40 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Launches Swan Song Records
Led Zeppelin wasn’t the first band in rock ‘n’ roll to be given their own label, but they surely were among the most successful. In May 1974, they kicked off the experiment with a bang, launching Swan Song Records.
The idea to form their own custom label was first tossed around a year earlier when the band’s original contract with Atlantic Records expired. Naturally, Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun was keen to do whatever it took to keep one of his label’s biggest acts. With full knowledge of the unprecedented leverage they had, the band’s manger Peter Grant struck a deal with Ertegun for the group to work under their own distinct imprint with an exclusive distribution deal given to Atlantic.
The deal was announced in January 1974 with a joint statement signed by Grant and Ertegun. Months later they settled on the name Swan Song for their new venture. “We went through all the usual ones, all the ones that twist off your tongue right away, like Slut and Slag: the sort of name one would associate with us touring America,” singer Robert Plant told the New Music Express that year. “But that’s not how we want to be remembered. We want something really nice.”
The label formally opened for business with a party at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City on May 7. Another party was staged at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles three days later. Among the guests at the second event was Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and comedy icon Groucho Marx.
Maggie Bell, formerly of Stone the Crows and best known for her cameo on Rod Stewart‘s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story,’ was the first act to sign at the label. In ‘Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band,’ she recalled the grandiosity of the LA event: “There was a great launch party at the Bel-Air Hotel with pink flamingos and doves,” she said. In the same book, an Atlantic executive recalled a bit of an embarrassing moment for Bell: “Maggie goes to Groucho Marx, ‘I’m so honored to meet you.’ Groucho goes, “F— that, show us your t—.” Right there in front of everyone.”
Swan Song’s British launch was delayed due to Grant’s efforts to extricate himself from a longstanding partnership with noted producer Mickie Most. The English party was held on Halloween at Chislehurst Caves and was replete with strippers, men eating fire, and magicians. In a nod to guitarist Jimmy Page‘s interest in occultist Aleister Crowley, the invitation opened with the latter’s infamous quote: “Do what thou wilt…”
Beyond its founding band, Swan Song also issued recordings by Bad Company, Dave Edmunds (including a single with the Stray Cats), the Pretty Things (featuring early Rolling Stones member Dick Taylor), and Detective (which included Tony Kaye of Yes and Michael Des Barres of Power Station), among others. But, after the 1980 breakup of Led Zeppelin, the label began to fade — ultimately ceasing operation at year after the release of solo albums by Page and Plant, and Zeppelin’s odds-and-ends finale from 1982, ‘Coda.’