Led Zeppelin 1968-1980: The Story Of A Band And Their Music

Led Zeppelin may have disbanded in 1980, but the band's legacy lives on. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham always insisted that the music they made, onstage or in the studio, w

Chapter 6 November 1969-February 1970
Countess Bites Zeppelin: Nobody Hurt

With the release of "Led Zeppelin II" and the progress of the fourth American tour through to three concluding nights at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in the first week of November 1969, the band was looking forward to taking a break during the early winter, away from the long-sustained intensity of their live performances.

But the pressure of success was not ready to let them go so easily. The world's media were now seeking interviews –- with Page and Plant in particular, but with anybody else if those first options fell through. The band made careful choices about who to talk to and who not to, favouring media figures who had noted their abilities before it was fashionable to do so.

There was another pressure that had been building since late October but which was not so easy to control. Radio stations worldwide were bugging Atlantic to release a single from the new album. For Atlantic's executives, the decision couldn't be simpler: 'Whole Lotta Love' made for a perfect single. Perfect, that is, apart from being over five minutes long and having a weird, spacey middle section instead of a screaming guitar solo, all of which posed problems for airplay on American AM stations.

First was the problem of length. AM radio was geared for singles of less than three minutes. There had been exceptions in recent years for established acts, such as the Beatles with 'Hey Jude', Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds' (released almost simultaneously with "Led Zeppelin II"), and Jimi Hendrix's 'All Along the Watchtower.' But the unwritten rule was normally hard to overcome. For Led Zeppelin it wasn't an issue: they had little or no interest in the singles market anyway, believing that their natural audience, the people who came to see them at their concerts and who listened to them on FM radio, would be heading straight for their albums for a full-length session rather than the taster that a single provides. But Atlantic were insistent that something should be done.

The US release back in March of 'Good Times Bad Times' coupled with 'Communication Breakdown' as a single from the first album had not been a problem for the band -– partly because they were coming from a very low position in rock's hierarchy and were happy to extend co-operation to their new record company, Atlantic, but also because both songs were short to start with and could be transferred to a single without any editing. Their musical integrity would remain intact. The band had even made a promotional film clip for that release. A clearer endorsement of its acknowledged place in the band's scheme of things would be hard to find.

'Whole Lotta Love' was a different proposition. Page and [manager Peter] Grant were not entirely against any thought of a single being released, although they genuinely felt it was better to stick to their albums-only position. But the music's integrity came before any other consideration. According to Bonham, the band initially sanctioned the release of 'Whole Lotta Love' as a promo single in the U.S. "It was only for American AM radio stations to promote the LP and that was a full-length version of the LP track," he explained to Melody Maker soon after its release. Page must have been in agreement with this because he was with Bonham at that interview. Yet events overtook everybody.

Although FM radio in the US was happy to play the full 'Whole Lotta Love' with its other-worldly middle section, AM radio was distinctly jittery. They felt the AM audience would not stick with that section's intricacies and would switch the dial to a rival network. After all, the extended singalong tags on 'Suspicious Minds' and 'Hey Jude' swept AM listeners along with them. Yet the front and back of Led Zeppelin's song was perfect. What to do?

America is not known as the land of free enterprise for nothing, and its entertainment industry is not generally noted for putting taste before commerce. A number of radio jockeys and producers put together their own edit of the song, simply omitting all but a handful of bars of the middle section, and began broadcasting that. The idea quickly caught on and Atlantic soon experienced a chorus of demands from retailers for its release in this form. This put Atlantic in a quandary. They clearly had no objection to the edited version being released -– no record company is going to ignore potential sales -– but they had a contract that gave the final say to the band. Page was adamant: no edited version, especially no edited version that simply excised the experimental section that he'd worked so hard to create. He and Grant were aware that the argument about the song's length was irrelevant: after all, even in this bowdlerised version it still ran at around four minutes, a good minute or so over the normal AM time limit. It was ultimately a question of artistic integrity, not of playing time.

Grant, in an effort to take pressure off a band still on the road and experiencing staggeringly rapid ascent to the level of supergroup, announced that Led Zeppelin would record a custom-made single in December, after the tour had concluded. This was just a ruse, as Grant later admitted. "I think that was a cover-up. We never went in just to record a single. That was the golden rule. No singles."

As much as anything, Grant and Page saw the entire hoopla surrounding singles -– the PR events, schmoozing journos, DJs, and all the rest -– as something he didn't want the band to chase. Yet the demand was for 'Whole Lotta Love' and for its immediate release. Perhaps because the edited single was already being aired daily, perhaps because the band were not prepared to take on the entire U.S. entertainment media as well as Atlantic, and perhaps most importantly because fans wanted the single they'd heard on the radio, the edit was reluctantly cleared for commercial release in the United States. It was also issued in other territories, including Australia, where it did phenomenal business and was a jukebox perennial. In the USA alone it eventually sold over 900,000 copies.

In Britain, the local Atlantic office was equally keen to go with the U.S. edit. With the demise of the offshore pirate radio stations and commercial licences for pop radio a few years away, the only British pop-music broadcasting was by the BBC's Radio 1. The BBC was not known for adventurous daytime programming, so Atlantic U.K. saw the edited single as the only way ahead. But Grant and Page, smarting from their tactical withdrawal in America, refused to sanction a U.K. issue.

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