When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin

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9780312590000: When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin

Veteran rock journalist Mick Wall unflinchingly tells the story of the band that pushed the envelope on both creativity and excess, even by rock ‘n' roll standards. Led Zeppelin was the last great band of the 1960s and the first great band of the 1970s―and When Giants Walked the Earth is the full, enthralling story of Zep from the inside, written by a former associate of both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Rich and revealing, it bores into not only the disaster, addiction and death that haunted the band but also into the real relationship between Page and Plant, including how it was influenced by Page's interest in the occult. Comprehensive and yet intimately detailed, When Giants Walked the Earth literally gets into the principals' heads to bring to life both an unforgettable band and an unrepeatable slice of rock history.

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About the Author:

MICK WALL has written about music since 1977. He is one of England's best known music journalists: his work has appeared in Mojo, the Mail on Sunday and a variety of other publications, and he has written ten rock ‘n' roll biographies. He lives in England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART ONE
Ascension!
‘To worship me take wine and strange drugs whereof
I will tell my prophet, & be drunk thereof!
They shall not harm thee at all!’
—Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law
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1
The Dawn of Now
You are Jimmy Page. It is the summer of 1968 and you are one of the best-known guitarists in London – and one of its least famous. Even the past two years in the Yardbirds haven’t brought you the recognition you know you deserve. People talk about the Yardbirds as though Jeff Beck is still the guitarist, not you, despite everything you’ve done for them; giving up the easy-money session gigs that bought you your house by the river; gifting them one last ride on the merry-go-round with ahead-of-the-game hits like ‘Happening Ten Years Time Ago’, even as Mickie Most sucked the life out of them making them do codswallop like ‘Ha Ha Said The Clown’; sticking with them as their profile has slowly faded from view, along with their own self-worth. They still mean something in America, just about, but back home they are dead meat. And what’s the point in traipsing around America, them and the other half-dozen acts on the same poxy package bill, earning less in a week than you used to get for a day’s worth of sessions, when no-one even knows your name, knows how important you are now to the whole set-up?
Jeff Beck? Jeff is an old mate, but who had recommended him for the job in the first place? Done him a favour when he was on his uppers? You – Jimmy Page. The one who turned down the Yardbirds after Clapton had walked out, not because you were afraid, like Eric, that their craving for pop stardom would ruin your image as a ‘blues purist’ – you were never one of those, your love of folk, rock’n’roll, jazz, classical, Indian, Irish, anything and everything, meant you always felt sorry for those poor unfortunates that could only ever like one form of music – but because you’d secretly shuddered at the prospect of trawling the country’s pubs and clubs, bouncing around in the back of a shitty bloody transit van like you’d done before with Neil Christian and the Crusaders, ending up so ill you couldn’t get out of bed for three days. Not even making any bread out of it. Stuff that for a game of soldiers.
And so you’d recommended your old mate Jeff, who was just sat around doing nothing. Then stood back and watched as the Yardbirds with Beck had taken off like a rocket . . . ‘For Your Love’, ‘Heart Full of Soul’, ‘Shapes of Things’, hit after hit . . . Next thing you were in the Yardbirds too. It was never supposed to last, and you never made any promises, but you had to admit it was all right. Even when you were just supposed to be helping them out till they found a proper replacement for Samwell-Smith, twanging the bass as a bit of a laugh, the buzz was good. When they suggested moving Chris over onto bass and having you and Jeff both on guitar, you couldn’t believe it! You did wonder how long Jeff would be able to hack it, but while it lasted it was actually really good. Not just the playing – you and Jeff had always played well together – but the vibe, the scene. It felt like an omen when you found yourself booked with them to appear in the Antonioni film, Blow Up. All you had to do was make like you were playing a club, steaming it, a great laugh. Though Jeff moaned when the old director asked him to smash his guitar. Six times he had to go through it, pretending to be Pete Townshend, before the old Italian was happy. God, did he moan! You just couldn’t stop smiling though.
Then he left. Jeff Beck, the great guitar hero who had no discipline whatsoever, brilliant one night, less so the next; the so-called cool cat who couldn’t write an original tune to save his life and had sold out to Mickie Most and his off-the-peg hits. Jeff is a mate and you don’t like to bad-mouth him, but even Jeff knows ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ was a load of old rubbish; everyone knows it was a load of old rubbish. Yet there it was as soon as he left the Yardbirds, courtesy of Mickie, in the charts and in the discotheques; on the radio and being danced to by all the leggy birds in their miniskirts on Top of the Pops.
Well, good for Jeff Beck, but what about you, Jimmy Page? What are you gonna do now Jeff has his own thing going and the Yardbirds have finally gone kaput? You don’t know. Or rather, you do, but only on an instinctual level. You don’t have the proof yet but the answer, you’re fairly sure, is to take the Yardbirds and build on it, take their rinky-dink rock’n’roll and so-called experimentation – their gimmicks – and turn them into something much more deliberate; something that will make you gasp, not just sigh, something that will actually compete with Hendrix and Cream and the Stones and the bloody Beatles. Really show the world who’s who and what’s what.
But you are also wary of letting go of the bit of fame you’ve finally found, however meagre. Most people may think Jeff Beck is still the guitar player in the Yardbirds but at least they’ve heard of the Yardbirds. Who’s heard of Jimmy Page, outside of the know-all producers and record company bigwigs, the studio broom-pushers and pretty receptionists? Outside of all the guitarists you’ve replaced on sessions over the years – the guy in Them, the guy in Herman’s Hermits, the countless others whose faces you no longer remember and who would never acknowledge what you’d done for them anyway, never thank you . . .
At least you know where you stand. Self-confident, well off, used to being on your own, you have always been someone who knew exactly where you stood, even as a kid playing on sessions for old timers like Val Doonican. You had always walked tall, always known your own worth even as others discounted it, sending you on your way to the next session – sometimes as many as three a day, six days a week, never knowing what you were going to be asked to play next, picking up good money and taking none of the risks – and none of the glory, either, when it worked.
Now it is your turn to shine. You are twenty-four, a hardened session pro who knows all about working in the studio, taking your cue from famous knob-twiddlers like Shel Talmy and Mickie Most, playing along with other session pros like Big Jim Sullivan and Bobby Graham, sharing a fag during tea breaks, taking it all in, crossing paths again and again over the years like lucky black cats. Now you want to do something for yourself. You’ve always wanted it. Now it’s time. Something big, like Eric with Cream – only better. Like Jeff with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood – only better. Like George Harrison and Brian Jones with their sitars, even though you had one first – only much, much better, you wait and bloody see.
First, though, you need to put the pieces together, find the corners of the jigsaw. The years working behind the scenes – in the dark, a hired gun, doing as you were told, looking and listening and taking it all in, sharing a fag and laughing up your sleeve – have taught you about more than just the playing. You now know where to place the mikes. ‘Distance makes depth,’ as the old lags liked to say. You now know how to operate the desk, what makes bad groups good and good groups better. You now know it’s about more than just being able to play, otherwise you’d have been a star long ago. You have also learnt something about the business. You know the value of a name and of having the right record company behind you, the right guys in suits. And for that you know you will need help. You’ve got a head start though. The Yardbirds still have a name – just – and you aren’t about to let go of it. Not yet. You have to be sure first; have to be precise; your timing, as a pro, will have to be perfect, you know that.
The problem is time is running out. Only twenty-four but already the music is moving on without you. You wouldn’t have said it out loud but you know it’s true. Cream is already coming to its end and you feel like you haven’t even started. Hendrix is now everybody’s guitar god but you haven’t shown them what you can do yet, given the opportunity, away from the sessions and the smoky studios and the bands crumbling from within, lost somewhere out there on the American road, just counting the days till something better comes along. Time is running out and though you’d never say it out loud you are starting to worry you have missed the bloody boat; that if you’re not careful you will have to go back to doing sessions. ‘Becoming one of those sorts of people I hate,’ as you tell your friends.
The last Yardbirds tour comes to an end in Montgomery, Alabama, the gig at the Speedway Fairgrounds coming the day after Bobby Kennedy is shot in Los Angeles. You all watch it on TV back at the hotel and you all go ‘wow’ and shake your heads and light more cigarettes. But it means nothing to you compared to the thought of the group breaking up. By the middle of June you are at home again in your groovy riverside abode in Pangbourne – a converted Victorian boathouse thirty miles up the Thames from London with one of those basement boat moorings, not that you have a boat – wondering what on earth you are going to do now.
Fortunately, you have an ace up your sleeve; someone who knows what you can do, who you are, what you could become, and who shares your determination to make something of it, to finally let the cat out of the bag: Peter Grant. ‘G’. The hulking, oversensitive giant who co-manages the Yardbirds with Mickie and who has kept you safe throughout your travels, especially on that bloody awful last American tour, when Keith Relf was going off the rails, getting drunk on stage every night and only Chris Dreja still seemed interested in keeping the whole thing together. G, who’d sat in the car with you, stuck in traffic in Shaftesbury Avenue, just days after getting back from America, both of you knowing it’s over, talking about what you are going to do now. G, who sits and listens as you, in your quiet, well-mannered voice finally says what it is you’ve secretly been thinking all this time, finally says out it loud: that you think you can take the group and do better, add new members, write new music, do better.
The stumbling block, you both know, will be Mickie, who is only really interested in singles. Art for art’s sake, hit singles for fuck’s sake. That’s Mickie’s motto. But singles aren’t where it’s at anymore. The Yardbirds should be more of an albums’ band now, it’s obvious. You haven’t said so to Mickie because you know he would only scoff, just as he had when Jeff complained he wanted to make albums too, but you say it now to Peter, who sits and listens, looking straight ahead through the windscreen at the traffic. The key, you say, feeling courageous, would be letting you have a free hand to do it the way you know it should be done. The way you hear it in your head sometimes when no-one else is listening. Not just leading the group but writing the music and lyrics, producing the records yourself, doing everything yourself except managing. That’s where Peter would come in – if he’s interested. G, who has worked for years in the shadows of other, more powerful music businessmen, waiting his turn in the dark, just like you. G, who sits there at the steering wheel, staring at the traffic straight ahead, and simply nods his head. ‘All right then,’ he says. ‘Let’s do it.’
There is one last Yardbirds show, a low-key contract-filler in the Student Union hall at Luton College on 7 July – almost two years to the day since the last big single in Britain, ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ – and then it really is all over. Only Chris has said he’s willing to stick with it and give it another go with you but even he is now having second thoughts. Oh, he hasn’t said anything yet to you or Peter, but you both know. So what? You’re gonna need 100 per cent commitment if the new music you want to make is to sound the way you want it to. Chris is no great shakes on the bass anyway. Better he go now then, even if it does leave you on your own. Well, you’re used to that. As an only child, you’ve never been afraid of being on your own. So when, barely a month after that last show in Luton, Chris finally owns up to the fact he isn’t into it anymore, would rather go off and try for a new career as a photographer – ‘He thinks he’s the new fucking David Bailey,’ laughs G – you are secretly relieved.
Now it’s down to just the two of you, Jimmy and G. And of course, the name, for what it’s still worth: the Yardbirds. Or maybe the New Yard-birds – G’s suggestion. That way, at least, it won’t be like starting again from scratch, he says. Not entirely, anyway. And you can still get paying gigs. Keep the wolf from the door until you can come up with something better. That’s the plan anyway, this long, rainy summer of 1968 . . . ‘I knew exactly what I wanted to do,’ says Jimmy Page nearly forty years later, sitting in his basement kitchen at the Tower House, the nineteenth-century Gothic pile in London’s Holland Park, designed by the architect and Freemason William Burges. It’s a sunny late summer’s afternoon in 2005 and we are having a cup of tea, looking back at the early days of the band for yet another magazine profile. Over the past twenty years this has become almost an annual ritual for us, the interest in Zeppelin having magnified over the years to the point where they are now more popular than they ever were in their lifetime. Of course, the days of Jack Daniel’s and cocaine, of groupies and smack – the days of dragon suits and black swans – are long gone. Jimmy Page doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs; doesn’t even smoke cigarettes anymore. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten what it was like, what it was all about. Or that he is in the slightest bit repentant. Indeed, his only real regret, he says, is that it had to end. ‘It was hedonistic times, you know?’ He shrugs. ‘But the thing is the playing was always there. On maybe just a very rare occasion did it suffer – a rare occasion relative to the volume of tours. But we wanted to be on that edge, it fed into the music.’
Of course it did. That was what it was all about for a rock monster like Led Zeppelin, feeding on planets and shitting stars. Drugs were their fuel, sex a form of self-expression, music merely the map to the treasure. Think of the Stones, crammed into Keith’s sweaty windowless basement at Villa Nellcote in France in 1972, waiting for him to come to after another three-day mindbender; waiting for him to get enough coke and smack up his nose and in his arm before he is ready to lay down the bones of what will become the greatest Stones album ever made, whatever Mick and his posh new foreign bird thinks. Think of John and George, acid buddies suddenly, united for once against strait-laced Paul and clueless Ringo; high priests labouring devoutly to take the Beatles beyond the yeah-yeah-yeah of their lovable mop-top past and into the infinitely more knowing, vastly more expanded consciousness of Revolver and eventually Sgt. Pepper, the album that transformed the world from black and white into colour. Think of Dylan smoking his weed, swallowing his pills, wearing sunglasses at midnight and vibrating in his chair by the window as he sits up all night at the Chelsea Hotel in New York writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ for . . . her. Or Hendrix tripping on godhead in some beer-sticky London dive full of fag smoke and jealous white males, as The Who and Cream and everyone else who tried to follow him bathed in his comet trail and foolishly tried to hold onto the sparks. Of course the drugs fed into the music of Led Zeppelin. That’s what the drugs were for. That’s what Led Zeppelin was for. That’s what it was all about, right Jimmy? Back then in the Seventies, that bridge-burning, hyper-indi...

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