24.10.14

ROCK MOVIES - Why You Don't Get The Music


I read in today’s Guardian a review of Jimi: All Is By My Side, a biopic of Jimi Hendrix set in sixties London that features André Benjamin, the rapper better known by his stage name André 3000, in the title role. It’s a sympathetic review and I’ll get around to seeing this before long (and review it here) but what saddened me was to read that no Hendrix music appears on the soundtrack, the producers having evidently failed to get clearance from the Hendrix estate. Sad but not surprising. I long ago realised that one of the reasons why so many rock biopics fail in this department is because the music can be cleared only if those who hold the copyrights are granted some form of editorial control over the film and, in most cases, if the film doesn’t promote a relentlessly positive image of the artist they aren’t interested.
         Many years ago on a flight to the US I found myself with little choice but to watch a 2005 film called Stoned, about the life of Brian Jones’ with emphasis on his departure from The Rolling Stones and subsequent death. It was a piss poor film actually but what made it even worse was the music, which was either lame versions of songs by others that the Stones covered on their early albums, that is a studio band trying to sound like the Stones playing songs like ‘Route 66’, ‘Carol’ and Walkin’ The Dog’, or inappropriate sixties music, including – if I remember rightly – ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane and a few Small Faces songs. The inference is that this music was easy to clear (The Small Faces long ago lost the rights to their music which is now controlled by agents happy to make a buck regardless) while Rolling Stones music from the Sixties, then controlled by Allen Klein, was not.
         Here at Omnibus Press we are often approached by film makers seeking, for a price, to option a book, that is secure the exclusive film rights to the book for a period of time during which they will try to put together all the other elements necessary to make their film. If they fail to do so the option runs out and they’ve lost their money, which is invariably what happens. And the reason it happens is because they have been unable to secure the rights to the music, at least not on terms that are acceptable to them.
         Among the many titles where this has happened are our biographies of Syd Barrett, the founder of the Pink Floyd, and Peter Grant, the manager of Led Zeppelin. I was left to assume that in both cases the film makers were unable to agree terms with those who control the rights to the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s music, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to assume that this was because today’s Pink Floyd don’t want Syd’s acid casualty condition scrutinised in a high-profile movie, and neither do the former members of Led Zeppelin want their old manager’s strong-arm methods put under the spotlight long after he’s been laid to rest. Both groups are now pillars of the rock establishment so all that messy business from the past is best forgotten.
         But the main casualty of this phenomenon is Dear Boy, our much acclaimed best-selling biography of Keith Moon, by Tony Fletcher. At one time this was optioned by Tribeca, the film company headed by Robert DeNiro, but they were unable to secure The Who’s music because Pete Townshend had promised Roger Daltrey that if ever he was involved in a film about Keith Moon he would be given the rights to the group’s music. Roger, who unlike Pete was never a fan of Dear Boy, has hemmed and hawed about a Moon movie for years now but nothing has ever been put into production, so it’s a stalemate situation. 
         One film that did manage to secure the music rights was The Doors, the 1991 biopic of the LA band starring Val Kilmer in the role of Jim Morrison. Lisa and I went to see it at the Odeon on Kensington High Street not long after it was released. I wasn’t particularly impressed – thought it overcooked the rock clichés – but one thing I do remember is that to my astonishment many in the audience were smoking joints in the cinema. You wouldn’t get that today. 

23.10.14

KATE & PETER - 'Don't Give Up'

Last week the London Evening Standard announced the results of their list of 1,000 Most Influential Londoners as chosen by ‘a panel of editors, critics and journalists from the newspaper’, which more or less means that they could stick who they wanted on the list which in turn means they could choose those with whom they wished to curry favour.
         Remarkably, Kate Bush was at number 16, three places above Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Quite why the Standard’s panel decided that Bush has more influence in London than the city’s top cop is a matter of conjecture but it seems unlikely that London mayor Boris ‘Haystack’ Johnson will consult Kate ahead of Sir Bernard before deciding on which demonstration to debut his second-hand German water cannons.
         Also, Kate Bush wasn’t born in London (Bexleyheath was in Kent in 1958 when she was born, it didn’t become part of the GLC until 1965), hasn't lived in London for donkey's years and then only down in the south east suburbs, and I’d bet good money that the recent series of concerts at Hammersmith represents the longest time she has ever spent – or will ever spend – in what most folk regard as London.
         But right now Kate Bush can do no wrong. She can walk on water. Maybe the Standard thought that by including Kate at number 16 she would grant them an interview. Fat chance, methinks. Kate doesn’t do interviews but she does sing beautifully, and one of my favourite performances of hers is not from her own catalogue but the duet she did with Peter Gabriel on ‘Don’t Give Up’, from Gabriel’s So album from 1986. The album was recorded during the summer of the previous year at Gabriel’s home, Ashcombe House in Somerset, where he kept his own studio. It was, according to Gabriel biographer Daryl Easlea, partly inspired by the startlingly evocative Dorothea Lange pictures of poor Americans during the Great Depression, three of which hang along the upstairs corridor of our house.
         ‘Don’t Give Up’ is the focus of this extract from Daryl’s book Without Frontiers: The Life & Music of Peter Gabriel.

Written as a duet, Gabriel initially envisioned Dolly Parton, one of the greatest American bluegrass vocalists of her generation, to sing with him on ‘Don’t Give Up’ but that fell through. Instead he turned to his great friend, Kate Bush, who was then enjoying huge commercial success in the wake of her 1985 album, Hounds Of Love, to add the impassioned female vocal part. Bush’s album can be seen in some ways as a sister album of So. Both he and Bush had released difficult, complex albums in 1982 that had not chimed as resonantly with the public as earlier records had done. With Hounds Of Love, like So, Bush had kept all of her inherent strangeness, yet sweetened it with some of the most commercially accessible singles of her career. Like an actor playing a part, she delivered her lines with conviction and sincerity. Over the gentle swell of Richard Tee’s gospel influenced piano part, the song was a masterpiece of understatement that was in step with the straightened times lurking beneath the shiny veneer of the eighties.
‘Don’t Give Up’ is arguably Gabriel’s most powerful statement. By the mid-eighties, the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government was shredding society with its defiant selfishness, handing down edicts to an unemployment-ridden populace with a superior and self-satisfied approach. In response to the inner-city rioting that had bedeviled the country in 1981, Thatcher’s Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit infamously used an analogy about his father being out of work in the thirties, and instead of rioting, he got on his bike and looked for work. This became interpreted popularly as telling the unemployed to ‘get on their bike’ to get a job. The way that Gabriel picks up the tale of a dispirited man at the end of his tether looking for work touched a raw nerve with millions of listeners in the UK, and latterly, the world.
Channelling the emotion of his set-piece numbers such as ‘Wallflower’, he presents this simple, personal tale, which made a remarkable connection. Designed as a conversation between a man and a woman, it seeks to emphasise the power of a bond between a couple that can defeat all obstacles. With two attempts at her vocal, Bush added the requisite warmth and vulnerability to the song. It became, as Bush biographer Graeme Thomson notes, for many people in the US their “first point of reference” for her.
The song, with Gabriel’s despair in the verses and Bush’s words of hope in the chorus, has gone on to be arguably Gabriel’s most loved composition. Cover versions have been recorded by Bono and Alicia Keys, P!nk and John Legend, Willie Nelson and Sinead O’Connor and Maire Brennan and Michael McDonald. Pop sensation Lady Gaga covered it with Canadian rockers, Midway State so “that young people would hear and learn something about Kate Bush”.
Gabriel has stated that a well-known rock star and a comedian both said that the song had stopped them from committing suicide. “You don’t know how some of the songs are going to hit people... you realise that it’s like a tool box full of emotional tools when you put out music and you put some real feeling into it. I’m a bit more conscious of that... I thought of what I was trying to do.”
DJ and author Mark Radcliffe writes with genuine affection is his book Reelin’ In The Years when he says, “It is beautiful and not without hope. The song is a duet between the battered jobseeker and his loving, protective, faithful, embattled wife. In essence, as the title suggests, she says that things might look grim but whatever happens, they’ll be together.” 

22.10.14

ELVIS IN 1956 - RIP Alfred Wertheimer


Alfred Wertheimer, the American photographer who has died aged 84, had the foresight and chutzpah to attach himself to Elvis Presley for several days during the spring and summer of 1956, the year Elvis turned 21. The photographs he took have since become legendary, a remarkable visual record of a defining time for rock’n’roll’s most enduring figure.
         A freelance up for anything, Alfred first saw Elvis on stage on March 17 in New York, on Stage Show, a TV series hosted by the Dorsey Brothers. He’d been hired by RCA’s press department and when he sent a set of contact sheets and six enlargements to RCA’s publicist Ann Fulchino, she set up further photo sessions with Elvis and Alfred, both in New York at recording sessions and at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia. It was here, on June 30, that he snapped Elvis kissing a girl in the stairwell of the theatre, perhaps the best ‘fly-on-the-wall’ picture of Elvis ever taken. For the next few days Alfred accompanied Elvis everywhere, back to New York for recording sessions, on a 27-hour train ride to Memphis, and with his family in the city where he made his home.
        

Alfred’s pictures capture Elvis before he became a prisoner of his own celebrity. Soon his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, would put an end to all unmanaged reporting. Soon, the only pictures of Elvis anyone would ever see would be carefully vetted. Alfred was the last man to photograph the man behind the myth.
        

Many of Alfred’s pictures are well known and have become iconic images of The King, some less so, and all are collected in the book Elvis 1956 which Omnibus Press republished in 2013. We made this book available again not because it was especially commercial – the truth is Elvis books don’t seem to sell much anymore – but because it was simply the very best book of photographs of Elvis Presley there is, every one startling, every one evocative, every one going some way to explain why Elvis in 1956 really was an earthquake. Forget white jump suit Elvis, this is the real thing, the wild young kid who turned music and America upside down, changed the world really.


RIP Alfred, and thanks for being there with Elvis when it mattered. 

21.10.14

THE DALTON BROTHERS - U2 In Disguise

It was while I was editing the U2 Concert File that I discovered that back in 1987 the group played a prank on fans that I figure must be unique, appearing on stage in disguise among the support acts as another group altogether.


They tried it on first on November 1 at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. After The BoDeans the MC announced there was an extra band on the bill called The Dalton Brothers, and this was the cue for U2 to walk out on stage in wigs and dressed in cowboy gear. Adam wore a skirt and girly wig, and Bono’s wig was red. With all four Daltons wearing sunglasses and assuming Texan accents, hardly anyone recognized them. Bono introduced his fellow Dalton Brothers as ‘Luke, Duke and Betty Dalton’, and sang their country song ‘Lucille’ after which Edge (Luke) sang the Hank Williams song ‘Lost Highway’. During the song Bono talked about meeting the late country legend “a few years ago in Indianapolis” and, hilariously, recalled that Williams told him, “You can go far with Country & Western, not that rock’n’roll shit.”
         During their own set later that night U2 reprised ‘Lucille’, and only then did the vast majority of the audience realise that The Dalton Brothers were actually U2 in disguise.
         U2 repeated the stunt at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on November 17, with The Dalton Brothers again making an appearance between the two support acts. After a grand introduction they walked on stage and spoke to the audience in thick Texas accents. “Right, we play two kinds of music: country and western,” said the singer. “This is a little tune I wrote back down south, a tune I’ve labelled ‘Lucille’, hope ya like it.” By this time the U2 bush telegraph must have been crackling as about half the audience recognised U2 and laughed their heads off, but the other half was bewildered and looked on silently. During the song the singer announced, “I’d just like to introduce you – we got Luke Dalton on guitar. This is my sister Betty Dalton, behind me on the drums we got Duke Dalton. My name is Alton Dalton, don’t you forget it.” 
         During their set a reporter from a local newspaper asked a fan her opinion on the Daltons. “They’re OK but I wish they’d bring U2 on,” she said.
         The Dalton Brothers made one more appearance during the tour, at the Coliseum in Hampton on December 12, this time in the middle of U2’s set with four members of their crew dressing up as the band’s alter ego to surprise them. Bono managed to retain his composure to introduce and sing with them, remarking, “My, Betty, do you grow prettier every day!”

20.10.14

U2 – The Concert File & Other Matters

I only ever saw U2 once, at Wembley Arena around the time that Joshua Tree was released in the eighties, but I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for them mixed with occasional feelings of despair when they overplay their cards or when Bono puts on his ‘holier than thou’ hat. In 2008 all four were in the congregation a few pews in front of me for the funeral service at Golders Green of my old friend Rob Partridge, who became the PR at Island after working on Melody Maker, and who was responsible in no small way for U2 signing to the label amid fierce competition from elsewhere. Their attendance demonstrated the gratitude they still felt towards Rob for his guidance before they became a global phenomenon, and I was impressed that the band that was arguably the biggest in the world made the effort to attend. The Rolling Stones wouldn’t have turned out for a former publicist, that’s for sure.
        

I was reminded of this while watching U2 on the Graham Norton chat show last Friday night, and also that in 1994 I flew to Amsterdam to meet up with an über-U2 fan called Pimm Jal de la Parra who wanted to compile a book called the U2 Concert File. It was much more than a listing of every concert the group had ever performed as Pimm had contacted U2 fans throughout the world and asked them to send reports and tapes of all the shows they’d seen. On the walls of his apartment were shelves full of cassettes from hundreds of U2 shows, and every listing in the book would contain details not just of what songs were played but of what exactly happened at every show, all the quirks and spontaneous incidents, this being a time when U2 liked to interact with their fans during a show, meaning anything could happen and often did.
         I subsequently learned that U2 loved the book and took copies of it everywhere they went on tour. It enabled them to refer back to previous shows in a particular city, thus creating the impression that U2, and Bono in particular, always remembered every gig they’d ever done everywhere in the world. One example of this was apologising for a particularly bad traffic snarl-up after a show which delayed fans’ departure the last time U2 played that city. “Real sorry for the traffic hold ups last time we were here,” Bono announced between numbers, having read about the problems in the U2 Concert File of course. “Hope it doesn’t happen again tonight,” he added to generous applause.
         So enthused were U2 by Pimm’s book that when next they were in Amsterdam they invited him to their hotel to meet him. He duly went along, shook their hands and left but not before U2 asked him to join them for dinner after that night’s show. “Sorry but I’m meeting some friends for a drink,” he replied to U2’s astonishment. Accustomed the great and the good of society bending low before them, U2 suddenly had to get their heads around the fact that a mere fan would prefer to meet his mates for a drink than have dinner with them at, presumably, a fancy restaurant. Humbled, their admiration for Pimm increased beyond measure.
         Pimm died in 2002 and was mourned not just by U2 fans the world over but by members of the U2 organisation. Here’s what their show designer Willie Williams wrote about Pimm on a U2 website. 


         Tomorrow I’ll post my favourite bit from Pimm’s book in which U2 became their own support act in disguise, and no one in the huge audience realized. 

19.10.14

ROBERT PLANT - Songs That Don't Remain The Same



I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have encountered the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin since I left Melody Maker in 1977. I spoke to Jimmy at John Entwistle’s memorial service and at the opening of Jim Marshall’s photo exhibition a few years ago, and had a nice chat with John Paul at a party that followed the unveiling of Jimi Hendrix’s Blue Plaque in Brook Street in 1997. I saw all three at a meeting in a London Hotel I attended concerning Music Sales’ acquiring the rights to their sheet music in 2008, and this was the only time I was reacquainted with Robert, who failed to recognise me. He began a conversation about Derby County FC and I had to point out that I wasn’t Roy Hollingworth – a big Derby fan – but Chris Charlesworth who once followed Leeds United. He apologised for getting us mixed up and was on his way and I haven’t seen him since, though I did attend a concert of his at the Kentish Town Country Club back in the nineties.
         Like most music journalists I found Robert to be the most congenial member of Led Zeppelin during their pomp. He was happy to be interviewed at any time and always spoke well, and unlike the others never seemed to look on the press as potential adversaries. There was none of the distrust that I detected from Jimmy and John Bonham (and Peter Grant), or the indifference I felt from John Paul, who was never unfriendly but simply didn’t seem interested. No, Robert was the acceptable face of Led Zeppelin and I came to like him a lot.
         I still do. His most recent album Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, released in September, is a joy, another step of his long exploratory journey as his own man, and a glance at the instrumental credits assures us that the journey is continuing apace: bendirs, djembe, tehardant, tabal, kologo, ritti and Fulani vocals are among them. I haven’t a clue what any of these instruments are, but I do know that they make a beautiful noise.
         These days Robert resembles a shaggy old lion, and he seems almost embarrassed by the image he presented in the seventies, the lecherous rock god with a suspiciously large bulge in his jeans who promised to bestow us with every inch of his love. Long believed to be the stumbling block as regards a Led Zeppelin reunion of any permanence, he hasn’t quite put his past behind him but it’s far from his prime concern, as it is for Page. The music on Lullaby… contains only the tiniest trace of Led Zeppelin – a snatch of lyric here, a rousing electric guitar there – which I think he does as a bit of a tease. For the most part, though, it’s an adventurous and unpredictable mix of folk rock, mostly self-penned and mostly easy on the ear yet never bland.
         Folk rock is perhaps too loose a term. Robert has long been a supporter of, and collaborator with, the Afro Celt Sound System and, like Peter Gabriel whose Box Studio near Bath was where this album was recorded, is clearly drawn to music of the Third World. The unusual instrumentation gives many of the songs an African feel, and Robert's voice has a breathy, tranquil quality that flips between soothing and haunting. Two songs have a confessional feel: in ‘A Stolen Kiss’, a deep and stately piano ballad, and ‘House Of Love’, a lovely rolling pop song with prominent bass, we are given to assume that he is writing about the break up of his relationship with the country singer Patti Austin with whom he made a home in Texas for a while before returning to the UK sadder but wiser. The most impressive piece is ‘Embrace Another Fall’ with an ominous texture and rhythmic African drums controlling the tempo until the song breaks out with arena-style rock guitar before closing with a verse from an old Welsh folk song, ‘Marwnad yr Ehedydd’, sung by guest vocalist Julie Murphy in the language of the land of our fathers. It’s very impressive.
         Elsewhere Robert continues the Led Zeppelin tradition of unearthing old blues by rearranging Leadbelly’s ‘Poor Howard’ as a bluegrass romp with pizzicato banjo that brings to mind a square-dance in the saloon of a 19th century mid-western town, and while opener ‘Little Maggie’ has echoes of the same, there’s something far more portentous in its electronic backdrop, a touch of Kraftwerk I thought, and mournful violin.
         It would be remiss of me not to mention that, by and large, the textures of Lullaby… are not dissimilar to Raising Sand, the superb Grammy Award winning record that Robert made with Alison Krauss in 2007. It’s more adventurous, for sure, but if you liked that and want to accompany the golden voiced Plant on his restless quest to bury the past, you’ll like this, probably all the more so. 




18.10.14

LED ZEPPELIN - A Couple Of Show Reports

I saw Led Zeppelin 11 times during my stint on Melody Maker, the first time at the Bath Festival in 1970 and the final time at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1977. I’ve written about the two shows in Montreux and their 1975 US tour elsewhere on Just Backdated but here’s reports of two UK shows I attended, the text taken from Dave Lewis’ Led Zeppelin Concert File which I commissioned and edited. Both contain extracts from my MM reviews. 
         I remember both shows quite well. The Marquee was a complete scrum, and seeing Led Zeppelin, by ’71 one of the biggest bands in the world, on such a small stage was quite surreal. In the cold light of day I didn’t think it was such a good idea and said so in my report. The December ’72 show at Alley Pally was the first and only time I saw a show there, and again there were issues that I commented on. That one was just before Christmas and I seem to remember driving up to Yorkshire the next morning to spend a few days with my dad, and writing my review on my portable Olivetti while up there.

TUESDAY MARCH 23, 1971
LONDON, ENGLAND
MARQUEE CLUB
Set included: Immigrant Song/Heartbreaker/Black Dog/Dazed And Confused/Stairway To Heaven/Going To California/Whole Lotta Love/Communication Breakdown.
         A nostalgic return to the Marquee Club. Demand for this date was predictably high. Tickets went on sale on March 1 with the box office set to open at 10 o’clock. Due to the extraordinary length of the queue, the box office was forced to open at 3.30 in the morning. The tickets were sold mainly to Marquee Club members on a strict one ticket per membership card holder system. Club manager Jack Barrie commented on the demand: “We asked the group if they could do two shows on the night or perhaps two or three other nights. But Zeppelin play a set of over two hours and can’t do more in one evening and they have already other dates booked.”
         Chris Charlesworth, in his Melody Maker review, questioned the wisdom of their move back to the clubs: “It was all very nostalgic for Led Zeppelin to play London’s Marquee club, but was it such a good idea really? Naturally the place was packed to overflowing. Naturally the group was pretty good, though the sound suffered from the small surroundings. But how much better it might have been if Zep had chosen the Lyceum or the Roundhouse for the only London venue on the current tour.
         “As it was, hundreds instead of thousands were able to see the group who a little over two years ago played here as the ‘Former Yardbirds’ and attracted little interest.
         “Zeppelin are a group to be looked up to on a pinnacle for all to see. A group that can pack New York’s Madison Square Garden just isn’t right in the intimate atmosphere of the Marquee. The Marquee in all its long history has probably never seen a night like it, but I still doubt the wisdom of choosing the club in favour of a larger venue.”

FRIDAY DECEMBER 22, 1972
LONDON, ENGLAND
ALEXANDRA PALACE
Set: Rock And Roll/Over The Hills And Far Away/Black Dog/Misty Mountain Hop/Since I’ve Been Loving You/Dancing Days/Bron Yr Aur Stomp/The Song Remains The Same/The Rain Song/Dazed And Confused (inc. San Francisco)/Stairway To Heaven/Whole Lotta Love (inc. Everybody Needs Somebody - Boogie Chillun’ - Let’s Have A Party - Heartbreak Hotel - I Can’t Quit You - The Shape I’m In)/Immigrant Song/Heartbreaker/Organ Solo - Thank You.
         A moderately successful return to London - hindered by the poor acoustics of the venue.
         Plant: “It’s a bit warmer than the last gig we managed to pull off - that was at that notorious Wembley place. Well, I think we must install the warmth of our bodies into this place very quickly, before we all freeze! It’s always the same - freezing!”
         Robert explained that they’ve had a bit of trouble on this tour, and dedicated ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ to “Manchester CID, and may they have a very merry Christmas!” ‘Dancing Days’ was described as “a song about summer, inebriation and good times” and Plant repeatedly ad-libbed the line “Let’s go back to high school!”
         ‘Bron Yr Aur Stomp’ again included backing vocals from John Bonham. Plant explained: “He’s now turned into a vocalist. He first started off with an old Conway Twitty number, ‘It’s Only Make Believe’, which was accidentally missed off the last album.”
         Plant was full of Christmas spirit. “You lucky people. It’s getting very close to Christmas and if we were all as straight as we used to be, we should be at the office party now. Nevertheless, this is something that takes us nearly as far back as that.” An excellent version of ‘Dazed And Confused’ featured some outstanding call and response duels between Page and Plant. The ‘San Francisco’ section now also included lyrics.
          ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was very loose, and during ‘Boogie Chillun’’, Plant ad-libbed: “I was brought up on strong religion, and all I did was keep on givin’… Our little boy’s come to the age of 24 years, and he’s learnt to sing in American... a hard language to learn to sing after a war.”
         Zeppelin’s decision to perform at Alexandra Palace was an attempt to open up a new London venue, as they had with the Empire Pool. However, problems with the sound and the cold atmosphere hampered the success of the event. “It sounded great on stage,” said Plant afterwards, “but beyond the first ten rows the sound was atrocious.”
         Chris Charlesworth reviewed the London return for Melody Maker: “Alexandra Palace was never built to rock. The atmosphere inside this giant hall seemed cold and forbidding. It would have been possible to fit twice as many fans inside but fire regulations don’t permit that so there was an abundance of space around the throng who crowded to the front and into the centre.
         “And for those who didn’t get to the front or centre, seeing and hearing Zep was a chancy business. If you were tall you could probably see over a sea of heads, but even then there was a diminishing sound that flew up into the rafters and returned as a disjointed series of echoes. My guess is that only about a half of the fans heard the music as it should have been heard.”

Tomorrow I'll turn my attention to Robert Plant. 

17.10.14

LED ZEPPELIN - The Song Remains The Same



Following my report of Jimmy Page’s Q&A session I thought I’d maintain the Led Zeppelin theme for a day or two, beginning with my report on the New York premiere of their film The Song Remains The Same in October, 1976.
         I remember this occasion well. The previous night I’d been having dinner with a girlfriend in Ashley’s, the NY rock biz bar and restaurant on 5th Avenue at 13th Street when who should arrived but Robert Plant, accompanied by an entourage that included their high-spirited tour manager Richard Cole who appeared, as the Irish say, to have had ‘drink taken’. Clocking me at my table, Richard decided the girl I was with would be better off in his arms than mine and approached us to voice this opinion. We disagreed and in the altercation that followed Richard was removed from the premises by the doorman, Robert witnessing the fracas and coming over to me to apologise profusely when things had quietened down.
         I therefore approached the premiere the following night in some trepidation, anxious to avoid a further exchange with Richard at either the cinema or the party in the swish Pierre Hotel that followed. In the event all was calm and the following week, after my fairly positive report had appeared, Robert phoned me at my flat to again apologise and thank me for not allowing the incident to colour my attitude towards the film or Led Zeppelin as a whole.
         Here's what I wrote for the following week’s MM, with no reference whatsoever for the confrontation.

The four members of Led Zeppelin received standing ovations at the premiere in New York last week of their film The Song Remains The Same. The ovations continued throughout the film, and each time a member of the group attempted to leave his seat he was followed by a small army of fans. There were traffic hold-ups outside the cinema on Third Avenue before and after the showing.
         Mick Jagger, Simon Kirke of Bad Company, Carly Simon (currently pregnant), Rick Derringer, Mick Ronson and Roberta Flack were among the guests at a party held later in the Pierre Hotel Cafe for the band, who last weekend went on to make their first ever US TV appearance as a performing band when a segment of the film was shown on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert Show. They were seen playing ‘Black Dog’ and a portion of ‘Dazed And Confused’.
         The Song Remains The Same is premiered in London on Thursday, November 4, at the Warner West End Two and ABC Shaftesbury Avenue, and will be on general release before the end of the year. It is only being screened, however, in cinemas with four-track, stereo. The soundtrack album was released on October 18.
         The bulk of the film is taken from a Zeppelin concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden three years ago, and utilises split-camera photography and colour phasing. It’s intended as an honest statement from Zeppelin about themselves, and one sequence in particular says more about the rock business in five minutes than anything previously reproduced in film or book over the past 20 years. It features Peter Grant, the group’s manager, in a heated exchange with the man responsible for concession stands at Madison Square Garden. Grant, a massive, daunting figure, has apparently discovered a man selling “pirate” Led Zeppelin photographs within the Garden itself. He is very, very angry.
         The verbal battle that ensues offers a unique glimpse into the heart of the rock industry. All smiles on the outside it may be, but underneath the veneer lies big money, and Peter Grant’s responsibility as manager of Led Zeppelin is to make sure that as much of that money as possible heads in his and his band’s direction.
         As Grant’s fury explodes, those witnessing the scene maintain an embarrassed silence. It’s as if it shouldn’t be happening and, if it has to happen, it should happen in a private room rather than in front of numerous backstage personnel.
         It’s definitely something the fans shouldn’t see, yet here it is on film to be viewed by thousands of Led Zeppelin fans all over the world in the coming months. The harsh realities of the rock world have never before been revealed quite so blatantly.
         But the point of the sequence was to reinforce the general theme of the movie, and that is to show exactly what makes up the phenomenon of Led Zeppelin.
         About two thirds of the film is taken up with live footage, but this is interspersed with “fantasy” sequences designed to reveal more about the characters of the four musicians and Grant himself. The soundtrack is extraordinarily loud and, when the audience responds by cheering, the impression is of actually being inside a giant arena instead of a relatively small cinema.
         The film opens with Grant’s own fantasy sequence, a particularly violent ten minutes in which the formidable manager is cast as a Mafia-type godfather on his way to wipe out a rival gang. Dressed to the nines in a gaudy pinstripe suit and white fedora hat, Grant and his assistant, Richard Cole (another man noted for his occasionally boisterous behaviour), carry out their multiple assassinations with ruthless efficiency. So extreme is the ensuing bloodbath that I’m surprised the film didn’t earn an “X” certificate on the strength of this portion alone.
         Following the credits we see Grant on the telephone, presumably arranging details for an upcoming tour, and the four members of the band in their home environment. Plant and his wife Maureen are playing with their naked children by the side of a stream in some rural paradise, John Paul Jones is reading a bedtime story to his two children, John Bonham is driving a tractor on his farm, and Jimmy Page is fishing beside a stream in what one presumes is his Scottish home.
         Each of the four is informed by telegram of the upcoming tour and off they go to America, dashing from their plane into waiting limousines and finally appearing on stage in front of a packed, yelling Garden audience. The pace of the film accelerates as they reach the venue, and the tension is finally unleashed as the band kick into ‘Rock And Roll’ with manic energy. There follows a complete Led Zeppelin performance of material up to, and including, their Houses Of The Holy album.
         Naturally, the fantasy sequences occur during each particular member’s onstage spotlight: Jones’ during ‘No Quarter’, Plants during ‘The Song Remains The Same’ and ‘Rain Song’, Page’s during ‘Dazed And Confused’, and Bonham’s during ‘Moby Dick’.
         Somewhat predictably, Plant is shown as some kind of Viking warrior arriving on a beach at night, accepting a massive sword from a lady on a horse in a lake, and making his way towards a castle where he rescues an exceptionally fair maiden in distress. He suits the part of a Nordic warrior pretty well, although the whole sequence runs a considerable risk of becoming a gigantic ego trip. The impressive photography saves it.
         John Paul Jones is depicted as a night-rider on a horse, wearing a grotesque mask and scaring the living daylights out of his neighbourhood’s more peaceful residents. He’s also shown playing a giant church organ, dressed in 18th Century garn like Beethoven or Bach.
         Page’s sequence, the most bizarre of them all, shows the guitarist climbing through a wood and up a steep hill where an old hermit awaits. The hermit turns out to be an elderly Page with wizened features who brandishes a number of multi-coloured swords in spectacular fashion.
         Bonham, obviously the most down-to-earth member of the band, is shown displaying a prize cow on his home farm, and also at the wheel of a drag-racing car. As his drum solo thunders on in the background, the stocky Bonham accelerates the racer, which has a camera attached to its rear. The clever photography depicts the car reaching a terrifying speed in time to the climax of the drum solo. It is the most effective of all the fantasy sequences.
         Also given prominence in the movie is the theft of $203,000 from the band’s hotel, which occurred the same week that they were playing these concerts. Peter Grant is shown at a news conference, though the whole segment appears to be a clip from a TV newscast on the incident. The point is made that this was the largest-ever robbery of cash from a New York hotel.
         It has been three years in the making, but The Song Remains The Same is a classy and revealing film, slightly pretentious in parts but bound to be enormously successful.