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The Oakland Incident: When Led Zeppelin violence erupted with John Bonham and Peter Grant

The era of classic rock was a hectic one. Whilst many of our favourite rockers enjoyed significant commercial success and creative enlightenment, it seems that a prerequisite for such enormous success is also a fair share of crushing lows. You can’t have it all, and in some strange way, perhaps the lows make the highs worthwhile.

Anyway, we digress. When you look at the history of the world’s most celebrated bands, you see that they have enjoyed success and endured hardship in equal measure. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, the list is endless. Another band that endured their fair share of fraught experiences was Led Zeppelin. The group that filled the void left by The Beatles took rock down a darker, more expansive route, and reaped all the rewards. Known for their debauchery, many of the tales about Led Zeppelin are now legends due to how ridiculous they are.

One of the most notorious instances, however, came in June 1977. Whilst on tour in America, the band’s hard-partying lifestyle had started to take its toll, and their relevancy was waining due to the advent of punk, but in no uncertain terms, they were still a major outfit. The story goes that the band were booked by legendary impresario Bill Graham, who founded the Filmores East and West for a duo of shows in Oakland, California.

Regardless of his booking, Graham, who had escaped Nazi Germany, always felt that Zeppelin brought a rather unpleasant form of male aggression to their shows. One evening, he was to be proven right.

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The band played the first of the shows on June 23rd, 1977. Whilst performing, Warren, the 11-year-old son of the band’s manager, Peter Grant, attempted to remove a ‘Led Zeppelin’ sign from one of the dressing-room trailers. Per an account by Graham, one of his security guards politely told Warren that he couldn’t have it.

However, drummer John Bonham’s account differed markedly. He claimed that he saw it from the stage and said that the guard hit Warren. A scene of ultra-violence ensued. Peter Grant, Bonham, and hired muscle John Bindon, allegedly beat seven bells out of Graham’s employee. Whilst the beating was underway, the band’s notorious tour manager, Richard Cole, is reported to have stood guard.

The man was rushed to hospital bleeding, and the band are said to have refused to play the next show unless Graham signed a document that absolved them of any guilt. Graham’s hand was forced. Given that it was the days before the internet where mania surrounded bands, he feared a riot if the band didn’t turn up, regardless of punk or not. He was also assured that the document was legally worthless.

After the show, Grant, Cole, Bonham and Bindon were arrested when back at the hotel. The case rumbled on for over a year and was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed fee. Graham discussed the episode in a chapter in his autobiography, which was released the year after his death in 1992. It remains one of the most fraught stories in the whole of led Zeppelin’s history.