0:00 to 1:45: In August of 1979, Led Zeppelin played two concerts at the Knebworth Festival in Hertfordshire, England, headlining an event rumored to have been seen by some 218,000 people. This rumor is not true; in reality, the first show was seen by a crowd of about 104,000 while the second show (pummeled by day-long rain) had a crowd of fewer than 50,000. These are still massive numbers, certainly, but the difference between what the band’s management claimed and what was authentically happening illustrates the contradictory position Zeppelin was in by ’79: They were both the most popular and most criticized rock band in the world. Reviews for the Knebworth shows were mostly negative (especially for the second night, which even the band admits was subpar). At the time it had become trendy for other musicians to use Zeppelin as the example for everything they hated about the 1970s; Clash bassist Paul Simonon had recently said, “I don’t have to hear Led Zeppelin. Just looking at their album covers1 makes me want to throw up.” What Simonon was (actually) complaining about is what we see during the first 105 seconds of this Knebworth rendition of “In the Evening,” the first track off the widely panned (but 6x-platinum-selling) In Through the Out Door: conscious bloat. For almost two minutes, we get little more than a genius biker hitting the kettle drum while three superrich hippies prepare to be as awesome as they justifiably perceive themselves, lurking and droning beneath the same type of laser Patterson Hood saw at a BOC concert when he was 14.2 As is always the case with YouTube, time and circumstance have changed the meaning of those 105 seconds. But this was what the cool kids hated in 1979, despite the 104,000 Knebworthian kettledrum aficionados losing their hash-riddled minds.
1:46 to 2:19: So here we go: The look in Robert Plant’s eyes say, “I am a human lion.” The sweat on Jimmy Page’s shirt says, “I am more like Patrick Ewing than most rock historians remember.” The arc of Page’s sartorial decisions have always struck me as an underreported reflection of his musical evolution: He began his career dressing like a Victorian bullfighter3 before briefly switching to sweater vests,4 thus becoming the only human to ever don a sweater vest and immediately seem less gay. Zep’s superrock ascension led him to that famous black dragon suit, still the coolest garment anyone has ever worn for any purpose under any circumstance; he arbitrarily switched to a white dragon suit5 in 1977, eventually concluding with this ’79 “business casual” ensemble6 that nicely highlights his distaste for eating certain things (such as food). We don’t see much of John Paul Jones, but we do get a glimpse of the rotary telephone he inexplicably keeps on the roof of his organ.
2:20 to 3:25: Historically, my feelings about Robert Plant are mixed. When I was a teenager, I thought he was awful; when I was in college, I decided he was a genius; when I was 25, I interviewed Steve Albini, and he insisted that Plant was the worst rock vocalist of all-time (then again, Albini had just finished work on Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and would later produce the second Page and Plant record two years after saying this, so maybe I was just confused because it was the 1990s and everyone in the music industry always said the opposite of what they actually meant). What’s so disarming about Plant’s singing is how openly he seems to dislike much of Led Zeppelin’s music (and once you become aware of this, it makes all his vocal performances seem better or worse than they truly are). When Zeppelin ultimately reunited, he refused to sing “Immigrant Song” because it was too metal. He wouldn’t sing “Achillie’s Last Stand,” either, and he was openly antagonistic over his obligation to perform “Stairway to Heaven.” Which is (of course) an understandable reaction, but also totally misses the point as to why reunion tours exist. “I wish we were remembered for ‘Kasmir’ more than ‘Stairway to Heaven,'” he once said. “There’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin.” And this (of course) is true — although the reason I used to think he was a genius was because he seemed to be the only guy who could make vocal hysterics seem nonhysterical. It’s almost like Plant hates the one defining thing he does better than anyone who’s ever lived.
3:26 to 3:29: Robert Plant’s likely response to my previous paragraph.
3:29 to 4:16: The concept of “vamping” is central to seventies arena rock, and Plant vamps the appropriate amount (i.e., less than Rod Stewart but more than Joey Ramone). What’s confusing, of course, is the degree to which vamping is natural; there are a handful of Jagger-esque, Liza-like rock moves that virtually all lead singers mime (and will mime forever), but no one knows why this behavior feels so universally innate. This is true across genres: Play “So What’cha Want” to any group of non-self-conscious Caucasian people, and they will all find themselves slouching their shoulders and intermittently throwing their hands forward with their palms turned inward. There was a time when this sort of thing was copied behavior, but now it’s more like ingrained behavior; I don’t think Plant’s histrionic movements are remotely conscious, but they also can’t be remotely organic. So what makes him move the way he moves? I’m sure he’d have some cryptic explanation,7 but this is something no one can truly explain. We always like to think about rock music as a socially liberating concept, but it’s just about impossible to have a free, public experience with popular sound. It homogenizes expression. Whenever I attend weddings, I’m always amazed by how identically all the guests dance to seemingly unfamiliar songs, regardless of where they’re from or who they are or how much they want to be there. The notion that dancing sets us free is a little like Richard Linklater’s argument against the uniqueness of fingerprints in Slacker: The differences are minor compared to the similarities.
4:17 to 4:51: If you’re the type of person who loiters around guitar stores,8 you might notice that Page is playing a 1964 Fender Stratocaster instead of his traditional Les Paul; his use of the whammy bar is why the end of the “In the Evening” riff always sounds like a falcon swooping down to catch a rabbit. He pulls off a pretty successful solo, which (I’m told) is not something that can always be said — certain critics/musicians/malcontents are wont to classify Page’s live playing at sloppy, inevitably mentioning a specific miscue he makes on the solo for “Rock And Roll” in the concert movie The Song Remains the Same. In fact, I once remember talking to a guy behind the counter of a Cleveland record store who told me I was ridiculous for wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, based on his argument that Page was “pretty embarrassing” as a live guitar player. I’m still waiting for Page to comment on this random bozo’s unfulfilled prowess as a retail employee. This was how people whined was before the Internet, I suppose.
4:52 to 5:24: brrrrrrringgggggg … brrrrrrrrrringggggggg
- “Hi. Is this John Paul Jones?”
- “Yes. Yes it is. Why are you calling me in the middle of this song?”
- “I just noticed you had a telephone on your keyboard, so I thought I’d give you a buzz. Why do you need a telephone on stage?”
- “No reason. Sometimes I like to phone Peter Grant and inquire about our tax status before playing ‘Trampled Under Foot.’ Who is calling me, incidentally?”
- “My name is Gibson. I’m 22 years old, and I live in Texas. Many years from now, you will produce a record by my band. We will get attention in magazines like Spin, although the story will makes a lot of abstract references to Bigfoot.”
- “I have no idea what some of those sentences mean. What will your musical group be called?”
- “Butthole Surfers.”
- “That’s awful.”
- “I know!”
- “What will you sing about?”
- “Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes perversion, sometimes the CIA. That’s not really the point. But Erik Estrada will be in our video. The guy from CHiPS?”
- “Is that the American motorbike show? I don’t watch the telly.”
- “Of course you don’t. I suppose you’re too busy making collect calls in the middle of rock concerts.”
- “Are you attempting to make sport of me?”
- “Not really. I don’t know. Maybe? Hey, do you ever feel underappreciated for doing all the heavy lifting on In Through the Out Door?”
- “Why would I feel like that?”
- “Because you did everything and nobody cares. Page was wrecked on heroin. Bonzo was a drunken lunatic, even more than usual. Plant was mourning the death of his child. You were the only responsible person in the band. You had to sit in the Swedish omni-darkness and sculpt a record that most of your fans don’t even listen to. Doesn’t that annoy you? Don’t you feel underappreciated?”
- “Not at all. The good thing about being in Led Zeppelin is that every single thing we’ve ever done has been written about 80,000 times by 13,000 people, so it’s impossible to be underappreciated. I guarantee you that more people will remember me as the uncredited producer of In Through the Out Door than for whatever futuristic album I end up officially producing for you.”
- “I disagree. We’ll get some run. That issue of Spin will have J. Mascis9 on the cover.”
- “OK, now I’m confused. Are you calling me from the present, or are you calling me from the future? That wasn’t clear at the beginning.”
- ” . “
- “I’m hanging up now. See you next Tuesday.”
- “Wait! Play ‘Carouselambra!’ You can totally abridge it!”
5:25 to 5:56: There’s no one (alive or dead) who can compete with John Bonham, particularly in terms of one’s ability to be very, very, very loud without being the least bit deafening (he’s always present, but never distracting). I don’t think I’ve ever met a drummer who didn’t love his work, which isn’t the case with any other high-reputation hard rock percussionist I can think of.10 Yet Bonham’s a troubling figure: Because he’s dead, everybody wants to remember him fondly, even though half the stories I’ve ever heard about the guy seem to focus on other people stopping Bonham from stomping a man to death or raping a stewardess at random. In Mick Wall’s book When Giants Walked the Earth, a French record executive recounts a story in which Bonham offered him cocaine, but — as a joke — actually gave him heroin. “He thought that was the funniest thing,” recalled the executive. “He would take a chance on killing you!”
5:56 to 6:34: It’s not clear what “In the Evening” is supposed to be about, and most people who like this song would tell that shouldn’t matter, anyway. But we do know this much: It takes place “in the evening,” it involves some chap unsuccessfully trying to have intercourse, and there appears to be some other fellow who reminds this character not to worry about it. The majority of Zeppelin lyrics are about sex or Vikings or staring at large metaphorical bodies of water when you’re high, so just about any nonspecific literary interpretation flirts with accuracy. I’ve always been a little shocked that the song “Sick Again” was about Lori Maddix,11 Page’s 14-year-old girlfriend; there’s a line in that song in which the protagonist expresses excitement over the fact that, “One day soon, you’re gonna reach 16.” It still seems insane that someone could erotically inspire a Led Zeppelin song before they were eligible for driver’s education. There will never be another decade like the 1970s: The only thing rock musicians weren’t allowed to do was swear on television or smuggle drugs into Japan.
6:35 to 6:42: “I prefer to eat liquid food, something like a banana daiquiri — sort of the thing they would give to invalids. I’m not into solid foods very much … I do have a blender, but nobody’s gotten it together yet. The blender thing is great. I mean, I’ll never turn down some alcohol, so a banana daiquiri with all the food protein is the answer to the problem. It got me through the last tour, having that every day and nothing else to eat.”12
6:42 to 6:46: Again with the telephone! What is it doing there? Is that how Commissioner Gordon contacted JPJ about The Riddler?13 The opening act for Zep’s second show at Knebworth was the New Barbarians, so perhaps the line went directly to Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Woods’ dressing room. There was more of a relationship between the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin than most people realize; according to that aforementioned Mick Wall book, Page “almost” joined the Stones three times: First when Brian Jones left in 1969, again when Mick Taylor left in 1974,14 and even as a temporary tour replacement when it looked like Richards might be sentenced to prison in Toronto. There’s a passing allusion to this in Richards’ autobiography, Life, when he describes the impossibility of his receiving a fair trial after a questionable car accident in 1976: “A jury of my peers would be Jimmy Page, a conglomeration of musicians, guys who have been on the road and know what’s what. My peers are not some lady doctor and a couple of plumbers.” Keep this in mind the next time you get called in for jury duty. “I can’t serve in this capacity,” you might argue. “The defendant might be Keith Richards, and I am not an Aleister Crowley-obsessed reprobate. I’m not qualified.”
6:46 to 8:14: I have a couple of friends who once mentioned how there are now full-fledged cinematic subgenres entirely spawned by throwaway moments from the first two seasons of The Twilight Zone . For any piece of art, this is a compliment of the highest order — whenever something’s nonessential elements are still compelling enough to generate new meanings for swathes of creative people who have yet to be born, you’re totally riding the dog. Details that have been lost to social memory can still thrive within the context of modern products, even if no one recalls who made them up or what deserves the credit; while we’re always predisposed to credit the progenitors of certain ideas, it’s those who normalize the concepts that define what our social experience is. I think of that when I watch this footage of “In the Evening.” This is, I suppose, a monolith on the cusp of hemorrhage: Nothing in the clip is classic, the band is on its last legs, and no part of the performance would be included among the 500 greatest moments in Zeppelin’s history. But watch it again. Watch it 10 times. When is the last time you went to a concert and something like this actually happened, despite the groups overt efforts to make it so? When is the last time you watched a band play this well, for this long, without even trying? How often are you able to see the very premise of rock music, produced on the largest possible scale, as an act of utter normalcy? How many bands aspire to this alleged mediocrity and totally fail?
This is Led Zeppelin when they sucked. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if all things were this bad?
Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.