Led Zep in L.A.

"I DON'T EVEN like Led Zeppelin," the girl in the black velvet jacket and hotpants said petulantly as she bummed a cigarette off an acquaintance in the lobby of the Continental Hyatt House Hotel in L.A. "I'm only staying here because my friends have a room. I think Zep are really tacky."

Methought the lady did protest too much. Why would three well-known L.A. groupies book a room at Zep's hotel if they didn't dig the band? Why would they spend most of their spare time either hanging out in the lobby or else trying to gatecrash the security on the ninth floor?

This particular lady's name was Sherry. Despite her olive skin and California tan, her face proudly bore the scars of pimples galore. Nice legs though. Anyway, she and her friends had the signal honour of being personally evicted from Zep's floor by no less than Robert Plant himself. Plant has no patience with groupies these days.

Zeppelin's current tour has earned them more bread than any British group have taken home from the States since the halcyon days of the Beatles. So with no further ado, let us adjourn to the Forum in L.A. It is May 31st, and the time is eight o'clock on a Thursday night.

The Forum holds approximately 20,000 humans. It's a good hall, acoustically fair for its size. This was to have been the second of two consecutive nights there for Zeppelin, and needless to say both nights were sold out, but the first night had to be cancelled because Jimmy Page sprained a finger while climbing a tree. During the gig, he winces with pain and occasionally dips his finger into a glass of cold water to keep the swelling down.

One of the first things one notices about Zeppelin's audiences is their calm and serenity. Two nights before I'd seen Humble Pie play Madison Square Garden in New York, and for the first time in many years of concert going, I was glad to have a policemen standing next to me. The Pie crowd were so out of their collective mind on red wine and quaaludes that a nasty incident seemed imminent at any time.

Not so with the Zep crowd. They got their rocks off all right, and they shook and twitched till they were as sweaty and exhausted as the band, but not once did anybody give off a violent vibe. For all its enormous volume and energy, Zeppelin's music is inappropriate music to split skulls to.

So all is in readiness. Suddenly the lights explode, and there they are. John Paul Jones with shortish hair moustache and five-string bass, looking almost as if he'd just left the Eagles, Page bare-chested in black velvets sparingly sequinned, carrying a businesslike Les Paul, Bonham settling in behind his kit to check it out, and leonine Robert Plant in flowered shirt and jeans. The opening number is "Rock And Roll".

Now, I always knew Zeppelin were good, but it had been three years since I'd last seen them and no way was I prepared for this. In an age when every second band to present itself for public consumption seems to be either too wasted to play or else bedevilled with a sound system more suited for announcing the winners in a vicarage raffle than transmitting rock and roll music, the pure, clean power of Zeppelin's performance and sound is even more extraordinary than it might otherwise appear. They just play the music, loud and proud.

Where Zeppelin score over all the bands who've come up in their wake and endeavoured to emulate them is that they keep all the bases covered. Everything that's part of the show is meticulously polished until it's as good as it can possibly get. Nothing sags, nothing is second-rate, nothing is skimped.

Every arrangement, every improvisation, the construction of every song or every solo – nothing is neglected. It's simply good traditional British craftsmanship. The word "sloppy" is, for all practical purposes, not part of Led Zeppelin's collective vocabulary.

On the other hand, its certainly no sterile rehearsed-into-the-ground Yes trip, because each gig has as much excitement and freshness and enthusiasm as if it was their first and last.

Generally, the length of a band's set gives you some idea of how much they enjoy playing together. Zeppelin play between two and three hours. Enough said.

 

***

 

THE L.A. FORUM gig was pretty damn good. It blew me out completely, but it was to be completely dwarfed in my memory by the San Francisco date they played two days later. So on with the show.

Backstage, the hangers-on have moved in and commenced to hang on. 14-year-old girls in cheap gaudy threads are wandering about disconsolately muttering, "Where's Jimmy?", bumming dimes for the chewing-gum machine, surreptitiously flashing their Photo spreads inStar magazine, and hectoring photographers into taking their pictures.

Leee Childers from Mainman's L.A. office is there in a white suit, taking pictures of everything in sight.

"What's this," he asks, "in some of the English papers about me and Cherry getting fired? All that happened was that we went back home to look after our offices. Why do people print things they know aren't true?" He seems quite upset, as well as he might be.

In the corner, Robert Plant is leaning against a wall drinking beer. He's changed into a rhinestone Elvis T-shirt, and he is lavish in his praise of the audience. "What a beautiful buzz," he keeps saying. "If it wasn't for Jimmy's hand, we could've played all night for those people. Weren't they great?" he asks everybody within reach.

Jump cut to the party scene. It's John Bonham's birthday, and the Forum audience had given him a hero's tribute for his drum marathon on 'Moby Dick' earlier in the evening. "Twenty-one today," as Plant had announced from the stage.

"This party is probably going to get very silly," he announces. Why else would a man turn up to his birthday party wearing a T-shirt, plimsouls and a pair of swimming trunks? As thinks turn out he was the most appropriately clad person present.

The party is at the luxurious Laurel Canyon home of a gentleman who runs a radio station, and to prove his importance, he discreetly displays photographs of himself with such disparate notables as Sly Stone and Richard (the man from W.A.T.E.R.G.A.T.E.) Nixon.

A videotape machine is showing Deep Throat continuously while the stereo fills the house with Johnny Winter, the Stones, Humble Pie and Manassas. Roy Harper, one of the few people who Zep acknowledge as an influence, is there, as is Jimmy Karstein who distinguished himself during the Clapton gig at the Rainbow, and B.P. Fallon, who's flown halfway round the world since this morning when the band 'phoned him at Michael Des Barres' place.

Having flown in from Louisiana that morning, your reporter disgraces himself by falling asleep in his chair at around 4:30 a.m. A little later, he is awakened by the very considerate Phil Carson from Atlantic, and returned more or less in one piece, to his hotel.

The following day he learns that virtually everyone present ended up in the pool after George Harrison clobbered Bonzo with his own birthday cake. Mr. Fallon's exquisite antique velvet costume was totalled by his immersion, as was Rodney Bingenheimer's camera and a mink coat belonging to a lady named Vanessa.

Over the rest of the proceedings we will draw a slightly damp veil.

 

***

 

SATURDAY and San Francisco. Jimmy Page is paranoid about flying in Zep's small private jet, so he and manager Peter Grant are travelling on a scheduled flight.

That leaves Plant, Bonzo, JPJ, Beep, Peter Grant's deputy Richard Cole (who I first met some years ago in a Reading labour exchange) and sundry others to brave the elements in this tiny craft.

The chicken and champagne help to ease the terrors, except for one moment when the indefatigable Mr. Bonham pilots the plane. Luckily, I don't find out about that until he's back in his seat.

The gig is open-air, in a stadium at Golden Gate Park. Zep have been preceded by Lee Michaels, Roy Harper and a local group called Tunes. Harper is reported to have silenced hecklers by informing them that "Zeppelin haven't even left L.A. yet, so f***in' shut up."

In the backstage area, Bill Graham is prowling around checking people out for passes. Bonham mutters something about having a hard time playing in the intense heat, but luckily it gets cooler later on. In the crowd, a black policeman is wearing an "Impeach Nixon" badge. San Francisco still has a lot of soul.

How can I tell you about that show? Led Zeppelin and 50,000 San Francisco people got together to provide one of the finest musical event I've ever had the privilege to attend. There may be bands who play better, and there may be bands who perform better, and there may be bands who write better songs, but when it comes to welding themselves and an audience together into one unit of total joy, Zeppelin yield to nobody.

Whether they're punching out the riffs of 'Black Dog', or stealing people's heart from inside them with 'Stairway To Heaven' (as far as I'm concerned Zeppelin's all-time master-iece or tripping the audience out wit those unbelievable Plant-Page guitar/vocal call-and-response set-pieces, they just transmit magic to anybody within hearing range.

Quite unselfconsciously, quite unobtrusively any place they play becomes a House Of The Holy, a place to straighten tangled brain cells. Simultaneously, they take you right back to your rock and roll home, and send you to some new places that already feel like home when you arrive. A very spiritual occasion indeed, and also a very physical moment.

And despite all the disillusionment, the San Francisco dream is not over. It's just that nowadays people just don't talk about it. In that park, everything seemed cleaner, fresher and more immediate.

For me, one the most amazing moments of the whole show as, strangely enough, the part I expected to enjoy least. All my musical life I've had a strong antipathy towards drum solos. Thus, it came as a shock to find myself really getting off on Bonzo's 'Moby Dick'.

Watching him from a few feet away, totally absorbed in what he was doing, it came back to the craftsmanship thing again. He didn't look, as so many endlessly soloing drummers do, as if they're playing to the gallery. He resembled nothing so much as a sculptor or a painter or anybody who's doing anything that involves concentration, effort and skill.

John Bonham was plying his trade, doing his gig, exercising his own particular skills, doing what any gifted and committed craftsman does. It's always nice to break through a prejudice and dig something that you couldn't dig before.

Altogether, a magical concert. I suppose legions of diehard Zep freaks have known this all along, but for me it was a revelation. Throughout the solo, Plant was pacing the side of the stage, occasionally swinging himself up the scaffolding to sit under the amps. "Do you feel it?" he said. "Feel that buzz!"

After 'Communication Breakdown' a water fight broke out backstage, and about the only person who escaped unscathed was Bill Graham. Zep went back out to do a final encore of 'The Ocean', and then made a dash for the limos.

All hail, Led Zep. Hosannas by the gram. If there's any excitement still left in this ego circus we call rock'n'roll, a sizeable portion of it derives from you. Be proud. 

© Charles Shaar Murray, 1973

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