Led Zeppelin were as famed for their off-stage antics as they were for delivering powerhouse performances on it. The quartet quickly asserted themselves as one of the biggest acts on the road during the sixties and seventies, providing the kind of performance that could leave venues as rubble. As well as demonstrating an expert set of techniques for whipping up the crowd, they soon became experts at life on tour too.
One troublesome issue to traverse while travelling large distances across the country and then flying across the world is, of course, boredom. Often when bands go off the rails on drugs while on the road it is a consequence of the hours and hours spent with nothing to do. As well as drugs and music another cure for boredom was pranking.
Led Zeppelin, and in particular drumming legend John Bonham, were fans most notably of the latter. Though the group can boast their fair share of abhorrent backstage behaviour, they normally kept things somewhat clean cut. The kind of stuff you may see on a teen movie involving once-wholesome American desserts.
When the group retired from wowing mammoth audiences they would wind down and party like any other group. But with Bonham around, often putting fire hoses into rooms and turning the tap on or leaving his bassist asleep in public whenever he could, things were never truly safe. Most of the pranks were harmless but one left the band feeling incredibly embarrassed.
The Beatles’ George Harrison had been a friend of the band for some time in 1974 when he agreed to meet them for dinner. The group had been in Los Angeles promoting their new Swan Song label and had been dressed in drag for promo shots for the next album. After some groupies freshened their make-up, the quartet of Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, made their way to dinner salivating at the laugh Harrison would have at them.
Zeppelin knew Harrison would take the joke in good spirits, he and his wife Pattie Boyd had once been drenched by a raucous Bonham and seen the lighter side of the joke. But what the band weren’t expecting was Harrison had brought with him a guest, the iconic singer Stevie Wonder
Suddenly, in consideration of Wonder’s visual impairment, the joke didn’t seem that funny anymore. Lori Maddox, a young girlfriend of Jimmy Page remembers how the joke went wrong in Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods: “All the guys came traipsing into the suite in makeup and dresses and there’s Stevie Wonder sitting there!” Maddox told Davis.
“Can you imagine? There’s Led Zeppelin all in drag and Stevie Wonder thinks the guys are doing it as a joke on him because he’s blind.” It was clear as day that Zeppelin had not only made fools of themselves but not managed to make a single person laugh while doing it. “They almost died from embarrassment,” Maddox recalled.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that it was a poorly-planned practical joke, not necessarily a mean one. Even still we expect Zeppelin learned a valuable lesson that day; if you’re going out in drag always carry a change of clothes.