Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for Rhino.com in the spring of 2010 ...
Led Zeppelin "wrote the book and all of us are just trying to write a page," said Paul Stanley of Kiss, in Danny Goldberg's Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business. "They are the template and the road map that everyone else follows." Anyone who first heard "Stairway to Heaven" as a teenager and dreamed of being the next Jimmy Page would likely agree.
By 1968 Page was the last man standing in England's Yardbirds, after members like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had flown the coop. That summer he tried to recruit Terry Reid for a new band, but the singer's schedule was already full. Reid recommended another vocalist, 20-year-old Robert Plant, who then convinced drummer John Bonham, a longtime friend, to join Page's group with him. Bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones rounded out the lineup.
Fulfilling a contractual obligation, Page's new band played some European dates as the New Yardbirds in September of '68, then switched their name to Led Zeppelin and recorded their eponymous first album in roughly 30 hours. Led Zeppelin (1969) included two Willie Dixon blues standards as well as future rock standards like "Communication Breakdown" and "Dazed and Confused." The band's thunderous approach to rhythm and blues and their interest in mythology—several of their songs contain references to J.R.R. Tolkien works like The Lord of the Rings—helped create the template for heavy metal and hard rock in the 1970s.
Led Zeppelin II was recorded at various studios while the band was on tour in 1969; it hit stores near the end of the year. "Whole Lotta Love" was a top-five hit in the U.S., where Zeppelin was becoming a major concert draw (shows sometimes lasted up to four hours and included 30-minute "Bonzo" drum solos), but the group didn't release singles in the UK or grant many interviews to the press, adding to their overall mystique.
By 1973 Led Zeppelin was the biggest band in the world, allowing them to stretch out on that year's Houses of the Holy with playful stabs at reggae ("D'Yer Maker") and funk ("The Crunge"), while 1975's Physical Graffiti was a double album that contained Eastern influences ("Kashmir") alongside touches of country ("Down by the Seaside") and pop ("Houses of the Holy," left off the album of the same name).
The band launched their own Swan Song label through Atlantic Records in 1974, and their concert film The Song Remains the Same was a hit at the box office in '76, but Presence (1976) and In Through the Out Door (1979) arrived in record stores as punk and disco were dominating the musical landscape. On September 25, 1980, John Bonham died of asphyxiation. Led Zeppelin announced their breakup shortly thereafter.
Various one-off reunions have taken place over the past 30 years, including the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. With Bonham's son, Jason, on drums, Zeppelin performed on December 10, 2007, as part of a tribute to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, but the band has been silent ever since. Fortunately for fans new and old, Led Zeppelin's timeless music continues to speak for itself.