant was in and up for the gig.
Page didn’t know, though, that Plant also came with an added bonus. As Plant later recalled, he was so enthusiastic about his time with Page that when he “hitched back from Oxford and chased after John,” he said to him, “Mate, you’ve got to join the Yardbirds.” So, who’s this John?
The John Plant was referring to was drummer John Bonham, his lifelong friend, and on-and-off bandmate. Apparently, Plant had nothing to use to convince his friend, other than “a name that had got lost in American pop history.” Like Plant, Bonham was another “nobody” in the London music scene. But from the minute Page heard him play, he was impressed by his bombastic style.
There was a catch, though (there always is). The problem was that Bonham was currently backing the singer Tim Rose, and he was making a decent wage from it, too. There was also his wife, Pat, who wasn’t too thrilled to see him go off on another “adventure” with Plant. Both things made bringing him into the band a tough sell.
Finally, Grant and Page increased their salary offer and managed to convince Bonham to join. The last piece of the puzzle was finding the right bass player. In a case of good luck, one of the best bassists in the world fell right into Page’s lap. “I answered a classified ad in Melody Maker,” John Paul Jones said in 1975. “My wife made me.”
He was being cheeky about the ad, but the truth is that Jones heard of what Page was doing, and thanks to the elbowing from his wife, he made the call to Page to essentially ask to join his band. Since Page knew and worked with Jones back in the day, the decision to take him up on his offer was a no-brainer.
With Jones in the studio, Page knew that he would have a steady and reliable hand to help him. And as the years passed, he became one of the most dynamic, multi-instrumental utility players and arrangers in rock music history. They came together for the first time in a basement in London on August 12, 1968.
Everyone realized that something special was happening. They were in this small rehearsal room and played Train Kept a-Rollin’ – a number Page used to do with the Yardbirds. “At the end of it, we knew that it was really happening, really electrifying. Exciting is the word,” Page said in 1990. After that initial session, they started working on their first album.
As the band was rehearsing for their upcoming two-week run through Scandinavia, an opportunity came up. Pop singer P.J. Proby, who was working on an album, had already booked John Paul Jones for recording sessions weeks earlier. Instead of canceling, Jones decided to bring his bandmates to help him work on Proby’s record.
Page was the type to lend a hand, and he had already worked with Proby in the studio back in 1964 on the singer’s hit Hold Me. So basically, if you want to hear Led Zeppelin’s first-ever recordings, you won’t be hearing them on their debut album. All you need to do is check out Proby’s album Three Week Hero from 1969.
Within a week, Plant, Page, Bonham, and Jones performed their first gig in Gladsaxe, Denmark. The freshly formed band was already making headlines. “Jimmy Page… did a great job with the three new men,” local music reviewer Bent Larsen wrote. “They really succeeded.” You might enjoy the line he closed his review with: “We can therefore conclude that the New Yardbirds are at least as good as the old ones were.”
Grant said he remembers everything about that first show and recalled it being fantastic. According to him, “there was never a thought of, ‘God, this is going to sell X amount of records.’ I thought it could be the best band ever.” After that first gig, they played another one in Denmark, then Sweden, and finished up in Oslo, Norway.
By the time they returned to London, they didn’t even have time to breathe. Page was eager to get the band into the studio to edit their new record. He wanted to hurry up and show the tapes to different labels. “I wanted artistic control in a vise grip because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the band,” Page explained.
In fact, he financed and “completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic.” According to Page, it wasn’t “your typical story where you get an advance to make an album.” He explained how they went to Atlantic Records with tapes in hand. Having such a clear vision of what he wanted with the band was an advantage as it kept recording costs to a minimum.
Page and the band recorded their entire first album in thirty hours. “That’s the truth. I know, because I paid the bill.” The cost of the sessions came out to around £1,782. Atlantic cut them a check for $200,000 to sign Led Zeppelin. At the time, it was the biggest advance ever given to a rock group in music history.
The rest is history, as you know. While they were in the midst of their first tour of America, Led Zeppelin’s debut album dropped in January 1969. It was an instant success, selling millions of copies and cementing them as the dominant group for the decade to come – the ‘70s. Page’s gamble paid off.
Fans of Led Zeppelin will know that their manager Peter Grant was basically the band’s fifth member. Mark Blake, the author of the book Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond–The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager, reveals the truth about the notorious manager and the myths that surrounded the band.
To paint a picture of Grant, Blake had to “cut through all the mythology.” Some popular myths, like the mud shark story (which is too obscene to mention here), have been the subject of “he said, she said,” and it isn’t clear what was true and what wasn’t. For the record, the mud shark story (for those who want to Google it) did indeed happen.
Blake explained how some of those stories “just aren’t true or are partially true. The reality was usually far worse, though. The truth is as bad as the fiction – or worse.” But aside from the mud shark story, there was their force of nature manager, Peter Grant. The former actor, wrestler, cab driver, and bouncer, Grant – at the time – was a man who regarded all the crazy rock star situations as normal.
In today’s world, such stories would never be considered normal. According to Blake, it’s “impossible to imagine them as a band starting out right now.” He chalks it up to them being in the right place at the right time. (I would add the right talent, too.)
Basically, Led Zeppelin belonged to a certain place and time that was the late ‘60s. Blake equated it to “four ordinary guys” who made extraordinary music and lived extraordinary lives. Grant was the same, at least, according to Blake. So what was it about Grant that put him in such legendary status and why was he so instrumental to Zeppelin’s success?
Grant was different from other rock managers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was aggressive and forward-thinking. His motto regarding Led Zeppelin was to put the band first. It was a rather atypical policy to have in those years as a lot of managers believed that the artists worked for them.
For many UK and US bands, it was the manager who made a lot of money – not the band itself. Grant believed that if you look after the artist, the music will follow and, thus, everyone will be very creative and sell tickets and records and essentially be swimming in money. Grant was very hands-on, traveling with the band and touring with them, which was unusual for a band manager.
Anyone who wanted to get to the band had to go through Grant first. He built a wall around Led Zeppelin, and it seemed to work. The hustler from South London was able to talk his way into the business. He had charm, cheek, and chutzpah. In general, people were scared of him.
The combination worked, and he made himself and the band a lot of money. How did he manage all the rock star egos of the group? According to Blake, the four members of Led Zeppelin were all very different characters. Two of them were way more experienced than the other two. “I think that required some delicate handling over the years,” Blake said.
Plant and Bonham were nowhere near as experienced as Page and Jones, and it took some real negotiating skills on behalf of Grant to mediate between them all. When it came to Plant and Page specifically, who were also very different from each other, it was important to let them be – to give them space to be creative and do what they wanted to do.
At the end of the day, Led Zeppelin was Page’s baby. It started with his idea, his vision, followed by his and Grant’s recruiting of the others. Only later did Plant became a focal point as the lead singer typically does, and he started writing more and more songs. Part of Grant’s role was dealing with negotiating and handling Plant delicately as well.
Blake explained how there was a power struggle between Page and Plant, and Grant took it upon himself to keep both of them happy as well as the other two. Grant was also great at keeping the band away from the media and making sure they got paid. The idea of not appearing on TV or releasing singles was unheard of back then.
Not having them on TV or releasing singles was definitely a daring move. But it might be the reason the band maintained this mystique and were thus able to sell-out concerts and full-length records. You see, there was really no other way to see or hear them. Grant essentially changed the way the music business worked. And if you think about it, the legacy he achieved still continues to this day.
As Blake was researching Grant and Led Zeppelin for his book, he was surprised by the sheer extent of the band’s greed and the backstabbing that occurred by the end of Led Zeppelin’s run. Blake said that there was simply so much money going through the band.
But it all came to an end when Bonham died. During a brief, low-key European tour in the summer of 1980, a show in Germany came to a sudden halt in the middle of the third song. It was on June 27 when Bonham collapsed onstage and was rushed to the hospital. The press suggested it was the result of excessive alcohol and drug use, but, according to the band, Bonham had simply overeaten.
On September 24 that year, Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin’s assistant Rex King to go to rehearsals at Bray Studios. On the way, Bonham asked to stop for breakfast, which consisted of a ham roll and four quadruple vodkas. He kept drinking heavily after arriving at the studio.
After rehearsals that evening, the band moved on to Page’s home. Bonham had fallen asleep, and the rest of the guys placed him on his side on a bed. At 1:45 pm the following day, Benji LeFevre (their new tour manager) and John Paul Jones found him dead. His cause of death was “asphyxiation from vomit,” and it was categorized as “accidental.”
According to the autopsy, no other recreational drugs were in Bonham’s body. After his death, the band announced that they weren’t going to continue. But the pressure from others (not Grant) and the record company was for them to go on. People didn’t want the cash cow to end.
The North American tour that they had planned to embark on was then canceled, and the remaining members of Led Zeppelin decided to disband. A press statement read: “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.”
Plant went on to form the Honeydrippers in 1981, with Page on lead guitar, releasing their only album in 1984. In 1985, Page, Plant, and Jones regrouped for the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. There, they played a short set with drummers Tony Thompson and Phil Collins, and bassist Paul Martinez.
Their Live Aid performance was pretty bad, actually. It was stained by a lack of rehearsals with the drummers, Page’s out-of-tune guitar, Plant’s hoarse voice, and the poorly functioning monitors. Page himself described the performance as “pretty shambolic,” with Plant calling it an “atrocity.” But the guys reunited again three years later.
In 1988, for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert, they played together again, this time with Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums. The result was, again, fragmented, starting off with an argument between Plant and Page immediately before getting on stage. The fight was over whether or not to play Stairway to Heaven. That performance was what Page called “one big disappointment.” Plant described it as “foul.”
Led Zeppelin’s first box set was released in 1990 and boosted the band’s reputation, leading to failed discussions about a reunion. Page and Plant released the album called No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded. They even started a world tour the next year, but it was bittersweet as it began a rift between the band members – Jones was never even told of the reunion.
In 1995, at Led Zeppelin’s induction into the United States Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band’s falling out became apparent when Jones accepted his award: “Thank you, my friends, for finally remembering my phone number.” It caused some rather awkward looks between Page and Plant.
Page and Plant released another album, Walking into Clarksdale, in 1998, but after seeing the disappointing sales, their partnership dissolved before their scheduled Australian tour ever began. The music industry had changed by the time the 2000s came along. Zeppelin made their catalog legally available for download, marking them as one of the last major rock bands to do so.
In December of 2007, Led Zeppelin reunited for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in London, with Jason Bonham taking his father’s place again on drums. That show actually set a record, according to 2009’s Guinness World Records, for the Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert. There were as many as 20 million requests submitted online.
There’s a myth that’s been going around for ages, saying that if you play Stairway to Heaven in reverse, you can hear satanic messages. So what’s the backstory? Well, it was televangelist Paul Crouch who brought this claim into the mainstream in 1982. He said that when played backward, the “bustle in your hedgerow” part of the song says: “Here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”
Okay, so that part does sound similar to Crouch’s interpretation if you play it backward. But it’s just a strange coincidence. Just ask Plant, who said, “Who on Earth would have ever thought of doing that? You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that.”
Speaking of Satan, there’s another myth that Page worshipped the devil. Page had an obsession with Aleister Crowley, a British philosopher, and occultist who tried his hand in black magic in the early 20th century. Page had a huge collection of his memorabilia, which only led to whispers that he worshipped the devil.
The truth is that there’s no evidence that Page was ever a Satanist, although he did believe in Crowley’s philosophy on personal liberation. He had Crowley’s motto “Do what thou wilt” inscribed on the original vinyl releases of Led Zeppelin III. Page did very little to deflect all the rumors, probably thinking they were just good for business.