Keith Moon joins Led Zeppelin on stage on June 23, 1977, seen here snarling at guitarist Jimmy Page
Led Zeppelin have become legendary for the controversy and debauchery associated with its members. Drugs, booze, women – they are known for it all. Even the origin of the band’s name is open to debate.
In 1968, the famous formation of the group arose out of the ashes of a band called the Yardbirds, and began playing their first shows under the name of the New Yardbirds. Keith Moon, of the Who fame and drummer for the original Yardbirds, suggested that the New Yardbirds would go down like “a lead balloon.” Guitarist Jimmy Page apparently appreciated the joke; after switching ‘balloon’ to Zeppelin, the band’s manager suggested they drop the ‘a’ to avoid confusion – and Led Zeppelin was born.
Yet this story is not without its detractors. Some sources claim the lead balloon crack actually came from John Entwistle, guitarist for the Who, and therefore he deserves the credit. Other stories purport it was from a newspaper article written by a critic attempting to insult the band. Still others argue it was manager Peter Grant that coined the name, then dropped the ‘a’ from lead.
Though the origin of the band’s name is uncertain, their enduring success certainly is not.
Generally considered to be one of the most prominent, influential and innovative bands in rock history, Led Zeppelin went on to sell 200 – 300 million units worldwide. They are the second-best selling musical act in the US. All nine of their studio albums broke into the top ten Billboard album charts, most rising to number one. In 1995 Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They remain hugely popular with new generations, attested to by the walls in virtually every record store in the country draped with Zeppelin T-shirts and posters. Robert Plante’s long wild hair and open shirt have become an iconic rock and roll image.
I saw first-hand the pugnaciousness of the band in 1970, when I played the group at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. Among the requirements in the rider for the show’s contract was a request for two dozen bottles of Dom Perignon champagne. After sending my assistant to pick up the very expensive liquor ($100 per bottle), we discovered the entire city did not have enough to supply the band’s demands. We improvised – and bought a different brand of champagne, which was nevertheless equally expensive.
Just before the show was to begin, I got a call from manager Peter Grant to come down to the dressing room.
“Uh oh,” I thought to myself, hurrying to the other side of the arena and knocking on the dressing room door.
Peter was instantly in my face with a bottle of the expensive champagne.
“Is this Dom Perignon?” he screamed at me. “No!” He smashed it against the wall. Champagne and shards of glass splattered everywhere.
He grabbed another bottle.
“Is this Dom Perignon?” he asked, before again smashing the bottle against the wall. He repeated this with each bottle. I watched as over $2,400 literally went down the drain.
These kinds of stories, even the apocryphal ones, are the stuff of legends. This was the nature of the band, and of rock and roll. Even if we could determine the origin of their name, Led Zeppelin would probably find a way to fight you on that, too.
Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’