Led Zeppelin Almost Never Existed

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Art & Culture

Led Zeppelin nearly never materialized. I don’t mean that as mere idle counterfactual history. I mean that the crossroads and obstacles Jimmy Page faced just in forming the band were daunting. There were infinite ways things could have gone wrong, countless roadblocks in the face of which he might understandably have given up. This point crystallized in my mind while reading Mick Wall’s tremendous Led Zeppelin biography When Giants Walked the Earth.

First, there was the fact that Page was a well-paid session guitarist. It was a stable (if stale) job that enabled him to buy a nice house in his early twenties. Comfort and security keep many people from pursuing bigger dreams, and the prospect of losing such a posh situation was one reason Page demurred when first asked to join the growing pop success, The Yardbirds. Why subject yourself to uncertainty—or to the certainty, in the short-term at least, of making less money? Why give up a sure thing for an unsure thing? Such considerations led Page to suggest his buddy Jeff Beck for the role instead. When he later did decide to join the band, the group’s moment in the spotlight had already passed.

But it seems to have taught Page an important lesson, which he’d try again and again to convince others of later: Some risks are worth taking. For Page, that was pursuing a vision of a new kind of music, the framework of which he developed during his relatively unsuccessful stint in The Yardbirds. He could have just returned to steady work as a session musician. Instead, he set out to form his own band.

You might think a well-connected London session guitarist, one of the best in town, would have little trouble putting together a great band. In retrospect, it’s easy to assume that almost anyone Page asked would be eager to join. Not so.

Even before joining The Yardbirds, Page had toyed with the idea of starting his own band, and one of the first people he tried to recruit was The Who’s bombastic drummer, Keith Moon. But it was May 1966, and The Who was already well on the way to stardom. Moon was enthused when Page floated the idea, but he joked about the band crashing and burning, saying they should call it Lead Zeppelin (a suggestion Page pocketed for later). Ultimately, though, Moon couldn’t be persuaded to leave The Who.

Page would hit the same wall again and again. Just as he was considering Steve Winwood for vocals, Winwood’s band Traffic took off. So Page reached out to Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott. Marriott showed interest, but his manager—the “Al Capone of Pop,” Don Arden—responded by asking Page “How would you like to play guitar with broken fingers?” The next person to turn him down was Terry Reid. Reid had gotten some publicity as a solo artist, and he’d just signed a record deal, foreclosing the option of joining Page.

He had a suggestion, though—a young singer that almost no one knew about from all the way up in Birmingham. Page wasn’t sure it was worth the trip. But the one person who’d jumped eagerly at the opportunity to work with him—Yardbird’s road manager and later Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant—insisted and drove Page up to see a show. The band was lackluster (maybe not as bad as its name, Hobbstweedle), but the singer certainly had talent and stage presence. Page was a bit dismissive, but Grant again insisted, and so Page invited him over to talk music and try making some together. So, Robert Plant, then nineteen, trained his way down to London. At first, he was a bit overawed by Page’s nice home and relative success, but they warmed to one another and, as importantly, Plant happened to be good friends with a great drummer.

That was likewise proving an impossible role to fill. One after another turned it down. B. J. Wilson, for instance, thought he had a much better shot at success sticking with Procol Harum, which had just had a number-one hit. Grant had also tried repeatedly to get a lunch meeting with session drummer Clem Cattini, but Cattini just could never seem to make the time.

So, with some urging, Page went to see Plant’s drummer friend: John “Bonzo” Bonham. The force with which he played knocked Page off his feet, and after hearing him improvise a five-minute drum solo, he knew he had to have him.

But Bonham had a wife and kid, not to mention a stable and decently paying gig. What could he hope for from playing with what seemed to be the zombie of a forgotten band? (Page was then calling the project The New Yardbirds—about as appealing as a new formula for Coca-Cola or ketchup.)

Grant sent Bonham dozens of telegrams, but Bonham wasn’t budging. Desperate, Page and Grant showed up unannounced at Bonham’s door. Page patiently explained his vision for what became Led Zeppelin, later reflecting, “I knew exactly the style I was after and the sort of musicians I wanted to play with.” It clicked with Bonham, who also liked the prospect of playing with his friend Plant, and they hammered out a deal. They soon added session bassist John Paul Jones, forming one of the most experimental and creative bands in history.

Many of those Page asked to join him stuck instead with what they knew, what was comfortable. Cattini, for instance, reflected, “I now had a family, . . . and I thought—wrongly—that I’d found my niche as a session drummer.” As Wall writes, “Two years later, when Zeppelin was the biggest-selling band in the world, Clem recalled running into Peter and asking him: ‘That lunch date, was it to do with . . . ?” Peter Grant just nodded.

Without Page’s vision, persistence, and willingness to prioritize his dreams over stability (not to mention the helpful prodding from Grant), Led Zeppelin would never have gotten off the ground. And that’s a vital reminder for all of us: Superstars don’t start as superstars. The difference that makes all the difference is effort, determination—drive.

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