How do you tell a tree’s age? Well, you slice through the trunk and count the number of circles. Fortunately, it is much easier to tell a baby boomer’s age. You don’t have to slice through his well-tailored middle. All you need to do is to perform two simple tests. One: You tell him that Led Zeppelin, the greedy buggers, have reformed for a one-off comeback concert which, of course, will be followed by a full tour in due course. If he looks moderately interested, then he is in his thirties. If he acts as though the Second Coming has just been announced, then he is over forty.
Second test: You play Stairway To Heaven when he has had a lot to drink. Do the hairs on his arms stand on edge? Does he start singing along? (Chances are that it is the “ooh, it makes me wonder” bit that will really get him going). And if he suddenly starts playing air guitar at the crucial moment when Jimmy Page switches from rhythm (acoustic in the studio version, electric in the live recordings) to full-blown electric lead, then you’ll know that he is probably as old as I am.
Ah, Led Zeppelin! Gods of rock. Trashers of hotel rooms. The world’s most accomplished carnal gourmets. Feeders of fish to groupies. Inventers of the 20-minute drum solo. The guys who knocked the Beatles off the top slot in the Melody Maker poll when the Fab Four were thought to be at their peak. Dabblers in black magic. Founders of the multi-million dollar grossing stadium tour.
If you are not a Zeppelin fan, then you’ll probably know the band for Stairway—still the most played track on a certain kind of American FM radio station—a song that is regarded as a classic (or even, the greatest rock song ever written) by the sort of old fart who likes rock anthems (that is, me). Or, is considered the acme of hard-rock pretension by many rock critics, and which its co-author and singer Robert Plant has said he loathes because it reminds him of a “wedding song”.
I’ve had my own Zeppelin moments. The band had its roots in the Yardbirds, the classic British rock group which gave the world three of the great guitarists of the 1960s: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. When the last avatar of the Yardbirds disbanded, Page—the savviest and meanest member of the band (his nickname in the 1970s was Lead Wallet)—ended up owning the name. He auditioned musicians for a new avatar of the Yardbirds but when the new line-up really cooked, he gave it a fresh name.
Originally, the new band was to be called Lead Zeppelin after Keith Moon’s remark that it would “sink like a lead zeppelin”, but Americans pronounced ‘lead’ as ‘leed’ (as in lead guitar), so they changed the spelling. Page remained its guiding force, moving beyond the Yardbird’s rock song pattern to create long format rock with songs that were four times as long, featured extensive jamming and stole their riffs shamelessly from blues musicians.
For the generation before mine, Zeppelin’s heavy music was an antidote to the pop of the Beatles and the Stones, and the band played along with the outlaw image, refusing to appear on TV, never releasing a single (though the record company put out an edit of Whole Lotta Love in the US without permission) and refusing even to put any titles on an album cover (the record we call Runes or IV, which has their best work).
I was a little sceptical of a band where the lead singer tried to wail his way around the stage by thrusting his crotch forward and the guitarist showed off his virtuosity by playing his guitar with a violin bow. But, eventually, I was seduced by the softer acoustic stuff (Going To California, The Battle of Evermore et cetera) and by Stairway, which begins like a folk song and ends up as a rocker.
The one time I saw them in concert, in London in the 1970s, I marvelled at the loyalty of their fan following. The audience was singing Stairway so loudly that Robert Plant might as well have gone home for the night. I also found it interesting that Plant kept singing snatches of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell songs while Page pummelled his axe. And I decided that they were a great band—though it did not follow that I would buy every one of their albums.
At this peak, Zeppelin had a reputation for debauchery that was unequalled. Refuting stories that they had forced a groupie to have sex with a live shark, Plant retorted deadpan that it was a dead snapper. Jimmy Page carried whips and chains around and drummer John Bonham was one of the great boors (and bores) of rock. Inevitably, he choked on his own vomit and died leading to the break-up of the band.
Both Page and Plant had so-so solo careers till they joined hands again (you may remember them at an early MTV awards function in Mumbai where they mimed unconvincingly to rock ‘n’ roll while Remo Fernandes pretended to play bass) to mine the Zep catalogue. Plant refused pointblank to sing Stairway but they did some interesting takes on old songs including a great Battle of Evermore with Nagma Akhtar (Plant’s girlfriend at the time) sharing vocal duties.
I have to say that I thought they became a bit of a joke as the Page-Plant duo carried on. Clearly, they had shot their bolt and had nothing interesting left to say. Plant’s crotch rock now seemed extremely dated and Page, with his hair dyed an obviously fake shade of black, just looked like a mean old man.
But who knows? Perhaps the full-fledged reunion will be different.
John Paul Jones, the bass and keyboard player who was always ignored, is back and John Bonham’s son Jason will sit in for his father. Certainly, it would be worth seeing the look on Plant’s face as he sings Stairway to millions of adoring fans. Money will overcome musical reservations every time.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi)