Let’s cut to the chase. If you don’t know by now that a new Led Zeppelin DVD (cunningly titled DVD) and triple-CD live album, How The West Was Won, have just been released, you must have been living in a cave these past few weeks.
Archive - Led Zeppelin: Live Without A Net
In May 2003, Led Zeppelin released their acclaimed DVD and the live album How The West Was Won. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul JOnes gave Classic Rock an insight into these releases
It’s been everywhere. In a nutshell you get five hours-plus of DVD material built around four cornerstone Zeppelin concerts – Albert Hall 1970, Madison Square Garden 1973, Earl’s Court 1975 and Knebworth 1979 – with several fascinating sidetracks to previously unseen backstage footage, early TV appearances, interviews, promo films and suchlike. Painstakingly retrieved by Jimmy Page from both his own private collection and several other sources, and lovingly restored to digitised, 21st-century production standards with the help of director Dick Carruthers (whose previous credits include live music DVDs for The Rolling Stones, The Who and Oasis), the material on DVD all makes for an immensely thrilling collection; proof positive, were any still needed, that Led Zeppelin really were the Golden Gods of legend.
Released simultaneously, but entirely separate from the material on DVD, the three-CD live collection contains material interwoven from two performances in California, a week apart, in the summer of 1972. Their first shows in LA, their spiritual rock’n’roll home, since the release six months earlier of their fourth, world-changing album, this was Zeppelin at their absolute apotheosis as a live band in the early 70s. So what’s it all about? Why, after more than 20 years of nothing new to chew barring the occasional, admittedly well-produced compilation, had they finally decided to put all this stuff out now? I was fortunate enough to be invited to contribute the liner notes to DVD, through the course of which I was able to ask Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones those questions – and quite a few more. What follows is extracted from the material not used in the DVD notes.
As the driving force behind the project, Page was naturally the most forthcoming. But although the other two didn’t have any direct involvement in the making of either the DVD or live collection, they had plenty to say for themselves too. Indeed, Jones was surprisingly forthcoming. As for Plant... well, Robert has never hidden his ambivalence towards keeping the Zeppelin legend alive. Nevertheless, he was unusually warm in his recollections, if unwilling to rummage too deeply into the past – or for too long. It’s clear that Knebworth – and that whole bleak period in the band’s career surrounding it, when Page and Bonham appeared lost to the ravages of their respective addictions – is still a troubling memory for Plant, and he truncates the conversation before we have a chance to really get there.
In order to know what questions to ask, though, first I would have to see the DVD. This was eight months ago, and because of the high level of secrecy then surrounding the project I wasn’t allowed to take anything home to look at. Instead I had to go in and watch it at a special screening being arranged for me – by Jimmy, who would also be there.
Now that, I have to say, was a little weird. To be immersed for several minutes in some mesmeric bit of interplay from, say, 1970, only to come up for air, metaphorically speaking, to find none other than the guy you were staring at on screen sitting there right next to you... except 30 years older... well, let’s just say it somehow made the whole thing even heavier, man. At times, as we watched his young, smiling face loving every minute of it at Earls Court, playing Going To California, it was like sitting there going through an old family photo album with him. At other times, as we both became lost in, say, the towering version of Achilles’ Last Stand from Knebworth four years later, it was like when you were a kid and you would sit in your bedroom with your best mate, headbanging to Zep – you were sharing the moment with someone who understood what it all meant in possibly an even more profound way than you.
Dick Carruthers was there, too. An ebullient character not given to false modesty, working this past year with Page on the DVD had been, he told me, “the most difficult job I’ve ever had to do. It was like climbing Mount Everest. And we were on a steep fucking vertical until we got to base camp. That said, it’s also been by far the most exciting and rewarding job I’ve ever done. You’ve only got to look at it for two minutes to see what I’m talking about...”
As John Paul Jones put it later (and speaking for most of us, I suspect): “There have obviously been several bootlegs of some of these shows, like the Albert Hall, but I’m not a great listener to bootlegs. I know Jimmy likes to collect things, but generally I’m not much of a collector. So really I was seeing this stuff for the first time and it’s all been a very pleasant surprise. It’s always a pleasure to see stuff that has some real quality to it, and this undoubtedly has that.”
With the project taking more than a year – and several zeros on the cheque – to complete, Page was determined, he said, “to put together something that was worthy of the Zeppelin name. It wasn’t easy, or cheap, but so what, you know? I wanted it to be perfect.”
But perfect costs more than time and money; perfect also costs blood. With the words ‘needle’ and ‘haystack’ never far from their minds, Page and Carruthers started out with 132 cans of film, hundreds of feet of two-inch video tape, and a smattering of offbeat bootleg film and video. “It was like trying to find buried treasure using a map that’s been torn into hundreds of pieces,” Carruthers told me. “We knew where it was roughly, and we knew what it was, based on all the myths and legends of what was out there, but we had no idea what condition it would be in once we got our hands on it. So we approached it almost like a salvage team. Once we’d actually located everything, it then took us two months just to try and copy it all onto a digital format.”
Most difficult to restore, they said, was the material from Zeppelin’s July 1973 shows at Madison Square Garden in New York – the footage originally shot, but not used, for the 1976 film The Song Remains The Same. “All the original film was cut up and mute,” Carruthers explained. “We went through it 20 cans at a time, roll by roll, trying to get it into some sort of coherent order – over 12 hours of unconnected mute shots spread over three nights, all of which we had to then separate and repair on computer. We used three film editors just for those four songs, and the whole sequence took another two months to complete. Then we had to match the sound to the images...”
The main thing once the technical difficulties were overcome, he says, was “making sure that in our desire to make it as good as possible we didn’t polish it up too much. You have to respect the time and place – the world – these performances come from. You want them to look and sound exactly as they would have done on the night.”
Which is something he and Page have managed to do to quite spectacular effect.
Why did you choose now to do the DVD and album?
Jimmy Page: I’d wanted to do a chronological live Zeppelin album since 1980, starting with tracks from the Albert Hall, but we could never get anyone to agree on anything. In retrospect, though, it was probably a good thing it took so long. It’s a great moment right now for something like this. Because of the digital technology we were able to use to restore these things it’s almost like going back in time. Albert Hall, for example, looks like it was recorded yesterday.
John Paul Jones: As with everything to do with Led Zeppelin it was part accident, part design. Obviously this material has existed for a very long time, but I don’t think there was any great will to do anything about it until now. And that’s partly because the technology to make it happen didn’t exist until recently. What none of us wanted was another The Song Remains The Same, which has become largely an embarrassment over time. And all credit to Jimmy, because what we have on the DVD and live album far exceeds anything you see or hear in the original film.
How easy was it to get your hands on the material?
Page: In some cases very easy, in other cases not so easy. Then when you thought you had it you’d discover bits of it missing... I went through it not knowing how it was gonna go. It was only really while we were actually loading it all up onto the computers that we started to find out exactly what we did or didn’t have. We knew we had certain footage: stuff that was left out of The Song Remains The Same, for example, plus the video tapes from Earls Court and lots of different stuff from Knebworth. But we had to really fight to get the Albert Hall footage back, which we began to try and do a couple of years ago. It went on and on... Finally we got the footage back, and told everyone to come and identify various bits of it. You can never get everyone all in a room together at the same time, but we somehow managed it with this.
Then, having got everyone into it, or at last the idea of it, we just had to get the original eight-track [sound recording] out. But when I looked for it, it wasn’t there and I panicked. Eventually I did find it. But the truth is, although I knew I still had the original eight-track recordings stored somewhere, I’d never actually sat down and listened to them – not since 1981, when we were putting together Coda [the posthumously released album of out-takes and rarities which includes a live version of I Can’t Quit You Babe from the Albert Hall]. Same thing with the original tapes of the Earls Court shows – I hadn’t sat down with them since the day they were recorded. The visuals come from the images which were projected onto the screens on either side of the stage. That’s why all the Earls Court stuff is in close-up. Earls Court was such a big place, we wanted people to be able to see the detail of what we were doing. There was no thought back then of actually using the footage for something else in the future. It was done purely for the audience that was there those nights.
In the end, though, that’s all okay, because when you put it into context with all the other footage it somehow makes sense. I decided after going through everything that it was pointless worrying about what you didn’t have, the main thing was to focus on what you did have. I decided to just see what we’d actually got and, from that, try and weave together something that was a fair representation of the group. Even the stuff that was incomplete.
What goes through your mind when you view the Albert Hall footage on the DVD now?
Page: I’d always been keen to do something with the Albert Hall footage, because it’s us at a very early stage, where we’re still more concerned with getting the music right than thinking about putting on any sort of show, as such. On the DVD, the set is slightly changed from the original, but only slightly, and only then because of silly things. Like, we did Heartbreaker that night, and I was so pleased when I first viewed the old films and saw us going into it. I hadn’t realised we’d got that one on camera too, you see. But the film ran out halfway through! And so we couldn’t use it, which was a shame. But you would find little things like that all the way through. It could be very frustrating sometimes, but it was a case of making the most of what you did have. After all the hassle, it looked like it was going to be the classic Zep story again – one foot forward, two steps back!
Robert Plant: I look at the Albert Hall footage now and the first thing I notice is how young we all are. I look like what I was: a Black Country hippy, full of high ideals and low-cost living. I still couldn’t quite believe where I was, everything had happened so fast for the group. I remember playing the Bath Festival, in England, a few months later. Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin were also on the bill, and I remember standing there thinking: I’ve gone from West Bromwich to this! I’ve really got to eat this up! The whole thing seemed extraordinary to me. I was as astonished as the audiences some nights. Improvisation appears to have been the key.
Jones: Very much so. I was quite happy to go in those directions, because I was a jazz fan and I was used to improvisation. Any musician worth their salt likes to improvise; it’s kind of what it’s about, music-making in its most basic form. And with this band we could improvise, there was always room to do so. That is what made it so interesting and exciting and desirable to do on stage every night.
Page: There were certain elements of the music that would have to stay fairly rooted in the same spot: you need that rhythmic foundation to bounce off of. And because you don’t want to hear different lyrics, cos that really would make it a completely different song, you sort of knew what you were gonna get from Robert. But when it came to the guitar and the whole direction a number might take when we played live, you never knew what we were going to do. We didn’t even know what we would do, until we got there. Sometimes I would do the tempo different, or make the whole approach different, and it could get really intense as the whole band would start to get into something totally new. Bonzo was like that, too. One night it was like he was on guarana, all percussive flurries and little touches, the next night he was on the Guinness and just kicking the shit out of everything! [Laughs.]
Plant: I’d seen a lot of the material on the DVD in various forms before, of course, but I’d hadn’t really sat down and watched it all like you do on the DVD. The first time I saw it I was taken aback, particularly by the earlier stuff. That period around the Albert Hall show was a major time for us, ramshackle times when the music really was from the other side of the tracks. We often found ourselves in contretemps with the prevailing trend, without even realising we had done anything. When we played, it really did feel like we inhabited a parallel universe, quite apart from everything else – including the rock world of the times. Also, Jimmy’s way of playing was very British; or rather not very American. If you listen to what were recognised as the big guitar records of the period just before Zeppelin – stuff by The Kinks and The Who – the solos are a much more tic-tack style of playing. Jimmy opened up the whole idea of having wonderful sustains amid the chaos of the rhythm section procreating this great big other thing. It made the whole thing very, very exciting.
Jones: It was always very intense on stage. That’s what made it so much fun, so enjoyable and interesting. We weren’t just going out there bashing out hits, or stuff people knew or whatever, stuff that you would expect people to like, we were up there to make the best, often improvised, music we could. To make it sound really hot and really happening all the time requires commitment and work and application. You had to turn up and you had to know what you were doing once you started. Musically, it was an attitude-free band – one of the very few. And because of that it was always a really tight unit, which is what allowed us to be so adventurous not just in our music but in the way we performed live as band, the way we presented it. The Albert Hall stuff looks so intimate, almost like you’re alone in the room. Unlike the other major footage where you get the sense of the scale of the show.
Jones: Yes, well, we made a lot of noise for three people playing instruments. Four people, really, because Robert’s voice was very much an instrument, too. We weren’t just loud, though. When I say ‘noise’, I mean in the sense of our musical breadth. We covered a lot of ground between us.
Plant: People talk now about the bombast and the dexterity. And while they were key ingredients, some of the most crucial elements in the performances were those indefinable moments inside the actual songs that were always going somewhere else. It was so subtle that it was something we didn’t recognise at first. Then, once we did, we started really playing with it. There was a feeling of reaching and stretching for something, that wasn’t quite so evident on the records. Playing these things live was the real jewel in our existence. Everybody had the capacity to take it and move it around until it took on whole new meanings. It was one of the most remarkable things group. The travelling and the endless pressure to come up with the goods may have taken its toll some nights, but even then I defy anyone outside the band to ever know when that happened, because the level we maintained was so high. On the right night, however, a Led Zeppelin show was a spectacular place to be.
A 22-year-old John Bonham performing his much vaunted solo spot, Moby Dick at the Albert Hall is one of the highlights of the DVD: powerful – almost unsettlingly so – and of course deeply poignant. Seeing him so young, still at the start of the road, not knowing (as we do) where it will end... Was the reason you chose this one because of its poignancy?
Page: Partly, I suppose, yes. That aspect of it certainly came across the first time I saw it. I found it very moving, but also very exciting. It was beautifully shot, for a start, just lovely the way the cameras get right in close from various angles. You really feel like you’re right on stage with him, watching him work, unbelievably up-close, but at an early stage for him. It just goes to show what an amazing talent he was, and how irreplaceable he is. I mean, there’s really never been another rock drummer that’s come close.
Jones: Watching [Bonham] do Moby Dick at the Albert Hall, being able to hear the detail, to actually see him close-up working, it’s marvellous. That was the thing about the smaller gigs, as opposed to the large ones. Drums get fairly unsubtle through a large PA, but in a small place you can hear all the incredible detail he was always putting into his work. He was constantly varying, constantly changing all the time. He was just such an exciting musician to play with. Some musicians hate it if the drummer or one of the other musicians starts to diversify from the song, or go off into their own thing. But in Zeppelin that was the whole point, and John was magnificent at that. He really kept you on your toes as a musician and a listener. He was the best drummer I’ve ever played with, bar none. But again, it wasn’t done just to make himself look good, it was done to make us all look good.
The band benefited incalculably. It certainly made me a better musician. And we were very proud of our capabilities as a rhythm section, which in turn made us even prouder of the band. I’d listen to what John did and he listened to what I did, and we’d leave space for ourselves. I mean, on a basic level we were just doing a rhythm, but there would be something about the way I phrased the bass line which led to something which would spark John off, and the same would happen in reverse. As a rhythm section we were always incredibly locked-in like that. We’d always phrase the same, and when we came to the end of a piece we’d always come to the same musical conclusion. And when you’ve played like that with somebody for a long time you can do it without any preparation at all; you can literally do it on the spot – and that’s when the empathy becomes incredibly exhilarating. Apart from the concert performances, some of the most fascinating items on the DVD are the clips of the band performing on various TV shows in the late 60s – something the group would later eschew.
Page: I wasn’t sure whether to include any of that TV stuff, to begin with, because usually they were all so awful. I didn’t mind doing things for radio – live things, I mean. You still ended up with this very sort of BBC sound when it was broadcast, but you got to hear us playing live as we actually did on stage; you heard different versions. And people remarked on it. TV seemed to have the opposite effect – it was always easier to sound really bad. But then I thought, well, no, that’s the reason why you decided not to do any more TV after that. It doesn’t matter that the quality isn’t always great, it’s a document of something that happened that shows why we went off in the direction we did.
Jones: We decided we didn’t have to do all of those pop shows if we didn’t do singles. Some places in the early days you had to, like the black-and-white footage from that show in Denmark that you see on the DVD. We were never really part of the pop scene, though. We were thinking about other things. We had just started out and were in the same boat as everyone else – we hadn’t become successful yet – but doing pop shows on TV just wasn’t us; it was never what Led Zeppelin was supposed to be about. Our thing was always playing live.
In the UK, you weren’t exactly spoiled for choice anyway: there was Top Of The Pops – which still has [at the time this was written] a version of Whole Lotta Love as its theme tune – or there was The Old Grey Whistle Test, a small studio unsuitable for trying to replicate the full-on live Zeppelin experience.
Jones: Exactly. It was the era, perhaps, as much as anything. What we were doing was regarded as underground music. The kind of celebrity that doing pop TV and having lots of hit singles brings was simply not a part of what we did or who we were as a band. The way we saw it, to play the pop game you have to compromise. You’re obliged to compromise, it’s almost your duty to do so – unless you happen to love making music that’s wildly commercial, in which case you’re on a roll. But if that’s not what you want to do, then there’s no point even trying to play that game. In fact, it would be dishonest – to pretend you’re doing one thing and then do another. Jimmy and I were fairly well experienced by then, we’d already played on a lot of hit commercial records as session musicians. We didn’t benefit in terms of celebrity or royalties, because we were very much behind the scenes, but we’d learned all about the art of compromise – in order to make a living. Which we were prepared to do.
There’s nothing wrong in paying the rent. But I know, personally, that I just didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t the way I wanted to make my way in my own musical life. If I was going to join a band it was to do music that I wanted to do – and not compromise. The aim wasn’t to become hugely successful. We felt fairly confident that we would be able to make a living by making music that we wanted to do without compromise. The fact that we were so successful couldn’t have been planned. It was a lucky time as well. Album-oriented artists hardly even existed five years before we made out first record. There was The Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Dylan, of course, but this was kind of a cultural step on from that. I wasn’t even listening to much pop or rock music at the time we formed the group. I had one Beatles album, Revolver, and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, but apart from that I was listening to mostly jazz and soul music.
With so much top-drawer material available for the DVD, why did you decide to include the version of Immigrant Song – a digital ‘mash’ between some filmed visuals from an appearance at the Australian Showground in February 1972 and a live recording dating back to America some months before?
Page: We had a great version of Immigrant Song that was recorded in LA in 1971, but no visuals for it. We did have footage of us doing it on stage in Australia, though, from 1972, which we decided we could lace together. First and foremost, because it sounds and looks great, but also because I thought it was an important moment to capture, in terms of our development as a band. Immigrant Song was the first track on the third album, and so it works as a connecting point between the Albert Hall in 1970 and when you see us next, at Madison Square Garden in 1973, on the Houses Of The Holy tour.
The difference between the performance we see in New York and the one at the Albert Hall three years earlier could not be starker. Suddenly it’s as though the Albert Hall stuff was in black-and-white and the Madison Square Garden footage is in colour. What had happened to you?
Jones: 1970 was very sort of T-shirt and jeans; no real show or ‘stage clothes’ to speak of at all. By the time you get to 1973, though, we’re into our full-blown American phase. We came across some people that made all these different sorts of fantastic clothes. They were very enthusiastic, and we bought all this stuff. The outfit with the hearts on it that you see me in at Madison Square Garden was made by the same people, I think, who later made the famous ‘dragon suit’ for Jimmy that he wore at Earls Court. It just seemed like, why not? The lights were on us, we might as well have something for them to bounce off of!
Plant: In some ways the earlier American shows we did at places like the Fillmore were more real for me, because they were easier for me to understand. There, the audiences were getting three nights a week, where every group in town would get up and play – everyone from the Steve Miller Band to the Rascals, and Roland Kirke. There was enormous flexibility and choice, and you really had to stand up and be counted for what you were. By the time we got to the Garden we were now the only act on the bill, and the whole thing took on an entirely different aspect. It was bigger and more exciting, of course. But it wasn’t about trying to stand out among the crowd any more, and I think it had actually lost a lot of the craziness in it.
Page: Originally we saw the whole essence of our live performance as something that the audience listened to very carefully, picking up on what was going on, the spontaneity and musicianship. And you can’t do that if you’re running around the stage all night, or at least we couldn’t back then at the Albert Hall. But we were much more ambitious, in that respect, I think, than most other rock bands of that time. We really wanted to take the live performances as far out as they could go, in every respect. By the time you see us in New York in 1973 we were simply a much better, more accomplished band. We were a very musical band, working together with almost a telepathy at times, playing comfortably together for three hours without any trouble at all. We really felt we could do it all now – play the music and put on a show. And we could. It was so exciting; it was hard to contain yourself after a while.
Jones: Jimmy talks a lot about the ‘telepathy’ between us on stage, and he’s absolutely right. Oh, yes, very much so. Because you were concentrating so hard all the time – you weren’t up there dreaming, you know – and everybody was totally involved in what was going on. Not just the band, but the audience too.
So when you were walking out on stage at Madison Square Garden, or wherever, your main intention was to try to make this sort of spontaneous ‘telepathy’ happen?
Jones: Yes. And as soon as possible, because every night you would be playing in a different building. Even if you’d played there the night before, it was always different: the air is different, the people are different... it’s a whole different vibe. You’ve got to come to terms with the environment you’re in immediately.
Plant: America was always a little different to everywhere else in the world. I remember, in one place, being given the keys to the city by the mayor, then arrested later that night for inciting a riot!
You get bands now whose image is staunchly ‘anti-authoritarian’, but they sell that image in the most mainstream, corporate way possible. One of the things I’m most pleased about in Zep’s history is how little we did to try to contrive anything like that. For us it was always about the music, the vibe, the ambience we could create. We came from a pure place, in that regard, and that’s what got up a lot of people’s noses. Watching the footage now, I’m humbled by the fact that none of us is relying on clichés. Old time, new time, it didn’t matter, there were no pretensions.
Jones: It was always a different feeling, being in America. I don’t know what it is about the audiences there. They were always more excitable, shall we say, more funky. In Britain the audience was always much more reserved, by comparison. If you look at the Albert Hall footage you can see the people down the front have got their coats on the edge of the stage, and they’re listening very intently. Then you cut to Madison Square Garden and it’s completely different. Of course, rock’n’roll events at Madison Square Garden are about as big and important as things got in New York back then. The crowd would always just go crazy – and stay that way the whole night. It’s almost like part of the constitution – the inalienable right to party. The British audience always liked to have a good time, too, but not so much that the partying would ever get in the way of listening to the music. In places like Germany or Japan it was even more so. They really like to listen. They actually want to see what you’re doing with your instruments.
It’s good to have both things, though. Zeppelin was unique in that it could manage all those different approaches. With most bands it was one or the other. Kiss, Van Halen, Thin Lizzy... these were party bands. Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis... these were more cerebral experiences. Zep, like the Stones, Hendrix and all the greats, could do both. For the simple reason that there was something very substantial to listen to if you didn’t just want to jump around. For some groups, the party aspect was perhaps their strongest point, shall we say.
Another interesting device on the DVD is the intermittent use of existing bootleg footage.
Page: The Madison Square Garden cuts are from bootlegs, yes. I’m not advocating bootlegs, but obviously I’m aware there have been several interesting Zeppelin bootlegs that have appeared down through the years. And I thought it was important not to limit ourselves. To me it’s all part of the same documentary evidence, if you like. Being able to utilise something like that for the Madison Square Garden footage was perfect. You had all these different perspectives that you didn’t get in the official version, because all the unofficial ones were shot from weird angles in the audience.
Because the Earls Court footage, which follows, is taken from the two large video screens used at the shows, the band is depicted entirely in close-up, as opposed to the more varied and adventurous shots we get from the other three shows. But because it largely comprises the acoustic section of the set – with Jones, Plant and Page sitting together on stools at the front of the stage – it seems to work well as an ‘interlude’ in the DVD itself...
Page: Yes, it gives the whole thing a completely different aspect to anything else on the DVD. You don’t really get a feeling from the footage of how big a show Earls Court was, but you do get a different ambience. And you’re right, it works within the DVD almost like the acoustic interlude in the actual show did – as a nice change of pace before it all really kicks off again at the end with the Knebworth footage.
The Earls Court shows were the first time anyone had used video screens like that at a major rock show. I remember we had some lasers, too – what would now be regarded as fairly simple-looking beams of light, but it was the first time that had been done, too. I think we broke the rules using them, actually, because we really wanted it to be a show.
The band had decided to record them for our own personal collections – we knew they would be good shows. And they were – some of the best we ever did. So we got the multi-track out, put it in a truck outside the venue. But it cut out the first night, then the second night the bass drum wasn’t recorded at all... None of which we knew until we started going through the tapes again all these years later.
Plant: I was flabbergasted at how good the Earls Court footage is, considering it comes from the video screens. It worked great. And because it focuses on the acoustic section, where you can see all four of us close-up, you can sense quite clearly how loose it was, how fun it was. It’s equally fascinating to see fully amplified numbers from that show, like Trampled Underfoot, done in close-up; to see how much detail you were all still putting into your performances, even in such a grand setting.
Plant: Self-indulgence is always just around the corner, and we knew where the cornerstones in the set were – the various areas designed to be built on and reinvented every night. But in between them there are these fantastic moments of pure free-form playing where we were all holding our breath. It was almost a spectator sometimes, just marking the whole thing down as the other three got right into it... then suddenly a moment would appear where I knew I was expected to come in and try and gently take it back in again. We were adventurers – musical adventurers.
Jones: The whole thing was, we knew we were good, but we knew we had to stay good; we had to stay on top of all that in order to produce the goods. I always said that when we were absolutely on top nobody could come near us. And when we were at our worst we were still better than most other bands. To keep that standard... You can’t be utterly magic every night, but with application and concentration you can keep a really good standard.
Watching the DVD, were there things it reminded you of that you had forgotten, or not noticed first time around?
Jones: Yes, but that always happens to me with Zeppelin stuff anyway. It seems to me there are two kinds of musicians: those that listen to their own music constantly, and those that hardly ever listen to their own music. I’m one of the latter, so when I hear it again it’s always a really nice, pleasant surprise, because I’ve forgotten. I remember seeing some rushes of the DVD and thinking how great it was just to be able to sit there and see it all like a fan from the best seat in the house. I’ve never been able to do that before, of course, I’ve always been stuck at the back by the PA... I was always busy doing something on stage, apart from actually playing the bass, which was perhaps the thing I loved the most. Robert used to say come and stand at the front, so I’d stand at the front for the first number. By the second number I’d moved about halfway back, and by the third number I’d assumed my position by the drums again, which is where I could hear them best.
If I was playing keyboards – and we had a piano, an organ, a Mellotron, lots of different devices – I would be playing bass with my feet, using pedals; or whenever I played acoustic guitar I would play the bass using pedals. There were bass pedals littered all over the stage. Whenever we needed another instrument on the songs live, Robert would say: “Don’t worry, Jonesy can do it”.
It was fine apart from the Mellotron, which was notorious for going out of tune if you just looked at it. I used to have to creep up on it so that it didn’t see me coming. The best example would be on The Rain Song, which opens with this very exposed chord on the Mellotron. I’d have one foot on the volume pedal, one hand on the tuning button, and try and ease it in as close as possible to the right key. What happened was, you’d tune it, set it all up, then the audience would come in, the temperature of the room went up and the tapes [the sound source in a Mellotron] would stretch. When they worked they were fine, but they were just hell to play live. But there were just no alternatives back then.
Another interesting thing about the footage is how it contrasts not just the actual performances, but the different eras they evoked – illustrated by the startlingly different versions of Whole Lotta Love that bookend the DVD. While the version from the Albert Hall is pretty faithful to the original, which had smashed into the Top Five of the American singles chart that same month, the one from Knebworth almost 10 years later had changed dramatically, from the razor-edged original to a pulsing, funk-driven, much darker groove. Ten years gone indeed. What are the band’s own feelings about the Knebworth footage?
Plant: I like both versions [of Whole Lotta Love]. By the time you get to Knebworth, though, we’ve played it so many times in so many different ways that it’s really something different. No frills, no strings, no idea of how it was gonna go each night... There couldn’t have been a number more appropriate to the time.
Page: Because of the size of the show, because of the size of the band by then, too, I suppose, but for lots of tangible and not so tangible reasons, it was one of those occasions where the whole thing is about intensity. Everything about those two Knebworth shows was a big deal, and it came across in some very evocative areas within the music. I had seen bits of it here and there over the years, but what I managed to find was extraordinary, stuff even I never knew existed – a lot of stuff that had been filmed and then just left in the can to rot.
We also unearthed some film shot by what they call isolated cameras – basically, people in the audience that had brought their own Super 8 cameras or video equipment or whatever. The quality was never exactly great, but there was some very good stuff. And I found that when you put them together they added a whole new dimension to the proper film footage. For one thing, it gives you far more interesting angles to see things from. And we really wanted to try and show everything that we could – everything – so that you really get a feel for what it was like to be there at one of those shows. Not just to see and hear it, but to almost be able to touch it. With a big show like Knebworth, you need to see that kind of detail, you want to see everything you can just to try and take it all in. For me, it was so valid to take in everything we had and put it together in the overall mix.
Jones: You’ve got big screens and a lot more lights, but the music is actually made in exactly the same way. There are perhaps more grand gestures in which we could spread out a bit, because those sorts of huge places demanded it. But when it starts getting intense and more complicated, then you see us all huddled together again. You have to. You can’t do it from afar. And so whether it was the Albert Hall or Knebworth, you still end up occupying exactly the same space once the music starts to take over. You need that eye contact because there’s a lot goes on other than just standing there playing.
Even though we would play the same set of songs night after night, the band itself was so locked in together musically; we were playing so fluidly together that even just playing a number apparently straight we would still be adding little improvisational flourishes to everything. So the interpretation would be different every single night. I don’t mean the sudden breaks in songs where the band would go off into something else entirely. There were certain numbers built into the set each night where we would do that, just running through the whole thing like an undercurrent. After you’ve played Whole Lotta Love the first hundred times, I suppose... Actually, not even that, after the first time we played it we were already thinking, okay, you know, that’s good, but where else can we take this?
Originally the subject of a 12-camera shoot, directed by Mike Mansfield, which manager Peter Grant had wanted to release as a feature film. Why had they decided it against it eventually?
Page: It was the same with all these things. At the time they were done we always thought we could do better. Which seems ludicrous now when you actually view those performances. But then there was always gonna be a next time – we thought. Until suddenly there wasn’t.
Jones: After a certain point, there was always a very theatrical part to what we did, too, but the music was always what was driving it. The theatrical settings were all produced by the music, not by having some piece of scenery spring up on stage or something like that. We certainly used the lights in as theatrical a way as possible, but really, in that regard, anyway, the whole thing relied on the performances of Robert and Jimmy. They were the theatrical front of the band. But it was never contrived, that was just them being themselves.
Plant: Maybe sometimes we could be too ambitious, but by and large it was a combination of souls... If we had been in existence today, our frames of reference would be completely different. But what we did then was relevant to the times. It was an ordinary form that we somehow managed to do something extraordinary with.
Does the DVD as a whole tell the story of Led Zeppelin as a live group accurately?
Jones: Yes, of course. On the other hand, if you’d picked other nights to film or record it would have been totally different. It’s certainly representative of the development of the band but it’s still limited; it’s still what was captured then and there. So yes, it certainly gives a pretty real sense of what was happening. But if you’re asking about my memories of those events, then they are just much wider and much more enveloping. I can see a million different ways that it developed – and regrets too, in a lot of ways. My memories are different. But, yes, I think you can certainly see from the DVD how things developed and how that went and why it got there.
Page: The whole thing has been an amazing experience for me personally. Revisiting so many memories, so many emotions and sensations... it really brought a lot of things back to me that I hadn’t thought about for a long time – mainly really positive memories of the past, of what we achieved as a band. It really brought it home to me how having a group like Led Zeppelin... to be loved by an audience, to be respected by your contemporaries, was something you dreamed of as a musician. And then to see that translate over the years to new generations... Actually, I think it probably goes beyond what most musicians dream of. It wasn’t really until quite a few years after the band broke up that I really became aware for the first time of just how much this music does still mean to people. Now I do know, and I understand that. Because I’m a Zeppelin fan, too, you know? They’re still my favourite band.
Plant: It’s a reasonable representation, given that it’s pretty much everything we have at our fingertips. I just wish we had similar documents of our lives off the road. It’s such a shame we don’t, because if the cameras had been there at the recordings, being around the actual development of a song, that would have been the ultimate – seeing just the four of us in a room, watching how something went from absolutely nothing to, a few hours later, this living, breathing entity...
But it’s a journey across time, and the way that it was filmed made it a little bit ecstatic. I wish we could have been able to see the audience more, because then you would have seen the interaction between us really going down. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have that element. There are some incredible moments of fantastic form on there, though, and when you start to consider the historical overview, you look at those ten years and you go, well, that was really something.
Jones: They’ve done a fantastic job, I must say, both visually and on the audio side. It really is an incredible job. I perhaps don’t appear as much in the footage as I would like, but that’s often the case of the fact that the lights are on the front people, and the rhythm section got a bit more of a raw deal. But that’s as it was, really.
Was any consideration given to the idea of simply putting out the original shows in their entirety?
Page: Yes, at various times, but never very seriously. In the end, I don’t think it would have been as good, it’s as simple as that. This way, by watching the whole thing, from walking on stage at the Albert Hall to walking off the stage again at Knebworth 10 years later, you get more than just concert footage: you get the story of Led Zeppelin as a live band. And that’s the way it’s been made. It’s meant to tell a story.
Was there any live footage that was deliberately kept back from DVD?
Page: Not deliberately, in the sense of keeping it back for release later, no. The were some bits and pieces – the LA Forum in 72 and some stuff from a warm-up show we did at Southampton University in 1970. They were both good shows, in their different ways, but neither of them quite fitted in for various reasons.
The audio from the LA Forum is phenomenal, which is why we’re putting it out on the live CD, but we don’t have the visuals – certainly not compared to what we had at Madison Square Garden a year later, which is stunning. And though Southampton University was good fun – there’s lots of messing round and bantering with the students in the audience – it wasn’t terribly well-recorded, a lot of it just sounds a mess. So there didn’t seem much point including it. Not when everything else we had was so much better. There was one track I kept back, Over The Hills And Far Away. The only other things are various mixes, different versions of what you see on the DVD. Maybe we could do that too one day – put something out featuring some of the best alternative takes. We have some amazing alternative takes of the fourth album.
Plant: The influence the band has had is quite remarkable, and not to be taken for granted. It was the collaboration as a four-piece band that was so prolific: the only way to hold it all together was because the people in it were so adamant about what they wanted to do, and yet so dynamic in the way they were able to do it, and about the way they saw things. We set ourselves a remarkable task, and achieved a remarkable feat.
This feature was originally published in issue 55.
Read 25 things you didn't know about Led Zeppelin III here.
Watch a new video for Whole Lotta Love here.