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Barney Hoskyns: Demystifying Zeppelin

By Published: March 23, 2013
During its 12-year reign, Led Zeppelin grew into a world-dominating force, packing stadiums around the globe and selling hundreds of millions of records. Its musical canon has transcended the era in which it was written, and is as popular today as in its heyday. Second only to The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

in sales for many years, Led Zeppelin was, and still is, rock's premier group. With his book, Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin (Faber, 2012), renowned journalist, biographer and editor of Rock's Back Pages Barney Hoskyns tells the story of this band including its afterlife. It is said that no musician or band is a hero to his biographer, and Hoskyns examines every detail related to this band. Based on over one hundred interviews and detailed research, this meticulous study offers a vivid and kaleidoscopic account of a band that pushed the envelope of both of creativity and bad behavior.

All About Jazz: You have written a number of biographies through the years. How do you choose your subjects?

Barney Hoskyns: They have to be good stories and they have to be subjects you love. They also have to be realistic prospects commercially, otherwise you don't get the advance money to enable you to research the subject for two years.

AAJ: What were your motives for writing Trampled Underfoot?

BH: I guess I felt the truth hadn't quite been told, because there was a lot of secrecy around the band. I knew there were a lot of Zeppelin insiders who hadn't told their version of the story, and I wanted to attempt a kind of anti- Hammer of the Gods (William Morrow, 1985) by demystifying the legend a little.

AAJ: Led Zeppelin has been documented exhaustively by other authors. Was there a need for a fresh take on the band? What was your intended perspective?

BH: I figured that talking to a lot more insiders than had ever spoken before would offer a new perspective on what the band meant. I didn't realize I'd end up doing 130 interviews.

AAJ: With so much having been written about Led Zeppelin, how did you decide what had real value and what had not?

Barney Hoskyns: I tried to focus on key stages and events and elicit as many quotes on those as possible. What of course makes the story interesting is that everybody sees things in slightly different ways. Nevertheless there was a lot of consensus on central themes like the personalities of the group members and Peter Grant et al. I think the timing was right. People have kept schtum for a long time—to no obvious benefit to themselves—and now they wanted to have their say before it was too late.

AAJ: Was there a particular bit of history that was difficult to unearth?

Barney Hoskyns: Probably John Paul Jones ' early years, since he's by far the least documented of the four Zeppelin members.

AAJ: Why is Led Zeppelin's shady side so attractive to its biographers and its audience?

Barney Hoskyns: We live vicariously through the dark side and extreme behavior of other people, usually stars of stage and screen. We need our celebs to act out the dysfunctions that we either can't or don't want to.

AAJ: When did you first come across to their music?

Barney Hoskyns: When I was quite young, about 12, and into T. Rex, David Bowie and Slade. A school friend brought in his older brothers Zeppelin albums and I was never quite the same again.

AAJ: You had an opportunity to interview the members of Led Zeppelin. What were your impressions when you met them?

Barney Hoskyns: Plant is almost impossible to dislike—a big man in every sense of the word, with a big mind and a big heart. Jonesy is more circumspect, like a genial music teacher— always the most detached and least narcissistic member. Page I have problems with, because he's both deeply paranoid and rather uninteresting. Not the best combination.

AAJ: How receptive are the musicians when you approach them for their input into these books?

Barney Hoskyns: 98% non-receptive, as I would be myself. No one relishes the idea of someone rooting around in their dirty underwear—which is essentially what biography is.

AAJ: What are your favorite Led Zeppelin musical moments from the band's active period?

Barney Hoskyns: My absolute favorites are "Ramble On," "The Ocean," "The Lemon Song," "Friends," "Immigrant Song" and "Gallows Pole."

AAJ: What did you think of the film Celebration Day (Atlantic, 2012) and the reunion gig itself?

Barney Hoskyns: It was better than anyone had any right to expect. Jason will never be his dad but he did an amazing job holding the groove down that night.

AAJ: Given the sheer amount of information, how did you go about researching the book? What sort of research was involved in writing Trampled Under Foot?

Barney Hoskyns: I never set out to write an oral history, but after I'd done a hundred interviews I suddenly thought, "There's an opportunity here to offer Zep fans something different." You forfeit your own narrative interpretation, but as everything from the Jean Stein-George Plimpton book on Edie Sedgwick to Legs McNeil's punk classic Please Kill Me (Penguin Books, 1997) or Crystal Zevon's book on Warren proves, oral history done right can be "unputdownable."

AAJ: Did your research turn up many surprises?

Barney Hoskyns: No huge surprises but amplifications of one's gut instincts about how Zeppelin operated, both as a musical unit and as a stadium-rock machine.

AAJ: Have you had any response from any member of Led Zeppelin regarding this book?

Barney Hoskyns: All the way through researching, writing and publication, I heard that Page was unhappy about me doing the book. Secondhand I've heard that Plant is impressed by it. Typically I have no idea whether Jonesy is even aware of the book.

AAJ: 30 years after the band broke people still buy its albums and the demand for its story is still running high. To what can you attribute the band's longevity past its active career?

Barney Hoskyns: The music up to and including Physical Graffiti (Atlantic, 1975) remains astonishing—the most powerful, dynamic, sexy and funky hard rock ever made.

AAJ: What is Zeppelin's lasting influence upon the world of music? How will it be remembered by music history?

Barney Hoskyns: They showed that you can take blues, folk, rock 'n' roll and funk and turn it into hugely dramatic hard rock. Nothing that happened in the '60s and '70s can happen again in the same way, because the territory was uncharted then and the rules were being made up as everyone went along. The best music by the Stones, Zeppelin et al was genuinely organic and intuitive rather than being made because these guys wanted to be rich and famous. Nobody in 1968, say, could have guessed how huge this phenomenon would become.

Selected Bibliography

Trampled Underfoot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin ( Faber, 2012)
Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits (Faber, 2009)
Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons 1967-1976 (Fourth Estate, 2005)
Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes & The Sound of Los Angeles (UK: Viking/US: St. Martin's Press, 1996)
Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (UK: Viking/US: Hyperion, 1993)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Barney Hoskyns

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