In Defense of Led Zeppelin, a Band Both Insanely Successful and Critically Underrated

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When I pitched the idea for this piece, our esteemed editor-in-chief Judy Berman said something to the effect of, “In defense against who, exactly?” It’s a fair point — Led Zeppelin were, after all, the biggest band in the world for a good part of the 1970s — but at the same time, I think anyone who sees themselves as generally progressive about music today admits to liking bands like Zep with something of a guilty conscience. They’ve never been critical favorites, especially on this side of the Atlantic, and they’re pretty much synonymous with the worst of ’70s rock stardom — the casual misogyny, the unconstrained hedonism, the alleged flirtations with Satanism, the mud shark.

To some extent, being able to appreciate Led Zeppelin’s music comes back to the same old tired art/artist arguments, which I don’t really need to rehash here. But it’s more than that, too — the ’70s have gone down in the annals of history as rock’s most debauched era, a decade where the “innocent” peace ‘n’ love ideals of the ’60s devolved into a darker brand of hedonism. It was an era of discontent that gave birth to what’d become heavy metal, the decade that gave us the nihilism of punk and the hard-edged funk that would eventually evolve into hip hop.

Zeppelin seemed to embody all of this — their appetite for partying would have put Mötley Crüe to shame, and it manifested quite differently from the much-mythologized free-love ’60s. If the cultural narrative of that era was about taking acid in the sun, Zeppelin are associated with doing Bad Things in the dark. The word that comes up again and again in relation to their career is “debauchery,” with all that word’s negative connotation. Even with all that, though, the shit people believed about the band was hilarious: that they’d made some sort of Faustian pact for fame, that they’d hidden Satanic messages in “Stairway to Heaven,” that Page liked to wear Nazi uniforms to gay clubs, and so on.

These days, the objections tend to center more around the band’s misogyny and generally odious behavior toward women. All these criticisms are valid, up to a point. No one’s going to pretend that the members of Led Zeppelin circa the mid-’70s were a particularly pleasant bunch of people to be around, especially if you had two X chromosomes. And no one’s going to pretend that your 28-year-old lead guitarist conducting an affair with a 14-year-old was in any way defensible. (Having said that, Don Henley seems to get off scot-free for doing essentially the same thing.)

Still, as far as objectionable behavior goes, they aren’t exactly Robinson Crusoe. John Lennon was a prize asshole with a penchant for beating women, and no one ever talks about that. The Rolling Stones were just as hedonistic in the 1970s as Led Zeppelin ever were, but no one lets that color their appreciation of Exile on Main Street. Even the Patron Saint of Flavorwire, David Bowie, wasn’t exactly a great dude to be around when he was exorcising swimming pools and throwing casual Nazi salutes to fans.

The Zeppelin stories have grown in the telling over the years, anyway. The infamous mud shark, for instance, turns out to have not been a mud shark at all — it was a red snapper, for whatever difference that makes, and the groupie who was, um, pleasured with it turns out to have been a willing participant in the entire affair. Sure, masturbating with the aid of a large-ish fish is, um, adventurous by anyone’s standards, but if it was consensual and didn’t involve active cruelty to the fish in question (which had apparently left this mortal coil long before anyone used it as a dildo), then who are we to gainsay it? Either way, the actual story is a long way from the salacious retelling in Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods, which involved the band tying up a hapless groupie and sticking pieces of fish up her ass.

Indeed, it’s Hammer of the Gods that’s at least partly responsible for the whole idea of Zeppelin as avatars of debauchery. One of the legacies of the ’70s was the slew of decidedly salacious unauthorized biographies that emerged in the comparatively conservative 1980s — the most notorious are Albert Goldman’s hatchet jobs on Elvis Presley and, ironically enough, John Lennon, but Davis’ book isn’t far behind as far as hardcover mud-raking goes. Frustratingly, it still gets quoted as gospel by sources both reputable and less than reputable, despite every member of the band having refuted its most outrageous claims — and while they clearly have a vested interest in refuting the idea that they’re the sort of people who were partial to sticking pieces of fish in places where pieces of fish were never meant to go, Zep have never exactly been shy about their excesses.

This is another part of why they’re looked on with suspicion these days, I think. As Rolling Stone wrote during the 1970s, “Give an Englishman 50,000 watts, a chartered Lear jet, a little cocaine and some groupies and he thinks he’s a god.” Their American equivalents have been largely subsumed back into the mainstream these days, their sense of danger long since replaced by a sort of cuddly boomerish nudge-nudge wink-wink weren’t-we-naughty-back-in-the-day appeal — Steven Tyler was a judge on American Idol, for Chrissakes, while Alice Cooper is a teetotalling golf fanatic and KISS descended into self-parody several decades ago. Meanwhile, adopted American Ozzy Osbourne is a reality TV brand more famous for his Parkinson’s than for his excesses.

Page, Plant, and Jones have generally had no part of such things — they do precisely what they want, and have done so ever since Bonham’s death in 1980. They rarely discuss Zeppelin, with Plant, especially, preferring to focus on new projects, and his two surviving colleagues largely following suit. This means that the music and the legends are all that are left, and the latter sadly often overshadows the former. Because look, let’s not forget: the run of form that Led Zeppelin hit from 1969 to the mid-’70s is one that any band would be proud of.

Their first three albums, which all get the deluxe reissue treatment this week, are their most ostensibly blues-influenced — and again, while the criticisms that they were rather too blues-influenced for their own good is valid, it’s one for which Zeppelin seem to get singled out, considering that most of their contemporaries ripped off black artists just as much, if not more, than Zep did. And in any case, their most interesting work was already taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new — the first record’s “Dazed and Confused,” for instance, was a guitar freakout that Lou Reed would have been proud of, while “Moby Dick” off Led Zeppelin II is one of the very few drum showcases that doesn’t have you reaching for the skip button, and the folk-derived sounds of the third record hinted at new directions that’d be further explored in years to come.

Ultimately, though, Led Zeppelin were just a really fucking good rock ‘n’ roll band, blessed with two musicians who rate among the all-time greats on their instruments (Page and Bonham), a visionary multi-instrumentalist and producer (Jones), and one of the most instantly recognizable vocalists of all time (Plant.) If you can appreciate them for that and that alone, there’s a lot to like about one of rock’s most weirdly underrated back catalogs.