Led Zeppelin officially formed in 1968, rising from the ashes of previous group The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page had recently swapped his bass guitar for lead and was looking to start a supergroup with fellow guitarist Jeff Beck, vocalist Robert Plant, and on the recommendation of Plant, drummer John Bonham. When Chris Dreja, The Yardbirds bassist, retired in the pursuit of a photography career, John Paul Jones was contacted by Plant and was granted the final position. They were still committed to several concerts in Europe at this point, so with the authorisation of past members Jim McCarty and Keith Relf, the band continued under the name The Yardbirds to fulfil the bands’ obligations.
By late September 1968, The Yardbirds had just finished touring in Scandinavia and it was obvious Led Zeppelin’s musical style was beginning to take shape, however, it wasn’t until later in the year that the name Led Zeppelin would first appear. After receiving a cease and desist letter from Dreja, former ‘New Yardbirds’ were ordered to rename the band. Though the story varies, it was The Who drummer Keith Moon that coined the name after remarking that the new project would “go down like a lead balloon”. They dropped the ‘A’ to avoid mispronunciation and made a name swap from balloon to zeppelin. One $143,000 advance from Atlantic Records later and Led Zeppelin was born.
In November 1968 Led Zeppelin were offered an advance contract of $143,000 by American label Atlantic Records, the biggest offer of its kind at the time for an emerging band. Though Atlantic Records normally associated with acts specialising in jazz, soul and blues, in the late ’60s the company was becoming more focused on British progressive rock acts. In fact, the label was so keen to work with Led Zeppelin that record executives signed them without ever having met.
The band played their first show under the new name Led Zeppelin at the University of Surrey on the 25th October. Tour manager Richard Cole, who would go on to become an influential part of the band and major figure in touring life, was busy organising their first North American tour at the back end of 1968. During the tour, their debut album Led Zeppelin I was released, peaking at number 10 on the US Billboard chart, though it fared better when released in the UK peaking at number 6 on the 31st March. It was with this album that a shift was created in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal, showing a turning point towards the addition of psychedelic blues and lumbering rhythms with hints of acoustic riffs.
Within a year of formation, Led Zeppelin had already completed 8 tours within the US and UK and had released their second studio album Led Zeppelin II. The band spent a lot of time recording this album in various studios across America and managed to produce an album even more commercially successful than the first, topping charts in both the UK and US. The album built on the blues-rock foundation that they had established in their debut release, creating something that would be seen as highly influential and imitated often due to its ‘heavy, hard and direct’ sound.
The band saw their release as a complete listening experience, with the tracks intended to be played back to back, and urged fans to listen to originals instead of re-edited tracks made to be singles. Band manager Peter Grant held a firm pro-album stance due to the limited outlets in the UK for rock bands to be seen on TV and heard on the radio. However, without consent from the band, some songs were released as singles, particularly in the US. An example of this was an edited version of the 1969 hit “Whole Lotta Love” which went on to sell over one million copies and put Led Zeppelin’s name on the map, cementing the band’s popularity.
Led Zeppelin completed several more tours following the success of their album, with venues and set times growing in size with each gig. As their popularity grew during this intensive period of touring, the band began to build a reputation for off-stage excess.
It was in 1970 that Plant and Page paid a visit to a remote cottage in Wales to begin working on their third album titled “Led Zeppelin III”. The result of this was an acoustic-focused album highlighting the versatility of the band. This led to a series of mixed reactions from fans and press due to such a large jump from what the band had been producing previously. Despite this, Led Zeppelin III went on to be the second album that would top charts in the UK and US, with the opening song “Immigrant Song” reaching the top 20 on the Billboard chart in 1970.
Heading into 1970, it was clear that Led Zeppelin had made a huge impact on the rock scene, reaching new heights of commercial and critical success garnering them one of the most influential bands of their time. With this came a change in the band’s appearance, opting for more flamboyant clothing. Page shone at the forefront of this movement, sporting an eccentric, glittering, stars and moon flared two-piece. Led Zeppelin also ramped up production by introducing more extravagant features to their shows such as lasers, light shows and disco balls.
It was at this time that the band had bought their own private jet (nicknamed Starship), rented out whole floors of hotels the most popular being the infamous “Riot House” in Los Angeles), and gained media attention for their frequent unhinged tales. Though they gained quite a reputation for trashing hotel suites and throwing furniture from windows, it is speculated that a lot of these stories were exaggerated most of the time.
On the 8th of November 1971, Led Zeppelin released their fourth studio album. In response to the press labelling Zeppelin as a ‘hype’, the band decided to release the album with no official title or information. However, the record company insisted on something on the cover, so in discussions, it was agreed to have four symbols to represent both the four members of the band and that it was the fourth album. Though variously referred to as Untitled, or, due to the four symbols Zoso, Four Symbols or Runes, it is most commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV. This went on to be one of the best-selling albums in history selling 37 million copies and giving the member’s superstar status in the 1970s. It also included one of Led Zeppelin's greatest rock songs "Stairway To Heaven" which has featured on many Best Song Charts including Rolling Stone magazine's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
In March of 1973 Led Zeppelin’s next album Houses of the Holy was released and once again topped the charts. The band’s North American tour went on to sell out large stadiums, in one instance playing to over 55,000 fans in Florida, breaking the Beatles 1965 record.
In 1975, the double album Physical Graffiti was released with the band's own record label Swan Song. It included fifteen songs, eight of which had been recorded at Headley Grange in 1974. The album was a massive commercial and critical success. Because of this, there was a spike in the popularity of Led Zeppelin’s previous albums, with all of them simultaneously re-entering the top 200 album chart. In May of the same year, the band went on to play five sold-out nights in Earls Court Arena, the largest arena in the UK at the time.
A North American tour was scheduled to go ahead on the 17th October 1980, and would be their first American tour since 1977. On the 24th of September, the band were rehearsing at Bray Studios where they worked late into the night, later retiring to Page’s house in Windsor. It was reported that at 1:45 pm the next day drummer John Bonham had died. The planned tour was cancelled and the remaining members made the decision to disband.
On the 4th of December 1980, a press statement read “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were." The statement was simply signed “Led Zeppelin”. After years of playing, many to this day still consider Led Zeppelin to be one of the most influential and successful rock bands in musical history.