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Led Zep Zaps Kidz
Backstage and Onstage, Chicago 1975
If you look at the avatar for this Substack, it's a soon-to-be-replaced thumbnail of the back page, then the Arts cover page, of New York's weekly Village Voice for Feb. 3, 1975. Ten days earlier, the Voice, then arguably the country's most influential weekly newspaper, sent me to Chicago to see and have a few words with Led Zeppelin. The legendary-in-my-own mind headline was created by me and my editor, Robert Christgau. Once we painstakingly line-edited every word and punctuation mark, as was Christgau's approach, we found the page designers had given us a tiny two-line/eight character box for the headline. We free associated until we came up with the words and the properly zany spelling Led Zep/Zaps Kidz. I'd been writing regularly for Christgau at the Voice since he became music editor and my day job at CBS Records ended with corporate cutbacks in spring/early summer 1974. I read it now and I wonder, who were we writing for? (I transcribed this version from the newsprint, so any typos or spelling errors are mine.)
The story doesn't have the sass or brass of my concert or record reviews for the Voice. I guess I was practicing being a real reporter. The tone still mystifies me: it feels a little like explaining a Coca-Cola bottle to a cargo cult.
Devoted as I was to accuracy and reporting, however, to be on the safe side, I do not stand by any of the numbers or statistics. By the way, the front cover of that issue, if my memory is right, was my fellow Substacker Lucian K. Truscott IV's profile of the real Frank Serpico, the honest cop treated like a snitch by his colleagues, and made famous in Al Pacino's title performance in the movie Serpico.
Led Zep Zaps Kidz
by Wayne Robins
Kyle from Rockford, Ill., is the last one in the men's room as the house lights go down in Chicago Stadium. Robert Plant shakes his long, golden mane while the amplifiers burst forth with Led Zeppelin's ode to their music, "Rock and Roll," but Kyle is chugging a Budweiser and changing his shirt.
Off comes the J.C.Penney mandala print; on with the Led Zeppelin t-shirt. "I just bought it," he says, as he pulls out a fistful of White Owl cigar-thick joints. We smoke one, and it's just like doing tobacco in the high school john. I put the butt on the sink after each inhale, in case a teacher, or the law, comes in.
But this is no extracurricular activity. For this high school generation, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English. A number of Chicago fans camped all night night in near-zero temperatures before tickets went on sale. Eleven persons were arrested outside Chicago Stadium Monday night as they attempted to sell $8.50 tickets to an undercover agents for up to $100 a pair. In Boston, fans had lined up three days early for tickets, possibly due to a communications breakdown. The hall's beer supply was seized, bottles thrown, furniture destroyed, an estimated $50,000 in damages the result.
A case could be made that Led Zeppelin is not only the most popular band of the moment, but the most popular rock band of all time. The band rose from the remains of the Yardbirds, one of the more hallowed first generation English [Invasion] groups, and source of three of the best electric guitarists in rock: Eric Clapton, who left to form Cream; Jeff Beck, whose short-lived Jeff Beck Group introduced a frustrated soccer player named Rod Stewart; and Jimmy Page, around whom ex-Yardbirds manager Peter Grant formed the new band. The other three members were were John Paul Jones, a bass player and keyboard artist with impressive arranging credentials (the Stones, Donovan), and two relative unknowns: Drummer John Bonham and singer Robert Plant.
What the band created was the esthetic standard against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured. Rather than reviving Chuck Berry tunes or early 1960s American R&B hits, as the Stones and Beatles had done on their earliest albums, Led Zeppelin chose as reference point on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon. But rather pay strict homage to the form common among English blues bands, they mutated the blues into a mega-amplified maniacally surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form.
As their discography grew, so did their ability as writers and performers. Each very popular hard rock band has come up with one great song on which to hang its reputation: Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love, " Grank Funk's "We're an American Band," Black Sabbath's "Paranoid"––Led Zeppelin has created at least half a dozen masterful songs, including "Whole Lotta Love," "Immigrant Song," "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Black Dog," Rock and Roll," and their piece de resistance, "Stairway to Heaven."
Though they'd sold millions of albums, and evolved from purveyors of well-honed frenzy to artists capable of passion and subtlety, they were scorned by the rock intellegentsia because their early sound was associated with markedly inferior heavy groups like Funk, Sabbath, and Purple. There was another problem with critics, most of whom had grown up on Elvis, the Stones, the Beatles, and the Who, who refused to believe a great group could be created after the peak moments of the 1960s. They were never quite trusted by those distanced from the lifestyle of the enthusiastic new rock audience.
For their first three years, piqued by the critical shafting their albums received from the cultural commissars at Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin did virtually no interviews. When Jann Wenner went through the numbers during the press offensive engineered by the 1973 tour's ace PR man, Danny Goldberg (now Vice President, at 24, of Led Zep's Swan Song Records), he offered the cover of the magazine and the writer of their choice for a Rolling Stone interview. Unimpressed, the band refused.)
After all, who needs interviews when you've got the numbers, and the publicity-generating machine of the band itself, legendary for its touring shenanigans and bacchanals. Each Led Zeppelin has sold more than a million copies, and it's fourth Led Zeppelin IV (which bears no real title, and is sometimes referred to by its catalog number, "SD 7208") [later known as the ZOSO album, released in 1971] has sold more than two million in America and four million worldwide; during these years, they've at times outsold their Atlantic label mates the Rolling Stones by two to one.
More numbers: During Zeppelin's last American tour, in 1973, they broke the Beatles' record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. In July, 1973, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa. A blizzard of favorable publicity fell from the tour for the first time in the band's history. Soon after, Swan Song Records was formed.
"They felt that by using the business wisdom that had guided them, they could help other acts they believed in build their careers," Danny Goldberg said. Some of the label's first signings, such as Maggie Bell, and the Pretty Things, have stirred more interest among critics than consumers. More than good karma, however, greeted the label's first release by Bad Company, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the Led Zeppelin organization, there is little distance between the business and creative sectors.
Example: after what the band considered a dismal opening night in Chicago (the tour had begun a few nights earlier in Minneapolis), the Zeppelin team met to analyze the situation. The four musicians met with manager Grant, who guides their adventures in the money jungle, and road manager Richard Cole, who directs a small battalion of equipment mover, sound engineers, and lighting personnel.
Physically, the band wasn't at its most robust. Plant, who had the flu, was told that it didn't help audience spirits when he said so from the stage at the previous, disappointing Chicago show: 20,000 fans who'd waited two years to see their favorite band didn't need any shortcomings rationalized in advance. Jimmy Page, who jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, couldn't really execute the involved improvisations on his show-topper, the six-year-old "Dazed and Confused," so the tune was dropped temporarily and replaced with "How Many More Times," another piece of bluesy freneticism from the first album, Led Zeppelin (1969). They hadn't performed it live in five years.
Before the second Chicago show, the band seemed enthusiastic. Backstage, Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine. Amid the dressing room chatter, I asked Plant whether reports about violence on the ticket line made him fear that they could lose control of a crowd on this tour.
"No, there's no violent energy here," said Plant, who tends to be a bit of a flower child, staring at me with meditatively clear blue eyes. "Violent energy can only be created. Some groups do it, knowingly or unknowingly, and send out negative energy. Because we've got a sizable audience, people may think we'll bring out violence, but it doesn't happen."
Plant is the visual center of the act. He wears tight blue jeans, and possibly, no underwear. On his bare chest, he wears a vest with cosmic sort of African-Oriental design; he is the only rock star of the moment who flashes tit and gets away with it. Although he does a brief peace rap before "The Song Remains the Same," there is little of the cloying pretension that often goes along with such introductions, partly because one is disarmed by the spirituality mixed with sexuality in Plant's projection. Also, Plant was right backstage: the audience was as well-behaved as any I've seen at an arena event, be it hockey, basketball, or rock show.
When someone throws a lit joint on the stage, Plant picks it up, studies it and says, "I've got a bad throat and all, but might as well." He takes two quick tokes and says, "Now we're gonna play a new track, and it's got nothing to do with that at all."
Page is the musical magnet of the show. Though Led Zeppelin is known as a heavy guitar band, Page displays few of the egocentricities of other acts oriented to lead guitar. [This was the era of endless boogie guitar solos]. He can be flamboyant, especially when using a double-necked guitar, but when the song demands it, he can also play with the efficiency and restraint of the studio musician--which is how Page began his career, on some of the great singles sessions of English rock. Page's virtuosity is Led Zeppelin's strength. With only three instrumentalists, Page is attentive to Bonham and Jones' firm and fluid rhythms, while also venturing out, adding width to the spectrum embraced by Plant's plaintive vocals. After a particularly incisive display, a fan exhibited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a tossed roll of toilet paper.
Drummer Bonham takes a turn in the spotlight with his "Moby Dick," which some have hailed as the only interesting 20-minute drum solo outside West Africa. Since I am no fan of the form, let's just say that it is not boring, with Bonham changing time, color, and maintaining a kind of melody, until he does away with sticks altogether and pummels his drums with his open hands. At the very least, effective showmanship.
The highlight of the set came with "Stairway to Heaven," a patiently weaved (nearly eight minutes on the record) musical tapestry that proves that Led Zeppelin has the ability to remain a viable creative force long after "heavy metal" goes the way of other pop fads. One fan finds this tale tale, based on Celtic mysticism so enthralling that she asked me to listen "extra hard and bring some of it back" from Chicago to New York,when they played the tune.
Although a top-forty FM station in Miami plays it as often as any of the hits on its playlist, and it is one of the most requested songs on a New York oldies station even though it is only four years old, it has never been released as a single. Partly on the strength of the song, the album on which it appears, Led Zeppelin IV or SD 7208, continues to sell about 15,000 copies a week.
Indeed, "Stairway to Heaven" will probably stand with (the Five Satins) "In the Still of the Night," "Satisfaction" and "Hey Jude" as one of history's great oldies, even after we all find out what it means, as the song says, "to be a rock and not to roll." Which proves that you don't have to have grown up with Elvis and the Beatles to cherish oldies worthy of their gold.
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