My generation is arguably the luckiest of them all in musical terms as we were around in the 60's and 70's, the most productive period that rock music ever saw. There were literally so many good bands you had a hard time deciding who to go and see in concert in any one week because tours were going on all the time to promote an endless flow of brilliant albums.
Of all the many bands I saw though, Led Zeppelin has to be the best of all, just topping the wonderful Queen and Frank Zappa, and I saw them three times in what were some very rock and roll circumstances. Remembering those days is always a pleasure so I thought I'd tell you about them. All dates are from Wikipedia (thank god for Wikipedia, what would we do without it.) Oh, and before we go any further, the above video is brilliant, it captures their live act well, and I highly recommend it.
The first time I saw them was on March 29th 1969 at Bromley Tech College in South London during their UK/Scandinavia tour. I was 15 at the time and had already seen quite a few rock concerts, but this one was special as I'd just bought their debut album as an import from the USA. It cost a fortune for a kid like me but I was too impatient to have it and couldn't wait for it's UK release a while later.
Poster from Led Zeppelin's 1969 UK/Scandinavia tour
Three of us went down to London by train and drank a couple of bottles of cider. London was full of hippies it seemed to us, and the Tech's concert hall was so thick with the smell of patchouli and joints that it seemed you didn't even need to smoke to get high.
The gig was, of course, magic and they played 7 or 8 numbers off the album. Everybody in the crowd was stunned as it was the first time many of them had seen not only Zeppelin but any rock concert of anything like that intensity. You have to remember that they were the first really out-and-out rock band. I remember that they dressed pretty much like we did. Plant wore red trousers with white (yellow?) stripes on and Page played a psychedelically-painted guitar, a Telecaster. It was only a small venue so we were real close up and could hear the drums' natural sound. Bonham was outrageously hard-hitting. That was probably the last tour where anyone but the band heard the real drum sound.
We had to wait all night long at Kings Cross for a train home but we didn't care. We just sat or lay around in an otherwise empty waiting room, and although I don't remember the conversation, it was surely about three things; The concert, the concert and the concert. It was bloody cold though, I do remember that. Freezing in fact.
The next time I saw them was during the Autumn 1969 European Tour, on October 12th. This gig was at London's plush and classy West End theatre The Lyceum. It had sumptuous red-upholstered seating and ornate gold walls and god knows what else. It had seen the world's best opera over hundreds of years. That night though it was incongruously full of Zeppelin fans and it was utter carnage. Drunk and stoned people all over the place, lying in the aisles and feet up on the seats. Debauchery is the word that comes to mind. This concert was excellent in terms of sound of course, given the venue, and I seem to remember that they did a lot of encores. The light show was impressive too in that setting. If the ghosts of opera singers were present they must have been horrified.
Poster from Led Zeppelin's 1969 European tour
We had gone by car this time, and when we got back to where we'd parked the car had been blocked in by others at either end, so we had to smash a side window of one of them to take off the handbrake and push it back. I remember it was raining and the rain was entering the car through the smashed window but oh well, we were young and didn't care and he should have been more careful. We drove back up North during the night although truth be told we were all way over the limit. We weren't stopped by police though, but I'm pretty sure that we would have been if that concert had been today, due to the many radars and cameras etc.
The last time I saw Zeppelin was the best. In fact this concert is generally held to be the best that Led Zeppelin ever did, both by critics and the band themselves. It was filmed but the results have never been released because of persistent disagreements over copyright. This was at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in Shepton Mallet, Somerset on the weekend of June 27-28 1970. There were about 150,000 people there and it rained most of the time. Of course.
The line-up is enough to make anyone go green with envy. Santana, The Flock, Led Zeppelin, Hot Tuna, Country Joe McDonald, Colosseum, Jefferson Airplane (set aborted), The Byrds (acoustic set), Moody Blues (unable to play), Dr. John (acoustic set), Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Canned Heat, It's a Beautiful Day, Steppenwolf, Johnny Winter, John Mayall, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and Keef Hartley. Not bad huh?
There were buses to the site from Shepton Mallet and we saw one with a crowd of Hells Angels on it, with quite a few of them being American. They had left their bikes in the town for security reasons. We asked for permission to board, the driver said he was full, and then what seemed to be the biggest guy I ever saw in my life (I was just a kid, remember) thrust his bearded face in front of the driver's and said, in a calm but menacing voice, "either these kids get on the bus, or we trash the bus." We got on. And when we got off it we were totally stoned. Thanks guys and Hell's Angels, I love you!
We spent the first night - Friday - wandering round the site and were lucky enough to find who I seem to remember were John McLaughlin and Ravi Shankir (no, really) doing an impromptu concert in a clearing in a lightly wooded area. Campfires were everywhere and the rest of the world no longer existed.
The Wiki page on that festival - link above - has a picture at the top. Here it is. And why is it here? Because, you see the kid towards the left in a black pullover with colored patterns at the top? That's me. Or at least I'm 99% sure that's me. When I saw that pic for the first time that pullover jumped into my eyes and I distinctly remembered having that pullover at that time. It could have been someone else, but that looks like my hair too, and that is certainly just about where I was sat when Donovan played his impromptu set on Sunday morning, which is when the pic was taken.
Bath Festival of Blues & Progressive Music at Shepton Mallet, Bath. 27th & 28th June 1970, headlined by Led Zeppelin. On stage here is Donovan
And on Sunday night Led Zeppelin walked onto that stage and set the whole place ablaze in what was one of the two best rock concerts I have ever seen in my life (the other one was Queen, in 1987.) It was out of this world. The sun was going down, this is who everyone had come to see, and they were irresistible. That concert had everything. Incredible energy, even for them, almost faultless performances (their concerts could be more or less technically well-played depending) a super sound (which in those days, with the more primitive big PA systems they had, meant you could actually hear everything) at screamingly high volume levels. They were everywhere at once, Plant's voice just seemed to soar to the heavens and the band was this almost frighteningly intense onslaught of killer riffs and steamroller arrangements. No quarter was given and we didn't ask for it either. We were all on our feet from the start, it just got better and better, and by the time it finished the sun had long gone down and it was like being in a kind of crazy Dantesque world of swirling sound, lights, screams, dancing dervishes and out-of-their-minds with joy people. Here's a photo of them during that concert.
There was an amusing end to that story. The festival ended up behind schedule because of the rain and that meant we didn't get home until Tuesday evening. That had unexpected ramifications. All three of us who went to the festival had told our respective parents that we were at each others' houses for the weekend (the other two would not have been allowed to go by their parents) but when we didn't get home when we said we would the parents phoned each other and discovered that we were nowhere. When we finally got home they didn't say anything and I and the others went to bed after making up some excuses about homework (or something).
Also, we had missed two days at college as well as exams and we were all surprised when our parents insisted they take us to college the next morning. We knew something was wrong, we could almost smell it, but what? When we got to college we were taken to the headmaster's office and it was there that they told us we'd been found out. Oh shit, were we in trouble. Big, BIG trouble. I don't remember the exact punishment (in them days parents actually had the right to punish their kids) but it was something like two weeks interdiction to be outside after 5pm and a further month of interdiction to see each other outside of school (although we managed to get around it from time to time.)
But, what the hell, it was well worth it. That concert, and the others before it, were a unique part of the history of rock music. I was there, I lived it, and I'll never forget it. Those were great times for rock music. Unfortunately some people never made it to middle-age because of the drugs and alcohol and the crazy times (many more were to come, I was only 16 at Shepton Mallet) but I would do it all again, and then some.....