Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Led Turns To Gold

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Led Turns To Gold

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

1967. Atlantic Records is being bought by Kinney Corp., to join its label group along with Warner/Reprise Records. So now, cash costs (losses) won’t come out of the pockets of Ahmet Ertegun and Co. Still, profits will matter.

Album and singles releases by Atlantic have seemed normal: there’s Aretha still, and R&B still, and Nesuhi’s jazz albums still. But recently, Ahmet has been leaning toward England, where the Beatles and others have swamped the U.S. charts and radio play.

Another English group – The Yardbirds – had just split apart, and was “available.” Yardbirds had invented heavier rock sounds: emphasizing feedback, fuzz-tone distortion, and massive amps. Critics started calling them “the most impressive guitar band in rock.”

Still, the group seemed to be fading out some, getting more so-so. They hired a new manager for their U.S. tour – Peter Grant -- and he pushed them to be even more heavy and experimental. Use the wah-wah pedal was one innovation. And Jimmy Page playing lead guitar using a cello bow.

Columbia Records had felt their sales fatigue, and dropped them; they were not part of the psychedelic blues-rock that Jimi Hendrix and Cream were capturing audiences with.

The Yardbirds still seemed worth some attention, even if the rock quartet was splitting. Three of rock’s best guitar men – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page – were heading out now. But lead guitarist Jimmy Page had come up with a new group.

And so – 1968 now - while a revised, New Yardbirds group was touring Scandinavia, then back home to record a New Yardbirds album, manager Peter Grant went a-calling on labels. He met with Mo Ostin. He met with Clive Davis. Peter Grant was not modest in his pitch. What he had to offer:

And a new name for this all-star group:

Led Zeppelin

Manager Peter Grant met with Jerry Wexler at the Atlantic offices in New York. Grant was stunning, a huge giant of a man. Maybe 6’4”, 270+ lbs. He had earlier been a pro-wrestler, and his body acted that way. Big horseshoe mustache. Big gut.

Wexler wanted this new Led Zeppelin group, was aware of the label signing competitors out there, and spoke right up. For North American rights, Wexler offered $75,000 in advance for year one, plus four one-year options.

Grant answered “yes, but.” Grant wanted a world-wide deal, and that would cost Atlantic $110,000.

Wexler, Atlantic, and most labels after English acts never came up with “world deals.” They didn’t have companies around the world. Wexler called PolyGram in England to get it to put up $20,000 for English rights. “No,” came the answer.

For Wexler, however, coming up with the whole $110K was easier now, since the cost was no longer coming out of Atlantic’s pockets, but now out of Steve Ross’ “Kinney” pocket.

Wexler answered “yes.”

With recording and other costs, the check that Grant took away on signing totaled $143,000, at that time the biggest deal for any new band in record business history. Especially since Atlantic execs had never even seen this Led Zeppelin.

But anyway, Atlantic told itself, “advances” are up-front money, and get repaid first.

The deal got made, but Atlantic would find its “fine print” (aka Peter Grant’s other demands) stunning.

That November (1968), Atlantic issued a press release without stating the Fine Print. “The exact terms of the deal are secret,” the release edged out, but it did admit that Led Zeppelin was “one of the most substantial deals Atlantic ever made.” The release predicted that Atlantic now had a group in the same league with Cream and Hendrix.

Wexler stepped to one side then. “I signed Led Zeppelin,” he related, then: “I had nothing to do with them. Absolutely nothing. Ahmet took over their care and cleaning. I don’t think I could have tolerated them. I got along fine with Peter Grant, but I knew he was an animal.”

Peter Grant Changes How It Works

Grant’s size and strength had worked for him earlier in his life. He’d been a bouncer. He’d wrestled on English TV. He’d been a stuntman, body double in movies and television; and an actor there, too. Peter Grant had become the most dangerously explosive manager in rock. Feared for his occasional violence.

Early on, he’d managed guys like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Then Grant had experienced the last year as manager of Jimmy Page’s earlier band, the Yardbirds, about which he observed “…they weren’t getting the hit singles, but were on the college circuit and underground scene in America. Instead of trying to get played on Top 40 radio, I realized that there was another market. We were the first UK act to get booked at places like the Fillmore. The scene was changing.”

Unlike most other “managers” of acts, Grant traveled closely with the Yardbirds. He made sure that all expenses were minimized; that the group members got paid on time; that the band kept artistic control. Grant was very “hands on.”

The “fine print” kept showing up between Grant’s Zeppelin and Atlantic’s crew. Or as Grant once put it, “Know when to say ‘no’.”

Some of Grant’s points that would startle Atlantic and others in the music business:

Grant’s Tenets

* Led Zeppelin has total autonomy when deciding when it would release its albums.

* Led Zeppelin controls when and where it will tour. Grant kept them off television, saying “You just cannot capture the magic of Zeppelin on a 25-inch screen at home.” So that if someone wanted to see Led Zeppelin, that individual had to buy a ticket. And that the bulk of the ticket sales (90% of the gate money) wound up in the hands of the band. Unprecedented then.

* Led Zeppelin insisted on fair counting by promoters. When the Knebworth promoters claimed they’d sold only 100,000 tickets to an event, Grant felt the crowd was much larger. He hired a helicopter to take aerial photos of the crowd, have the photo analyzed to get a better count. Grant’s count was more than 200,000. Led Zeppelin got its money.

* Led Zeppelin had final say over the contents of each album, and over its design. Grant never argued with the group on such points. Neither could Atlantic.

* Led Zeppelin would never be harassed by their audience. Once at a New Orleans airport some sailors jeered at the group’s hippie clothes and long hair. Grant picked up one of the sailors and demanded, “What’s your problem, Popeye?”

* Led Zeppelin decides how to promote each release. Peter Grant, single-handedly, shifted the power away from agents and labels and promoters to the artists and their own management.

* Led Zeppelin will decide which (if any) tracks to release as singles. Grant believed bands would make more money focusing on albums, not singles. A startling attitude for Atlantic’s promotion men.

* Led Zeppelin will form its own publishing company to handle all all pub rights. Company will be named Superhype.

* Led Zeppelin will actively fight against bootlegging. Grant frequently went into record stores and demanded to see illegal copies. And then destroyed them on the spot.

Cliff Jones once nailed it: “We often talk about turning points in rock music – Elvis, the Beatles, and the like – but the music business itself had similar sorts of turning point, similar awakenings, and in this area. Peter Grant was the superstar of management.”

The Albums

Album One:

Their first album, Led Zeppelin, was released in America during Zep’s January 1969 tour. It went to #10 on the Billboard chart. It became a “turning point” in the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal. Filled with psychedelic blues, shuffles, guitar riffs, and lumbering rhythms. The band completed four U.S. tours and four more English tours in 1968.

Album Two:

Led Zeppelin II came from the group’s U.S. tours and various studios en route. It reached Billboard #1. The album emphasized a massive sound: heavy, hard, direct. It became known as the musical “starting point for heavy metal.”

Grant had forbidden any singles being released, particularly in England, from this album; Atlantic did get to put out an edited version of "Whole Lotta Love,” and that became #4 on Billboard singles chart in January, 1970, and it sold over a million.

You need coolin', baby, I'm not foolin',
I'm gonna send you back to schoolin',
Way down inside honey, you need it,
I'm gonna give you my love,
I'm gonna give you my love.

Wanna Whole Lotta Love
Wanna Whole Lotta Love
Wanna Whole Lotta Love
Wanna Whole Lotta Love

The group stayed off television, though. It was bigger, playing arenas now, sometimes giving concerts lasting over four hours.

The group, on tour, developed a reputation for off-stage “excess.” Like on July 27, 1969, when Zep was appearing at the Seattle Pop Festival, and staying at the nearby Edgewater Hotel on Puget Sound. There, they fished from their balcony, and road manager Richard Cole caught a red snapper. In their room was a natural red-haired groupie, who had the fish stuffed in her red “honeypot” by Bonzo (John Bonham), while the others in the group played Dungeons and Dragons.

(In 1971, this event was memorialized by Frank Zappa in his gig at the Fillmore East.)

Album Three:

Led Zeppelin III sounds rich and acoustic, which let down some of the band’s audience, though the LP still went #1 on the charts, but not for as long as others had.

Against the band’s wishes, the album’s opening track, “Immigrant Song,” was released as a single and went Top 20.

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green, can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war. We are your overlords.

On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing.

Led Zeppelin kept touring and touring, and the gossip kept audiences aroused. Like: One evening, two young girls were lounging in the bathtub of Led Zeppelin’s hotel suite. Page walked in. He giggled, “We figured you need something to keep you company.” Then he threw four live octopuses into the tub with the girls. The young ladies wound up enjoying the octopuses more than the rockers. “Oh my god,” squealed one of them, “I’ve gotta get one of these. It’s like having an eight-armed vibrator.”

Album Four:

This album, released without a title by the band, came out November 8, 1971 (we’ll call it Led Zeppelin IV). It sold 37 million copies, one of the very-best-selling albums in history. One cut in the album, “Stairway to Heaven,” was never released as a single, but has become, it’s said, “the most requested and most played album-oriented radio song”:

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she cant get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

The album itself was Atlantic’s own Stairway to Heaven.

Album Five:

Called Houses of the Holy, this LP featured synthesizers and Mellotron orchestration. Its cover (no title on it) shows nude children climbing the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Again, the album topped the charts, and Led Zeppelin filled places like the Tampa (Florida) Stadium with 56,800 fans.

The only rivals to Led Zeppelin in popularity were now the Rolling Stones and the Who.

And Then, As Always, It Comes to an End

Led Zeppelin’s contract with Atlantic expired at the end of 1973, and the group freshened its own logo:

Free now from Atlantic, the group started its own label, Swan Song Records, ultimately distributed by Atlantic.

At Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert in 1988, producer Bill Graham took over as the concert’s Stage Manager. When his colleagues suggested closing the concert with an all-star jam, he answered, “No offence to anybody else on the bill, but nobody could follow Zeppelin.”

Later, after a concert at Royal Albert Hall, with Peter Grant retired and sitting out in the audience, Phil Everly presented him with a silver cane, and told party guests, “This man made it all possible. Without his efforts, musicians had no careers. He was the first to make sure the artist came first, and that we got paid properly.

Peter Grant died at age 60 on November 21, 1995. The lifestyle had destroyed him. But he had given Atlantic Records its biggest seller of all time. Over the course of its career at Atlantic, Led Zeppelin sold more than 110 million albums in America, and twice that amount around the world.

In 2007, Led Zeppelin gave a concert-celebration at London’s O2 Arena in honor of their friend, Ahmet Ertegun. Founding members John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plan were joined on stage by Jason Bonham, son of the late drummer, John Bonham.

Here’s 2007.

-- Stay Tuned