Classic Rock Review

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When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall (2010)


To say that “When Giants Walked the Earth” is the best available biography of Led Zeppelin actually is not saying much. The book’s only real competition, not including lavish illustration-based books, is Stephen Davis’ “Hammer of the Gods,” and that book, though well written, is flawed by its obsession with the band’s violent excesses during tours and its overreliance on oral testimony from people like Richard Cole and aggrieved groupies and journalists, who were all too willing to feed that obsession. In many instances, “Giants” beats “Hammer” in terms of detail and breadth of research (the number of people interviewed is very impressive). In other instances, “Hammer” is the winner. For instance, if you want to get a traditional narrative sense of the build-up of the band from Page and Jones’ time as session musicians, Page’s Yardbird days, and Plant and Bonham’s days in Birmingham-based bands, “Hammer” is the book that provides it.

“Giants” author Mick Wall, on the other hand, decided to intersperse most of this history throughout the book in the form of italicized “flashback” sequences written directly to the protagonists in the second person (“It all changed for you the night you went out after a Bo Diddley shown in Newcastle…”). I found these passages not only boring to read, but irritating because they interrupted the flow of the book, and often you have to read through half a page of one before figuring out which person is being referred to. Be warned that nearly all of the pre-Zeppelin history of the band members is imparted in these “flashback” passages, so that if you want to learn about the protagonists’ childhoods, teenaged years, and early bands, the only way to do so is to force your way through them. I tried at first, but decided it wasn’t worth it and gave up.

Otherwise, the book has many good points. Wall really did his homework as far as the research goes. He tracked down and interviewed all kinds of people, including not only the band members themselves and their musical colleagues and confidants, but also more obscure people like festival promoters, studio engineers, album-cover artists, and even Jimmy Page’s rare-book dealer. I was particularly excited to read the lengthy testimony of Jake Holmes, the largely unsung original composer of “Dazed and Confused.” It is gratifying that, in a book about such great megastars, Wall devoted so much time and space to honoring the enthusiasm, creativity and hard work of dozens upon dozens of ordinary people.

That said, I feel Wall was too eager to use every bit of information and testimony that he gathered. His quotations are too long and often include platitudes that needn’t have been repeated (how great a particular concert was, how hard Jimmy Page worked in the studio, how crazy the guys got in a hotel room one night, and so on). Sometimes the quotations include information that is just irrelevant. A quotation from Robert Plant about John Bonham’s declining health in 1980 (p. 409) includes Plant’s revelation that he now takes Omega 3 oil to improve his tennis game. When the subject of Jimmy Page’s occult interests comes up, Wall gives several turgid pages of background on occultism throughout Rock `n’ Roll history (pp. 208-214). Then comes eleven pages of thorough, but unnecessary, biography of Aleister Crowley (pp. 217-228), which a writer with better judgment would have condensed and left it to the reader to find more on his or her own. (That is what bibliographies are for.) The description of the famous theft of $200,000 during one of the band’s U.S. tours includes a long paragraph discussing whether Richard Cole might have been the culprit (p. 296); but as Cole passed a lie-detector test and the band never pressed charges, it’s hard to see the point of lingering on the question. The amount of space given to accusations of Satan-worship leveled at the band, is far more than the accusers deserve; Wall should not have given them the satisfaction.

The result of such unwillingness to sacrifice information is that the book lacks a sense of smooth narrative movement. I really started to enjoy the book only once I decided to allow myself to skim major passages. Unfortunately, this ended up including the disappointing ending: The last chapter is an “epilogue” consisting of seventeen mind-numbing pages cataloging every hint dropped since 2008 about whether Zeppelin might or might not reform. Cutting this epilogue (which the editor of a more serious book would have insisted upon) would have ended the book on a climactic note and given it a tighter narrative structure. Instead, it just fizzles out. (Come to think of it, not unlike the career of Led Zeppelin.)

Many moments in the book, though, are brilliant and make great reading. Wall’s critique of several of the albums, such as “Physical Graffiti” and “In Through the Out Door,” is spot on, as is his recounting of the O2 concert in 2007. In general, he did a great job by beginning the book focusing on Page, but ending it with the spotlight on Plant, which is suggestive of how the two men’s roles reversed over the course of the story.

Finally, the title is a great choice. Taken from Genesis 6:4 (“In those days the Nephilim [giants] walked the earth”), it suggests a time that was profoundly different from our own and is unlikely to come back. The 50’s, 60’s and 70’s of rock was an age that supported giant figures and great cultural ambitions. Our time, though, is an age of niche artists who pursue individualized and obsessional work, and have narrow, frenetic followings. It’s a more confusing, complex and lonelier time. Figures of massive, lasting appeal and significance like Elvis, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin simply are not born, and cannot thrive, in it. Even when the survivors of that time continue to work today, we listeners feel lucky if we can consider the resulting material satisfying; we don’t even hope for it to be monumental or ground breaking. In a way, Wall’s book is a paean not just to a band but to a lost era.

April 8, 2013 - Posted by | Book When Giants Walked The Earth The Biography Of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall | , ,

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