Following my report of Jimmy Page’s Q&A session I thought I’d maintain the Led Zeppelin theme for a day or two, beginning with my report on the New York premiere of their film The Song Remains The Same in October, 1976.
I remember this occasion well. The previous night I’d been having dinner with a girlfriend in Ashley’s, the NY rock biz bar and restaurant on 5th Avenue at 13th Street when who should arrived but Robert Plant, accompanied by an entourage that included their high-spirited tour manager Richard Cole who appeared, as the Irish say, to have had ‘drink taken’. Clocking me at my table, Richard decided the girl I was with would be better off in his arms than mine and approached us to voice this opinion. We disagreed and in the altercation that followed Richard was removed from the premises by the doorman, Robert witnessing the fracas and coming over to me to apologise profusely when things had quietened down.
I therefore approached the premiere the following night in some trepidation, anxious to avoid a further exchange with Richard at either the cinema or the party in the swish Pierre Hotel that followed. In the event all was calm and the following week, after my fairly positive report had appeared, Robert phoned me at my flat to again apologise and thank me for not allowing the incident to colour my attitude towards the film or Led Zeppelin as a whole.
Here's what I wrote for the following week’s MM, with no reference whatsoever for the confrontation.
The four members of Led Zeppelin received standing ovations at the premiere in New York last week of their film The Song Remains The Same. The ovations continued throughout the film, and each time a member of the group attempted to leave his seat he was followed by a small army of fans. There were traffic hold-ups outside the cinema on Third Avenue before and after the showing.
Mick Jagger, Simon Kirke of Bad Company, Carly Simon (currently pregnant), Rick Derringer, Mick Ronson and Roberta Flack were among the guests at a party held later in the Pierre Hotel Cafe for the band, who last weekend went on to make their first ever US TV appearance as a performing band when a segment of the film was shown on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert Show. They were seen playing ‘Black Dog’ and a portion of ‘Dazed And Confused’.
The Song Remains The Same is premiered in London on Thursday, November 4, at the Warner West End Two and ABC Shaftesbury Avenue, and will be on general release before the end of the year. It is only being screened, however, in cinemas with four-track, stereo. The soundtrack album was released on October 18.
The bulk of the film is taken from a Zeppelin concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden three years ago, and utilises split-camera photography and colour phasing. It’s intended as an honest statement from Zeppelin about themselves, and one sequence in particular says more about the rock business in five minutes than anything previously reproduced in film or book over the past 20 years. It features Peter Grant, the group’s manager, in a heated exchange with the man responsible for concession stands at Madison Square Garden. Grant, a massive, daunting figure, has apparently discovered a man selling “pirate” Led Zeppelin photographs within the Garden itself. He is very, very angry.
The verbal battle that ensues offers a unique glimpse into the heart of the rock industry. All smiles on the outside it may be, but underneath the veneer lies big money, and Peter Grant’s responsibility as manager of Led Zeppelin is to make sure that as much of that money as possible heads in his and his band’s direction.
As Grant’s fury explodes, those witnessing the scene maintain an embarrassed silence. It’s as if it shouldn’t be happening and, if it has to happen, it should happen in a private room rather than in front of numerous backstage personnel.
It’s definitely something the fans shouldn’t see, yet here it is on film to be viewed by thousands of Led Zeppelin fans all over the world in the coming months. The harsh realities of the rock world have never before been revealed quite so blatantly.
But the point of the sequence was to reinforce the general theme of the movie, and that is to show exactly what makes up the phenomenon of Led Zeppelin.
About two thirds of the film is taken up with live footage, but this is interspersed with “fantasy” sequences designed to reveal more about the characters of the four musicians and Grant himself. The soundtrack is extraordinarily loud and, when the audience responds by cheering, the impression is of actually being inside a giant arena instead of a relatively small cinema.
The film opens with Grant’s own fantasy sequence, a particularly violent ten minutes in which the formidable manager is cast as a Mafia-type godfather on his way to wipe out a rival gang. Dressed to the nines in a gaudy pinstripe suit and white fedora hat, Grant and his assistant, Richard Cole (another man noted for his occasionally boisterous behaviour), carry out their multiple assassinations with ruthless efficiency. So extreme is the ensuing bloodbath that I’m surprised the film didn’t earn an “X” certificate on the strength of this portion alone.
Following the credits we see Grant on the telephone, presumably arranging details for an upcoming tour, and the four members of the band in their home environment. Plant and his wife Maureen are playing with their naked children by the side of a stream in some rural paradise, John Paul Jones is reading a bedtime story to his two children, John Bonham is driving a tractor on his farm, and Jimmy Page is fishing beside a stream in what one presumes is his Scottish home.
Each of the four is informed by telegram of the upcoming tour and off they go to America, dashing from their plane into waiting limousines and finally appearing on stage in front of a packed, yelling Garden audience. The pace of the film accelerates as they reach the venue, and the tension is finally unleashed as the band kick into ‘Rock And Roll’ with manic energy. There follows a complete Led Zeppelin performance of material up to, and including, their Houses Of The Holy album.
Naturally, the fantasy sequences occur during each particular member’s onstage spotlight: Jones’ during ‘No Quarter’, Plants during ‘The Song Remains The Same’ and ‘Rain Song’, Page’s during ‘Dazed And Confused’, and Bonham’s during ‘Moby Dick’.
Somewhat predictably, Plant is shown as some kind of Viking warrior arriving on a beach at night, accepting a massive sword from a lady on a horse in a lake, and making his way towards a castle where he rescues an exceptionally fair maiden in distress. He suits the part of a Nordic warrior pretty well, although the whole sequence runs a considerable risk of becoming a gigantic ego trip. The impressive photography saves it.
John Paul Jones is depicted as a night-rider on a horse, wearing a grotesque mask and scaring the living daylights out of his neighbourhood’s more peaceful residents. He’s also shown playing a giant church organ, dressed in 18th Century garn like Beethoven or Bach.
Page’s sequence, the most bizarre of them all, shows the guitarist climbing through a wood and up a steep hill where an old hermit awaits. The hermit turns out to be an elderly Page with wizened features who brandishes a number of multi-coloured swords in spectacular fashion.
Bonham, obviously the most down-to-earth member of the band, is shown displaying a prize cow on his home farm, and also at the wheel of a drag-racing car. As his drum solo thunders on in the background, the stocky Bonham accelerates the racer, which has a camera attached to its rear. The clever photography depicts the car reaching a terrifying speed in time to the climax of the drum solo. It is the most effective of all the fantasy sequences.
Also given prominence in the movie is the theft of $203,000 from the band’s hotel, which occurred the same week that they were playing these concerts. Peter Grant is shown at a news conference, though the whole segment appears to be a clip from a TV newscast on the incident. The point is made that this was the largest-ever robbery of cash from a New York hotel.It has been three years in the making, but The Song Remains The Same is a classy and revealing film, slightly pretentious in parts but bound to be enormously successful.