The first time that many Chinese people will have ever encountered Led Zeppelin was on August 24th, 2008 when the band’s iconic guitarist Jimmy Page played the classic song Whole Lotta Love at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony. On that day, he duetted with soul singer Leona Lewis rather than with fellow band members Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, but it was still a memorable moment for a band that has indelibly stamped itself on modern heavy Rock.
Indeed, it’s hard to understate Led Zeppelin’s importance; many music critics say they invented the contemporary heavy Rock genre itself. So much music over the past four decades from all around the world – especially America – closely follows their sound. Bands including Van Halen, Aerosmith, Guns’n’Roses and Nirvana have taken on their DNA. All have powerful, emotive, gritty vocals, raw and gutsy guitar tinged with blues chords, a big keyboard sound to add body and crashing drum work – just like Led Zep!
The story starts with the nineteen sixties blues band, The Yardbirds. During his time there, Jimmy Page began to be noticed as one of the most talented young guitarists around. At the same time his colleague, John Paul Jones, gained a reputation for his bass and keyboard experimentation. This went on to define the Led Zeppelin sound, along with the acidic and brittle voice of Robert Plant and thunderous drums of John Bonham. The band started in 1968 in London, and from the start it was obvious they were special. Shrewdly, they signed to Atlantic Records – a record company famous for nurturing raw talent.
The self-titled first album was released in 1969, and is heavily blues-influenced with a unique vibrancy. Despite taking just thirty hours to record, it was born fully formed and showcases the musical genius of the four men. Armed with their first album, Led Zeppelin established themselves in America by playing live concerts night after night. During this first tour, the band recorded Led Zeppelin II, also in 1969. This album provided the blueprint for many of today’s heavy rock bands with its rough, early style. It was very successful, with Jimmy Page’s legendary guitar riff at the start of Whole Lotta Love kicking it off. The second album showed how the band had already progressed, with more delicacy and power giving a special sound.
Led Zeppelin III (1970) showed real progress, with new angles and approaches including some acoustic guitar experimentation. Led Zeppelin IV (1971) built upon III, mixing hard rock with folk, adding mysticism that gave the album an epic feel. For many fans however, Houses of the Holy (1973) was the high watermark; it contained what was to become the band’s anthem, Stairway to Heaven. Over eight minutes long, it blended gentle classical guitar and old fashioned recorder playing at the start, with soft electric strumming through the mid section, building up to crashing electric guitar power chords and uptempo drumming in the final section. The song went on to become the most requested song in the USA in the nineteen seventies.
Arguably the band’s final great album was the 1975 release Physical Graffiti, which was certainly their most ambitious venture yet. It had no unifying theme, instead each song sounds like a project in isolation with a new and different focus. The band’s later albums never quite matched its earlier efforts, perhaps because the men spent a lot of time playing live concerts. A series of world tours broke all records for size and income, and also earned Led Zeppelin a reputation for excess. This lead to the tragic death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, and marked the end of the band.
Since then Page, Plant and Jones have continued to play reunion concerts, and they remain one of the best selling bands in the history of recorded music. With an estimated 300 million albums sold worldwide, they are the second best selling band ever in the United States, behind The Beatles. Respected US rock magazine Rolling Stone magazine famously described them as “the heaviest band of all time”. Their music lives on, enjoyed by a new generation eager to experience Rock at its finest.