Examining the Success of Led Zeppelin

As a musicology student in the School of Music, I’m writing a thesis on Led Zeppelin and their music. I decided to research this band after seeing just how successful they were:

• They rank second to the Beatles in terms of overall record sales.
• Their fourth album is one of the highest selling albums in history.
• Just five years into their career, their 1973 tour shattered records across the United States for concert attendance and gross earnings.
• At one concert during this tour, the band played to a crowd of almost 60,000 fans (which surpassed the Beatles’ record for the largest audience) and earned approximately $310,000 (one of the largest sums at that point in rock history).

Yet, while this massive commercial success was happening, the band often received poor reviews from music journalists and critics. Upon further research, I discovered the loyalty and intensity of Led Zeppelin’s fans. There are many online forums and discussion boards where fans, both old and new, continue to discuss their connection to the band as well as the band members, album artwork, their favourite albums and concerts, etc. While reading responses from these fans, it’s clear that Led Zeppelin and their music had a huge effect on many. They use words like “spiritual,” “epic,” and “magical” to describe the band, the music, and live shows.

The commercial success, the poor critical reviews, and fans’ deep connection painted an interesting yet contradictory image of the band. These conflicting realities sparked an interest for me. Considering the reviews were so poor, why were so many fans purchasing these albums and what was drawing thousands of people to their concerts? And what led these fans to develop such a profound connection to the band?

My thesis is aiming to provide some answers to these questions. First, I examined Led Zeppelin’s artistic persona. In other words, what were the main identifiable characteristics of the band? By analyzing some of their “epic” tracks (“Stairway to Heaven” and “Achilles Last Stand”), I determined that their persona has three main qualities: transformative, powerful, and mysterious. The transformative quality reveals itself through the music. As you listen to these songs, the music consistently changes and morphs into something new; the musical components of these tracks continuously undergo development, variation, and transformation. The mysterious and powerful elements of Led Zeppelin’s persona are identified by the band’s use of intertextual figures. Led Zeppelin references a variety of symbols both musically and lyrically, including elements of Western art music and symbols and characters of ancient Greece. What is important about these symbols is their present significance; all are perceived as powerful and mysterious in the modern world. Therefore, in referencing and repurposing these symbols, Led Zeppelin becomes powerful and mysterious by associating and identifying themselves with these symbols.
After determining the transformative, powerful, and mysterious aspects of their persona, I then looked into how Led Zeppelin presented this persona. By examining their albums and live concerts, it becomes clear that ritual is inherent in these experiences. Elements of transformational improvisation, power and prestige, and mysterious imagery appear ritualistically in both the live shows, like Jimmy Page’s “bow solo,” and in their recorded albums (Led Zeppelin IV for instance). Considering the qualities of Led Zeppelin’s persona and the ritualistic elements of their concerts and albums, I discussed the experience created by these presentations of their music and how they could be interpreted as spiritual. Many fans express a profound connection to the band that are similar to the resulting sentiments of a spiritual experience. Therefore, the elements of their persona and the band’s participation in ritual allow for Led Zeppelin to create powerful, mystical, and transformative experiences.