Sex and drugs and beans on toast
Backstage anecdotes ranged from mythic to mundane – while Lily Allen set the record straight, says Helen Brown
August marked the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s first rehearsal, in a tiny room in London’s Chinatown. With the amps nearly falling on them, the musical chemistry felt, to the band’s Satanically inclined guitarist,
“like a thunderbolt, a lightning flash – boosh!”, according to Chris Salewicz’s
(HarperCollins £20). In the afterglow of that first sonic communion, Page served his new bandmates beans on toast and (though already a wealthy man) diligently collected from each of them the few pence the food cost. Frontman Robert Plant looked on in approval. (The wailer from Wolverhampton had trained as an accountant.)
Although less forensic than Barney Hoskyns in 2012’s Trampled Under Foot: The Power & Excess of Led Zeppelin, Salewicz is an insightful guide to Page’s prodigious musicianship and offers fewer excuses than many biographers for his subject’s misuse of drugs, occult blarney and underage groupies – although these details are hard to square with Salewicz’s fawning conclusion that Page is now “the greatest national treasure of British popular music”.
Respecters of decency may also take issue with Mark Blake’s subtitular claim for Peter Grant as “Rock’s Greatest Manager” in
(Constable, £20). The former wrestler used threats and repeated violence to ensure Led Zeppelin got the big billing and bigger bucks that their cocaine-fuelled egos required. When Zeppelin played the Knebworth Festival in 1979, he hired photographer Neal Preston to capture the size of the crowd and successfully extracted more money from the organisers, who’d claimed a smaller headcount.
Many of Preston’s atmospheric photographs appear in the lush coffee table volume
(Reel Art Press £49.95) – although, post #MeToo, the lens is trained firmly on those heady stage shows, not the offstage bacchanalia.
Inevitably, the members of Led Zeppelin swagger or stagger across the pages of many of this year’s books. We find the young, fractious and insecure Eric Clapton being shown up as musically inferior to the cello bow-wielding Page in the early pages of Philip Norman’s solid and sad
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25).
By the time Page wanders into a charity gig in 1983, he’s so wrecked that he’s playing the top neck of his famous double-necked guitar with one hand and the lower neck with the other, according to Kenney Jones’s affable
£20). A founding member of Small Faces, the drummer went on to replace wild stickman Keith Moon in The Who after Moon’s death, at 32, in 1978. But The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, felt Jones “watered down the energy” of the band. His frank, In Fifties Paris, de Beauvoir and Sartre, Picasso and Giacometti (and other greats) chatted in the same few cafés. Poirier brings their scene to life. (Bloomsbury) if not especially insightful, memoir
(Henry Holt, £20) finds Daltrey settling scores with both the titular headmaster (who told him he’d never amount to anything) and guitarist Pete Townshend (who One of the year’s best spy thrillers combines a wartime SOE operation with a presentday murder case linked to the French Resistance. (Bantam) once described the band as “three geniuses and a frontman”). He also reveals that Townshend’s signature guitar-smashing began by accident when he got his instrument stuck in a pub ceiling: “The place went quiet. Some girls sniggered.”
As an antidote to all the drugfuelled destruction, I recommend both Brett Anderson’s elegant
(Little, Brown, £16.99) – in which the Suede frontman looks back on his pre-fame days as “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy raised on salad cream and milky tea”
– and the reissue of Ian Hunter’s 1974
(Omnibus £18.99). Knowingly Pooterish, it was written as Mott the Hoople toured the US. The glam frontman pines for his wife, delights in freshly squeezed orange juice and attempts to sneak into Graceland to meet Elvis.
Back in 1965, John Lennon had sneered that an encounter with the King was “like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck,” according to Ray Connolly’s excellent
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20). Paul Simon, on the other hand, was adamant: “I wanted to be Elvis,” he told his official biographer Robert Hilburn, who conducted 100 hours of interviews for his polite
(Simon & Schuster £20). But just 5ft 2in tall
Jimmy Page Bring It On Home by Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton Let the Good Times Roll by Agnès Poirier Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite by Manda Scott Black Mornings Diary of a Rock ’n’ Roll Star Being John Lennon: A Restless Life Simon: The Life by Miles Goslett Paul by Caroline Slocock Coal
Goslett’s well-researched book about the death in 2003 of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly raises troubling questions about abuse of process. (Head of Zeus) Slocock was Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary for her last 18 months in office, and gives a rivetingly fresh portrait of life behind the scenes. (Biteback)