Led Zeppelin achieved its pinnacle of popularity during the 1970s (Lewis, 2004). Heavily blues-influenced, Led Zeppelin routinely performed medleys of songs by Elvis Presley and blues guitarist Robert Johnson in concert. Zeppelin’s recordings are an amalgamation of this prominent blues influence, fantasy-based lyrics, and a loud, distorted sound similar to hard rock forerunner Cream. Zeppelin’s music strongly contrasted the softer sound of 1970s pop that appealed to a more conservative audience. Although Zeppelin achieved great musical success, the bands on- and offstage behavior, along with Jimmy Page’s preoccupation with the occult figure Aleister Crowley, lent the band a mysterious and dangerous image. Led Zeppelin, led by singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, enjoyed significant success during the 1970s, releasing one of rock’s all-time best songs in 1971: “Stairway to Heaven” (Kitts & Tolinski, 2002)
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The comments in the epigraph, made by Plant on the occasion of the retrospective four-CD boxed set release of Led Zeppelin’s music in 1990, touch on many ideas pivotal to the band’s aesthetics. It is a critically important aspect of the music for band members and its reception by fans that not only were the influences diverse and multiple but also, as Plant puts it, they were “left and right of center”, away from the mainstream – or at least that there was (and still is) the perception that some of these influences were on the margins. The often-told stories goes that these were four people with eclectic musical tastes, all of them steeped in various traditions, experiences, and influences. “We all had ideas, and we’d use everything we came across, whether it was folk, country music, blues, Indian, Arabic,” recalled John Paul (Roylance, 2000). Led Zeppelin was not only influenced by the blues, and their only product was not the raunch of “Whole Lotta Love”: Zeppelin’s stylistic and emotional ranges were as broad and encompassing s those of any other band in rock’s history. Further, Plant suggests in the epigraph that music should have a purpose beyond entertaining, that it should be about social awareness, something that is reflected fairly consistently in his lyrics.
Most of Plant’s comments, as well as those made by Page and Jones in retrospective interviews, point to the idea of Led Zeppelin’s musical depth, arrived at through the richness of their experience with various musics, their imperative constantly to engage in musical exploration to go beyond the mainstream and to incorporate their many and various influences into their own music. Led Zeppelin as a filter through which various musics are passed and then offered up, in an original way to the listener. Plant clearly views this in a positive light, expressing what I understand as his genuine enthusiasm for and love of the many different kinds of music by which he was influenced. While there is much about it that is, indeed, positive (various fans have commented that it was Zeppelin who made them want to listen to bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, for example), there are certain aspects of it that will trouble students of culture. Filtering psychedelia or the folk/Celtic music popular in Britain in the 1960s has different political implications from filtering Indian and Arabic musics and the blues. Psychedelia and folk were being made by white middle-class youth, the same racial and economic group, coming out of similar cultural conditions and with some similar ideologies to those held by the member of Zeppelin. As well, the folk/Celtic influences connected them, however tangentially, to their own ancestry. But blues, Indian, and Arabic musics were radically other. Those sounds and lyrics come out of cultural experiences far removes from those of the white, Western middle class. Filtering in these instances carries with it the politically messy notion of speaking for, because, unlike West Coast psychedelic musicians in the 1960s, the black blues musicians and largely anonymous Indian and Arabic musicians on whom Led Zeppelin drew did not have the same economic advantages, the same clout in the music industry to have their own voices heard, in short, the same cultural or economic capital.
For those teens growing up in the sixties and early seventies, the rock music of the British beat bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, etc.) and the American bands, began to assume the role of a total cultural force. Together these bands and their music flavored, influenced, and shaped just about everything in the youth culture. The music and the performers helped teens decide what to wear, how to act, and who and what to believe socially, politically, morally, and religiously.
Meanwhile, the lyrical reference to European medieval period legend is shared with some of the progressive rock bands of the era. The Jimmy Page-led band Led zeppelin, also emerged as an important force at the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s. Like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin emphasized mythology and references to medieval lore. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlwine also credits the band with establishing the concept of album-oriented rock, refusing to release popular songs from their albums as singles (Thompson, 2007). In doing so, they established the dominant format for heavy metal, as well as the genre’s actual sound. Although several of Led Zeppelin’s early albums sold well and made an impact on the world of rock, Led Zeppelin enjoyed the greatest commercial success of the band’s entire album in the United States.
As Led Zeppelin’s popularity rose and progressive rock found its niche audience, fellow Englishman Ozzy Osbourne joined another blues-based rock group, Earth, later known as Black Sabbath.
Competitive band Groups including Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, and Emerson Lake and Palmer (ELP) began to incorporate increasingly sophisticated formal, harmonic, and rhythmic structures into their music, referred to as progressive rock, art rock, or classical rock, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Influenced by the technical virtuosity of Eric Clapton and Jamie Hendrix, the complexity of classical music, and the experimental nature of later Beatles recordings, many of these groups appealed to a particular subculture comprising young musicians themselves, searching for more intricate and contemplative music. Such groups maintained this small but consistent fan base through the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, bands such as Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather report, and Return to Forever were influenced by Miles Davis’s recordings of the late 1960s and combined jazz-based elements within a rock fusion.
This research explores Led Zeppelin’s influence on rock music and popular culture. There are many provocative aspects of the band, including images of the body in performances, their appropriation of genres such as “blues and Eastern” music, and the mythology that has been created around them. While the research focuses on the band especially, the issues and how they are broached extend well beyond the confines of Led Zeppelin to help us understand the power of rock music in shaping identity.
Kitts, J., Tolinsli, B. (2002). Guitar World presents greatest Guitarists of all time.
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Lewis, D. (2004).Led Zeppelin: The complete guide to their music. Omnibus Press.
Roylance, B. (2000). The Beatles Anthology. San Francisco Chronicle Book.
Thompson. G. (2007). American Culture in the 1980s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University