Led Zeppelin isn’t letting a little thing like breaking up almost forty years ago keep them continuing their sales dominance. In fact, the one-time “Biggest Band In The World” is releasing their first entry for the annual Record Store Day event. The release—a new single of tunes handpicked by Jimmy Page—is coming on yellow vinyl featuring “Rock And Roll” on side A and “Friends” on side B. While longtime fans might be amazed at Zeppelin’s choosing to go the single route after all those years of disdain for the form, nothing should surprise them about the band wanting to control the way their music is released.
Though the 45 doesn’t contain new material, that won’t stop the fervent collectors from snapping up the limited release as fast as they’re put on shelves, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Zeppelin’s history. Some estimates place Led Zeppelin’s lifetime sales at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million records sold. Those numbers are even more impressive when you take into account that even their biggest hit, and arguably one of the greatest songs of all times, “Stairway To Heaven”, didn’t get its own single release.
The members of Led Zeppelin have always worked to control how they release their music to the world, wanting to take away the preconceptions and biases that were being heaped upon them early in their career. In fact, they released their fourth and fifth albums—Led Zeppelin IV, though known to many as”Zoso” for the runic symbols on the covers, and Houses Of The Holy—untitled and unattributed on the outside packaging. While most bands and record labels would never even consider such a vague marketing strategy, Zeppelin laughed all the way to the bank with nearly 25 million copies sold to date.
Robert Plant, the golden-tressed concept of a rock star come to life, was far more than just a lyric belting banshee—he was also a savvy businessman. He and his partners, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and the late drummer John Bonham knew that their deal with Atlantic Records was fair, but they wanted to have full control of their product. In 1974, the band, along with manager Peter Grant, formed Swan Song Records, an imprint whose material would be distributed by Atlantic.
Led Zeppelin had spent the five years leading up to the founding of Swan Song making themselves the highest-grossing rock act in the world. Their mixture of incredible musicianship, unrelenting adoration by their fans around the world, and their drive to try and help other acts reach the same level positioned them perfectly to build a label that would work for the bands, instead of the other way around. With the example of The Beatles woes in attempting the same thing with their own imprint, Apple Records, Zeppelin strove to recruit bands they felt were as close to ready for stardom as possible.
Peter Grant and the band always intended for the label’s stable to stay small with no more than four or five acts including Zeppelin. Though their first recruit, Scottish singer Maggie Bell didn’t generate much in the way of sales their second act, Bad Company, gave the label its first chart toppers outside of their founders. With Paul Rodgers leaving Free to front this new collaboration of heavy-hitters, including members of King Crimson and Mott The Hoople, Swan Song gained instant credibility.
Swan Song filled out their stable with bands and artists like The Pretty Things, Dave Edmunds, Mirabai, Detective, and Sad Café. The Pretty Things managed to give the label their second-straight number-one release with the album Silk Torpedo, though the group has since fallen into obscurity. With the new release by Zeppelin the following year, Physical Graffiti, also hitting number one, it looked like Zeppelin had indeed learned the lessons taught by the late Apple Records. Unfortunately, as the 70s drew to a close, Led Zeppelin was worn down from the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and their participation and interest in the label followed suit. The passing of John Bonham in 1980 was not just the death knell for Led Zeppelin, but Swan Song as well.
The label’s founders had much to be proud of though. Over the decade it existed, Swan Song released twenty-seven albums, including solo records from Page and Plant following the dissolution of Zep. In the following years, the band’s surviving members have worked with a plethora of young artists in a variety of capacities. Jones, in particular, has done great work producing albums by artists ranging from Paul McCartney to the Butthole Surfers, while Plant has regularly searched and embraced new talent in his backing bands for his headlining shows and tours.
This new single, a call back to the glorious era when Led Zeppelin ruled the charts and concert stages of the world, isn’t going to change the music world, though it just might help connect fans with their local music sellers. For devotees of vinyl and the ritualistic manner in which they consume music, bringing home this new Zeppelin 45 will be a blast from the past and a rarity at the same time. As the opening salvo to what is sure to be a memorabilia-laden 50th-anniversary, Led Zeppelin is still breaking ground and likely returning to the place they know best: the top of the charts.
If you love Led Zeppelin and will be down in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, don’t miss Z-Funk: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin & Parliament Funkadelic featuring Michelangelo Carubba & Shira Elias (Turkuaz), Roosevelt Collier, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Steve Swatkins (Allen Stone), Rob Walker (The Main Squeeze), Chris Bullock & Mike “Maz” Maher (Snarky Puppy) at The Maison in New Orleans on Sunday, April 29th. For more info, click here; to purchase tickets, click here<; and for our full guide to Jazz Fest late nights, click here.