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The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 1: Led Zeppelin

In the first installment of a new series, we swing the hammer of the gods

Zeppelin’s enormous commercial success, in spite of critical opposition, revealed the deep division in what was once thought to be a homogenous audience. The division has now evolved into a clearly defined mass taste and a clearly defined elitist taste.” — Rock critic Jon Landau, 1969

“What we achieved was to change the blueprint of a lot of things. We changed where the horizon was. We moved it on.” — Jimmy Page, 2012, on CBS This Morning

“There’s a band onstage that used to be huge / they’re on but no one’s listening.” — Drive-By Truckers, “The Opening Act”

February 12, 2011: On a similar night in a different time, you might’ve mistaken Arcade Fire for rock stars. The diligently inspirational Quebecois octet has just arrived onstage at the 20,000-seat Staples Center in Los Angeles as the closing act at the 53rd-annual Grammy Awards. For the millions of viewers at home, most of whom have no idea what an Arcade Fire is, the band quickly crowds a matronly Barbra Streisand and her wizened A Star Is Born co-star Kris Kristofferson out of the television frame. Babs and Kris have just made the night’s climactic announcement: To the chagrin of heavily favored challengers Eminem and Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire is the winner of the Album of the Year award, for its concept record The Suburbs.

To some observers, the shocking news is instantly significant. Particularly for indie-rock fans, a demographic group that would’ve scoffed at the very idea of putting the words “prestigious” and “Grammy” in the same sentence right up until the moment a band it cared about was handed one, Arcade Fire winning an award normally bestowed on the Stevie Wonders, Michael Jacksons, and U2s of the world seemed to conform to a recurring story line in popular versions of rock history. Here was another band “that meant something,” birthed from the fringes of the underground and carried by a wave of inherent greatness to a successful conquering of the middle, transforming music — nay, the culture — for the better in the process. This was the Beatles invading America, the Sex Pistols slaying the dinosaurs of arena-rock, and Nirvana turning on the lights and ending the vacuous party-time of ’80s hair metal. Arcade Fire’s victory was our victory, a sign that maybe — just maybe — rock music still had a chance to also be popular music.

One guy who didn’t join in on the post-Grammys Arcade Fire victory party was Steve Stoute, former manager for the rapper Nas and a longtime record and marketing executive. In Stoute’s view, Arcade Fire’s win signaled that the Grammys were more out of touch with contemporary pop culture than ever, an opinion he was moved to share in a full-page ad that ran in the New York Times one week after the ceremony. He wasn’t attacking Arcade Fire, exactly; rather, he was making the case for artists like Eminem and Kanye West “shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation,” and arguing that not recognizing the importance of hip-hop’s brightest contemporary stars showed a “fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic.” In essence, Stoute was making the same argument that rock fans had used against the Grammys in the ’60s, when culturally relevant classics by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were ignored in favor of the latest offerings from Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and that ubiquitous Grammy fixture, Barbra Streisand.

Even if you loved The Suburbs, it was hard to dispute Stoute’s point given an honest examination of recent (and not so recent) changes in pop music. Let’s say Arcade Fire really was America’s biggest rock band that night at the Grammys. What did that say about the state of rock music? Three months after the Grammy victory, a period when The Suburbs should’ve been enjoying a Grammy-related sales bump, the album had moved just over 600,000 copies, making it Arcade Fire’s best-selling album to date; Eminem’s Recovery, meanwhile, was going strong with 3.9 million. Recovery was the most popular album of 2010, followed by fellow Album of the Year nominee Need You Now by the pop-country trio Lady Antebellum, which logged 3.08 million in sales. The Suburbs was nowhere near the year’s Top 10 sellers — nor were any other rock albums.

The numbers for rock were no better in 2011; the Arcade Fire–inspired folk of Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More was rock’s sole representative in the Top 10 selling albums, while Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” was the token “rock” song on the downloads list. As for 2012, Mumford again was the only rock-esque group on the albums chart, with its sophomore effort Babel, and the downloads chart included rock only if you count Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun.’s “We Are Young” and “Some Nights,” though that’s grading on an exceedingly generous curve.

According to Billboard, one rock band — Nickelback — ranks among the Top 10 artists of the first decade of the 21st century. Only six rock acts appear in the Top 50, and they’re hardly considered top-flight examples of the form: Creed, Linkin Park, Three Doors Down, Santana, and Matchbox Twenty. Rock did much better on the top touring artists list, capturing seven out of the first 10 spots. But nearly all of them — The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Bon Jovi, and Billy Joel — are many years past their commercial peaks as recording artists. Only one group, Dave Matthews Band, has been around for less than 20 years.

Sales charts are an imperfect barometer for an artist’s (or genre’s) popularity and reach. But even in an age of rampant illegal downloads and cheap streaming services, six music fans are buying Eminem records for every one fan that picks Arcade Fire. And what about the artist also known as Marshall Mathers? A product of Detroit’s white-trash underclass who applied his talent and outsize dreams of fame and riches to becoming one of the most formidable commercial forces that hip-hop has ever known, Eminem’s artistic instincts go hand in hand with his desire to be on the radio. The ability to be yourself while also making the most money and the loudest, brashest impression has long been associated with musical greatness in his genre.

If Mathers had been born in the ’50s instead of the ’70s, he probably would’ve made his dreams real by forming a rock band. For decades, rock and roll was fueled by the same greed for cultural capital that now powers the hip-hop generation. You don’t always get that impression reading the rock history books; critics have long focused inordinately on the rabble-rousers who gathered outside the gates of castles constructed by purveyors of commercial decadence and Middle American ubiquity, and cheered as these artists waved their pitchforks at mass consumer culture while asserting their autonomy from it. Rock history is written by the losers, in other words, which is why the importance of insurgents is overstated while the people inside the castles — the rich and famous rulers of middle-of-the-road rock and roll — are disregarded or flat-out ignored.

Back when the Sex Pistols and The Clash were supposedly changing the world in 1977, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were selling lurid tales of rock-star “life in the fast lane” L.A. living at an outrageously prodigious clip. As bands like Black Flag and The Replacements fostered American indie culture in the ’80s, the sleazy bastard children of Me Decade arena rock rose from the Sunset Strip to give young people something to blast while dipping into their parents’ liquor cabinets. (The folks were too busy buying Bruce Springsteen and Huey Lewis records to notice.) Even as hip-hop finally assumed rock’s mantle as the preeminent music for American teenagers in the early ’90s, Pearl Jam’s reverent update of meat-and-potatoes classic rock smashed sales records, with the band’s 1993 album Vs. moving nearly 1 million copies in a single week.

I started caring about rock right around the time that Pearl Jam and Nirvana came and went as go-to cultural shorthand for disgruntled kid-dom. This is to say, I arrived just in time to witness rock’s slow and steady recession from pop culture’s center. Today, it’s Taylor Swift who moves 1 million units in a single week. Now when the media wants to grant “generational spokesperson” status to a musician, the spotlight typically goes to a rapper or a multimedia pop celebrity — almost never a rock singer. There are still rock bands playing arenas, but nearly all of them started in the ’90s or earlier. The term “rock star” is still used to describe athletes and venture capitalists, but it has taken on the ring of an old-timey cliché, like how we still talk about “leading a horse to water” a century into the age of automobiles.

If I’m being honest, the music that has always meant the most to me can be loosely termed as “mainstream rock.” Most of my favorite bands have sold at least 1 million records, or could have sold at least 1 million records if they had existed 20 years earlier or 20 years later. My musical erogenous zone exists somewhere between Quadrophenia and Raw Power, Rumours and Rocket to Russia, Back in Black and Boy, Born in the U.S.A. and Reckoning, Hysteria and Pleased to Meet Me, Siamese Dream and Exile in Guyville, Is This It and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, and El Camino and Civilian. I realize this admission makes me appear hideously un-hip. It would be preferable from a street-cred standpoint if my passions were ’80s hardcore, ’90s black metal, or late ’00s hyphy. I might as well be the dude whose favorite book is The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I recognize that I’m a Philistine, but my heart is stubborn.

In my mind, the bands and artists that have really mattered in rock were able to express the most uniquely human parts of themselves while at the same time transforming into something profoundly massive and uniquely inhuman. This sort of greatness can’t be fully quantified, but it can be partly quantified, in ways more tangible than the arbitrary judgments of music writers all too eager to set aside what moved the masses in favor of what moved them when documenting rock history.

The groups that personified what rock sounds, looks, talks, comes, stays, lays, and prays like in the popular consciousness over the past several decades have not railed against the status quo; they are the status quo as far as the majority of rock fans are concerned. Unlike the niche-oriented rock bands of today, these groups are responsible not only for many of the biggest-selling albums of their time, but of all time. This era of rock and roll transformed the meaning of success in popular music, bringing rock to stadiums and mansions, shopping malls and Super Bowl halftime shows, as well as every wood-paneled basement rec room and teenage car stereo from Eureka, California, to Bangor, Maine. This music spoke to millions of people; it informed their fantasies of power and wealth, influenced their way of looking at the world, and spawned a thriving subculture with a booming economy and a living history that informed every new generation of bands. It seemed to stretch outward toward an infinite future, always new but with clearly visible roots, the perfect conflation of novel poppiness with never-ending mythology wrapped in denim jackets and cheap sunglasses.

Even today, the archetype is so fixed and commonplace as to be thunderously obvious: Long-haired men in tight pants, playing crushingly loud music on guitars and drums in front of tens of thousands of people, and held upright by groupies, mounds of blow, and the luxury of deluxe tour buses and multimillion-dollar record contracts.

And yet this archetype has all but disappeared from pop culture. “Mainstream rock” barely exists anymore. To understand how we got to this point, we’re not going to learn anything by examining for the umpteenth time how the Velvet Underground invented alternative music, or watching all of the approximately 214 documentaries on punk, or talking to Ian MacKaye about why Fugazi never sold T-shirts at shows. What we need instead is a Winners’ History of Rock and Roll that tells the stories behind some of the biggest bands of all time.1 If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.

Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to be writing about seven bands: Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Metallica, Linkin Park, and the Black Keys. I don’t love all of these bands, but I do love some of them. My point is that my personal feelings here don’t matter. I picked these bands because they rank among the most popular of their respective eras, and they all remain active in some form to this day. I believe they also represent turning points in rock history that haven’t always been appreciated or remarked upon all that much. More than anything I’d argue that these bands are important in ways that few other rock bands in the 21st century — even the ones I adore and passionately push on people at parties — seem to be.

My decision to begin the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll with Led Zeppelin is bound to be at least a little bit controversial. The Beatles have sold more albums, as has Elton John. It could be argued — wrongly, but not outrageously so — that the Stones or even the Grateful Dead have left larger footprints on culture, if those footprints are measured in cubic inches per Rolling Stone cover and/or blacklight poster. But Zeppelin truly is the right choice because it is the band that set the terms by which every other band afterward would come to classify victory in rock music.

It’s a critical clich´ to say that punk broke rock history into two halves — but Zeppelin arguably already did this in the late ’60s. Never again would the world’s top rock bands attempt to emulate Elvis and Chuck Berry like they did B.L.Z. (Before Led Zeppelin); A.L.Z., rock would look and sound indelibly Zep-like. Every band I’m writing about in this series in some way aspired to be like Led Zeppelin; some came closer than others, but nobody has surpassed them. Financial reward, artistic freedom, business intelligence, chemical enrichment, sexual misadventure, posthumous mystique — no matter the conversation, Led Zeppelin is the gold standard.

Led Zeppelin
Formed by Jimmy Page in 1968 after his previous band, the Yardbirds, imploded, Led Zeppelin was a winner from the very beginning. The band’s debut, Led Zeppelin, was purchased by Atlantic Records via the most lucrative record contract for a new group in rock history at that point. The company’s foresight was rewarded when Led Zeppelin spent almost a year and a half on the Billboard chart; 1969’s Led Zeppelin II was an even bigger hit, selling 3 million copies in just over six months (on the way to 12 million) and eventually lodging nearly three years on the charts. Symbolically, Led Zeppelin II positioned Led Zeppelin as the new “It” rock band, displacing the Beatles’ Abbey Road from the top of the albums chart as 1969 switched over to 1970.

I’m not interested in regurgitating the specifics of Led Zeppelin’s career; like the song says, that squeezed lemon has not wet a new leg in years. But it’s crucial that a Winners’ History of Rock and Roll make mention of Peter Grant, the 6-foot-5, 300-plus pound ex-wrestler who acted as Led Zeppelin’s manager. If you’re a casual Led Zeppelin fan, you know that Grant appeared in The Song Remains the Same as a gangster/hit man type in charge of a clandestine bootlegging operation in one of the concert film’s baffling non-performance sequences. The depiction of Grant as a violent brute is the most lasting impression that people have of him, though those who know him contend that his bark (and bulk) was worse than his bite. Peter Grant is remembered as the British blues rock Suge Knight, but he never dangled Simon Kirke off a hotel ledge.2

Anyway, Peter Grant engineered Led Zeppelin’s career so well in the early going that he subsequently changed how other rock bands did business. Zep’s first record deal paid a then-princely sum of $220,000 and also guaranteed almost complete control of every aspect of Led Zeppelin’s music, including ownership of the master tapes. (The Rolling Stones later based their own deal with Atlantic on the Zeppelin contract.) Even more financially fortuitous for Zeppelin was Grant’s strong-arming of concert promoters; over time, he leveraged his main client’s enormous draw as a concert act to demand a 90 percent cut of the gate for the artist, an unprecedented arrangement that soon became the norm for marquee acts.

Perhaps Grant’s most sage advice regarded his preference for albums over singles. He believed that forcing Zeppelin fans to focus on LPs rather than 45s would be more profitable. But he was also committed to an artistic philosophy that Zeppelin came to embody, one that was the definitive “bridge” between the ’60s and ’70s. Zeppelin became known as rock’s staunchest anti-singles band, legitimizing the belief that the album was the skeleton key for truly “getting” the music. And Grant became the primary salesman of this idea as the business brains behind one of the world’s most prolific unit-shifters. The peak of rock’s popularity would coincide with the Age of the Album; the deterioration of the latter eventually contributed to the former’s fade.

What Peter Grant believed in above all else — and what would serve Led Zeppelin most of all once it ceased being an active band in 1980 and settled into an exceedingly well-monied “legacy” period that lasted for the next three decades (and counting) — is The Sound. If it’s still true (as Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman once wrote) that every teenage male goes through a “Zeppelin phase,” it is due to two things, and one of them is The Sound.3 Rock critic (and future Bruce Springsteen manager) Jon Landau once described The Sound upon seeing Led Zeppelin perform in 1969 as “loud … violent and often insane,” but this is only two-thirds true as it pertains to Zeppelin’s records. In reality, The Sound was the conscious and mentally competent creation of Jimmy Page in his role as Led Zeppelin’s producer. Utilizing a coterie of well-chosen studio tricks — including something called “backward echo” and what he dubbed “the science of close-miking amps” — Page ensured that unlike practically all of his contemporaries in the late ’60s and early ’70s, his records would not be diluted by the passage of time. You did not “have to be there” in order to feel Zeppelin’s power. This music does not date because Jimmy Page is the best hard rock record-maker ever, and the production on Led Zeppelin albums is the platonic ideal of rock-and-roll audio. Listen to any Led Zeppelin LP today and the fat bottom end is still fat, the heavy snap of the drums still snaps heavily, the guitars still pivot nimbly between Page’s mythical “light and shade,” and Plant’s shriek still approximates the erotic terror of evil Viking spirits. All of the pertinent data is there on wax, right where Jimmy Page left it many moons ago.

When my brother handed me a cassette of Led Zeppelin IV4 for my 13th birthday, I did not know John Bonham had been dead for 10 years. Now he’s been dead for 33 years, and I’m still not 100 percent certain that it is the correct prognosis. This is why Led Zeppelin belongs in the first chapter of the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. Every time you put on a Zeppelin record, the time-space continuum turns into the Washington Generals.

It’s pretty shocking how much of The Sound comes through on Celebration Day, the 2012 live album/DVD combo culled from a three-fourths reunion-plus–Jason Bonham one-off concert performed at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. What Celebration Day demonstrates is that The Sound is now, in fact, a mirage; up close it is revealed as a canny simulation of violent insanity capably carried off by aged gazillionaires who believe that taunting the majority of the world’s population of 35ish-to-55ish white males (and 100 percent of international concert promoters) by playing one very good show and not touring is a fine idea.5

In the ’70s, Led Zeppelin almost never consented to being filmed. Grant believed people should pay good money to watch John Paul Jones sit sleepily behind a Fender Rhodes during all 116 minutes of “No Quarter” in the flesh. But Zep has grown more camera-friendly as it has gotten older, so much so that the band even consented to an interview on CBS This Morning to promote Celebration Day. As odd as it was to see Plant, Page, and Jones honored by President Obama at last month’s Kennedy Center Honors, it would have seemed equally strange to a stoner in 1975 to witness Led Zeppelin turned into fodder for puff pieces on network morning news programs.

Anyway, the reporter inevitably asked Zeppelin about the terrible reviews the band received from critics at the time the original albums came out. This has long been a huge part of Zeppelin lore. It somehow makes Zeppelin seem even greater than they are and great rock critics seem even dumber. Lester Bangs dinged Zep for being “utterly two-dimensional and unreal,” writing “uninspiring material,” and creating “a thunderous, near-undifferentiated tidal wave of sound that doesn’t engross but envelops to snuff any possible distraction.” Robert Christgau glibly patronized Zeppelin, calling it “the best of the wah-wah mannerist groups, so dirty they drool on demand,” and like Bangs argued “that all the songs sound alike.” Rolling Stone, in a tediously sarcastic review of Led Zeppelin II, was most insulting of all; writer John Mendelsohn claimed that he liked the record, though he added that “I haven’t listened to it straight yet — I don’t think a group this heavy is best enjoyed that way.”6

Before Led Zeppelin was the Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin was Nickelback. Led Zeppelin was routinely slammed for being derivative and crass. Led Zeppelin’s music was primarily visceral and, if not anti-intellectual, then certainly post-intellectual, and therefore interpreted to be empty and meaningless. Not coincidentally, Led Zeppelin appealed almost exclusively to kids and blue-collar Middle Americans. Critics despised Led Zeppelin because it was perceived to be a cynically packaged and overly hyped white blues band with a dangerously irreverent perspective on the music’s black roots.7 “The story of Led Zeppelin is an argument,” wrote Rolling Stone‘s Mikal Gilmore in 2006, “rooted in a conviction that Led Zeppelin represented a new world, a new age — a rift between the hard-fought ideals of the 1960s and the real-life pleasures and recklessness of the 1970s.” If rock B.L.Z. was about The Message, A.L.Z. was about The Sound.

What’s amazing about this is that those bad reviews obviously still annoy Jimmy Page. “I think it went over their heads,” Page told the CBS This Morning guy. “Absolutely. It was beyond them.” This response strikes me as reasonable but wrong. Critics were incorrect to disparage Led Zeppelin, but their reasoning was not inaccurate. They understood what Zeppelin was about; they just were out of step with the rock audience for thinking it sucked. It’s true that Zeppelin was unscrupulous in its thievery.8 It’s true that Zeppelin’s early records occasionally present a troubling (yet electrifying, and therefore doubly troubling) blackface parody of the blues.9 And it’s 1,000 percent true that Zeppelin was an apolitical delivery device for pure sensation, making it the logical conclusion of ’60s hedonism without the ideological baggage. This is why The Sound remains Fishscale-level pure in its distillation of the thoughtlessly cool and assured feeling every teenager wishes he/she had in the presence of a terrifyingly attractive representative of the opposite sex. Led Zeppelin will always sound young, as opposed to “young in 1971.”

Led Zeppelin, like every other band in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, was ultimately defined by its popularity in the eyes of fans and detractors alike. If you hated Zeppelin, you hated that this was selling millions of records. If you loved them, you were drawn in by the reflected image of your own desires.

Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs has this great song called “Suburban War,” where Win Butler sings about how music signified the different groups at his school: “The music divides us into tribes / you choose your side / I’ll choose my side.” In the late ’60s, Led Zeppelin represented a new choice between what Landau called “a clearly defined mass taste and a clearly defined elitist taste.” This dichotomy would define the rock discourse for the next several decades, until elitist taste finally eclipsed mass taste due to audience attrition. Today, the best rock bands, almost without exception, make records with no chance of reaching the “mass taste” audience. You can blame that on changes in mass tastes — as much as “mass tastes” still exist, anyway — as well as revolutions in media and the record industry. You can also blame the bands, many of whom (intentionally or not) have sequestered themselves from the very people who used to be rock’s core constituency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Butler and I grew up in the ’90s, and we both spent our childhoods in the middle of America — outside of Houston for Butler, northeastern Wisconsin for me — amid a sprawl of strip malls and grocery stores the size of aircraft carriers. I’m guessing we probably liked some of the same rock bands. “Suburban War” is outsize and blustery in the manner of all Arcade Fire songs, but it’s also deeply personal and deeply personal to me. It’s this mix of bigness and intimacy that makes “Suburban War” such an anachronistic modern rock song. When I play “Suburban War,” it feels like a late-night conversation between Butler and me. If only the subject weren’t how alone we feel as rock fans.

Coming up in Part 2: Kiss is the ultimate example of a rock band basing its image on a hunger for money and fame. I’ll talk about the impact this had on rock music in the ’70s, and why nobody ever talks about Kiss’s (actually pretty decent!) music.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden