The 2006 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the British group Led Zeppelin, one of the great pioneers of rock. Their playful and experimental music combined with highly eclectic elements has two essential themes: mysticism and primal energy. These are features that have come to define the genre ‘hard rock’.
Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones came to Stockholm in May to receive the Prize. It was 26 years after the band had stopped playing, as a result of the tragic death of drummer John Bonham. Led Zeppelin’s career was a short and intense one, in today’s perspective and compared to the huge influence their music have had.
“When we started to play together, I think the combined energies of us produced a sound and an energy that none of us had experienced before"
Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin“
When the Yardbirds fell apart in the summer of 1968, Jimmy Page was left with rights to the group’s name and the obligation to fulfill an upcoming fall tour.
He enlisted John Paul Jones, who had done session work for the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Dusty Springfield and many others. The two had played together on Donovan’s ’68 song “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Then Page wanted to have drummer B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum and singer Terry Reid. They weren’t available, but Reid recommended Robert Plant, who in turn suggested John Bonham, drummer for Plants old Birmingham group Band of Joy. These four, rather experienced musicians in their young twenties became the New Yardbirds, went for the Scandinavian tour and eventually became Led Zeppelin.
The name Led Zeppelin has a special story. Keith Moon of The Who had suggested that a super group with Page and Beck would go down like a “lead balloon”, an idiom for disastrous results. The New Yardbirds transformed the “balloon” into a “zeppelin”. They took away the “e”, so that it would be pronounced right. The debut album was recorded immediately after the Scandinavian tour in September ‘68 – in just 30 hours. In October they played their first UK shows. Before the end of the year the band secured a contract with Atlantic Records in the US. and set out on their first American tour in late December. The album, named only Led Zeppelin, was released in January 1969 in the US and in March in the UK.
Their first album was a relative success, making it to the Top Ten in the US and peaking at number 6 in the UK. Throughout 1969 Led Zeppelin toured relentlessly, playing dates in America and England. While they were on the road, they recorded their second album, Led Zeppelin II, which was released in October 1969.
It was an immediate hit and became #1 in the US, the UK and many other countries. The guitar riffs, the lumbering rhythms, psychedelic blues, groovy shuffles and hints of English folk made these two 1969 albums a turning point in the evolution of hard rock. They continued to tour into 1970. For their third album, Led Zeppelin III, Page and Plant retired to Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales. The result was a more acoustic sound that was strongly influenced by folk and Celtic music.
The constant touring and the success of the their first three albums – Led Zeppelin III went #1 in the US, UK, Canada and Australia – made the band an international concert attraction. They played initially in clubs and ballrooms, then in larger auditoriums as their popularity grew. Some early Led Zeppelin concerts lasted for more than four hours, with expanded and improvised live versions of their song repertoire.
Success and triumph
Both Page and Plant were grounded in British folk music and fascinated by mythology, Middle Earth fantasy and the occult. Led Zeppelin IV (1971) was the band’s most musically diverse effort to date, featuring everything from crunching rock to folk, as well as “Stairway to Heaven”, which found the bridge between the two genres.
It was an immediate radio hit and is often quoted to be the most requested and most played song ever on album-oriented radio. Houses of the Holy (1973) went even further in experimentation, with expanded use of synthesizers and mellotron orchestration, and featuring touches of funk and reggae among their trademark rock and folk. Both albums were huge sellers.
As the ‘70s developed, Led Zeppelin reached new heights of commercial and critical success that made them one of the most influential groups of the era, diminishing their earlier achievements. Their image changed as members began to wear elaborate, flamboyant clothing. They began travelling in a private jet airliner and rented entire sections of hotels. And they had mystique. They rarely gave interviews, since the music press didn’t like them very much. Consequently, the only connection the audience had with the band was through the records and the concerts.
Record breaking concerts
The success of Houses of the Holy set the stage for a record-breaking American tour. Throughout their 1973 tour, Led Zeppelin broke box-office records – most of which were previously held by the Beatles – across America. In Tampa Florida they played for 57,000 people. In 1974 they took a break and established their own record label, Swan Song. Physical Graffitti, a double album, was released in 1975. It was a success, topping the charts in both America and England.
A tour started but came to a halt when Robert Plant and his wife suffered a serious car crash while vacationing in Greece. They returned to action in 1976 with Presence, followed by a tour in ’77, but a couple of months into the tour, Plant’s six-year-old son died of a stomach infection. Led Zeppelin cancelled the tour and the future of the band was uncertain. Plant spent the latter half of 1977 and most of 1978 in seclusion.
Led Zeppelin began recording in ABBA’s Polar studios in Sweden in 1978 and did a short tour in Europe. In August 1979 they played two large concerts at Knebworth, which turned out to be their last English performances. In Trough the Out Door came out, much delayed, in September 1979. On June and July 1980 they did a brief, low-key European tour, and was preparing for the American tour at Jimmy Page’s house when John Bonham was found dead in his bed on the 25 September.
Following an all-day drinking binge, he had passed out and choked on his own vomit. An autopsy was made which found no other drugs in Bonham’s body. The planned North American tour was cancelled, and despite rumors of other famous drummers joining the group and replacing John Bonham, the remaining members decided to disband.
Led Zeppelin was a unique band. Pioneers of rock & roll and innovators of the genre. Their music laid the foundation for hard rock and heavy metal, but it was richer than that. They have influenced musicians and groups, from Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Megadeth and the Ramones to alternative rock like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Bands and artists from other genres have acknowledged the influence, such as Madonna, Shakira, Lady Gaga and Katie Melua. All remaining members have continued successfully with music during the 32 years that have passed since the death of John Bonham. Their stories are too rich to just mention briefly. And it was Led Zeppelin – the group that existed for only 12 years, from 1968 to 1980 – that was awarded the Polar Music Prize in 2006.