Led Zeppelin combined the visceral power and intensity of hard rock with the finesse and delicacy of British folk music. In so doing, they helped redefine the direction that rock music took in the Seventies. Since their breakup in 1980, Led Zeppelin seems in retrospect to have been the most significant rock group of the post-Beatles era. Their impact extends to classic and alternative rockers alike.
Led Zeppelin formed in 1968 out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, coming together around guitarist Jimmy Page as the "New Yardbirds" in order to fulfill contractual obligations after the original group's demise. Page's stint in the Yardbirds (1966-1968) followed a period of years as one of Britain's great session guitarists. As a generally anonymous hired gun, Page performed on mid-Sixties British Invasion records by the likes of Donovan ("Hurdy Gurdy Man"), Them ("Gloria"), the Kinks ("You Really Got Me"), the Who ("I Can't Explain") and hundreds of others. Bassist John Paul Jones also boasted a lofty session musician's pedigree. His resume included work for the Rolling Stones, Donovan and Dusty Springfield. Singer Robert Plant and drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham were old friends who had been playing about the British Midlands in an obscure group called Band of Joy.
The union of the four musicians as Led Zeppelin - their name having been suggested as a joke by Who drummer Keith Moon - quickly revealed a potent chemistry. Their integration of classic Delta blues and mystical U.K. folk into the dynamic power of contemporary rock augured the birth of heavy metal - though in Led Zeppelin's well-crafted hands "hard rock" seems a more appropriate description. Such classics as "Whole Lotta Love" were typically based around Page's heavyweight guitar riffs, Plant's raw-throated vocals, Jones' melodic, supportive bass lines, and the inimitable thunder of Bonham's drums.
The group's union of power and delicacy found favor with the audience for rock that emerged in the Seventies. Led Zeppelin deliberately aimed itself at the album market, eschewing the AM-radio singles orientation of the previous decade. Their most enduring albums - Led Zeppelin II, their untitled fourth album (a.k.a., Led Zeppelin IV, the Runes album, or Zoso) and the double album Physical Graffiti - are iconographic milestones in a decade they helped define with a kind of brutally beautiful aesthetic. Led Zeppelin's articulate, sculptural music reached its peak with the fable-like "Stairway to Heaven," which remains radio's all-time most-requested rock song. Led Zeppelin's sold-out concert tours became rituals of rock and roll theater. The Song Remains the Same, a film documentary and double-album soundtrack from 1976, attests to the group's powerful and somewhat dark appeal at the height of their popularity.
After the death of drummer Bonham on September 25, 1980, due to asphyxiation following excessive alcohol consumption, Led Zeppelin disbanded to pursue solo careers. Something of the old power was rekindled in 1995 when Page and Plant reunited to record an album (No Quarter) and tour with a large and diverse ensemble of musicians. Meanwhile, the lingering appeal of Led Zeppelin is perhaps best summed up by guitarist Page: "Passion is the word....It was a very passionate band, and that's really what comes through."