Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin by Barney Hoskyns

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the great Led Zeppelin, although you may not be aware that both the vocal and percussive powerhouses of the band (Robert Plant and John Bonham) were West Midlands boys, and cut their teeth on the vibrant music scene of the region in the 1960s.  Barney Hoskyns’ new oral history of the biggest band of the seventies provides us with a fascinating insight into those days, where bands would traipse from venue to venue performing multiple gigs a night.  The region is more than just a jumping off point for Plant and Bonham, with the industrial heritage of the area being cited (not for the first time) as a driving force behind the “heaviness” of the music, competing to be heard with the roar of the factories.  Lest we forget, it is perhaps no coincidence that Birmingham and the West Midlands are widely regarded as the birthplace of heavy metal, with Led Zeppelin (arguably) the first metal band.

Barney Hoskyns’ book is based on exhaustive interviews with a wide range of people who “were there” as Zeppelin conquered the world. As well as the band there is testimony from roadies, friends, musicians, management, and many others.  The result is a book that leads the reader into feeling like an insider, from the first gigs as the band rose from the ashes of the Yardbirds, through to the death of John Bonham, the end of the band and their endeavours since.

Zeppelin were renowned for their excess (as the title suggests), and this is presented unflinchingly, painting a rather tragic image of how this side of success ate away at the band.  However, there is also plenty of time devoted to how powerful the band could be (especially live) and how much joy they gave in their huge performances.

The book is divided into four sections which broadly cover the origins, formation and rise of the band, then covering their demise and the subsequent work of the surviving members. Each section is prefaced with a short description of the bare bones of what happened in the period but most of the text is made up of word of mouth descriptions of the action, which leads to a patchwork view of the events in question and a real sense of immediacy.

At 552 pages, the book is heavy in more than once sense, but well worth the effort of picking up.

Blake can be contacted on Twitter  @brum_enthusiast or take a look at his blog.

Stuart Maconie: The People's Songs

By Blake Stuart Maconie, for those not familiar with his work on radio and print, is warm, witty and erudite, and an unapologetic champion of pop music.  Through his radio 2 series “The People’s Songs” (and accompanying book) he has explored the role of music in shaping and reflecting the realities of modern Britain.

Birmingham Town Hall is an iconic venue marking the edge of Victoria square, and will be familiar to many Brummies.  The hall opened in 1834, with one of the architects being Joseph Hansom, later the inventor of the Hansom cab.   The Town Hall project actually bankrupted Hansom, the experience of which may have led to him later becoming a radical socialist.

I mention this as the Town Hall is therefore an appropriate venue for Maconie’s discussion of music, politics and everything in between, with particular focus on ‘ordinary’ people, as the building has served in the past as a forum for political debate and a meeting place for local government.  During his talk, Maconie drily noted he felt the pressure, knowing that Charles Dickens gave readings at the Hall (apparently, the first public reading of a Christmas Carol).  The venue symbolises the grandeur and optimism of the city in the 19th century, and we should remain proud of it today.

Maconie is an engaging speaker, and his talk this evening is fairly fluid, structured loosely around some of the themes from The People’s Songs radio programme, a good format for a raconteur used to performing on live radio. As well as The People’s Songs, the talk includes excerpts from Maconie’s amusing and insightful books on music, food and The North, all of which he links well to his personal stories – his tale of being taken to see The Beatles as a small child is particularly hilarious.  In the hands of a less likable host, some of the tales could have descended into grating “here’s a story about my famous mates” anecdotes, but Maconie is unpretentious and grounded and these instead become fascinating insights.

The only downside of the evening, ironically, is the venue itself.  Despite being a spectacular building, both outside and in, the Town Hall is too large and “showy” for Maconie’s warm and inclusive manner.  The hall was less than full and this did give rise to a slight sense of being present at a sparsely-attended political gathering.  Overall, this reviewer felt that the event would have felt better in a more intimate setting.

This is, however, not a criticism of either the Town Hall, or of Maconie himself – both are things to be treasured.

During the evening, Maconie noted with glee that The People’s Songs programmes are on the iplayer for 800 years (I’ve checked, and it seems he was getting ahead of himself – the latest episode is due to expire in 2099…).  Let’s hope that the heirs to this warm chronicler of the modern world are appearing at the Town Hall then.

Were you at this event? We would love to know your thoughts so please do add your comments below.

Blake can be contacted on Twitter  @brum_enthusiast or take a look at his blog 

Photos by Blake & Brum Faves.