When Mick Wall’s “When Giants Walked the Earth” was published in a hardcover edition last year for the U.K. market, it contained some timely commentary about their highly successful one-night show staged at the end of 2007. The author notes that Plant, who had been interested enough in the making of a re-released The Song Remains the Same movie and soundtrack that year to actually sit in, thought the Led Zeppelin reunion show ought to be a proper farewell from the band. Wall says Plant had a bigger say in what songs would and would not be included; gone were songs that were “too heavy metal,” and he would do “Stairway to Heaven” but only buried in the middle of their two-hour set, not as a finale or an encore.
Of course, the others had learned by then to cater to his wishes; after all, the last time a Zeppelin reunion had been seriously considered with Plant going along with it had been back about 16 years earlier. He even cites a remark made in 1993 by Peter Grant to Dave Lewis: “You’ve got to realize Robert always wanted to be the boss of the band anyway. He finally got his own way.” This appears to be Wall’s thesis, that the band was, in essence, hijacked over the course of time by Robert Plant, stolen from the reins of founder Jimmy Page. To illustrate this concept, Wall starts by going to the very beginning of the story: Page as a child learning from the earliest rock ‘n’ roll in existence and wanting to be a part of it, and eventually wanting to do certain things with a band of his own. Wall, leaving no part of the story unturned, lists it all.
“When Giants Walked the Earth,” now available in paperback and hardcover editions in the United States, is quite perhaps the most detailed a book has been in attempting to uncover the mindsets of the men behind Led Zeppelin. The most unique part of this book is one very irregular style of writing that helps the reader understand the bigger pictures as presented. Wall writes long odes to the characters of the story, as if somebody were speaking to them at a certain period of time but with knowledge of the future. This style of writing is definitely jarring at first, but once accustomed, the reader can learn the larger context of the story.
Wall, who was editor-in-chief of Classic Rock magazine, has been somewhat criticized for questionable sourcing of information in the book, but to his credit he has logged many hours with the Zeppelin members over the years. Further, he notes there are some sources who “for reasons of privacy do not wish to be named.” Still, he says he has taken heat for the book; he wrote in August 2008: “I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he’ll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends like – apparently.”
While some biographies of Led Zeppelin delve briefly into the topic of Jimmy Page’s alleged interest in the occult and the works of Aleister Crowley, Wall devotes 28 entire pages to unravelling that mystery. In a manner that probably no other author has attempted, Wall goes long into details about precisely what teachings of Crowley’s might have most appealed to Page. Here, Wall attempts to represent Crowley’s teachings in a manner that separates the original intentions from the way they have been conveyed popularly. It’s a lot of information, more than this particular reader enjoyed although other opinions and levels of interest may vary considerably. The author discusses the possibility of a curse alleged to have been placed on Page by filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Wall notes that the hardships Led Zeppelin experienced in the second half of the 1970s began around the time Anger was supposed to have made this curse.
One bias of Wall’s appears to be that the second half of Led Zeppelin’s existence contained nothing but bad experiences, in sharp contrast to the mostly good experiences of the first half. He does go too far in dismissing the efforts on the albums Presence and In Through the Out Door, and his opinions of the judgment that guided Led Zeppelin in the later years are not high either. Taking these biases into consideration, the biography still does much to demystify the personalities behind Led Zeppelin as the years progressed. This is one biography that should not be overlooked.
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.