Friday, September 7, 2007

The live legacy of Led Zeppelin began 39 years ago today

This edition of "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History," published Sept. 7, 2007, begins in an unorthodox manner, using the current events of the day to lead up to reporting the 39th anniversary of the first concert by the group that came to be known as Led Zeppelin.

There's been a lot of talk about Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones performing together in a couple of months to reunite Led Zeppelin for a single show in London. Whether this is something seriously being considered is anybody's guess, unless you happen to believe this week's revelation by New Musical Express that a fan who talked to Plant said it is almost a certainty.

Whether or not we are on the verge of what would be the three musicians' first performance since their 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we do honor a legacy of live concerts these men put on with their bandmate, John Bonham, supported by the guidance of their manager, Peter Grant.

That legacy of live concerts started 39 years ago today, September 7.

On this day in 1968, the newly formed band of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham gave its first live appearance ever -- in fact, two of them on the same day. These sets carved the foundation for the group we today revere as Led Zeppelin. A few of the same songs were in evidence during the band's initial days, although the sets actually had more in common with those of its natural predecessor, the Yardbirds.

Jimmy Page, the lone holdover from the Yardbirds' lineup that had played a show the previous April and in fact a Yardbirds member since 1966, was the only familiar face to the crowds of Danish teens attending both shows in their trusty gymnasium hangouts. Those Yardbirds' final concert was two months earlier, to the day, at a technical college in their home country of England. The core of that lineup – namely, singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty – had quit around Page, while Dreja was entering the photography world and was not included in the renewed lineup.

With Peter Grant, Page assembled a new lineup to fly the Yardbirds' flag, fulfilling existing commitments in Scandinavian countries. Hence, these first two gigs on the same day came about, both at school gymnasiums in Copenhagen, Denmark. The second one, called the Brondby Pop Club, had previously hosted a Yardbirds show on April 15, 1967.

The band provided subtle and delicate hints of some visual trademark characteristics that would soon brand them uniquely as Led Zeppelin, some of which are evidenced in black-and-white shots of the first performance taken by 16-year-old house photographer Jorgen Angel, who today sells those photos online. As we see in the shots, Jones joined Page in wearing some ruffled garb to show No. 1. Plant's extremely agitated facial expressions went with the music as he shook about. Bonham, actually much more svelte in physique at age 20 than he would appear in his latter days, pounded on the skins with wreckless abandon so he was drenched in sweat. Page pulled out a famous stage trick of his involving a violin bow across the fretted strings of his boldly colored Fender 1958 Telecaster.

An unrehearsed band, this new Yardbirds lineup had only a few jam sessions over the course of four weeks under its collective belt. Those of us who were not there to witness the first Led Zeppelin shows have some ways to estimate what it would have sounded like. Understandably, since the band was booked as a supporting act, their live sets, at 40 minutes each, were curt compared to the two- and three-hour spectacles they would soon be divulging as a famous headlining act. The photographer, Jorgen Angel, has detailed some of his personal memories for the Led Zeppelin fanzine Kashmir, and the transcript of that interview is reproduced online. In addition, a few Danish newspaper articles covering the event have preserved other aspects for all time, providing the only firsthand written accounts of the shows at the time.

Any fans expecting quirky frontman Keith Relf on vocals and harmonica with the Yardbirds were surprised to see a different singer -- one who danced funny and portrayed faces of anguish and torture. So unfamiliar to the locals was this extroverted singer that even a newspaper reporter mistakenly called him "Robert Planto" in a review of the second show that printed four days later in Denmark's Glostrup Handelsblat. According to a popular translation, the reviewer complained that this singer was unnecessarily opting "to twist his body like he's having a ruptured appendix."

While little is documented about what songs were played that day, the band is thought to have opened with "Train Kept A-Rollin'," and also played "I Can't Quit You Baby," "Dazed and Confused," "You Shook Me" and a blues song known in its original lyric as "How Many More Years." Since the review of the second show proclaims that Bonham's drum solo ought to have gone on forever, it indicates the band probably tackled a number called "Pat's Delight" that can be heard in the earliest known recordings of Led Zeppelin's live repertoire.

Two of those songs, "Train Kept A-Rollin'" and "Dazed and Confused," were holdovers from the previous Yardbirds incarnation. Most of the numbers made it onto the group's first album, recorded the following month. "Dazed and Confused" became a Led Zeppelin concert spectacle halfway into the 1970s. The sight of Page wielding a violin bow would become a lasting image after the song was performed in front of cameras in New York City in 1973.

Versions played there of that song would be permanently preserved and revered when included in a feature film hitting theaters late in 1976. It's a film that also captured concert gems such as "Since I've Been Loving You," "The Song Remains the Same" and "Stairway to Heaven." It's a film that is still fervently watched in 2007 and will be granted a proper re-release this Nov. 20 (Nov. 19 in the United Kingdom) on DVD and Blu-Ray formats in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and with a surplus of bonus features. It's a film whose soundtrack will also be expanded for the first time to include a full Led Zeppelin performance.

So today as we wonder whether Page and Jones, currently in their 60s, will team up with Plant, 59, for a concert in two months' time, let us not forget the legacy that they and Bonham, all guided by Grant, left us all those years ago.

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