go over like a lead balloon

To “go over like a lead balloon,” means to fail completely and to be recognized as a flop.

The phrase originated in the US. The first mention of a lead balloon with the meaning of something that fails comes from a Mom-N-Pop cartoon that was syndicated in several US newspapers in June 1924. The phrase didn’t appear again until after WWII. For example, the following appeared in The Atchison Daily Globe, May 1947: “But occasionally a column or comic strip will ‘go over’ like a V-1 rocket in one community and, for inexplicable reasons, a lead balloon in another.”

The most famous use of the term is the part played in the naming of the English heavy-metal band, Led Zeppelin. 

According to anecdote, Keith Moon said that a band called the New Yardbirds (an impromptu band formed from the popular but rapidly disintegrating Yardbirds) would go down like a lead balloon, or zeppelin. Moon is said to have borrowed the term from John Entwistle, who had used it to describe bad gigs. The details of this are difficult to verify as the comment wasn’t reported at the time. 

The irony and the association with the heavy metal, lead, was too good to miss for an aspiring heavy-metal band. They even made sure that people got the point that they were referring to the metal by changing the spelling to Led and avoiding any possible mispronunciation as “leed.”

The choice of Zeppelin in the band’s name was surely influenced by the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. The newsreel of the event was often seen in English cinemas during the 1950s and 60s and the band members would certainly have been familiar with it. The band used an image of the crash for the cover of their first album. 

Moon’s prediction could hardly have been more wrong. Led Zeppelin became one of the most popular, arguably the most popular, musical act of the first half of the 1970s and reputedly has sold more than 300 million albums.

I used to have long-play records of Led Zeppelin and liked the music a lot. But I am so uneducated in the field of music that I had no idea it was called heavy-metal. But, as Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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