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MAY DAZE 35 YEARS ON: TBL CELEBRATES THE 35TH ANNIVERSARY OF LED ZEPPELIN AT EARLS COURT – TBL EARLS COURT ARCHIVE SPECIAL PART ONE

10 May 2010 6,605 views 4 Comments

35 years ago this month, Led Zeppelin performed what would be their last indoor performances in England.

When the band undertook the series of five shows at London’s Earls Court Arena in May of 1975 they were at the very peak of their creative powers. Spurred on by the critical and commercial success of their sixth album, the double set Physical Graffiti, each show they played took on event-like proportions. The 17,000 capacity Earls Court afforded them the luxury to showcase in the best possible setting, the sheer enormity of their stage act. Over five nights in the spring of May ‘75 Zeppelin delivered perhaps the most impressive series of shows of their entire career. 35 years on these Earls Court performances are still held in the highest esteem.

Tight But Loose has a long history of chronicling Zep at Earls Court going right back to the hand written first issue. The impact of being in attendance at all five shows on this then impressionable 18 year old has been a lasting one.

There are of course other key periods in Zep’s concert history: the relentless naïve enthusiasm of 1969, the blockbusting Blueberry Hill era, the play anything set lists of Japan ’71, the instrumental prowess of Europe ’73, the pure bravado of six nights in LA in ’77.etc etc.  However when they played Earls Court in 1975  Led Zeppelin were unquestionably  at the peak of their powers –it remains one of their absolute career highs. So without further ado here’s the first of this month’s TBL Earls Court Archive specials.  Originally compiled for the TBL Earls Court Journal publication,  this introduction sets the scene for those five glorious nights of 35 years ago….

 

 

“Improvisation – guitar Jimmy Page, drums John Bonham, John Paul Jones bass guitar. Just a little world to get lost in occasionally. It only takes about 20 minutes to plot around the time signatures.” – Robert Plant, May 24, 1975

So spoke Robert Plant from the stage of the Earls Court Arena after a performance of ‘Dazed And Confused’ that had spanned some 26 minutes.

Just a little world to get lost in… and almost 35 years ago there was ample opportunity to get lost in the world of Led Zeppelin as they performed five marathon concerts at London’s Earls Court.

Now there might be a school of thought that this era of three-hour plus sets represented all that was overblown about Zeppelin and indeed rock music itself in the mid-Seventies. Twenty-minute drum solos, marathon guitar solos, massive arenas and big light shows were all a long way from those innocent days of the Lyceum Ballroom and the Marquee, and such excesses would soon inspire the back-to-basics punk and new wave explosion that was around the corner.

But Led Zeppelin at Earls Court was absolutely of its time; a moment in time that captured the very essence of the power and influence the group held over its audience at this point in their career. Those of us who were lucky enough to be there – and indeed those that have since carefully studied the case history of Earls Court via the numerous bootlegs – will testify to their brilliance on those memorable May days. The sheer scale of what Led Zeppelin had become seemed to inspire an arrogance within the group that in turn led to their performing a series of shows that, as Plant was keen to explain, mirrored every colour of their musical spectrum. “We intend to take you through some of the colours… we’ve explored the prism and we’ve developed music along the lines of colours, some of them bright and some of them dark,” he told the audience on the final night. Arrogant or not, the sheer gargantuan scale of Earls Court was perfect for Zeppelin in 1975. It was the ultimate demonstration of just how far they had progressed in the space of six and a half years; from humble post-Yardbirds beginnings to massive acceptance in America and their standing as Britain’s most successful group of the era. It also cemented the loyalty of their British fans.

Unlike The Beatles, Led Zeppelin were not and never would be mainstream heroes. Their music was never intended for an across-the-board audience. They were a cult, albeit a massive one, and like all cults they were a secret society, one that in their case attracted young, long-haired, mostly male followers who read about them avidly in the music press and took them very seriously indeed. The national tabloid press never understood them and, by and large, ignored them, it being assumed by the editors of such papers, probably correctly, that their readers simply weren’t interested. Similarly, Led Zeppelin never appeared on TV or in the singles charts, manager Peter Grant having long ago decided that such popular media exposure was both unnecessary and, indeed, somehow demeaning. It was a doubly wise decision, not only placing Zeppelin on a pedestal occupied by no-one else but also creating the necessary vacuum in which the Led Zeppelin cult could flourish: a variation on the old showbiz maxim ‘keep ‘em wanting more’.

In today’s maze of mass communication, in which access to rock performers ranges from You tube to MP3 downloads, it seems extraordinary to consider that for a large part of the audience at Earls Court the only previous visual image they would have had of Led Zeppelin was from the pictures that appeared in the weekly music press. There were no videos in 1975 and even the pictures of the group that appeared on the covers of their albums were slyly obscured. Though with a nod towards whimsical irony they named their music publishing arm Superhype, the massive success they now enjoyed had been built the hard way, on sheer word of mouth, on handed-down enthusiasm for their live concerts and the quality of their albums. If you were a Zeppelin fan there were no half measures. It was an all encompassing passion. Every album they released – and every move they made – became a part of your life. To be part of their world was to be part of a very special elite, and Earls Court offered the perfect platform for every lucky attendant to revel in that status.

It’s significant that at the time there was very little carping about their decision to play just three London dates in 1975. Fans accepted that the whole Led Zeppelin operation had become too large for a UK tour around the usual, theatre-style venues. To use a now familiar maxim – Led Zeppelin no longer played concerts, they staged events. Plant had hinted as such in interviews early in the year. Talking in January to Bob Harris on the BBC’s Whistle Test, the only TV show on which Zep might appear, albeit never live, he stated: “What we want to do in England, if we can find the right venue and I think we possibly can, is turn it into something of an event and go to town on it in true style.”  In a clever advertising strategy that incorporated British Rail and their ‘Zeppelin Express’, the concerts were promoted in adverts that displayed the links to London’s Earls Court arena via BR’s Inter City train services, thus explaining how Earls Court was easily accessible from all parts of the country. The difficult bit was actually obtaining the tickets. The three original dates sold out within a day of box offices opening around the country on March 15.

A further two dates for the preceding weekend of May 17/18 were added and they too sold out instantly. This prompted the noted critic and film maker Tony Palmer, in a very perceptive feature in The Observer magazine on May 18, 1975, to state that: “Statistics are always misleading. With Led Zeppelin statistics are irreverent – except that they are truly astonishing. Last night they gave the first of five concerts at London’s Earls Court arena. Total seats 85,000. No pop group in history, no entertainer, no film star, no opera singer has ever attracted such an audience.”

There are many reasons why Earls Court represented an all time high for the group.

For a start, unlike the rather nervous, tentative approach to Knebworth four years later, Led Zeppelin approached the run of Earls Court concerts at the very top of their game. When the dates were announced in mid-March the group were on the final stretch of their first American tour for two years. The tour had encountered problems early on in January when Page injured a finger just prior to the opening dates and Plant contracted flu in the chilly midwest. The first gigs were compromised by these setbacks but by the time they reached Madison Square Gardens on February 3 they were back on the rails, the fingers on Page’s left hand having recovered sufficiently to enable him to play ‘Dazed And Confused’ for the first time this tour. Eleven days later, at the Nassau Coliseum, they turned in a superb performance, ‘No Quarter’ taking on the improvisational free-form approach that would light up Earls Court. Towards the end of March they hit a real roll, putting together a string of consistently excellent performances, notably in Long Beach, Vancouver and Seattle. By now they were inserting a version of ‘Woodstock’ in the ‘Dazed’ interlude, another highlight of the forthcoming Earls Court run.

The American tour wound up with three performances at their spiritual home, the LA Forum. During these dates there was a hint of Earls Court fashion on parade, with Plant adopting the dark blue Miss Selfridge cut-off blouse and Page premiering the dragon-emblazoned suit trousers. On March 27, as the band shuffled off stage for the final time in America that year, Plant excitedly exclaimed: ‘If there’s anyone here from England – well we’re coming back, baby!” Another key ingredient to the success of Earls Court was the stage presentation overseen by technician Ian Knight. The vastness of the 17,000 capacity arena offered the perfect opportunity to bring to the UK the so-called American show, all 40 tons of it, including a custom built 80 x 40 foot stage set up with black backcloths shielding over 300 flashbulbs that would ignite simultaneously as they returned to the stage for encores. Then there were the pioneering laser effects, designed to pierce through the air just as Page branded the violin bow during ‘Dazed’.

Also ahead of its time was the use giant Ediphor video screen  suspended high above the stage, at cost of £10,000, that allowed every one of the 17,000 present a clear view of the action. There were concerns over the acoustics of the hall, promoter Mel Bush having been on the end of criticism when David Bowie had played the venue in 1973 (though there were no such problems when Slade played the same venue a week later). Having learnt from that experience and the fact that Zeppelin employed the best sound system in the world, courtesy of the Showco team from Dallas, he was confident that everyone in the audience would hear and see the group in the best possible setting.

Then there was the set list. Initially developed for the American tour to present a cross section of their progress to date, it included material from the newly released Physical Graffiti, ‘Sick Again’, ‘In My Time Of Dying’, ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Trampled Underfoot’ all offering live evidence of the potency of a new record that included 15 recordings spread across a double album. If Earls Court represents a live peak, then Physical Graffiti stands alongside it as their definitive recorded statement. On stage, numbers such as ‘Trampled Underfoot’ and Kashmir’ developed beyond their studio counterparts to take on a new life of their own, just like previous great Zep live creations. The only disappointment was that they did not introduce more numbers from the album on stage, ‘The Wanton Song’ being dropped after a few airings early on the US tour and ‘Custard Pie’ not making it out of rehearsals.  They also reinstated the acoustic section last heard in America in 1972. Gathered together closely at the front of the stage, seated on chairs, the group offered ‘Going To California’, ‘That’s The Way’ and ‘BronY Aur Stomp’, bringing an intimacy to the proceedings that belied the huge setting and accentuating the rapport between artists and audience.

Then there was the reinstating for Earls Court only of ‘Tangerine’, performed as a four-part harmony piece – “We can do ‘Bus Stop’ by The Hollies next time” quipped Plant on May 18 – and the overall sequencing of the show, whereby marathons such as ‘No Quarter’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Dazed And Confused’ were strategic placed so as to sustain the momentum. ‘Moby Dick’ may have been long and indulgent but there were no mass walkouts. It was accepted it for what it was, an integral part of Led Zeppelin and a showcase for Bonzo and his craft. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was now the rightful finale to every show and still sung by Plant as though he meant every word.  It would have been easy for them to simply re-enact the US set list for these UK shows. The fact that they actually came up with an exclusive repertoire says much for the high regard they placed on these Earls Court shows. Never before had they had such a vast array of material at their disposal, and never before (or again) would they present it so intelligently.

Led Zeppelin’s shows at Earls Court were among their most photographed ever, justifiably so since in 1975 they were certainly at their most photogenic. Zeppelin’s reputation may have been built more on their music than the clothes they wore but they didn’t ignore the sartorial side of things completely. The mystique that developed from their lack of media exposure led to an element of mystery about their actual appearance. Magnified by the use of a video screen, the way they looked and dressed at Earls Court became ingrained on the minds of those in attendance and in turn by the appearance of countless shots that have appeared in books and magazines ever since.

Page’s dragon suit and flailing black hair radiated a demonic quality evident in his every twist and turn across the stage. The suit reflected Page’s other worldly image as never before. His face covered in a tangled mass of damp curls, his fingers leaping from fret to fret, he seemed so fully immersed in his playing that it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of a genius of the electric guitar in his absolute element.

Equally in his prime was Jimmy’s foil, Robert Plant. The singer dominated proceedings over the five nights with a confidence and cheeky arrogance that reflected the whole upbeat camaraderie within the group. Aside from one night when he pulled out the wraparound, long sleeved attire he’d used on the US tour, he chose a Miss Selfridge cut-off that exposed plenty of chest and wore his blonde hair long and loose. His vocal strength that required none of the stimulus of the electronic harmoniser that was predominant in later years.  Always a more than competent master of ceremonies, at Earls Court Plant took on the added role of group raconteur, conjuring up various witticisms and telling a series of little stories about the group’s history: “Bonzo refused to join us because he was getting £40 with Tim Rose,” he said on May 24. “I had eight telegrams sent to the Three Men In A Boat pub in Walsall where Noddy Holder was our roadie… nobody would believe The New Yardbirds…” and about Earls Court itself: “It’s such a pleasure to be playing to so many peoeple in England all at one time – we couldn’t make Nottingham Boat club this time” (May 17) and “The equipment you see now amassed above our heads in a rather precarious position took three weeks to get through customs, so were really pleased not only to be here and able to play but to have all the equipment to give you our best” (May 18).

There was a high quota of soccer references: “Jimmy McCalloig’s has left the stage” (May 24) and “The Welsh, who nearly beat Scotland yesterday!” (May 18), and a few typical swipes at the press: “Charles Shaar Murray wherever you are – keep taking the pills” (May 25). There was mention of their children: “Tonight there is a lad watching his dad who is a remarkable drummer. He is better than 80% of rock group drummers today. So Jason Bonham this is your dad John Bonham!” (May 24) and “Well, Carmen here it is, a song to a little girl who sits there probably wondering what it’s all about. In fact to all our kids who come and see us and sit and go ‘oh really’. But what’s it all about so where is the bridge. Well Carmen, here’s your chance to find out where the bridge is and if you know, will you let us know after the show?” (May 25). The group were about to go into self imposed tax exile and Plant was obviously none too happy at the high earnings tax he and the group were obliged to pay, so Chancellor Denis Healey didn’t escape his sharp tongue: “Somebody voted for someone and now everyone’s on the run” (May 25) and “You know Denis – no artists in the country anymore – he must be ‘Dazed And Confused’!”

Listening to these comments almost 35 years later adds much to the period feel of Zeppelin in 1975. Robert Plant talked a very good show every night in Earls Court adding much to the rapport between the group and their audience.

As for Jones, his fashion sense was as bizarre as ever, risking Plant’s caustic wit with that fancy Spanish jacket complete with onions on the shoulders and sporting a pair of platform shoes that Noddy Holder would have been proud of. His playing, particularly on ‘Kashmir’ and ‘No Quarter’ was exemplary, even by his high standards. Rarely if ever did those two compositions sound as impressive as when they were performed at Earls Court.  A beardless Bonzo, retaining his sideboards and sporting a new smarter haircut, looked well up for it, respondent in embroidered T-shirt. His no-nonsense cut and thrust approach to the familiar Perspex drum kit was the driving force of Earls Court. Interviewed by Chris Welch just after the gigs he was obviously proud of the way his band handled these UK dates. “I really enjoyed those concerts,” he admitted. “I thought they were the best shows we’ve ever put on in England. I always get tense before a show and we were expecting trouble with such a huge audience. But everything went really well. I also thought the video screen was well worth doing. It cost a lot of bread but you could see close-ups you’d never be able to see normally at a concert.”

So they had the confidence, they had the look, they had the lights, they had the video screen, they had the set list. All they had to do was deliver. And deliver they did.

Part 2 to follow

Copyright Dave Lewis 2010-not to be reproduced without prior permission.

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4 Comments »

  • Raymond Meyer said:

    Sweet memories indeed. I was lucky enough to be at the first night at Earls Court after having seen Zep in Dundee in ’71 & ’73. I travelled down from Scotland on the sleeper arriving at Kings Cross at 6.00am. I did a bit of sight seeing before heading out to Earls Court just in time to hear the boys doing the sound check. From that moment I know it was going to be something special. And boy it sure was! Slept the night in Euston Station with a few thousand other Zep fans before travelling back to Scotland the next day. Was that really 35 years ago? Time to put on The Earls Court DVD me thinks!

  • Rob said:

    In over 40 years of gig going May 25th 1975 is without doubt the greatest gig I have ever attended and I’ve seen some good ones in my time. If I remember correctly Robert Plant also told Charles Shaar Murray, that they did’nt have a “Communication Breakdown”, the fourth and final encore of the night.

    As you say this was a band at the height of their powers, they hit the stage at 10 to 8 and left it at 10 minutes after midnight, we left stunned!!!! and it only cost £1.50 a ticket!!!!!

  • Graeme Powell said:

    Was there for the first night,Spent Fri night at the Newcastle Mayfair to see Nazareth then caught the midnight train to London,mooched around all day then off to Earls Court.Train back to the North East ariiving home at 7 am,knackered but happy !

  • Michael Brazee said:

    Ahhh, to have been there.

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