Among my three or four all-time favorite bands is Led Zeppelin. Over the course of my half-century on this planet, I’ve watched them become totally rehabilitated from critical outcasts of the Rock World to something transcending Rock Royalty. When I was a kid only burnouts and stoners listened to Led Zeppelin. Today they are considered “founding fathers” who have influenced nearly all popular music since the late 60s.
But, before we go any further, as a drummer I owe it to you to admit this: I hate drum solos. I refuse to play them and I avoid listening to them. On record, John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” sounds like four-plus minutes of tippy-tappy filler deep on side 2 of Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus second album. I can tolerate it because, by that point I’m usually grinning from ear to ear having just devoured the first 30 minutes or so of this beast of an album (my personal favorite, can’t you tell?) but in a live setting “Moby Dick” becomes a thinly-veiled excuse for the rest of the band to enjoy an intermission backstage. To me, this allegedly whale-sized drum solo has always sounded like some (admittedly muscular) drummer trying out new kits in a music store. It comes off as a sort of “test drive” of the drum kit if you will. Boring.
Prior to 2003, the closest any fan could get to experiencing Led Zeppelin “live” from the comfort of their own couch was the band’s “home movie” The Song Remains The Same. Released in 1976, the film combines footage from a 1973 New York City concert with a bunch of self-indulgent scenes that have nothing to do with the concert and, occasionally, nothing at all to do with the band or its music.
To be honest, TSRTS is just not that good. As a concert film, it’s near the bottom of the pile of many dozens I’ve seen or owned. As a movie, it is so poorly assembled and amateurishly conceived that it’s almost unwatchable. But I still get my copy out and play it once or twice a decade – purely for sentimental reasons, of course. You see, I’m slightly too young to have had a chance to see this legendary band live; I turned 8 a few months after their arguable peak in 1973 as captured in TSRTS. The band officially dissolved in December 1980 (following the death of drummer John Bonham) five days after my 15th birthday. All there ever was for me to collect and cherish while growing up was the band’s nine majestic albums…and this quirky little movie.
I watched TSRTS last night for the first time in over a decade. I had heard a song (Sun Kil Moon’s “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”) earlier in the day and I took it as a sign that it was time to watch the movie. Several things struck me…
Certain camera angles create a sense of forced perspective that, at times, makes Jimmy Page appear to be shrinking down to hobbit size while his sunburst Les Paul guitar appears to be magically swelling to almost twice its normal size. Page isn’t a particularly small fellow and the Gibson Les Paul isn’t a particularly large guitar – in fact, it’s on the small side – so I have no idea why this happens throughout the movie. The weird thing is that it only happens when Page is playing this guitar.
For reference, here is a photo of Page on stage several years later playing the exact same guitar. Notice how much smaller it seems. In TSRTS, the body of this Les Paul extends from approximately Page’s ribcage almost down to his right knee. In the later shot, it barely covers his groin/thigh area. Weird, huh?
Also bizarre is the stage at the concert’s Madison Square Garden venue. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Led Zeppelin where playing a show in a department store. There are full-length mirrors behind the band and crowds of folks backstage just casually strolling around right in the middle of the show! I swear at one point this one guy stops in front of one of the mirrors behind Page’s amps to check himself out. “OK buddy, the pants fit. Now beat it! The rest of us are trying to rock out here you know?” Anyways, it’s the least likely stage you’d ever expect to see a massively huge band like Led Zeppelin play on. It seems too low, is poorly lit, is far more shallow than contemporary concert stages, and there are non-musician types lollygagging all around at the back of it. The resulting milieu can be mildly distracting, especially to anyone who’s seen a proper rock concert in the past 40 years (or tried, like I have, to play a show on a crowded stage).
Of course, everyone’s favorite things to love and/or hate about TSRTS are the “dream sequences”. Each band member gets one (including manager Peter Grant who fancies himself a Roaring 20’s-style gangster). My favorite? Jimmy Page’s “into my eyes” sequence: he climbs to a parapet of some dilapidated old castle-like structure to meet with a wizard who seems to beckon him. When we see the wizard’s face, it’s an elderly version of Jimmy Page! Then the camera fixes on the wizards eyes and takes us backwards through time showing increasingly younger faces of Jimmy Page until at last all we see is a tiny fetus floating in space. Then the whole process speeds forward until we are back to the old-Page-as-wizard face. The wizard then swings this trippy multicolored light sabre thingy over his head. It’s all very deep and super psychedelic. The message is obvious: Page is a wizard. Just watch his guitar playing throughout this concert. He appears to be in a trance and only opens his eyes a few times as if to check to see if the real world is still there. Seriously, the man is on another level throughout and TSRTS ultimately ends up being The Jimmy Page Show.
The second best “dream sequence” is singer Robert Plant’s. Like Page’s it is a wordless fantasy but is filled with broadswords, flames, horses, mysterious boats coming ashore, and a lusty wench. Sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones, huh? The shot above is of right as the golden locked Sir Robert takes a big bite out of this red mushroom that he finds growing under a tree. Gee, what do you think that’s supposed to represent?
Alright, if you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with this blog. Simple. Next month, this concert film will be reissued as part of a massive boxed set. The release is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first gig that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page played together, ostensibly the “birthday” of Led Zeppelin, in 1968.
So, if I’ve inspired you to dust off your copy of The Song Remains The Same and stick it in ye olde video player, you’re welcome. Love it or hate it, you’ve got to admit that TSRTS satisfies the #1 criteria of any pop culture experience: Does it entertain us?
Indeed it does, in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
Happy Birthday Led Zeppelin!