Following the releases of Magus, Musician, Man and Out Of Our Heads I continued to pitch music-related proposals to my US publisher Backbeat, but the one they settled on was an entry in their FAQ series, intended to be a go-to line covering various rock artists, film and television franchises, and other entertainment. While I was by then feeling a little Zeppelined out, after a few years of researching and writing about the band (including a pair of articles for an illustrated anthology published by Voyageur Press in 2008, Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin), I took up the challenge to produce something both comprehensive and original, and Led Zeppelin FAQ was the result.
With the abundance of data and speculation about Zeppelin available in numerous recent books, videos, and online, I was motivated to come up with some exclusive scoops rather than just a compilation of known details; as the series’ editor advised us scribes in the FAQ stable, the brand was not intended to be merely Wikipedia in book form. So I did a bit of legwork to contact people who’d actually been part of the Led Zeppelin world when they were a functioning rock ‘n’ roll act in the 1970s, rather than the permanent demigods of today: I got brief but helpful contacts from road manager Richard Cole, musical associate Roy Harper, recording engineer Ron Nevison, illustrator of the Swan Song design, Joe Petagno, and was very pleased for the final book to be provided with a thoughtful Foreword from former Zeppelin publicity agent Danny Goldberg, himself now a legend in the global music and entertainment business, who subsequently worked with Kiss, Bonnie Raitt, and Nirvana, among many others.
Along with assembling a whole lotta hard facts about the quartet – e.g. Jimmy Page’s various specialized guitar tunings, the staff rosters of their vanity record label and road crew, the songs Page and John Paul Jones played on as studio session men of Swinging London, and a rundown of audible technical goofs in their recorded output – Led Zeppelin FAQ is also a kind of historiography, wherein I took on some of the broader questions surrounding their long-term popularity and influence: not just the Whos, Whats, and How Manys, but more importantly the Whys. Why do people think “Stairway to Heaven” contains backward messages about Satan? Why has Zeppelin regularly been accused of musical plagiarism? Why were the members notorious for groupies, drugs, and wrecking hotel rooms? Why were so many meanings read into their album covers? Why has the band remained so successful and so relevant for so many decades after formally dissolving? To answer these I had to think beyond the certifiable details and toward the evolving opinions on rock ‘n’ roll and popular culture generally, as expressed by journalists and critics over the years. As I explained in the book’s Introduction, “I Never Did Quite Understand” (a line from “Hot Dog” – get it?), “I have also tried to bring in fresh insights and ideas to familiar controversies, shake up a few fallacies, and to remind readers of the fundamental roles celebrity and commerce have played in creating – and sometimes distorting – the standard Led Zeppelin biography. Asserting from the outset that Led Zeppelin were a great rock group who more than earned their acclaim, I believe both the reputation of the act and the sentiments of its fans are secure enough to withstand the scrutiny to which they will be subject herein.”
Since publication in 2011, Led Zeppelin FAQ has competed with a raft of other compendia and photo volumes about the band, but I think curious Zep-heads will still find some useful information and perspectives in its pages which can’t be obtained elsewhere; it can serve as both a handy reference text and a broader meditation on the lasting legacies of the Baby Boom generation, the record industry, and heavy guitar-based rock music. Plus, my rejoinder to anyone who doesn’t appreciate it is right there in the book’s title: if you don’t like Led Zeppelin, Fa-Q.
Next week: Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece