Monday, November 20, 2006

Electric Magic 35th anniversary

On this day in 1971, Led Zeppelin was the headlining attraction playing alongside circus acts, among others, for the first of two six-hour spectacles dubbed Electric Magic.

The Nov. 20 and 21 shows incorporated the best acts in the realms of circus, vaudeville and rock music. Electric Magic was the first show of its kind with any live music groups. It featured three rock bands each night. Just preceding Led Zeppelin's sets was Stone the Crows, a group that shared Zep's manager, Peter Grant. Stone the Crows' singer was Maggie Bell, who again qualified as a footnote later in Led Zeppelin's history when she signed as a solo artist onto the Swan Song label.

On Nov. 21, taking the stage before Stone the Crows and Led Zeppelin, was a band called Home; that group's bassist, Cliff Williams, would join AC/DC six years later. On Nov. 20, the opening act was Bronco. Two members of that band, guitarist Kevyn Gammond and bassist John Pasternak, had been bandmates with Robert Plant and John Bonham in the Band of Joy. Another Bronco guitarist, Robbie Blunt, would play for Plant's solo outings between 1981 and 1985.

Aside from the musical acts, the Electric Magic shows feature an array of everything from trapeze artists to a pair of performing pigs. In the case of the Nov. 20 show, the pigs were non-performing; the swine refused to act on cue that night, and their trainer insisted in the British press that "they were good in rehearsal!" At least the press reported that the pigs were well dressed. During the changeover between Stone the Crows' set and Led Zeppelin's, oddball attractions were on tap, including trampoline experts and saucer jugglers.

Led Zeppelin's sets are said to have lasted more than two hours and 40 minutes each night. They performed songs both old and new. The band's untitled fourth album was fresh out on the streets, and half of that new material made the set list. In fact, all of that new material was pushed toward the beginning of the concert.

Opener "Immigrant Song" led directly into "Heartbreaker." The band paused for Plant to welcome the audience with a hearty "Good evening!" before launching into the new "Black Dog." The third album's "Since I've Been Loving You" made an appearance next, before two fourth-album cuts, "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven" -- yes, "Stairway" was only the sixth song in a show that would last so long!

Next up was another new song -- so new that the band hadn't yet recorded it! The Electric Magic audience on Nov. 20 was treated to the first-ever sneak preview performance of "Dancing Days." This early version lacked the instrumental bridge portion that appears between the last two verses on future versions, including the one Zeppelin eventually recorded and released a year and a half later on its followup LP, Houses of the Holy.

"Going to California" from the fourth album ushered in a three-song acoustic set also featuring "That's the Way" and "Tangerine." Next was the showstopping "Dazed and Confused," during which Page's violin bow solo included an altered portion of the Bouree lute suite by Johann Sebastien Bach, which he had also teased during his guitar solo in "Heartbreaker." "Dazed" lasted about 24 minutes and was followed by the refreshingly brief "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Celebration Day." A version of the drum solo "Moby Dick" that verged on 20 minutes in length was next, and a marathon medley of "Whole Lotta Love" and classic covers finished out Zeppelin's set on the first Electric Magic concert.

Originally, that date was the only Electric Magic show scheduled, but a high demand for tickets dictated otherwise. For a price of 75 pence apiece, tickets to the first show had gone onsale at Harlequin Records locations across England, at 11 a.m. on Nov. 5. The supply of 9,500 tickets was depleted within 54 minutes.

Ray Moss, manager of one Harlequin location, reported that lines of people were forming outside his shop the night before tickets were to go on sale. Moss said that the people in the lines were courteous. "Their behavior was quite incredible," he remarked. "Even those who could not get tickets behaved perfectly."

"We have never known such an amazing demand for tickets," said Buffalo Concert Presentations' Rikki Farr, "and that includes the Isle of Wight concerts." Farr was referring to the U.K. music festival held over three days in June 1970, featuring some of the top rock acts from all around the world -- but not Led Zeppelin.

Farr continued, "It is a sure sign of the huge following Zeppelin have in Britain. Because of this, we've decided to stage a second concert at Wembley." The statement quickly announced the date of the second night of Electric Magic; tickets were on sale Nov. 12.

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