If anyone needed a reminder that rock-and-roll is indeed dead -- dead and buried with no hope of resurrection -- ample evidence was provided recently in Washington, D.C., when the surviving members of immortal Led Zeppelin received The Kennedy Center Honors at the U.S. State Department for “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.”
Messrs. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (none of whom are U.S. citizens, so far as I know) were also feted by U.S. President Barack Obama.
“When Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham burst on the musical scene in the late ’60s, the world never saw it coming,” Obama gushed.
“It’s been said that a generation of people survived teenage angst with a pair of headphones and a Zeppelin album, and a generation of parents wondered what all that noise was about … Appreciate the fact that the Led Zeppelin legacy lives on.”
Obama also playfully referred to the band’s violent, self-destructive lifestyle on the road.
“We do not have video of this, but there were some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around, so it’s fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick and Secret Service all around,” the president quipped, before referring to the rockers’ advanced ages.
“We honor Led Zeppelin for making us all feel young, and showing us that some guys who are not completely youthful can still rock.”
In a world where aging rock stars receive MBE awards, knighthoods from Queen Elizabeth and even appear as panelists on schlocky TV "talent" programs, one should not be surprised by rock musicians appearing with the highest pillars of the Establishment.
However, the spectacle of Led Zeppelin with the most powerful man on earth -- and everything that implies -- was bizarre and beyond depressing.
When I was a boy, Led Zeppelin dominated pop-rock music like a colossus -- they supplanted the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as the biggest, baddest, most popular and influential band on the planet. Not only did they sell an enormous amount of albums (reportedly at least 300 million records globally to date), generate tremendous revenue and wealth, but they lived a life of excess and profligacy that established a standard of licentiousness that perhaps has never been matched, much less exceeded.
Indeed, Led Zeppelin, who were managed by a former wrestler named Peter Grant who was essentially a thug, lived out every red-blooded boy’s wildest nihilistic fantasies -- incredible wealth, sex with thousands of girls, the consumption of every known type of alcohol and drug, and the ability to do virtually anything without fear of prosecution or any kind of responsibility and accountability.
But it came at a heavy price -- Page developed a multi-year heroin addiction and, most tragically, drummer John Bonham died in 1980 at the very young age of 32, leading to their breakup, exactly ten years after the Beatles disbanded.
In retrospect, in the pantheon of immortal rock bands, Led Zeppelin occupies a space somewhat below the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. Detractors point out that Page and Plant were mediocre songwriters (in fact, many of the group’s earliest songs were simply re-workings of American blues records) and, worse, their massive success virtually single-handedly created the phenomenon known as “arena rock” where bands performed in huge outdoor stadiums before tens of thousands of fans.
Having wisely shunned appearing on TV, Led Zeppelin prompted (forced) fans to see their heroes in person at wild, loud -- often four-hour long marathon -- concerts.
Partly due to the efforts of Grant, Led Zeppelin was granted extraordinary (perhaps unprecedented) creative control over their material, including the content of their albums and their release dates. Moreover, lead songwriters Page and Plant gained lucrative royalty rates that made them the envy of their peers.
Led Zeppelin’s sensational rise -- and seemingly endless string of colossally successful LPs -- coincided with the moral deterioration of the rock music genre. By the mid-1970s, under the stresses of high inflation, rising unemployment and the Arab oil embargo, the idealistic, communal nature of 1960s pop-rock music -- best exemplified by the stirring songs of the Beatles and Bob Dylan -- had vanished, replaced by cynicism and nihilism. This movement would reach its peak in the explosion of violently angry British punks, but Led Zeppelin already embodied this negative spirit a few years earlier.
However, the characterization of Led Zeppelin as a “heavy metal” band is patently unfair and inaccurate. Indeed, I would estimate that at least one-third of their output comprised gentle acoustic ballads, often inspired by folk and Celtic music (a world away from head-banging rock-and-roll).
I always regarded Led Zeppelin as a better-looking, but somewhat less inspiring, version of the Who. Whether by design or by coincidence, Led Zeppelin’s parallels with the earlier group were uncanny. There was the dark-haired, cerebral, tormented, intellectual leader and principal songwriter (Page and Pete Townshend); the handsome, muscular, sexy blonde front-man (Plant and Roger Daltrey); the quiet, immobile, unemotional bassist (Jones and John Entwistle); and the wild, uncontrolled, manic, suicidal drummer who died young (Bonham and Keith Moon).
Now, more than 30 years after their glorious peak, the surviving group members are old men in their 60s. Plant, still wearing his now grey-hair long, is stooped and seemingly frail; Page, a legitimate ‘rock guitar god,’ is aged and subdued, while Jones, perhaps the most nondescript, anonymous rock star in history, looks like a retired insurance salesman.
Bonham avoided this sad spectacle by dying young -- after all isn’t that in keeping with the true ethos of rock and roll?
Witnessing Led Zeppelin wearing tuxedos and glad-handing U.S. politicians reminds us that rock-and-roll is simply a business -- a multi-billion dollar industry -- that is just as soulless and profit-driven as any other "boring" corporation. It’s really all about money and joining the mainstream establishment.
Thank God Bonzo never lived to see this.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.