The Current

Great Music Lives Here ®
Listener-Supported Music
Donate Now
Rock and Roll Book Club

Book Review: Bob Spitz's 'Led Zeppelin' binds the 'golden gods' between two covers

Bob Spitz is valuable as a reliable narrator of a chronicle that’s been told many times, by many parties, with vastly varying interests and memories.
Bob Spitz is valuable as a reliable narrator of a chronicle that’s been told many times, by many parties, with vastly varying interests and memories.Jay Gabler/MPR
  Play Now [7:29]

by Jay Gabler

January 27, 2022

Bob Spitz does not fear an icon. His previous books include The Beatles: The Biography, Dylan: A Biography, and Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. If Jack Miles hadn’t already published God: A Biography, I could tell you what Spitz would be working on next.

He’s not an access journalist: the lion’s share of quotes in Spitz’s new Led Zeppelin: The Biography come from previously published sources. His talent, instead, lies in synthesis. Led Zeppelin is a book without a discernable agenda outside of chronicling, deliberately and readably, the history of a band that defined the era of excess in classic rock.

Do we need a book, in 2022, that doesn’t have anything to say about Led Zeppelin? As a substantially comprehensive band biography, Led Zeppelin walks through any number of potentially fascinating and indubitably problematic aspects of the group’s career.

There’s their origins in the British blues movement, born of admiration for African American music but edging well into appropriation. There’s the relationship between the band and a record industry at a moment that rewarded artistry: Led Zeppelin disdained doing press, compromising on album art, and even basic commercial strategies such as releasing singles from their albums. There’s the behavior of the group’s fans; one shudders to imagine what happened in a Led Zeppelin crowd.

Then, there are the girls. As in, literal girls. This was an era when a 14-year-old might assure Jimmy Page she wasn’t a virgin, because she’d had sex with David Bowie two years earlier. The band’s manager Peter Grant and road manager Richard Cole would help the band members satisfy their individual tastes, indulging their own appetites as well.

Spitz duly notes all this, and in a back-cover blurb Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller declares the book “a serious contribution to the #MeToo canon.” Take it from her instead of me, but I can’t help feeling that a book where photographer Beep Fallon declares “the girls were the predators, not the bands” and where the author describes the band members’ wives as having “a dignified groupie role” leaves some distinct room for improvement.

While some of the book’s descriptions of the band’s behavior (public attempted rape, hotel destruction so wanton that Grant once effectively tipped a manager by paying for the manager to trash one of his own rooms for fun) might shock, they of course won’t particularly surprise anyone who’s participated in any aspect of the half-century fascination with the “golden god” era of rock stardom.

It was a time when drummer John Bonham would play with a baggie of cocaine between his legs; when parents would happily sign off on their children posing naked on freezing rocks for the Houses of the Holy album cover; when Bonham and Cole could beat a man up or drive off in a limo without asking, being correctly assured that cash would cover any transgression committed in the name of Led Zep.

What about…the music? Well, yes, there’s that, and it’s still glorious. Spitz portrays the band members’ interrelationships more warmly than other chroniclers have; he emphasizes the collaborative nature of their songwriting, the recognition of each member’s irreplaceable role, and the fact that even at their most drug-addled and burned-out, Led Zep somehow never managed to disappoint their fans.

They did disappoint their critics, who were slow to warm up to a band that seemed to specialize in bombast and entitled preen. Led Zeppelin were, after all, the forefathers of heavy metal, a genre that’s struggled as much as any for critical respect. What was so wrong with those nice Yardbirds that they had to become “New” and finally “Led”?

What was wrong, of course, was that the Yardbirds weren’t Jimmy Page’s band. Led Zeppelin were, and in his three bandmates he found a trio who could not only summon the blistering heavy blues of their 1969 debut, but willingly detoured into the folky and abstruse - then could bring it all together on an epic like “Stairway to Heaven” without forsaking the basic pleasures of a stomper like “Rock and Roll” from the same album, 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV. (Props to Spitz and his publisher Penguin Press for reproducing the runes that constitute the album’s official title.)

Spitz is valuable as a reliable narrator of a chronicle that’s been told many times, by many parties, with vastly varying interests and memories. Led Zeppelin: The Biography constitutes a solid 101 on the band; where you go for 202 is up to you.

Sign up for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club e-mail newsletter

A monthly update with a note from Jay, a roundup of recent reviews, previews of upcoming books, and more.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club Picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

February 3: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday

February 10: A Sick Life: TLC ‘n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins

February 17: Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Cross

February 24: Prince and Popular Music: Critical Perspectives on an Interdisciplinary Life, edited by Mike Alleyne and Kristy Fairclough