First I must declare an interest, and quite a big one at that. I commissioned this book for Omnibus Press four years ago, contributed a bit of new text here and there and also edited it, reading every word and doing my best to render what is essentially a list of gigs as entertaining as possible. My name appears at the top of a long list of acknowledgements on page nine, and elsewhere I am quoted about Led Zeppelin gigs I saw, mostly extracts from what I wrote about them for Melody Maker at the time.
‘Essentially a list of gigs’, of course, does the book a great disservice. It is 576 pages long, weighs exactly 5lbs and the RRP printed on the back is £40, making it far and away the most ambitious reference book on Led Zeppelin that Dave Lewis, now officially the world’s most prolific Led Zep author, has thus far produced, with or without assistance. His co-author Mike Tremaglio, based in Connecticut, is another Zep collector and historian and I’d wager a decent sum that both their wives are badgering them for extensions to be built on their homes purely to house all the memorabilia that clutters up every available space.
By and large volumes like this are labours of love. Evenings With is just that, Lewis and Tremaglio’s bid to be judged alongside Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicle and Andy Neill and Matt Kent’s Anyway Anyhow Anywhere on The Who from 1958 to 1978, both of which I turn to before anything else if I need to check up on a Beatle or Who fact. Evenings With… now sits proudly beside them on my bookshelves.
Although the meat of Evenings With is the Led Zeppelin on the road story from that first Scandinavian tour in September 1968 to the ‘Over Europe’ tour in 1980, the book’s extensive prologues follow Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds to their dissolution in 1968, Robert Plant’s adventures with his Band of Joy and Obs-Tweedle – surely the worst band name ever – and even John Bonham’s gig with Tim Rose that he was reluctant to jettison because, initially, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant’s offer was insufficiently remunerative and he had a family to feed.
Once we’re into the main course, virtually every one of the 516 Led Zeppelin concerts the authors have been able to confirm is covered in as much detail they can muster, and that includes photos of the venue, inside and out, Zep on stage at that venue, ticket stubs, posters, press reports and, of course, set lists, followed where appropriate with details of any available bootleg recordings. The latter enables the authors to comment on the shows.
The reviews are amongst the most interesting elements of the book and it is to Lewis and Tremaglio’s credit that these haven’t been censored by omission in any way. Although both are obviously fans up to their eyeballs, they haven’t flinched at including negative reviews by rock critics ill-disposed towards Led Zeppelin, most notably Robert Hilburn of the LA Times who seems to be the only person at the Forum ever to be unmoved by them. Then again, I wasn’t exactly overflowing with praise for them myself at London’s Marquee on March 23, 1971, when in MM I questioned the wisdom of putting them on in such a small venue, or at Alexandra Palace on December 22, 1972, when I was derisive about a venue I described as “cold and forbidding”. “There was a diminishing sound that flew up into the rafters and returned as a disjointed series of echoes,” I wrote. “My guess is that only about half the fans heard the music as it should have been heard.”
Still, I obviously enjoyed myself at The Pavillon in Montreux on October 28 and 29, 1972, especially ‘Whole Lotta Love’ at the close of the set: “Here the climax comes, because here Zeppelin are doing what they revel in,” I wrote. “They’ve proved themselves with complicated, sophisticated numbers and here the fun starts. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ moves through a brief history of rock and roll, with Robert Plant taking his audience through the inspiration of Zeppelin and amateurs alike: Elvis Presley. Remember ‘Let's Have A Party’? Zeppelin haven’t forgotten, their version sounds remarkably like the original. Remember ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’? Zep do. Each number flows at the drop of a hat, and you get the impression that this medley will go on forever. Remember ‘Heartbreak Hotel’? Jimmy Page hasn’t forgotten those licks and he can reproduce them as easily as Robert Plant remembers the words. Eventually it has to end and the closing ‘Lotta Love’ riff is still echoing around the hall as the exhausted band leave the stage. Ten minutes of clapping provokes an encore – ‘Heartbreaker’ with that inimitable little guitar solo in the middle that Page throws at the audience using his left hand only.”
Reading that again reminds me that in the afternoon I watched them rehearse a bunch of Elvis songs during a soundcheck, after which I asked them if they’d play at my wedding. They declined.
But back to Evenings With. My old friend tour manager Richard Cole, a man who has undergone a conversion comparable only to St Paul on the road to Damascus, has written an introduction, and at the close, as you would expect, there’s a rundown of post Zep get-togethers by Page, Plant and John Paul Jones. One final point – almost all the pictures of Led Zeppelin will be new to most fans. This is because Lewis and Tremaglio, together with designer Mick Lowe, have gone out of their way to find pictures, often not taken by professionals, that are either unseen or unusual. This is perhaps best exemplified by the shot on the cover – taken at the Boston Tea Party in May, 1969 – which I certainly hadn’t seen until the book was in development.
This picture is particular appropriate for a book that documents Led Zeppelin live for a gig at this particular venue was, by all accounts, a pivotal moment at the start of their American journey. Cole cites it in his introduction. “It was encore after encore. They literally ran out of things to play.” Jones puts it even better: “As far as I’m concerned, the key Led Zeppelin gig – the one that just put everything into focus – was one that we played on our first American tour at the Boston Tea Party. We’d played our usual one hour set, using all the material from the first album and Page’s ‘White Summer’ guitar piece and, by the end, the audience just wouldn’t let us off the stage. It was in such a state that we had to start throwing ideas around – just thinking of songs that we might all know or that some of us knew a part of, and work it from there. So we’d go back on and play things like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Please Please Me’ – old Beatles favourites. I mean, just anything that would come in our head, and the response was quite amazing. There were kids actually bashing their heads against the stage – I’ve never seen that at a gig before or since, and when we finally left the stage we’d played for four plus hours. Peter [Grant] was absolutely ecstatic. He was crying – if you can imagine that – and hugging us all. You know with this huge grizzly bear hug. I suppose it was then that we realised just what Led Zeppelin was going to become.”
It’s quotes like this that make Evenings With… not only the definitive reference book on Led Zeppelin but also one of the most entertaining.