Young girls. Drug abuse. Satanic rituals. Do we really need another retelling of Lep Zeppelin’s tawdry excesses? A whole lotta pages on one of rock’s darkest stories
Led Zeppelin: The Biography
Bob Spitz Penguin Press £30
Outsiders entering the sulphurous orbit of Led Zeppelin during the group’s 1970s pomp were presented with a written list of rules. The first two read:
1. Never talk to anyone in the band unless they first talk to you.
2. Do not make any kind of eye contact with John Bonham. This is for your own safety.
Robert Plant (above), the self-described ‘Golden God’, preens with poetic superiority despite the fact that most of his lyrics are ripped-off blues songs stuffed with schoolboy innuendo
In 1969, while The Beatles were noodling around in Twickenham and Savile Row making Let It Be, the more abrasive sound of the coming decade was roaring up behind like muggers on a motorbike. Some kind of innocence was snatched away.
Bolstered by record-breaking album sales, sell-out stadium tours and an air of swaggering impunity, by the early 1970s Led Zeppelin were adhering to a code which mixed regal exceptionalism with gangland thuggery.
During the period when they were releasing classic songs such as Whole Lotta Love, Stairway To Heaven, Kashmir and Rock And Roll, Led Zep were more or less invincible.
They occupy a more problematic position in these enlightened times, however.
Led Zeppelin (above, at the Bath Festival in 1970) are avatars of the kind of unreconstructed sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll excess that has fallen out of both fashion and favour
Long acknowledged as the biggest, loudest, most unashamedly priapic rock group during the golden age of genre, they are also avatars of the kind of unreconstructed sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll excess that has fallen out of both fashion and favour.
This puts Bob Spitz, the American author of a bestselling history of The Beatles, in a bind.
Spitz genuflects before the power and pomp of the music while tutting (not very loudly, it must be said) at their appalling behaviour – and then writing about it all, anyway.
The band’s misdeeds have been infamous since the publication of Stephen Davis’s lurid biography Hammer Of The Gods in 1985, but Spitz rehearses them again at prurient length.
There are allegations of attempted rape of an air stewardess made against drummer John Bonham, whose alcohol-related death in 1980 ended the band. Guitarist Jimmy Page enjoys the company of young girls.
Spitz rehearses the band’s misdeeds at prurient length, including allegations of guitarist Jimmy Page (above) enjoying the company of young girls
Cocaine and heroin line almost every page, alongside satanic rituals, outrageous rip-offs and the monstrous violence of their manager Peter Grant.
The treatment of young women outlined here is not merely shameful but criminal. ‘There was no oversight, no accountability, no inclination to put the brakes on the pursuit,’ Spitz writes. ‘Rock and roll bands were given a pass.’
Janine Safer, publicist for the band’s own record label, says: ‘I adopted the band’s view that these girls weren’t quite human.’ Journalists were complicit, exchanging their silence for access to the band’s sanctum and a ticket to the circus.
The early days at least were less unsavoury and Spitz colourfully conjures up the band’s origin story.
Page and bass player John Paul Jones earn their stripes on the London session scene, while Robert Plant and John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham scrape around the West Midlands semi-pro circuit, finally coming to the attention of Page in 1968 while playing with the Band of Joy.
The account of Page creating Led Zep from the rubble of The Yardbirds is by far the best part of the book. Once the group hit their stride, however, the four principals become cartoons rather than three-dimensional characters.
Bonham is a violent, uncontrollable drunk on a grim death spiral. Plant, the self-described ‘Golden God’, preens with poetic superiority despite the fact that most of his lyrics are ripped-off blues songs stuffed with schoolboy innuendo.
Page is a shadow. Jones appears not to have a personality at all.
Spitz seems most interested in Grant, Led Zeppelin’s morbidly obese, borderline psychotic manager whose story has already been told, excellently, in Mark Blake’s recent biography.
The author leans heavily not only on Blake’s book, but several others written about the group.
With a lack of significant new interviews – no band members and few in their inner circle talked to him – Spitz pulls his sources together competently but remains marooned from the heart of the story.
Hearsay is presented as fact; myths and tall tales stand untested.
There is some insight into the creation of the band’s eight albums, but these 673 pages ultimately feel longer than a Bonzo drum solo, as they spiral around the same circular riff: new album, huge US tour and endless tales of excess, abuse and degradation – the latter offered up, disingenuously, for disapproval and titillation.
None of this is fun to read about. For all their immense success, the Led Zeppelin story is curiously joyless, male privilege gone rancid.
Four decades after the band’s demise, laid low by heroin, hooch and hubris, one feels it either needs to be told in a completely new way, or not told at all.
The Oracle Of The Night: The History And Science Of Dreams
Sidarta Ribeiro Bantam Press £20
What do the paintings of Salvador Dalí, the first sewing machine, the periodic table and the song Yesterday by Paul McCartney have in common?
Answer: they all came from dreams, those strange private movies that we run in our heads at night without ever being quite sure who or what is directing the action.
In this fascinating book Professor Sidarta Ribeiro, a neuroscientist, reveals what is going on when we close our eyes for the night.
What do the paintings of Salvador Dalí (above), the first sewing machine, the periodic table and the song Yesterday by Paul McCartney have in common?
In the 1970s, scientists generally wrote off dreams as ‘brain farts’, random discharges of meaningless bits of information that cleared out the mind ready for next day’s challenges.
Ribeiro, however, takes the more modern view that dreaming is a productive process that allows us to rearrange the doings of the day into useful strategies for the future.
How often have you gone to bed frustrated with a problem at work or in a relationship and woken up the next morning knowing exactly what to do?
This is the reason why ancient cultures around the world placed such great value on dreams.
Shamans, magi and medicine men were revered for their ability to conduct rituals that allowed their communities to tap into valuable knowledge about when the next rain would fall or in what direction to go hunting for supper.
It was the coming of Christianity that put paid to all that: dreams were now a sign that the devil was tempting you and your best bet was to keep schtum if you didn’t want to be written off as evil or crazy.
It wasn’t until Freud started taking an interest in his patients’ night-time excursions at the end of the 19th Century that dreams became legit again. Even then there was a problem.
Freud’s habit of interpreting everything from jewellery boxes to swords as sexual symbols meant many felt embarrassed about what went through their head at night.
Now, says Ribeiro, the pendulum is swinging back in the opposite direction.
There are many online communities in which members share their dreams to tease out their deeper meanings and extract guidance.
Many also practise ‘lucid dreaming’ when, every morning, you write down the dream from the night before the moment you wake up. Over time you should find that you dream more and more until it is possible to do so at will.
Better still, you find your dreams deliver the solutions to what seemed like insuperable problems in waking life.
Ribeiro delves into the multiple worlds of anthropology, literature, religion, psychology, classical myth and neuroscience to provide an exhaustive and occasionally exhausting study of why we dream.
There may be moments when his dense jargon threatens to send you to sleep. But that, you could argue, is a huge plus, since you may wake up with an idea for a painting or a song that will change the world.
Down And Out In England And Italy
Alberto Prunetti Scribe £12.99
Is Alberto Prunetti the heir to Orwell? He’d like us to think so, with a quote from the author of Down And Out In Paris And London at the top of every chapter and a title that echoes one of the most readable memoirs of the 20th Century.
In doing so, he sets the bar too high. Orwell was the model narrator, never getting in the way of what he observed, immaculately sketching life in run-down English doss houses and revealing a hellish existence below stairs in Paris’s ‘Hotel X’.
Prunetti – a very sweary, grizzled old Italian Lefty – too often centres the story on himself.
Alberto Prunetti lapses into descriptions so surreal – often about Margaret Thatcher (above) – that it’s like entering a Corbynista fever dream
In fairness, the cast of characters around him is often superbly drawn and clearly influenced by Orwell, including John Silver, the piratical head chef in the Italian restaurant where Prunetti finds his first job, in Bristol.
An old seadog who’s worked all over the world, Silver can’t help switching between languages mid-sentence, swearing in all of them. ‘Necesito a ****ing day off, capeesh?’
Since the author confesses ‘I spoke like Google Translate’, there’s the odd moment of comedy here.
But Prunetti does ramble on and state the bleeding obvious. ‘This is an immigrant pizza chef’s stream of consciousness,’ he announces, after what was very obviously just that.
He then lapses into descriptions so surreal – often about Margaret Thatcher – that it’s like entering a Corbynista fever dream.
There is surely a great memoir to be written on life in the modern ‘precariat’ – among the Amazon and Deliveroo workers who keep so many of us pampered and well-fed – by the heir to Orwell. I’m not convinced this is it.