Peter Grant interview: Life with Led Zeppelin and the death of John Bonham
In 1990 Classic Rock's Paul Henderson sat down with Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant for a conversation that looked back over the band's career
Copenhagen, Denmark, September 1968. A former Yardbirds guitarist, an in-demand session bass player, a jobbing drummer and a big-in-the-Midlands vocalist begin a 10-date Scandinavian tour. Billed as The New Yardbirds for contractual reasons, they are the band's first gigs after getting together only three weeks previously.
With them on the trip is their manager, a large, bearded, imposing man with an 'unconventional' dress-sense; ex-coffee bar and club doorman, ex-wrestler, bit-part actor (doubling for Anthony Quinn in The Guns of Navarone, small parts in TV programmes), and former manager of 60s chart-toppers the Animals, Jeff Beck and others.
On returning to England, the band go into a London recording studio and polish off their entire debut album in just 30 hours at a cost of £1,800 including the cover (seven years later the record would have grossed more than £3 million), and change their name.
The band became the biggest rock band of all time and legendary; the manager became the most effective manager in the history of rock music and something of a legend himself. The manager was Peter Grant, the band was Led Zeppelin.
London, summer 1990. Outside plush Chelsea Harbour Conrad hotel, the sun shines down on a vista of elegant, white new buildings that look for all the world like the South of France. Several floors up, in one of the hotel's suites overlooking the marina in which a handful of expensive cruisers bob gently, a semi-‘retired’, trimmed down, suited and still bearded Peter Grant sits back in a chair, draws heavily on a cigarette and smiles as he casts his mind back to the birth of a rock’n’roll legend of which he was very much – if largely unseen and often unsung – a major component.
What thoughts about the band went through your head when you watched the New Yardbirds, as they were then billed, playing those first shows in Scandinavia in 1968?
“Oh, I remember everything about that first show in Copenhagen. I remember everything Jimmy Page had told me about the drummer, Bonzo. And the whole performance. It was so… exciting! Just to be part of it was fantastic. There was never a thought of, God, this is going to sell X amount of records.
“I thought it could be the best band ever. Remember that I'd been to America a lot of times, with the Animals, the Yardbirds and different other bands. And I just knew that Jimmy would come through. I knew it would be the best.
“When we first went to America [January '69], and they heard the album, they thought: ‘Fuck this.’ It was hard to get Zeppelin on shows, because other bands – or the managers – thought: ‘Shit! This is so good.’
“I remember the first time we played the Fillmore East, in ’69, for three nights, with Iron Butterfly, who were a big, big, band in America at the time. When you're a new band you have to go on first. But I said to Bill Graham, the promoter, who I'd known for years: ‘Bill, you've got to put Zeppelin on second for me.’ Which he did, with Delaney And Bonnie as the opening act. When Iron Butterfly's management found out, they wanted Zeppelin off. They didn't want them near them.
“And they were right. Zeppelin did a fantastic set. The audience was still going: ‘Zeppelin! Zeppelin! Zeppelin!…’ when Iron Butterfly had started their set. Good band, not a bad band, but no match for Zeppelin. But then nobody ever was.”
Jimmy Page has said that the first time he knew Zeppelin had really broken through was when they played San Francisco on that first '69 tour. Page said: “There were other gigs… where the response was so incredible that we knew we'd made our impression. But after the San Francisco gig it was just – bang!”
“Yeah. That was the first night he played the Les Paul guitar on stage. I remember that. He was playing a Fender before that, the one that Eric Clapton had given him. He'd had it for years, from being with the Yardbirds. There was something the matter with the pickups, and I remember every night Jimmy was there with the soldering iron, soldering the guitar.
When was it for you – can you remember a time when you first thought: ‘This really is it’?
“The first big gig they ever did, at Boston Gardens, to 20,000 people. It's a sweat-box, that place. And they absolutely pulverised them. I mean, they had it musically, and their performance was like… People in the audience used to tell me it was like a ‘force’. It was in their heads for three or four days. And I thought: ‘There's no holding them, now. There's no holding back.’”
Rumour has always had it that you returned from a trip to America with a worldwide deal with Atlantic that included an advance of $200,000 – the highest fee ever paid to a new group. Is that rumour actually true?
“Yes. And I mean, that was a big deal with Atlantic in those days – $210,000 for a band for three years was a hell of a lot of money.”
Is it also true that Atlantic hadn’t even seen the band when the deal was done?
“That's right. But Atlantic believed in Jimmy Page as a musician – believed in his craft, in John Paul Jones, in Robert Plant, who was the third one to come in, and in John Bonham. Atlantic knew. And I suppose my enthusiasm rubbed off on [Atlantic executives] Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. They were a fantastic label. I suppose they still are.”
Was that the best deal you ever made for Zeppelin?
“The best deal I made – not in terms of money, because I never did anything for money, and which I sensed in 1968 nearly stopped Atlantic signing the band – was ‘No soundtracks’. Atlantic couldn't have the rights to any Zeppelin film soundtracks. So when it came to The Song Remains The Same – and I mean, I had no idea they would ever make a film – Atlantic said to me: ‘Oh, that's great. It's a live album.’ I said: ‘No it's not, it's a soundtrack album.’ And they said: ‘Well it's still ours.’ I said, ‘No. If you go back to page 38 or 39, from 1968, you'll find it's not in there.’ I think that was pretty good. Plus, we made the film.
“We had a lot of offers from people all wanting to make films of Led Zeppelin – just a concert film, which of course The Song Remains The Same wasn't. And when eventually we were all sitting around talking about doing it, I said: ‘Well let's do it, but let's put our own wedge up, let's put our own money up.’ Which we did, so we weren't beholding to anybody. But if it had been a pile of crap it would have been the most expensive home-movie of all time.”
Possibly more important even than the $210,000 advance and the 'No soundtracks' stipulation, you established an unprecedented amount of independence for Zeppelin by setting up production and publishing companies that gave the band extensive control over their creative career. By doing that you started something of a music business revolution. Promoters in particular weren’t happy when they suddenly found themselves being offered the short end of a 90 per cent, take-it-or-leave-it deal for Zeppelin.
“I did that on them, yes. Well they were greedy fuckers, weren't they? The thing was, there were so many of them that were cheating bands. There were a lot of good promoters, I mean some fine promoters: Mel Bush comes to mind straight away. Bill Graham. I mean, I don't get on with Bill Graham. We fell out in ’77 [when Grant, John Bonham and a bodyguard infamously hospitalised one of Graham's security men], but he's a fine promoter. You can't take that away from him. Those people don't cheat you.”
Were you hated by the promoters for starting this 'revolution'?
“By the agents. Because when I went straight to the promoter I found a way of saving the bands ten per cent. Oh yeah, I'm well aware that I'm not exactly liked. But that doesn't matter. I don't care if they hate me. What you've got to do is what's right for your artist. Always remember, it's the band and the manager versus the rest.”
What do you think was your greatest strength as a manager?
“My greatest strength as a manager?” [Ponders for a short while] “Being able to say no. That's very important. Especially when you're new into management, because you get…
“I'll give you an example. Some American people wanted us to do a TV satellite broadcast on New Year's Eve 1970. They wanted Led Zeppelin to do a concert in West Germany, and it was going to go over to America somehow – I'm not really up on that technical stuff – into cinemas. They said: ‘We'll give you half a million dollars.’ I said: ‘Oh, I dunno…’ you know. Anyway, it eventually came to a million dollars.
“But I found out that satellite sound can be affected by snowstorms – maybe not snowstorms like we think of them, but miles high – so I though, well that's no good. What do I want to blow that for the band for'. It's their arses that are on the line… So I said no.
“They thought I was crazy. A million dollars was a hell of a lot of money in 1970 – it's a hell of a lot of money any time. I mean, it's more money than I'd ever heard of in my life."
Was it because of poor sound quality in those days that Zeppelin also never did much TV?
“Oh yeah. They did a pilot programme for the BBC once. I was up in the control box. Oh, it was dreadful. And I though, no, never.
“And them not turning up for [70s/80s UK music TV programme] The Old Grey Whistle Test. When I saw that queue in Wardour Street [outside London’s Marquee club], that convinced me. I thought, that's it – no singles, no television… Because if the people believe in the band, they're gonna come. And that was proved at Knebworth  – 210,000 people for the first week, with no other bands advertised.”
Did you ever have problems with bootleggers at the big festivals, such as Knebworth, and the famous Bath appearance in 1970.
“Somebody tried to bootleg [audio] the Bath festival. That's when I threw the water in the machines and all that. I caught them under the stage. Freddie Bannister was the promoter, and I couldn't find him, so I thought, fuck it, and went and did it myself. I kicked the shit out of them and all the equipment. You know they have buckets of sand and water and all that, and an axe? I pulled the axe off the wall and steamed in and chopped it all up. Did a machete job on the machinery I didn't get heavies to do it, I did it myself. Then at least I knew it was done.
“I had a hell of a battle at the Bath festival. I'd researched where the stage would be and when the sun would set behind it, and Zeppelin had to go on dead on eight o'clock. It was running late, and other people wanted to go on, but I said: ‘No, Zeppelin are going on at eight o'clock, and that's it.’
“What happened was that they went on in daylight, so you get that 'broad' view, then as the sun set and it got darker we could bring the lights up so that it was the focal point.
“I'm not sure that Robert's idea worked, though – throwing the tambourines out to the audience. They were bouncing on Hells Angels' heads! But they were alright, because I'd made mates with them.
With the benefit of hindsight, are there any things you would have done very differently?
“No, I don't think so.”
What about setting up Zeppelin's own record company, Swan Song? Was that…
"…A mistake? No it wasn't. When I said it was a 'mistake', you can't be the manager and have the record company. The idea was to get even better artistic control, and give them the creative space. I regret setting up Swan Song, because there wasn't the time. It was Led Zeppelin, then Bad Company came along… You can't do it.
“I mean, that's half of the reason I passed on Queen. They came to see me to manage them – I guess this would be the end of '74 or early '75 – and we had a couple of meetings. And I said to them: ‘Fellas, I would love to do it, but I haven't got that many hours in the day.’ I loved the band, but I knew somebody would have to suffer, and it's not fair. I never wanted to be an empire-builder.”
Could your style of management be called 'aggressive'?
“I would say so. Call it what you like – as long as it works. If somebody had to be trod on, they got trod on. Too true."
Were Led Zeppelin easy to work with?
“Easy? I wouldn't have said easy. But something that successful is never easy. The hardest thing was always making sure the tours didn't clash with the children’s holidays. Yes, really. That was hard, because more or less everybody had families.
“They were never difficult. I sat down with them in October '68 and said: 'Listen, you can start on Boxing Day for 10 or 12 dates in America with Vanilla Fudge, which means you've got to go on Christmas Eve.’ And I was shitting myself having to tell them: ‘And incidentally, fellas, I'm not going.’ It was one of the few times I never went. And I regretted it so much I thought, I'm never going to not go with them again. And they did it.
“If you laid it out, explained the reason why, they were never difficult.”
“And they never missed shows. Of all that 'excess' that's been written about – and I emphasise written about, they never missed a concert. They weren't goody-goodies by any means, but they were always there.”
Talking of 'alleged' excess, what was life like aboard the ‘Starship’ (the customised Boeing 720) that Zeppelin used to travel between gigs in the US?
“Wonderful! Before that we had a nine-seater Falcon jet, which was a tremendous plane. We used to fly to every gig, into the limo, police escort, do the gig, do the encore and then – no changing, bang! – to the plane. I mean, it's wonderful isn't it, having your own plane?
“But they had to sit opposite each other all the time. And of course, there were rows, but they never lasted more than two or three hours a night. Somebody might get chinned by one of the others, having punch-ups between themselves. I mean, Bonzo and Robert were famous for that.
“The first time in Japan, in 1970, Robert went on with a split lip for the encore every time. And this was an argument over something they did in the [pre-Zeppelin band] Band Of Joy – Robert wouldn't pay Bonzo £37 for petrol or something.
“The thing is, in all seriousness, on that small plane you were too in that 'cocoon'. And then the 'Starship' came along. Which was only $14,000 more, because they [Boeing] wanted the publicity and that kind of thing. And we thought, well why not? We'll have a 720.
"And I do get lucky. The first day, in Chicago, they'd parked it next to [Playboy founder] Hugh Hefner's plane, hadn't they? And all the press were there, and somebody said to me: ‘Well how do you think it compares to Mr Hefner's plane?' I said: 'It makes his look like a Dinky toy.’ Boomph – press everywhere. Headlines everywhere.
“I mean, it's pretty good: here's a rock’n’roll band from England flying around with a plane that they said was better than Air Force 1 – the President of the United States' plane! What do they take – 130 people? We had 35 people in it. There was a wonderful Hammond C3 organ built into the bar and all that – Jonesy playing it. We used to do the hokey-cokey coming off the plane and all that. Terrific!"
It was during the 'Starship' days, of course, that the now legendary allegations of 'excess' in the Zeppelin camp got on a real roll.
“We're hardly gonna wreck our own plane, are we? And despite what you might have read, there were no passengers with Led Zeppelin. No passengers at all. No entourage. Everybody had a function. I mean, sure, there were birds. What am I gonna say, that there were no birds around? There were birds around, of course.
“There was a journalist in Los Angeles, who every time used to get cakes thrown on him. I mean he was such a prat. And I realised he liked it. I went up to this fella and I said: ‘Are you ready for it this year? What would you like?' And he said: 'I'd like really soggy hamburgers with lots of tomato ketchup, right in my face.’ And he was serious. He was serious! And I said: 'Okay, you've got it.’
“Some of the stories [of excess] were blown up. But, as Bonzo said in the Observer: 'You can't come off stage and go back to your hotel and have a cup of hot chocolate and watch telly.’"
Presumably, then, most of the stories of excess were at least based on elements of truth?
“Yes, of course. [His grin broadens into a wide smile] The excess was fantastic!”
Was it just one big party?
“No, that's Robert Plant's line: 'One big boys’ party.’ I read it in the Sunday Mail.”
What events from the Zeppelin history stand out in your memory?
“I'm quite fond of all of the things, which is why it's quite hard to single any things out. I think getting the Ivor Novello Award in '75 or '76 was a big thing. Oh, that was terrific. That was for 'contribution to British music', which wasn't like all those disc awards. That's the one thing that I have on my mantelpiece at home. That really meant something."
Did you ever discuss musical direction with Zeppelin and have any input on that side of things?
“No. It was totally up to them. I don't know anything about music. I know what hits me here [bangs a fist against his chest]. No, it was totally their creation.
“They'd go off to recordings and all that. I'd get a call from Bonzo: 'Oh, you've got to come down. We ain't half done something today.’ I remember particularly Kashmir: 'Come down! Come down! Get down here. Get in the Porsche and get down here,’ sort of thing. And I'd get down and hear it.
“I didn't spend much time in the recording studios. None of that: ‘Well I don't think you should do that, lads,’ jerking off. While you're sitting there ligging and being groovy in the control box you could really be putting your mind to thinking about other things.”
How do you see each of them in terms of individual personality?
“Jimmy Page is absolutely the master craftsman. And probably a nicer person you couldn't wish to meet. He can also be very trying – or rather very stubborn.
“Robert was a tremendous showman, and well suited to his star sign, Leo – I'll leave you to read the rest of it.
“John Paul Jones is probably the understatement of all time, because he is a phenomenal craftsman and musician. Never mind his bass playing and his keyboards, look at the strings he arranged – Kashmir and things like that.
“As far as Bonzo's concerned, he's probably the best mate I've ever had in my life. And as a drummer… unbelievable drummer. And all that's been said about him… Yeah, I've seen him wreck hotels – I helped him. But he was always ‘there'. He was always there for the band, he was always there for his family. And I really admired that.”
Where were you when you heard the news that John Bonham had died [on September 25, 1980]?
“I was at home in Sussex when I heard. Ray Washburn, who worked for me, came up to me and said: ‘Come downstairs.’ He sat me down, handed me some Valium and said: 'Take these.’ I said: 'Why do I want to take them?' And he said: 'Take them.’ I said: 'Tell me what it is.’ He said: ‘There's somebody on the phone for you.’ I said: 'What is it? He said: 'John Bonham's died…’
“I was shattered… It took me… Somebody said to me that I mourned too long for John Bonham. There's no such thing as too long."
After John's death, did you ever feel that Zeppelin might have continued, with a new drummer?
[Angrily] “No! It's as clean cut as that. There was no question of it. Never any thought. The group went off to Jersey and they made their mind up. We met in the Savoy Hotel and I said: 'It can't be.’ It wasn't a case of sitting down and: 'What do you think we should do?' It was [bangs his fist on the table], and that was it. And that's how it should stay!
“It could never be the same. It was those four people – they were Led Zeppelin. The music and the mind – singular – of Led Zeppelin was those four people. When those four guys were on stage… total magic. That it could never be the same has been proved – that bloody Live Aid thing."
You're obviously aware of the constant rumours of Led Zeppelin regrouping, with John Bonham’s son, Jason tipped to occupy the drum stool. Can you see it happening?
“It could well happen. But I'll tell you something. For me, it would never be like it was. Zeppelin was those four guys. That was Led Zeppelin. Yes, I do think it would be a mistake. And it would be going back on everything that everybody said when we lost John – 'Never again.’”
Prior to Zeppelin ceasing to exist at the point of John's death, was there any time when a split really looked on the cards?
[Thinks for a while] “In 1974. They were recording at Headley Grange, and John Paul Jones turned up unexpectedly and said he'd decided to leave the band. I said: ‘What are you gonna do, John, if you leave the band?’ Because if he'd wanted to leave the band he would have left the band. You can't stop people doing what they really want to do. He said: ‘I'm going to be the choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. I'm fed up with all the touring.’ He was just generally… 'peeved' – I think that was his word – with things. I said: ‘Have you told anyone else?’ And he said: ‘No, I came straight to you.’ I said: ‘Well you're gonna be 'not too well'. Take some time off and think about it.’
“That's how Bad Company got to record their first album at Headley Grange. It was all so fresh and all that. Boomph! In there and recorded it.
“Eventually I think he just decided he was doing something he really loved. Maybe he just was missing home. Anyway, it was never really discussed again. I don't even think the other members of the band knew.
“That was the nearest they came to splitting. And there was of course the time after Robert went through unbelievable… I mean, how he ever handled that, when his son died. At that time I think he wanted to walk away from everything. And I really understood that.”
What brought about the end of the your involvement with Led Zeppelin?
“Well, the band was no longer, and there was no way I could manage three different people. I started doing a few things with Robert – I made the deal for him, in ’81/’82, for his existing solo recording career.
“But it couldn't go on. And, to be honest with you, I wasn't in any shape health-wise to do it. Really, from after we lost John and for various reasons, I had a period of blackness for three or four years. I couldn't have done it.
“I've spent the last six years in regaining my health. I used to be twenty-eight-and-a-half stone, and I've lost ten stone. I'm probably fitter and healthier now than I have been since the early seventies.
“The main thing I'm doing now is a film with Malcolm McLaren which has been in the air for five or six years. It's based on my life story and all the things I've done, going right back to when I first started, when Mickey Most and I worked in the 2 Is coffee bar [London rock'n'rollers' hang-out in the 60s] and the first important thing I did, which was when I went off to America to meet Chuck Berry and making a deal for him to come to England.
Presumably there might be a few things you’d prefer to leave out?
“Yes, there may well be a few bits I might leave out!”
And a few bits added?
“Who knows? But they tell me it doesn't need spicing up.
“Barrie Keefe, who wrote The Long Good Friday, is going to write the script, and it's going to be shot in England, and maybe some of it in Los Angeles, starting in Spring next year. The idea is that it will be released Christmas 1991.” [The film never got made.]
Do you expect it to include any footage of Led Zeppelin?
“No, there won't be any footage of Zeppelin in it. But there'll be some Zeppelin in the soundtrack. Malcolm's idea is to use twelve songs that meant something to me. And I've got a lot to draw from.”
How would you sum-up Peter Grant?
“I'd like to think that what ever I get involved in, I really give my best for it. That's what I input – the best I can do for those people, regardless of the way I have to go about it.
“I'm very proud of Zeppelin, I'm very proud of all the artists I've been involved with and I'm proud of myself – especially for my dear old mum. I mean, I was born illegitimate, and in the late 30s that must have been horrendous. I never knew my father. I'm proud for my mum and for my own children that I've done what I did. Very proud.”
And how would you sum up Led Zeppelin?
“I'd say the greatest band of all time, and there'll never be another one like them. And I'm very happy to have been associated with them.”
Do you think they would have been as successful if they’d had a different manager?
“That's an impossible thing to answer.” [He ponders for a while, lights a cigarette, and then, with a narrow smile] “I hope not.”