Stephen Davis' mid-eighties account of the rise, antics and fall of Led Zeppelin is a famously scurrilous affair, cutting a track that a string of copycat efforts concerning the likes of Motley Crue, Black Sabbath and Metallica gleefully followed in much the same way, I suspect, as those bands gleefully followed Led Zeppelin. Looking back at it now, with Led Zeppelin's status ever-more Zeus-like in the rock pantheon, it is difficult to believe that, at the time of publication (1985), the band's credibility could hardly have been at a lower ebb. Everything Led Zep stood for was rejected as, in quick succession, disco, then punk, then new wave and lastly new romance (which I decree to be the noun for which "new romantic" is the adjective) followed hard on each others' heels. To Johnny Rotten (displaying a surprising lack of historical perspective, even for him), Led Zeppelin was the archetypal dinosaur.
In one way it is odd, then, that this unauthorised (and roundly denounced) biography made such a splash. But lusty tales of bondage with sharks, wrecked hotel rooms and satanic backward masking must, for the kids, have been a welcome relief from the glassy neuroticism of A Flock Of Seagulls and their painted, dilettante cohorts - so perhaps no wonder, and it is always darkest before dawn, after all. And day was about to break; in 1985 a young Axl Rose was warming up in the wings. The mighty Zeppelin's legacy hasn't looked back since.
It's quite a legacy, if Stephen Davis is even partly to be believed. (Messrs. Page and Plant would bid you not). Davis writes colourfully, outrageously, bombastically but most of all entertainingly, and in that way as many others does Hammer Of The Gods befit, and reflect the glory of, its subject matter.
For all that it is a little uneven. Davis' attention to the story does wane somewhat as the seventies wears on - far more space is devoted to Jimmy Page's brief dalliance with the Yardbirds than to the two years between Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti - to some minds (though not this one) Led Zeppelin's creative apogee. I suppose there's only so much gigging, rooting, boozing and fetishising of Aleister Crowley you can write about without boring your audience, but all the same more effort could have been put into charting Led Zeppelin's hubristic and ultimately tragic decline. The best Davis manages is quashing the transparently silly suggestion that the decline and fall might have been brought by Jimmy's fixation with matters diabolical - thanks for that insight - and noting the increasing reliance on heroin as the seventies wore on took its toll on the creative spark. You have to think there's more to it than that.
Davis is obviously a fan of the band, but all the same he's no stooge: the characters he draws are mainly believable (though I still have trouble crediting a roadworker from Birmingham ("tar in his hair, tar on his hands, and when he opened his mouth it was like an air-raid siren going off") with the insight and deep celtic fascination to pen tunes and lyrics like Kashmir and, yes, Stairway to Heaven. Page remains, throughout, the impish creative genius of the band, Plant the Daltrey-esque Shepherd's Bush screamer (though as mentioned, this doesn't seem to do his intellect justice), Jones the completely unengaged professional, and then there's Bonzo.
Bone of contention here. In my book Davis is far, far more charitable to John Bonham's memory than, on the content he sets out in this book, he has any right to be. To claim the same man to be a caring, loyal and loving family man (* while sober) and a "beast" - by Davis' account, repeatedly guilty of at least aggravated assault and attempted rape - (* while drunk) is frankly an asterisk too far, particularly when Davis' record also tends to suggest Bonham was in any case perpetually drunk, and angry, throughout the seventies, leaving no time for "nice considerate John" to come out. I think Davis should have said it: Bonham was a pig.
And nor is Bonham's unfortunate (but hardly tragic) death, nor his (literally) fabled drumming prowess an excuse. I suspect Bonham's reputation survived largely because his behaviour was of a piece with band manager Richard Cole's, and Cole was a significant source of material for Davis' book, and thus commanded a sympathetic account. No matter: perhaps our 21st century moralising has got to me, but to my mind Davis could, and should, have been more eviscerating than he was.
Hammer of the Gods is now updated to somewhere near the present day, and the comparative lack of any interesting output since the band split (the one genuinely interesting project, Page & Plant's No Quarter, hardly counts as new material) only serves to gives one a sense of what was, and what might have been.
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