While the four musicians had been launching their Led Zeppelin, Peter Grant had
been preparing for his assault on New York to procure a record deal. Jimmy
Page so far had only half of what he wanted. Jimmy wanted complete control of
production, cover art, publishing, scheduling, concerts, promotion. Jimmy
never wanted to be owned again. So Peter Grant left England in November 1968
with audition tapes, a rough mix, and cover art for Led zeppelin. His mission
was to secure a world distribution deal from an American recording company that
granted total artistic and commercial control to the musicians.
He got it from Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, the label
that had pioneered pop rhythm and blues twenty years earlier. At the time
Atlantic was comfortably on the charts with Cream, Buffalo Springfield, and
Aretha Franklin. But Wexler also had his eye on the future, as forecast by
the sales performance of two other Atlantic acts, Iron Butterfly and Vanilla
Fudge. These two groups - so-called "heavy" bands that spewed lugubrious blues
and rock - were selling like crazy. Rarely in the Top Twenty, they nevertheless
stayed on the charts for weeks. Iron Butterfly's In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida stayed on
the charts for several years and became the first album to be awarded platinum
status. Wexler and Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun could also see that the
audience for rock music had changed radically in the past two years. In the
wake of Eric Clapton and Cream, Led Zeppelin would appeal to this new audience,
boys and young men between fifteen and twentyfour, an audience who like their
rock to be loud, AngloSaxon, violent, 4/4, martial. The girls weren't really
at this party. It wasn't a dance.
Wexler had already spoken to Peter Grant
by telephone and told him that Atlantic wanted Led Zeppelin. He had gotten a
glowing recommendation for the new group from the great English soul singer
Dusty Springfield, who had worked with both Page and Jones in London. "But
you don't know my price," Peter replied.
In New York Peter and his American lawyer, Steve Weiss, negotiated an awesome
deal for the day, which reportedly gave Led Zeppelin a $200,000 advance and the
highest royalty rate ever negotiated for a group of musicians (said later to
be five times that of the Beatles) in return for worldwide distribution by
Atlantic Records and its licensees. The contract gave complete artistic
control to the band, and an added perquisite - demanded by Jimmy - that Led
Zeppelin would be the first rock band on the hallowed Atlantic label. All
the other white rock acts appeared on Atlantic's declasse subsidiary, Atco
Atlantic had given away a small chunk of the farm to Led Zeppelin.
Peter Grant went back to the Plaza Hotel and called Jimmy to come to New York
to sign the deal.
Then, perhaps with joy in their hearts, Grant and Weiss called on Clive Davis,
then president of Columbia Records, whose Epic subsidiary had the rights for
the Yardbirds (and Jeff Beck) in America. Jimmy of course felt that Epic was
an inept and exploitative label, while Clive Davis had considered the Yardbirds
one of his pet projects and was confident that Jimmy Page's new band - the
word on the street was they were hot - would be on Epic. It was the first time
Peter and Clive Davis had met, and they talked friendly music gossip until
Davis finally said, "Well, aren't we going to talk about Jimmy Page?" And Grant
said, "Oh no, we've already signed
the Zeppelin to Atlantic."
Silence. Then the meeting deteriorated into a shouting match. Davis tried to
harangue Grant: The Yardbirds had been with EMI in England, with Epic owning
North American rights. The Epic contract also covered the individual
Yardbirds, and they assumed EMI's contract did too. But part of Jimmy's deal
when he joined the band was that he retained his own recording rights. Grant
explained that Jimmy had never been signed to EMI as an individual, and that
Columbia therefore had no claim. The meeting ended with the Columbia
executives in a rage.
Jimmy Page landed in New York a few days later, carrying the master tapes for
Led Zeppelin. After meeting the Atlantic people and signing contracts, Jimmy
and Peter joined the Jeff Beck tour in progress. Jimmy didn't play; he just
followed the tour through New York and Boston, staying at the same hotels,
lurking quietly in the dressing rooms, closely observing this new, young,
mostly male audience at the Fillmore East and the Boston Tea Party.
Sergeant-Major Richard Cole mustered the troops and saw to it that they were
well boozed and laid. At the Image club in Miami Jimmy did get up to jam with
Beck and Rod Stewart.
Then in New York, after one of Beck's Fillmore East triumphs, Jimmy played Led
Zeppelin's demo of "You Shook Me" for Jeff, which of course was one of Beck's
According to Beck, Jimmy said, "Listen to this, listen to Bonzo, this guy
called John Bonham that I've got." When Beck heard the version, his heart sank. "I looked at him and said, 'Jim, what?' and the tears were coming out with anger." With Truth still in the stores, Beck assumed that Jimmy was out to upstage him again, just for the thrill. Why couldn't he have come up with something on his own?
When word of Led Zeppelin's monumental deal with Atlantic hit the streets, the
land was rife with accusations of "hype." The musicians and fans of the late
sixties were highly ambivalent about the unprecedented commercial success of
rock music; young record company employees were known as "corporate freaks"
and were ideologically suspect as agents of bourgeois capitalism. Any new
band that hadn't been through 1967 was suspected of the sin of corporate
hype - being foisted upon the rich and gullible public by some big conglomerate
without authentic atiarcho-hippie credentials. When rumors of huge advances
and royalties began to spread,
Led Zeppelin was smeared as a hype band. To counter these charges, Jimmy
dropped by the Melody Maker office unannounced one day, ostensibly to correct
the paper's spelling of the group's name. (They had spelled it Lead Zeppelin.)
He was quoted on the topic of hype:
"If somebody wants to hype a group they only suffer, because people know what's
going on now.
People understand the economics of bands, especially in the States where it is
the fashion to ask who is getting what out of what." That same month in New
York Columbia Records took out ads in the alternative and underground press
(which was in turn heavily dependent on record advertising) which proclaimed
straight-faced: "The Man Can't Bust Our Music!"
Back in London in December Jimmy took his band through more low-paying trial
runs. They played the Marquee, then Bath Pavilion for 75£, and Exeter City
Hall for 125£, finishing at Fishmongers Hall, Wood Green, in London. With no
album and the Yardbirds dead, Led Zeppelin couldn't get arrested in England.
Just before Christmas Jimmy and Peter decided to take the band to America and
start to tour even before the album was out. The Jeff Beck Group had just
canceled a tour with Vanilla Fudge,
and Grant persuaded leery American promoters to take an unknown Led Zeppelin
instead. "We couldn't get work here
in Britain," Grant recalled. "It seemed to be a fucking laugh to people that
we were getting the group together and working the way we were."
And Jimmy was also bitter about what he perceived as his rejection by the
music business in England. "It was a joke ... we really had a bad time."
They just wouldn't accept anything new.... We were given a chance in America.
Led Zeppelin left London on Christmas Day, 1968, bound for the subtropical
splendor of Los Angeles. The Zeppelin had risen. A new era had begun.