I’m not a big Led Zeppelin fan. In fact, I knew relatively little about the band that I didn’t learn from listening to classic rock stations while making pizzas at the Bogey Inn back in the day. That fact, along with an abnormal lust for books with more than 450 pages, is what led me to pick-up Mick Wall’s When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin in the first place. Also, the cover art is really sweet.
What I really wanted was a definitive chronicle of the band, you know, the one book that’d give me everything I need to know. Yes, I saw Hammer of the Gods sitting there on the shelf too, but newer is better, right? And I really wanted the inside story on that Coverdale/Page album. In the end, this did the job only adequately. I got the inside scoop on the break-up and all the tedious dirt about Page’s plagiarism issues, but to get that I had to suffer through some truly poor writing and Wall’s obsession with Jimmy Page’s “dark side.”
Somewhere along the way, Wall got it into his head that the single question Zep fans and book-buyers want answered more than any other was whether Jimmy Page worships the devil, or at least Aleister Crowley. And, while I suppose that may be true for diehard fans who’ve actually tried playing “Stairway to Heaven” in reverse, I’m not sure that even those folks will want the level of attention that Wall gives to the subject. Crowley doesn’t show up in the book till about 180 pages in, in a full chapter devoted to Page’s interest in the “dark arts,” but from that point on he’s a constant presence. I now know as much about Crowley’s personal history as I do about that of John Paul Jones. Wall makes sure that nearly every significant event in the band’s later history gets a thorough analyses for any signs of the occult. Suffice to say, it’s a bit much.
Wall’s other agenda seems to be some kind of self-aggrandizing one-up-manship. He’s got the real story. He knows what really happened because Jimmy Page told him so. He attacks several of the more well known Zeppelin myths (like the “shark incident”) with the intent of “setting things straight,” but really just ends up telling the same old story with minute changes in the details or perspective. Meh, so what?
First on my list of annoyances, though, is Wall’s attempt at a stylistic departure. Repeatedly, he tries to take readers “inside the minds” of the band and their closest allies, suddenly switching to second-person storytelling. Aside from the obvious phoniness of his technique and his inability to pull anything revealing out of these long, italicized passages, is the fact that the writing is just terrible. Trying to cram facts and epiphanies into his second-person concept forces Wall to torture readers and the English language alike. Imagine three pages like this: “It was while you were with Jackie that you made your own first record: ‘She Just Satisfies.’ Your own song with you singing and Jackie on backing vocals. You were 21 and suddenly it was like you had the whole world by the arse.” I guess we should admire Wall for attempting something interesting, but his editor should have put a stop to it.
Bottom line: there may not be a better book on Led Zeppelin out there, but there’s got to be a less irritating one.