Give or take a day or two, 50 years ago this week four lads assembled in a cramped rehearsal room in London's Chinatown to play together for the first time. It went well, which is a bit of an understatement really, and I would cover their progress when I arrived on Melody Maker 20 months later. It seems right and proper then that I should mark this anniversary with a post about them so here is my MM report, unedited, of their Chicago gig on January 22, 1975. Elsewhere on Just Backdated I write about the shenanigans that followed this show, but this is my review of the show itself. One thing I recall, oddly, about this tour is that the back stage passes were badges taken from children’s birthday cards: “I’m 3 today” or whatever!
It’s cold outside, freezing, sub-zero and bitter, but inside Chicago Stadium, a superstructure designed to accommodate ocean liners, 20,000 Led Zeppelin fans are roaring in unison as if some giant orgasm has overtaken each and every one.
They’ve recognised the opening notes to ‘Stairway To Heaven’, the song they all came to hear. Even Robert Plant made a reverent speech before Page plucked the opening strings on the lower fretboard of his Gibson twin-neck.
“We... uh... recorded... now let me see... 14 sides of music including the new album in our career... and uh... well, we think that this song is... uh... pretty bloody good... eh, Jimmy?” says Plant. Jimmy grins and the crowd roar.
Danny Goldberg, a harassed-looking New Yorker with a pony-tail who runs Swan Song Records for Zep in the States, was telling me about ‘Stairway’ on the way to the concert. “It’s amazing,” he said. “The FM radio stations in New York have done a poll on what is the most requested album track and for two years it’s been ‘Stairway’. Nothing else comes close to it. They’re always playing it.”
Up there on stage Zeppelin are giving the song a new dimension. Page is subtly altering the guitar feed-in, twisting a note here and adding an extra one there, but it’s Plant’s vocal that charges the song with drama.
It took about three numbers for his pipes to clear out and now he’s shifted into top gear. Spoken asides between lines, building to a frenzy as Page moves up to the 12-string neck and crashes on open chords that ring out like echoes in a tunnel.
“To be a rock and not to roll...”
Lights everywhere, sparkling off a silver ball, and everyone is on their seats, cheering madly. John Bonham, in white boiler suit and black bowler hat, stumbles off his drum podium and nods back to the crowd, John Paul Jones, demure in gold embroidered waistcoat and fitted black pants, grins, and Page, relinquishing the twin-neck to a roadie, bows very low.
“Thank you, Chicago,” says Plant, and the group retire to an ovation that continues for ten minutes, building in waves of hoarse cheering until the group return, plug in and punch out the definitive riff of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Page, guitar slung as low as ever, duckwalks around, jerking out the notes that have become standard lesson number one in heavy guitar tuition, long black hair covering the right side of his face.
‘Love’ moves into ‘Black Dog’ with the aid of four explosions atop the five lighting towers that beam down on the band, and it’s off again for five minutes before Zep return with ‘Communication Breakdown’, to make it almost three hours from the golden boys of heavy rock, three hours of incredible music that will be repeated nightly until Zep’s US tour, the first major rock tour of the US in 1975, winds up at Los Angeles on March 27.
The tour, however, was almost cancelled at the last minute, for Jimmy Page is playing under a severe handicap.
The third finger of his left hand, the one that’s used by all guitarists to bend notes, was two weeks before the tour trapped in an interconnecting carriage door on a train at Victoria Station.
The jolt broke a bone and specialists say he won’t be able to use the finger for another two weeks. He takes a pain-killer before going on stage.
“I can’t play any blues at all, can’t bend notes either,” he told me before going on stage at Chicago. “It’s the most important finger for any guitarist, so I’m having to modify my playing to suit the situation. A shame, but it can’t be helped.
“We’ve had to cut ‘Dazed And Confused’ from the set and substitute ‘How Many More Times’ which we haven’t played in four years. I’m still doing the violin bow routine but we’ve had to alter even that and I can’t do it as well as I’d like to. I can tell it’s not as good as it usually is, but the audiences don’t seem to notice.
“We almost cancelled the tour, but we couldn’t, as we’d sold all the tickets and a postponement would have meant chaos. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either.”
Plant, too, was complaining of illness. “I’m catching ‘flu and can’t sing properly,” he said.
Illness and broken finger bones are not the only problem that Zep are having to cope with on this junket. There were riots when tickets went on sale in several cities and the worst incident occurred at Boston, where the council refused to grant a licence for the concert.
As a result the concert scheduled for February 4 has been cancelled, the first time in seven years of touring that a Zep concert has been cancelled. An extra date has been added at Nassau Coliseum to make up for the cancellation, and tickets are being distributed to Boston fans by mail order. All mail with Massachusetts postmarks received preferential treatment.
Boston was actually the venue of one of the first US appearances by Zeppelin, so the band feel bad about the cancellation. The real reason for the ban, however, was not so much the rioting fans as the tense racial situation in a city where recently there have been riots over school bussing arrangements. The City Fathers are reluctant to permit any large gatherings, so it's just unfortunate That Led Zep seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The tour opened this week with three concerts at the 20,000 capacity Chicago Stadium, the third of which I saw. “It takes them a few concerts to get into stride,” one of the roadies told me backstage. “By the time this band gets to Madison Square Garden, it’ll be one of the best rock acts ever to set foot there.”
Zep’s three hour set, there is no support act, includes five new songs that’ll be on the Physical Graffiti double album, due for imminent release. The hold-up, as always with Zep, is because of the artwork.
Two of the new pieces stand out. ‘Kashmir’ is a long song, a builder with a complex ascending riff, while ‘Trampled Under Foot’ is an out-and-out rocker with a simple catch-line that would make an excellent single. ‘Trampled’, in fact, might eventually take the place of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ as a power finale.
Zep, in common with a few others in their league, have the ability to hit an audience right from the start, merely by their actual presence. In Zep’s case, the number is ‘Rock And Roll’, and the effect is like a steam-driven locomotive gathering speed for a long, express journey from the opening staccato notes.
Plant, bare-chested and golden hair curling over his shoulders, is the very epitome of the rock star, a super stud whose blatantly sexual manoeuvres around his stage rival anything from Tom Jones Las Vegas routines to David Cassidy’s more primitive but similar expressions of virility.
The slightly-built Page, shy, sleepy features hidden behind a mass of black curls, dressed in white silk suit and black embroidered shirt, prowls the stage with a Les Paul tucked in a little above knee height.
John Paul Jones keeps out of the picture, alternating between three Fender basses (one fretless) and only really making his presence felt when he moves to the keyboard. His Mellotron work on ‘No Quarter’ was a coup de grace.
Two new songs follow ‘Rock And Roll’. The first, ‘Sick Again’, is a trite comment on the LA scene and hangers-on that Zep accumulate whenever they visit California. Another uptempo rocker. The second is a reworking of the blues standard ‘In My Time Of Dying’ which features Page on slide throughout. Then it’s ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’, and ‘The Song Remains The Same’, which moves into ‘The Rain Song', the first opportunity for Page to play delicately and use his twin-necked guitar.
Two new pieces, ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Wanton Song’, come next before Jones’ solo on ‘No Quarter’. Then it’s ‘Trampled Under Foot’ before Bonham’s tour de force, ‘Moby Dick’, which now includes a 15-minute drum solo, a powerdrive extraordinaire that has the audience standing time and time again at its false conclusions.
‘How Many More Times’ is Page’s new vehicle for the violin bow scenario, modified slightly because of his broken finger but still impressive, especially the part where he uses a stabbing echo and apparently duets with himself. ‘Stairway’ closes the set.
Hasty getaways, police escorts and armed bodyguards are all part of the routine on a Zeppelin tour. The band are hustled directly off the stage into the usual waiting limousine while the audience is still waiting for a third encore.
On arrival at the hotel the band locked themselves away for an hour’s conference with Peter Grant before venturing out into hotel lobby and bar which were rapidly crowding with fans who’d heard where the group was staying.
This week Zeppelin take possession of the Starship, the personalised rock and roll jet that will ferry them to and from gigs with Chicago as a base. This method of touring, used by Zeppelin on previous tours, is unique: it’s also extraordinarily expensive.