When Giants Walked the Earth: 50 Years of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall

When Giants Walked the Earth

Reviewed by Angela Marie

 ” …one other that clearly signposted exactly where Jimmy Page intended to go next in his career – with or without The Yardbirds. It was called ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ and it was a monumental piece of work. Released … in October 1966, months before first albums by Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd…this was more than simple pop psychedelia. This was ground zero seventies rock. Hypnotically interweaving, Eastern-influenced guitars, weapons-grade rhythms – featuring a top session pal of Jimmy’s named John Paul Jones – ghostly vocals singing of time travel, tripping on deja vu and occult meaning, whispered backing vocals…If you’re looking for the real rock roots of Led Zeppelin…this is the definitive place to start.”

But there is a place to start before the definitive place to start. Author Mick Wall looks retrospectively at the early days before his own career launched in 1977 and he became a first-hand participant, carefully archiving his interviews and observations. Firstly, he introduces us to mid-sixties boy wonder, Jimmy Page, the highly-sought after session musician with big dreams and business acumen. If it was just for the money, young Page could have stayed where he was, raking in the session money and buying a house along the Thames at a time when many of his contemporaries were struggling with lowly-paid gigs. But Jimmy had dreams of a supergroup before that concept became a recognised musical entity. Read of Jimmy and the powerhouse names he proposed. A who’s who of British talent – Jeff Beck, Steve Marriott or Steve Winwood, Keith Moon, Jon Entwhistle. But then The Yardbirds came calling and who could turn them down. Eric Clapton hadn’t.

From the beginning When Giants Walked the Earth is a serious, and seriously heavy, twisting tale of the rise of a group that would leave more than a footprint on the British and the international music scene. Arising in 1968 from the ashes of The Yardbirds and The New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin rose higher and higher. This tome is not light reading or suited to flicking through. Everything builds on something else and some prior knowledge, although not necessary, may be helpful. Early on Wall introduces the often-overlooked glue that held the band together, Peter Grant, the no-holds barred manager. Tough and loyal, Grant is credited with not only literally fighting tooth and nail for his band, but also laying down many foundations that have enshrined working conditions and pay for bands to this present day.  As a testimonial to his impact, the Music Managers Forum was renamed the Peter Grant Award in 1996.

But back to the band. Meet Jimmy Page, majestically talented and innovative. His playing of his Telecaster with a violin bow the stuff of legends. Meet Robert Plant, barely out of his teens, but singing since sixteen, and soon to be the rock god, the front man that swept all before him, and now acknowledged as one of the greatest vocalists of rock. Married Maureen and welcomed daughter Carmen in the same year that Led Zeppelin formed. Meet John Paul Jones, born John Baldwin, married to Mo, musical ability from an early age, child of vaudeville parents and former choirmaster and church organist. A veteran of session work, playing, arranging and producing. Think The Stones’ strings on She’s a Rainbow, Donovan’s Sunshine Superman, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, Shirley Bassey, Lulu to sample a few. Burnt out by his early twenties and looking for a new direction. Meet John Bonham, aka Bonzo. Wife Pat and two-year-old Jason, like his father, drumming from an early age. Bonham’s drumming was more than power, more than speed. Wildly innovative and interpretive, and ranked in 2016 at the very top of Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest drummers of all time.

Now Jimmy Page had his supergroup and the world was about to take notice.

At 594 pages, When Giants Walked the Earth is reading for the dedicated Zeppelin fan. Yes, Wall tells of the excesses, the drugs and drinks, the addictions, the dark side of mysticism and the occult, the trail of destruction left in the band’s wake. The groupies, the infidelities and sometime guilt. The continuation of a legacy born in the Fifties and normalised to the life of a working band. In this it becomes a societal study of culture and custom, misogyny, expectations and perceived entitlements. Comparison and contrast between British and American audiences, press, wheelers and dealers. The drain of touring, both on relationships and the body and mind. The light that extinguished with the untimely death of John Bonham at thirty-two in 1980. The subsequent disbanding of Zeppelin.

It is a lengthy read, generally interesting and enlightening, at times unpleasant, and occasionally, perhaps, sensational for the sake of sensationalism. Wall has an overwhelming amount of material to input. His strategy for this is to vary the persona of the storyteller. At times he is the reporter. At other times he is the observer and interpreter, deep inside the brain of his musician and talking to that person rather than the reader. It chunks the story, piquing our interest but also lending an air of exploratory exposition rather than definitive fact. In his notes and sources section, he offers up that most of the material is from his own observations and interviews. He includes lists of interviews the band had with others and suggests additional readings. 

Of great interest to this reviewer was the mechanics of forming a band in the pre-technological Nineteen Sixties and the fluidity of band memberships, most eagerly grabbing the opportunities to go one better. With Led Zeppelin as a case in point, all members were really young and had either already played in umpteen bands or played on hundreds of sessions. No social media to watch someone perform on screen and to assess their suitability by. All done by recommendations or answering ads. Page had played with Jones, Plant had sung with Bonham. Jimmy Page recalls the difficulties of travelling out of London to finally see John Bonham perform, and of one day finding Bonham and his family unexpectedly on his doorstop looking for a place to stay the night. No phoning ahead. 

All members of Led Zeppelin shared a common insatiable appetite for music, and making music, from a young age and an understanding of what they liked. All were musically gifted and innovative.  All had eclectic tastes and an appreciation of music in its varied forms, be it eastern, western, classical, jazz, blues, whatever. How else could they have birthed tracks as diverse as the explosive Immigrant Song and Whole Lotta Love, the rocking Black Dog, and as achingly beautiful as Since I’ve Been Loving You. 

Reading this book requires a fair investment of time. Let’s give the final comment to the cover of the book. On it Jason Bonham declares, “The only Led Zeppelin biography I have in my house. I love it!” 

Mick Wall has been credited as the world’s most eminent writer on rock and metal, beginning his career in 1977. Perhaps it may be more appropriate to label him a music historian. In 1979 he formed a PR company, Heavy Publicity, and began press campaigns for Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, and REO Speedwagon among others. Mick Wall has founded magazines, presented television and radio shows, blogs and podcasts, and appeared on shows and documentaries. He has partied hard with the stars and written about this semi-autobiographically. Mick Wall has written more than twenty biographies, with subjects ranging from The Doors to Prince and Guns N’ Roses to Foo Fighters and AC/DC and Metallica. Et cetera. His Meat Loaf biography, Like a Bat Out of Hell, makes interesting reading. Long may he write.

When Giants Walked the Earth:

50 years of Led Zeppelin

(2018)

By Mick Wall

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 409 18060 9

pp 594; Pb $32.99

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