As the author of two Led Zeppelin-related books, I read Barney Hoskyns’ 2012 work Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band less as a rival scribe than as a historiographer. By now Zeppelin’s story has been told enough times that the basic facts recounted here – the formation of the band, their records, their concerts, their dissipation and dissolution – are not as significant as the writer’s interpretation of them. Hoskyns, a veteran British music journalist who has parlayed his access to industry insiders in several previous books on rock ‘n’ roll, has gathered an extensive assembly of original and second-hand interviews which add up to yet another variation on the standard Zeppelin narrative. It’s kind of like a horror movie: you know what’s bound to happen, but you want to see how it’s done this time around.
The Oral History is formatted as a series of quotes and anecdotes from the members of the group (none conducted for the book, and some dating back decades), plus numerous reminiscences from those in Zeppelin’s personal and business circles. There is almost no text by Hoskyns himself. Basically, it’s Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods again, only with more sources and more sordid detail: here’s Jimmy Page, sinking into heroin addiction after hanging out with Keith Richards; here’s John Bonham sexually harassing a young Atlantic Records staffer; here’s Peter Grant taking cocaine not with a spoon but what an observer recalls as “a ladle.” Credit goes to Hoskyns for getting reporters, ex-wives, ex-roadies, and Swan Song officials to open up about what they saw and heard backstage, but the basic tale remains pretty familiar.
What emerges after many rock biographies and autobiographies, including this one, are not just the usual Spinal Tap elements, of which Led Zeppelin had their share, but also the sheer banality behind the legends. Like most other acts of their era, Zeppelin were talented and hard working, but also very lucky. They both benefited and suffered from being in the right place at the right time: benefited, because they entered the music business at its economic peak, when rock was the most lucrative genre in the entertainment market and when artists were granted the most creative license; suffered, because otherwise ordinary young men had to live up to a grandiose mythology projected on them by an audience whose size and devotion no one had reckoned on. The Oral History documents the impossibility of fulfilling that fantasy.
Some of Zeppelin’s aura was like that of the Wizard of Oz behind his curtains – vast drama and power fabricated by rather small-minded, seedy individuals (Zep lawyer Steve Weiss comes across as especially reptilian). Some of it eventually came from their truncated career – disbanded in 1980, the quartet’s achievements have not been diluted by a continued decline. Some of it is revisionism – fawning critical respect awarded by a cognoscenti who were loath to give it in 1970 or 1977. A few of Hoskyns’ contributors, like Lori Mattix, Richard Cole, and Pamela Des Barres, have built latter-day careers as one-time Zeppelin intimates, recounting hallowed episodes that at the time were probably pretty trivial. Led Zeppelin’s music, which Hoskyns doesn’t focus on much, has held up well, but their larger-than-life reputation, endorsed by so many vested interests, seems increasingly contrived.
Even as a diehard Zeppelin fan, I’ve had to admit that the group’s majestic image has sometimes been blown out of proportion. As with the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, there’s a limited amount of biographical and artistic material there, which can only be revered so much before sounding exaggerated. The rock star whose perspective I admired most was John Lennon (oddly, Hoskyns reports that Zeppelin’s Swan Song vanity label made an ill-coordinated effort to sign Lennon in the late 1970s): throughout his life and especially toward its end, Lennon tried to dissuade interviewers and fans from reading too much into the Beatles’ songs or the Beatles’ public lives. We’re not that special, he kept saying; don’t make us out to be more than we are. It’s a caveat which could apply to most celebrities – human beings recast as gods by remote spectators and complicit hagiography – but Lennon’s reminder is particularly apt when leveled at those most mortal of immortals, Led Zeppelin.