Led Zeppelin – L.A. Times

Zeppelin Alchemy: Transmuting

The majority of the San Diego crowd, not unlike those in the 29 other tour stops, had spent at least seven hours waiting outside the Sports Arena in anticipation of the evening’s performance by British rockers Led Zeppelin. Sold out by mail-order weeks in advance, the event had led many to pitch their sleeping bags outside the doors the night before. Now, with house-lights dimmed and 8 o’clock several moments away, 18,000 hold their lighted matches high while throngs crush toward the stage-front.

Just as hysteria reaches a peak, four musicians take the brilliantly lighted stage and the thunderous opening notes of “Rock and Roll” blast through 33,000 watts of amplification, more wattage than the sound system used at Woodstock. Robert Plant, the group’s sexually taunting singer, struts euphorically and boldly flaunts his machismo. Plant is flanked by the legendary guitar virtuoso Jimmy Page. Several yards behind the two focal points, bassist-organist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham provide a taut and driving rhythm section operating with inconspicuous efficiency.

Zeppelin’s three-hour set is flawlessly paced with a well-chosen, crowd-satisfying cross section of the high-powered material that has characterized each of its five albums, all of them million sellers and platinum discs. There is no intermission, no supporting act, and in short, nothing but Led Zeppelin throughout the tour concerts. “Three hours”, exclaimed backstage well-wisher George Harrison. “The Beatles were never on stage more than 40 minutes when we were doing concerts.”

Within several seconds after a final encore of “Communication Breakdown,” the band is hustled into limousines headed for a Los Angeles hotel. Collapsed in the back seat, Plant giddily speaks the language of a true showman. “The crowd was right up there.” He sips a beer and grins reflectively: “And when the audience is close like that, you’re so much more impulsive. It was great to just wiggle around right on the edge of the stage. It was really good.”

Kicked off upon the release of its newest LP, “Houses of The Holy,” Led Zeppelin’s summer tour of America was allegedly “the biggest in rock ‘n’ roll history.” Grossing $4 million after 30 appearances in the bigger halls and stadiums the States could offer, long-standing attendance and gross records set by others fell in quick succession. All this, while “Houses of the Holy” had streaked to the top of the charts for a lengthy stay, provided for much speculation as to whether Led Zeppelin was indeed the biggest group in the world. The facts do little to deny the band a position at the forefront.

Tickets Tend to Vanish

Zeppelin albums are shipped gold (500,000 copies) the day of release and waste no time in racking up staggering sales figures. And then there are the tickets that tend to vanish within several hours of being made available. In what was to be the tour climax, last May 5, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see the band at Tampa Stadium in Florida. Besides setting an all-time record for gross profit, it was the largest gathering ever for a single performance. Still, some caution is advised against becoming too enraptured with attendance figures. Many promoters have suggested that if Jethro Tull, the Who or the Rolling Stones were to perform in such vacuous sties as major sporting stadiums, Zeppelin’s drawing power could be easily matched. The controversy rages on, but for the moment – at least on paper – Led Zeppelin appears to be as big as they come.

Jimmy Page, relaxing on the eve of the group’s packing 53,000 into San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium, seems reluctant to pinpoint Led Zeppelin’s appeal. “We’ve never really been involved in the media,” he reflects. “We’ve never done a TV program and air play, of course, is limited because of the fact that we don’t record singles. The record company may release an album track as a 45 here in the States, but this band has never set out to make a hit single. We’ve never had a single in England, for example. Quite honestly, I don’t know why we’ve had such phenomenal success. Perhaps you could relate it to street music and the fact that people feel more of an affinity to Zep’s music because it’s not constantly hammered down their throats from every direction. All I can say is that whenever we’ve gone on stage or into the studio, we’ve always done our best.”

Perfection is a goal Page is well-accustomed to striving for. It wasn’t very long ago that it was his job to anonymously achieve it in the name of others. A veteran session guitarist from an early age, his reputation was made by memorable appearances on the recorded works of among others, Burt Bacharach, the Who, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

“Certain sessions were a pleasure to do,” he recalls while swaying to the beat of several Al Green records, “but you see, the problem was that I’d never know who I’d be working with until after arriving at the studio. I mean, you would just get booked into a particular studio between the specified hours. A lot of those sessions turned out to be agony. I hated doing them.”

He left after several years to join the Yardbirds, a powerful English blues-rock unit. “The reason I quit doing session work was that . . . well, obviously there are phases that go in the music business. Sometimes one thing will be in vogue and other times something else will be very trendy. When I started doing sessions, the guitar was really in. I was playing solos every day. Then later, when the Stax thing was going on and you had whole brass sections coming in, that was happening. I ended up hardly playing anything, just a little riff here and there . . . no solos. I remember one particular occasion when I hadn’t played a solo for, quite literally, a couple of months. I was asked to play a solo on this rock ‘n roll tune, and I felt that what I had played was absolute trash. I was so disgusted with myself, I made my mind up to get out. It was messing me right up.”

While with the Yardbirds, Page and fellow members, guitarist Jeff Beck, pioneered the double-lead guitar concept that has since been employed in many other groups. “I have really good memories of the Yardbirds,” says Page. “We were at our peak when Jeff and I were exploring all the possibilities available with both of us playing lead. It could have built into something exceptional at that point, but unfortunately there’s precious little time in the band’s existence. There’s only “The Train Kept a’ Rolling’ from ‘Blow-Up’ film, actually. We didn’t get into the studio too much then. You know, I think a Yardbirds reunion album might even be a good idea if it was presented in the right light. I don’t know if Beck would do it, though. He’s a silly boy, Beck is.”

From Yardbirds’ Ashes

When the Yardbirds crumbled, it was Led Zeppelin that grew from the ashes. Deciding to form his own group in 1968, Jimmy Page looked first to John Paul Jones, whom he had been working with on Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” album. A session man with a background almost identical to Page’s, Jones had masterminded the arranging of albums by such artists as the Stones and Jeff Beck. The quartet’s remaining two additions, Plant and Bonham, came from a raucous Birmingham band.

After a two-week tour of Scandinavia, Led Zeppelin felt confident enough to enter England’s Olympic Studios to cut its first album. The LP, “Led Zeppelin,” was an immediate success.

“It came together really quick,” says Page in retrospect. “We finished it in two weeks. I was still heavily influenced by the earlier days and there was a lot of Yardbirds techniques used on that album. I think it tells a bit too. I’m just saying that a real group identity didn’t emerge until our second LP. One of us had to take the lead in the beginning, otherwise we’d have all sat around and jammed for six months . . . ”

“I was shouting too much on the first album,” adds Plant. “I stopped shouting a little bit by the second album. By the third one I finally learned how to sing.”

The explosive “Whole Lotta Love,” a highly successful single culled from “Led Zeppelin II,” exposed the group to an even larger audience. But it was the group’s biggest hit, a captivatingly fluid acoustic-electric piece called “Stairway to Heaven,” for which Zeppelin was acknowledged with what Jimmy Page calls “the musical respectability we’ve deserved all along.”

“That song,” he says, “was our single most important achievement. It was a milestone for us. When everybody heard that one, they realized we were the sort of band that was going to keep coming up with new things. I’m glad that we’re now more recognized for that than ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ We’re not just another hard-rock English group and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ proves it.”

Page quarrels with Zeppelin’s reputation that like the Rolling Stones, it is primarily a live act. “It all goes hand-in-hand,” he contends. “I’m very pleased with all our albums. I’m not one of those people who says all their LPs are a load of junk as soon as the records come out. I think that’s ludicrous. You either like the LP or you don’t put it out. With us, it’s that simple.”

With each album, there appears to be a conscious effort within the band to avoid too closely retracing past musical steps. “Houses of the Holy” is a prime example of Led Zeppelin’s roving nature. Where past LPs have been immediately accessible, this one demands several listenings before its qualities begin to identify themselves.

“I’m happy about that,” smiles Page, “because there’s a hell of a lot in that LP. It’s not very easy one-time listening, and that’s good. You’ve got to sit down and listen, think about a few things. I’m not saying that every LP is gonna carry on in that progression because they’re not. The next LP will probably have a lot of simple, straightforward cuts like, say ‘Rock and Roll.’ Just really good, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll.”

“You’ve got to stretch everything to its limits,” Plant philosophizes about the group’s ever-changing direction. “We’ve been together five years and after that long, it’s time to move around . . . experiment a bit. Who knows? Maybe in a year’s time I might be singing through a megaphone. Our experimentation isn’t just for its own sake, though. It’s all to good effect.”

A representative pair of Zeppelin’s more off-the-wall efforts can be found on “Houses of the Holy.” One, “The Crunge,” is a satirical send-up of the frantic James Brown style. “D’Yer Maker” (based on a cornball English pun from way back, it’s pronounced “Jermaicer”), however, is an oversimplified exaggeration of the early ’50s Jamaican beat.

“Some took those songs too seriously,” says Page. “Especially ‘D’Yer Maker.’ I would never say that it was reggae, as a lot of people who’ve lifted their eyebrows at it have said. I think real reggae is rude, dirty music. That’s what makes it great. But it only works when the Jamaicans do it, not the whiteys. It just doesn’t have the same spirit at all. The true Jamaican reggae is, when you really weigh it up, pornographic.”

There have been numerous aborted attempts to record a live Zeppelin album. The reason, according to Plant, is puzzling. “From what we’ve listened back to, the on-stage vibes just can’t be captured on tape. We’ve recorded gigs we thought have been fantastic, but the feeling that was at the actual concert isn’t present to any degree.” Having employed a film crew for the latter part of the tour as an alternative, plans are afoot for a feature-length film.

Despite the absence of financial necessity, Led Zeppelin will remain a touring band. “We enjoy playing too much to retire from the road. I mean, there’s no reason why, but we’ve played every single market in the least 12 months . . . apart from Bangkok and India, which we’ll get to in the next two years. We’ve been playing like a group that’s trying to make it. So, we’ve got it in us and I, for one, can’t stop smiling when I’m playing. When we were really trying hard for about three years, I was self conscious, we all were. Now, we’re all quite at ease and looking forward to a long future together. You could say that we’ve settled down to just being Led Zeppelin.

“We can’t allow ourselves the luxury of becoming fascinated with our own popularity,” says Page. “The way I look at it, if the Beatles were to get back together, they’d forget all about us again.”

Courtesy of theĀ L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – October 7, 1973