Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Led Zeppelin earned a reputation for being the biggest, and heaviest band in rock and roll. Their genre-defining records set the template for brutal, blues-based rock that thousands, maybe even millions of bands have tried to adopt in their wake. But for as crucial as their recorded output was, it was on the road that they really burnished their standings as the wildest, most sonically adventurous band in a decade overflowing with groups who made names for themselves by redefining the very definition of the word debauchery.
Even for as wild as the stories about mud sharks and racing motorcycles up and down the halls of hotels are, it was onstage where the real fireworks happened. “The records were just a starting point,” bassist John Paul Jones once explained. “The most important thing was always the stage show… at our worst we were still better than most. At our best we could just wipe the floor with the lot of them.” For almost ten years that statement was almost indisputably true, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Exactly 40 years ago, in the Spring and Summer of 1977, Led Zeppelin embarked on what would be their final tour through the country that made them superstars. The British group’s run through America that year was supposed to mark their return as the biggest rock band on the planet, after a future rendered uncertain by a catastrophic car accident that involved singer Robert Plant the year before. As it turned out, their presumptive moment of triumph was marked by bad vibes, lingering illnesses, heavy drug use, messy performances, violence, and even riots, that all ended in a tragedy that nearly derailed the group entirely. Here’s the story of how it all went down.