Kyle from Rockford, lllinois is the last one in the men’s room as the houselights go down in Chicago Stadium. Robert Plant shakes his long, golden mane while the amplifiers burst forth with Led Zeppelin’s ode to their music, “Rock and Roll,” but Kyle is chugging a Budweiser and changing his shirt. Off comes the J. C. Penney mandala print; on with the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “I just bought it,” he says, as he pulls out a fistful of White Owl joints. We smoke one, and it’s just like doing tobacco in the high school john. I put the butt on the sink after each inhale, in case the law or a teacher, comes in.
But this is no extracurricular activity: for this high school generation, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English. “People are desperate for tickets,” says Perry, a New Yorker recently out of high school. A friend of his was punched in the stomach when a Gimbels Ticketron line became unruly. (Zeppelin play six New York arena concerts: the Garden February 3, 7, and 12; Nassau Coliseum Feb. 4, 13, and 14.) A number of Chicago fans camped all night in near zero temperatures before tickets went on sale. Eleven persons were arrested outside Chicago Stadium Monday night as they attempted to sell $8.50 tickets to undercover agents for up to $100 a pair. In Boston, fans lined up three days early for tickets, possibly due to a communications breakdown. The hall’s beer supply was seized, bottles thrown, furniture destroyed, and an estimated $50,000 in damages resulted. Like other recent concerts in socially disturbed Boston (Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five), Led Zeppelin’s appearance was cancelled. The group, however, should bear at least some of the blame for hyperactive customers and inflated scalper profits. Recent tours by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones resulted in an equally intense demand for tickets, but no incidents, since their tickets were sold by mail order with a limit of four per subscriber. Our New York friend was deprived when a person in front of him on another Ticketron line bought the 35 remaining tickets. Assuming the buyer wasn’t an agent for everyone in his home room, he stands to gross up to $1750 at top scalper rates.
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Nevertheless, a case could be made for Led Zeppelin as the most popular rock ‘n’ roll group of all time. The band rose from the remains of the Yardbirds, one of the more hallowed first generation English groups and source of three of the best electric guitarists in rock: Eric Clapton, who left to form Cream; Jeff Beck, whose short-lived Jeff Beck Group introduced a frustrated soccer player named Rod Stewart; and Jimmy Page, around whom ex-Yardbird manager Peter Grant formed the new band. The three other members were John Paul Jones, a bass player and keyboard artist with impressive arranging credentials (Stones, Donovan), and two unknowns, drummer John Bonham and lead singer, Robert Plant.
What the band created was no less than the aesthetic peak against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured. Rather than reviving Chuck Berry tunes or early ’60s American rhythm ‘n’ blues hits, as the Stones and Beatles had done on their earliest albums, Led Zeppelin chose as reference points on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon, but without paying the kind of strict homage to the form common among English blues bands. They mutated the blues into a mega-amplified, manically surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form. As their discography grew, so did their ability as both writers and performers. While each very popular hard rock band has usually come up with one great song on which to hang their reputations — Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — Led Zeppelin has created at least half a dozen masterful songs, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and their piece de resistance, “Stairway to Heaven.”
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Though they’d sold millions of albums, and had evolved from purveyors of well-honed frenzy to artists capable of both passion and subtlety, they were scorned by the intelligentsia because their early sound was associated with other enormously popular but markedly inferior groups like Funk, Sabbath and Purple. There was another problem with critics, most of whom had grown up on Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, who refused to believe that a great group could be created after the early or mid-1960’s. Jimmy Page’s Yardbird experience gave the band some critical legitimacy, but they were never quite trusted by those distanced from the life-style of the enthusiastic new rock audience. For the first three and a half years, piqued by the critical shafting their albums received in publications like Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin did virtually no interviews. When Stone editor Jann Wenner saw some of the digits projected during the press offensive engineered by their 1973 tour’s ace PR man, Danny Goldberg (now vice-president at, 24, of Led Zep’s Swan Song Records), he offered the cover of the magazine and writer of their choice for a Rolling Stone interview. Unimpressed, the band refused.
After all, who needs publicity when you’ve got the numbers? Each of Led Zep’s five albums (a sixth, “Physical Graffiti,” will be released this month), has sold over one million copies, with Led Zeppelin IV (which bears no real title, and is sometimes referred to by its catalog number, SD 7208) over two million in America, nearly four million worldwide. By contrast, the Rolling Stones, since joining the same record company (Atlantic distributes both Rolling Stones Records and Swan Song) have only one album over a million; in some instances, Led Zeppelin albums outsell the Rolling Stones by nearly two to one. During Zeppelin’s last American tour, in late spring and summer 1973, they broke the Beatles’ record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. In July 1973, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa, Florida. A blizzard of favorable publicity fell from the tour for the first time in the band’s history. Soon after, Swan Song Records was formed.
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“They felt that by using the business wisdom that had guided them, they could help other acts they believed in build their careers,” Danny Goldberg comments. This kind of vice-presidential philosophy has been heard before, but it is true that some of the label’s first signings, like Maggie Bell and the Pretty Things, have caused more interest among critics than among consumers. More than good karma, however, greeted the label’s first release by Bad Company, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the Led Zeppelin organization, there is little distance between the business and creative sectors.
Example: after what the band considered a dismal opening night in Chicago (the tour had begun a few nights earlier in Minneapolis), the Zeppelin team met to analyze the situation. The four musicians met with manager Grant, who guides their adventures in the money jungle, and road manager Richard Cole, who directs a small battalion of equipment movers, sound engineers and lighting personnel. Plant, who did have the flu, was told that it didn’t help audience spirits when he said so from the stage: 20,000 fans who’d waited two years to see their favorites didn’t need any shortcomings rationalized in advance. Jimmy Page, who jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, couldn’t really execute the involved improvisations on his tour de force, the six-year-old “Dazed and Confused,” so the tune was dropped temporarily and replaced with “How Many More Times,” another bit of bluesy freneticism from the first album. They hadn’t performed the song live in five years.
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Before the second Chicago show the band seemed enthusiastic. Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine. Amidst the backstage clatter, I asked Plant whether reports about violence on the ticket line made him fear that they could lose control of a crowd on this tour. “No. There’s no violent energy here,” said Plant, who tends to be a bit of a flower child, staring at me with meditatively clear blue eyes. “Violent energy can only be created. Some groups do it, knowingly or unknowingly, and send out negative energy. Because we’ve got a sizable audience, people may think we’ll bring out violence, but it doesn’t happen.”
There must be a difference between “peaceful energy,” the band’s declared spiritual intentions, and violent music, which is what Led Zeppelin unleashes from the stage. They play it with finesse, exuberance and charm, but that mass audience is there for 30,000 watts of rock ‘n’ roll, which almost by definition appeals to its aggressive, rebellious instincts. There is both pain and pleasure in heavy rock’s searing decibels, and mixed with unjudicious amounts of drugs and alcohol … Robert, you’re being naive.
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Plant is the visual center of the act. He wears tight blue jeans, and clearly no underwear. He wears a sort of Sino-Afro print vest that seems six sizes too small; he is the only male rock star who flashes tit and gets away with it. Although he does a brief peace rap before “The Song Remains the Same,” there is little of the cloying pretension that often goes along with such introductions, partly because one is so disarmed at finding spirituality mixed with sexuality in Plant’s projection, and partly because the audience does seem to be as well-behaved as any I’ve seen at an arena event, be it hockey, basketball, or rock ‘n’ roll. When someone throws a lit joint on the stage, Plant picks it up, looks at it, says “I’ve got a bad throat and all, but I might as well.” He takes two quick tokes. “Now we’re gonna play a new track, and it’s got nothin’ to do with that at all.” Should a superstar smoke dope on stage? Plant has the touch of a politician, standing firmly on both sides of the issue.
Page is the musical magnet of the stage show. Though Led Zeppelin is known as a guitar band, Page displays few of the egocentricities of other acts oriented to lead guitar. He can be flamboyant, especially when using the double-necked, eighteen-string guitar, but he plays with the efficiency and restraint of the studio musician — which is how Page began his career, on some of the great singles sessions of English rock with bands like the Kinks, Stones, and Who. Page’s subtle virtuosity is the key to Led Zeppelin’s strength. With only three instrumentalists, Page is attentive to Bonham and Jones’s firm rhythm control, while simultaneously venturing out, adding width to the spectrum embraced by Plant’s plaintive vocals. After a particularly incisive display, a fan exhibited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a roll of toilet paper. Bonham takes a turn in the spotlight with his “Moby Dick,” which some have hailed as the only interesting twenty-minute drum solo outside West Africa. Let’s just say (since I am no fan of the form) that it is not boring, with Bonham changing time, color, and maintaining a kind of melody, until he does away with sticks altogether and pummels his drums with his open hands. At the least, very effective showmanship.
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The highlight of the set came with “Stairway to Heaven,” a patiently weaved (nearly eight minutes on record) musical tapestry that proves that Led Zeppelin has the ability to remain a viable creative force long after “heavy metal” goes the way of other pop fads. One fan finds this tale (based on Celtic myths) so enchanting that she asked me to listen “extra hard and bring some of it back” when they played the tune. Although a top-forty FM station in Miami plays it as often as any of the hits on its playlist, and it is among the most requested songs on a New York oldies station, it has never been released as a single. Partly on the strength of the song, the album on which it appears, Zeppelin IV or SD 7208 continues to sell at the rate of 15,000 copies a week, though it is nearly four years old. “I overcame my dislike for Led Zeppelin when I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ” says New York fan Perry. “I hadn’t liked that blatant heavy metal stuff. But I said, wow, if they’re capable of this!” Indeed, “Stairway” will probably stand with “In the Still of the Night,” “Satisfaction” and “Hey Jude” as one of the great oldies-but-goodies of history, to be remembered even after we all find out what it means, as the song says, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Which proves that you don’t have to have grown up with Elvis and the Beatles to cherish oldies worthy of their gold. ❖