Swan Song Records (1974 – 1983)
So what do you get for the rock band who has everything? In 1974, Peter Green had the answer: a record label for Led Zeppelin.
Swan Song records had two aims: to give Led Zep even more freedom in their own releases, and to put out records by quality acts that they liked. For a few years, it succeeded admirably in both ends.
When Zep’s five-year contract with Atlantic Records expired at the end of 1973, Grant moved swiftly. By January of 19874, he had managed to negotiate a distribution deal with Atlantic and thunderous launch parties were thrown in New York, Los Angeles and… Chislehurst Caves in Kent.
The bash in the Kent tunnels – which had been used for gigs by Bowie, The Stones and Pink Floyd– coincided with the label’s first UK release: Silk Torpedo by glam stalwarts the Pretty Things. This had been preceded by the first US release a couple of months earlier: the self-titled debut by Bad Company.
Both the Pretty Things and Bad Company epitomised what Zep were trying to do with Swan Song. Bad Company, the supergroup containing Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke of Free, Mick Ralphs of Mott The Hoople and King Crimson’s Boz Burrell, was a collection of experienced musicians who knew what they were about and what they were trying to achieve.
Said Robert Plant: “We were looking for people who knew where they were going themselves. We didn’t really want to get bogged down in having to develop artists, we wanted people who were together enough to handle that type of thing themselves.”
Led Zep certainly had sound judgment. Bad Company’s debut topped the US album charts and produced a number one single in ‘I Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love’. This is a great debut record, absolutely on the money, and next year’s follow-up Straight Shooter is just as good. A third million seller followed with 1976’s Run With The Pack. The band, and the label, were rocking hard.
The Pretty Things’ Silk Torpedo, meanwhile, was another really excellent record: sexy, ballsy glam and almost indecently good fun. It seemed that they were set for the big time, but the less impressive Savage Eye followed and the band soon split.
It was a shame, and the fortunes of Bad Company also began to dip after the glories of their first three Swan Song records. Burning Sky, Desolation Angels and Rough Diamonds felt increasingly formulaic, not bad records per se, but just a bit samey, and sales began to dip.
Maggie Bell, the powerful and exciting Glasgow soul voice, was signed to the label and released Suicide Sal, probably her best LP. It’s a fiery and ferocious effort, featuring Jimmy Page on ‘If You Don’t Know’. The track ‘It’s Been So Long’ was written by labelmate Phil May of the Pretty Things. Shame that she did not release more solo stuff, but Swan Song also put out an album by the band she later fronted, Midnight Flyer.
Another Swan Song project who could well have gone on to great things were Detective, comprising of Michael Des Barres on vocal, Tony Kaye of Yes on keys and Bobby Pickett on bass. Not quite glam and not quite heavy, they released a couple of albums on the label that did modestly before going there separate ways.
Other Swan Song acts included old school rock and roller Dave Edmunds and Sad Café, an early project for Paul Young.
Throughout this era, of course, Led Zep themselves were releasing Physical Graffiti (1975), Presence (1976), The Song Remains The Same (1976), In Through The Out Door (1979) and Coda (1982), as well as US singles ‘Trampled Underfoot’, ‘Candy Store Rock’ and ‘Fool In The Rain’.
The band enjoyed the freedom that helming the label gave them. Robert Plant said:
“We knew if we formed a label there wouldn’t be the kind of fuss and bother we’d been going through over album covers and things like that. Having gone through, ourselves, what appeared to be an interference, or at least an aggravation, on the artistic side by record companies, we wanted to form a label where the artists would be able to fulfill themselves without all of that hassle.”
This they achieved, and the label was an opportunity for some terrific British blues and heavy rock acts of the time. Sadly, Peter Grant’s failing health and the break-up of the band brought down the curtain by 1983, but Swan Song remains one of the most artistically successful ‘vanity labels’ of all time.