WHOLE LOTTA ISSUES
Led Zeppelin’s Controversial Legacy: Thievery, Underage Groupies and the ‘Mud-Shark Incident’
On the 50th anniversary of their debut album, Stereo Williams looks back on the hard rock legends’ highs and lows.
Led Zeppelin released their earth-shattering debut album on Jan. 12, 1969, announcing the quartet as the harbingers of the sort of epic hard rock that would become a force unto itself in the decade to come. The band was famously derided as obnoxious music for lunkheads by many critics during its early peak, but proved to be extraordinarily popular and unforeseeably enduring. For many, Led Zeppelin is the greatest hard rock band of all time—maybe the greatest rock band in any discipline. But this band, born out of the Yardbirds and bolstered by the blues, has a legacy that can’t easily be reduced to just Page’s big riffs and Bonham’s drums and Plant’s wail. Fifty years later, what Led Zeppelin represented is something more damning than most of us would like to admit.
The band’s musical heritage, its public image and its extensive influence are all indissolubly connected to some of the most damning clichés of classic rock: a pilfering of the blues, a penchant for hedonistic excess, the romanticizing of a ‘70s “groupie” culture that preyed on naïve, sometimes-underage girls—its all a part of what Zeppelin was. And it all makes their legacy continuously and increasingly polarizing.
Rock music was rapidly changing in 1969. A decade that had begun with several of rock & roll’s stars of the ‘50s suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the forefront of popular music (Little Richard a minister, Chuck Berry in prison, Buddy Holly dead at 22), was ending with an entire generation of artists who’d been elevated to a level of cultural import that landed them at the center of national dialogues on everything from long hair to Vietnam. Charles Manson and Woodstock would both become flashpoints that summer, but early in the year, a loud self-titled debut by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham provided as clear an indication as any as to where rock was going.
While it should be obvious that Led Zeppelin’s brand of muscular, sweeping hard rock has a voice that is altogether the band’s, it should be just as blatant that Zeppelin made a habit of rehashing songs without sharing credit—at least not without lawsuits being filed. “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from their debut were always credited to legendary blues songwriter Willie Dixon, but Zeppelin credited “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” as “traditional”—Page heard the song via Joan Baez and assumed it was public domain after it was similarly credited on her 1962 album Joan Baez in Concert. It was actually written by folk singer Anne Credon, who was given a share of the royalties and co-author credit for Zep’s track after being made aware of it in the 1980s. Singer-songwriter Jake Holmes sued the band in 2011 and won authorship credit for “Dazed and Confused,” a song he’d written in 1967 and that Page heard when Holmes opened for the Yardbirds.
Early Led Zeppelin classics like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song” are other famous instances of song “nicking” that found Zeppelin on the receiving end of litigation, and for a lot of people, the band’s name is forever connected to wanton plagiarism. The fact that so many of the cases involved songs by Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues legends has made Zeppelin the poster boys for the cultural appropriation that typified rock’s commodification. It hurts their standing among many music fans and Page remains endlessly defensive about his band’s artistic merit, as do legions of fans. But Zeppelin being tagged as song thieves is just one of the reasons the band’s legacy is muddy.
Led Zeppelin’s peak epitomized rock’s most egregiously excess-driven period, and while it has been romanticized in pop culture via movies like Almost Famous, that period represented just how normalized fans, media and enablers were when it came to some of music’s most depraved personalities. Sex, drugs and rock & roll became a mantra, and groupie culture became chic, but it wasn’t just a big post-‘60s party. Looking back now, the ‘70s classic rock era looks like libido run amok—with some glaring examples of just how dark the public would allow its favorite rockers to be without ever calling them into question. Zeppelin stories were often fictional, but made them heroes to teenage boys who wanted to be rock stars and, much like Zeppelin’s actual music, proved to be a template for what would become depressingly clichéd by the time hair metal hit the ‘80s.
From rumors of Satanic worship to wild-man stories involving drummer John Bonham’s endless drinking, it’s sometimes hard to separate what’s historical fact and what’s silly folklore with Led Zeppelin. An infamous story involving a female fan and a mud shark added to Zeppelin’s riotous notoriety but it’s never been confirmed as true (the band always denied it and members of Vanilla Fudge have claimed culpability). But Page’s relationship with 14-year-old Lori Mattix wasn’t the stuff of urban legend; Mattix revealed that Page had a roadie bring Mattix up to his suite at the L.A. Hyatt House, and would keep her sequestered from the public for extended periods in the hopes of protecting himself from statutory-rape charges.
The ‘70s rock-groupie scene was documented by the popular rock mags of the era; and Lori was known as “Lori Lightning,” and she and her friend Sable Starr were famously referred to by rock stars as the “baby groupies” due to their being underage. Sable reportedly lost her virginity at 12 years old to Randy California of Spirit, and Iggy Pop wrote a 1996 song called “Look Away” about having sex with her when she was 13. Alongside stories involving Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, Mattix would reveal that David Bowie slept with her when she was 14, and after Jimmy Page saw her at a show, he had his bodyguard “kidnap” her. She told The Guardian last year that #MeToo led to her reconsidering how she’d viewed her time with Page and other rock stars in the 1970s.
“I think that’s what made me start seeing it from a different perspective because I did read a few [articles], and I thought: ‘Shit, maybe,’” she said in regards to whether she’d been exploited and abused by Page. “That’s an interesting question. I never thought there was anything wrong with it, but maybe there was. I used to get letters telling me he was a pedophile, but I’d never think of him like that. He never abused me, ever.”
“I don’t think underage girls should sleep with guys. I wouldn’t want this for anybody’s daughter. My perspective is changing as I get older and more cynical.”
Maybe we should all be a little more cynical about Led Zeppelin. Following Cream and Hendrix, they helped shape hard rock at the end of the 1960s. They would go on a run of albums that hold up remarkably well and the musical alchemy of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham is one of rock’s most distinct. But you can’t get through any of that without wading through the dirt that comes along with their history when examined through today’s lens. There will be a lot of people talking about this band on the occasion of its debut album turning 50. Here’s hoping those conversations at least attempt to be honest about the whole of what Led Zeppelin was.