Thursday, February 14, 2008

707 words about 8mm of Led Zeppelin May 18th 1977

For months now I've been working on an epic Led Zeppelin blog piece. And this isn't it, quite yet.The piece in-the-works is epic, but still fragmentary. But this here hints at what's to come.

I've been a big Zep fan since age 11. Through the years Led Zep has come and gone from the forefront of my most-listen-to bands, but they've always been somewhere in my regular mix.

Well, Zep, and especially live bootleg Zep, has been in the forefront again since last summer. The rumors, confirmation, and playing of a great Led Zeppelin reunion show in December rekindled the all-consuming passion for Zep in my life. LZ are again a current event, of sorts, and it's been fun following the play-by-play as the reunion show happened (and now rumors of a Fall reunion tour are happening.)

I've also download about 50 full Zep shows via torrent shares in the past six months. There's no more paying $25-a-disc for poorly-labelled "Italian import" CDs of dubious sound quality. They're now all free, maintained by super-fans and equally accessible to anyone with a hard drive and a decent high speed connection.

And even some unreleased video footage has been floating around, such as this

Yes, the sound quality is awful from a technical standpoint and the band is fuzzy and distant.

but this is IT, a homemade fragment of the pinnacle of Zeppelin's popularity: the United States Tour Summer of 1977: 44 dates of sold out shows in arenas and stadiums holding anywhere from 15-76,000 with the shows stretching for 3- 3 1/2 hours every night!

And going by the amount of "United States Tour 1977" shirts on the backs of college dudes last summer, a quarter of early 20-something Americans were at one of these shows from April-July 1977. But of course they're all about 20 years too young to have really been at any of the shows. And I'd be willing to bet that very few of them have actually heard a Zep '77 show, since nothing from the tour has ever been officially released, with the exception of one song as a submenu background on the Led Zeppelin "DVD."

Of course even most of the hardcore Zeppelin fans of today (including yours truly, the typist) were too young to be at any of these shows 1977 filled with:

Double neck guitars

white satin bellbottomed suits worn shirtless, embroidered with dragons and poppies.

Drugs, and groupies

bare chests and sock-lumped trousers

Firecrackers and fan riots.

25 minute drum solos

John Paul Jones playing a 3-necked acoustic 26-stringed monstrosity: mandolin, 6 and 12 string guitar all together.

I wish I could've been there ,though. And with headphone-plugged ears and the laptop in full-screen mode i can at least pretend. The hot fuzziness of this amateur Birmingham film gives me that "I'm there!" feeling in a way that the sharp clarity of the officially released material cannot. What it loses in clarity, it gains in raw excitement.

The cavernous boom gives an idea of the magnitude of the venue. And the roar gives an idea of the magnitude of the crowd.

To be exact what we're looking at here is Birmingham May 18th 1977 at the Jefferson Memorial Coliseum.

To be exact this was Led Zeppelin's final US tour. Within a couple months, the death of Robert Plant's young son would grind the tour to a halt and put a cloud over the band's sunny, cocky nature. This cloud would remain overhead until the band's end.

And that end was to come about 3 and a half years after this fan-made
film was shot. And in that time heroin and alcohol would work their dark, isolating magic on half the band (the White Stripes-esque half.) And It was just a day before my 1st birthday, Sept 25, 1980 that the band would hit their vomitous rhythmless end.

But that's all darkness.

Though, as Jimmy Page said back in the early 70s, the mission of the band was to create both "light and shade."

And this echoey, jittery film is the manifestation of that lightness. It's 8mm of pure joy, with Jimmy glowing in in his white costume, flying around the stage on twinkling toes, and seeming thin enough to be blown away by a moderate wind. And the huge collective excitement of the evening is channeled through Jimmy Page's continually-moving feet .

"The Song Remains the Same" is in the first fragment of this Birmingham clip. The song opened every single Zep concert in '77. And to my ears it's a perfect opener. It could be the soundtrack for a chase scene or for the Indy 500. It showcases speed and intensity. The band comes out of the gate charging with it. There was no easing the crowd into the show. From the first moments the band is going right for the teenage throat. And they're drawing blood too.

And if you pick threw all the noise and boom and jump cuts, you can hear they're all playing very well, here in Alabama.

For the whole time, Jimmy Page gives no quarter. All the while this motherf*cker has restless leg syndrome. I love how Jimmy's flared trousers accentuate this dramatic footwork. And I think cocaine trumped heroin for the white wizard on this night.

He falls to his knees at the end of a drum roll 0:33-0:37
He marches to the stage front to take a bow 1:05-1:11
He kicks imaginary soccer balls off of stage right 2:02-2:07
He spins around in a full circle between slow bluesy phrases 3:22-3:25
His hand goes up to cast a spell to increase the band's speed and intensity 4:01-4:07
He makes a crotch-forward lunge 4:23-4:26
He makes a dramatic turn in time with a cymbal accent 5:32
He goose steps, raises his hand to cast more spells and dances like a maniac, a maniac for sure. 6:12-7:20 (The previous month in Chicago on April 10 he wore jack boots and a Nazi SS officer's cap on stage, so militaristic moves were not unprecedented for this tour)
He drops to his knees to praise the Lord (of this self-professed band of Over-Lords) 8:28
He duck-walks and dances with Robert Plant 9:22-9:30

Meanwhile, as his toes are twinkling, he's shadowed by the OTHER string man in white who mostly hides in the darkness behind Jimmy's right shoulder. Naturally, Bonham can't really go anywhere and is stuck near the back of the frame. And Plant mostly just stands looking pretty: bare-chested, tight-trousered, and perfect-haired.

note: the clip is credited on the tube to "the Nobs" to avoid getting pulled for copyright reasons. For those not in the know, the band played one show in 1970 under the alias "the Nobs" to avoid legal action against them by the heiress of Graf von Zeppelin while playing near her home turf in Denmark.