One simple explanation would be jealousy; within a year of releasing their first album, Led Zeppelin were a massive commercial force; Led Zeppelin II knocked the Beatles’ Abbey Road off the top of the charts. Prime-era Zeppelin even outsold the Stones. The British Invasion big four (Beatles/Stones/Who/Kinks) were all singles bands; by the late 60s, a band like Led Zeppelin could arrive and attain prominence just from touring and word of mouth, without the aid of hit singles. But tremendous success not buttressed by hit singles created a strange dynamic; it meant that Zeppelin had less of a reason to be on TV and a.m. radio. There was no “Ed Sullivan Show” moment for Zeppelin in the States, which could’ve brought them before a large public, other than rock fans (though that contingent in the US populace was substantial). Without more of a show-biz presence, Led Zeppelin rapidly became invisible to the US media. They were out-selling the Beatles, but from underground. Zeppelin never developed a “singles strategy”; as far as the wider media were concerned, they began underground and stayed there. Since what media were attracted to Zeppelin were dealt with roughly, including nascent rock press, a mutual animosity and antagonistic attitude developed. This happened at a moment when the media frenzy around the Stones, particularly, was intense and consistent.
These were unfortunate circumstances, because Led Zeppelin were hitting creative peaks which became instant Bibles for developing rock musicians. Because Jimmy Page could begin with simple riffs which would be spun out by the band in interesting directions, Zeppelin’s best songs mixed simple and complex elements in memorable ways. A genius in the recording studio (one of whose specialties was microphone placement, specifically to preserve echoes and overtones), Page was able with his cohorts to produce a sound of tremendous, layered depth. The sound itself, rather than lyrical or thematic content, was always the predominant emphasis with Zeppelin; how textural elements (even unlikely ones like theramins or violin-bowed electric guitars) combined disparate parts to make wholes. If texture didn’t give the media a ready angle, it magnetized late Boomers like absolutely nothing else. By achievement and impact, Led Zeppelin almost instantly gained “secret Beatles” status; even as rock critics weaned on Dylan and the Beatles sneered. The best 60s rock lyricists were revered and feted like poets; many of them also believed themselves to be such. They were perceived by some to be not only poets but prophets, agents of political change and transformation. Led Zeppelin were perceived to be anti-poets, and apolitical ones at that. The critics of the time couldn’t hear Led Zeppelin, because they were listening for something else. Since those scribes were not particularly musically competent (not only as potential musicians but as listeners), they could only evaluate Zeppelin based on vague prejudices and suppositions. Led Zeppelin could sound harsh and grating to unsympathetic ears; to use the parlance of the time, they were heavy. Many people experienced Zeppelin (and still do) as all-or-nothing; you either get them or you don’t. The media perceived them as musical ogres. Close listeners knew they were equally capable of bucolic folk and balladry.
Why, by the late 80s, did the master narrative need to be reversed? It was because by then, the musical influence of Led Zeppelin had become so pervasive that entire genres had developed from what they initiated. Heavy metal and hard rock of that period, much of which was commercially successful enough that a magazine like Rolling Stone couldn’t afford to ignore it, was firmly grounded in a Zeppelin-derived sound. Because they continued to sell, and because they spawned so many imitators, Led Zeppelin were eventually handed the media crowns that had been worn by the Beatles and Stones. They were, through their influence and classic rock radio, household names; the secret was out. Because drummer John Bonham, an integral part of their sound, had died in 1980, effectively ending the band, the victory must have seemed bittersweet. But it is a testament to the power of a musical vision that once the crown had been placed on Zeppelin, it stayed. They are as engrained into rock history as the Beatles and Stones. As long as the volume on sound-systems can be raised, it is likely to remain that way.