Friday, June 19, 2009

No more TV

On this day in 1969, Led Zeppelin performed in front of a live studio audience in Paris in what turned out to be the new group's last scheduled TV appearance anywhere.

From the beginning, Led Zeppelin never felt there was much reason to rely on the TV format to promote its music. This is in part because Led Zeppelin wasn't going to release singles and therefore didn't feel the need to take the same approach singles-oriented groups would. But on those rare occasions that Led Zeppelin appeared, or tried to appear, on TV during its first year, the experiences left the group with nothing positive.

The explanation often given by manager Peter Grant as to why Led Zeppelin had stopped showing up on TV after 1969 hinged on the deficiencies of the medium at the time, an argument Jimmy Page still made in a promotional interview in 2003. Upon the release of the Led Zeppelin DVD that year, Page said the band did "not [want] to be seen to be heard through a two-inch speaker because you've got to remember the technology on TVs was pretty dire and grim and appalling in those days."

Page remembered Led Zeppelin's "Tous en Scene" guest spot as being the catalyst for the band's decision to avoid television from then on. He said, "There's this French show that we did ... You can see us playing in front of, like, a Salvation Army audience that is sitting there waiting to do their part. And I remember they had odd silly bits where there was a chap dressed up like a hall porter peeping through a peep hole, and there were things like a comedy bit. And then during the broadcast, even though we did the soundcheck of it, they're turning up the level of Robert Plant! And the band's going down, and all of this. ...

"Quite clearly," Page continued, "we couldn't be portrayed in this sort of way as a band that was doing these amazing live performances. And so, we took the decision not to do live material on television." In fact, Peter Grant had nearly disavowed TV appearances altogether three months earlier, after the BBC failed to appear at the Marquee Club in London to film a full Led Zeppelin concert there. The network stood them up without any explanation, leaving Grant and the band members extremely upset.

One song from the French TV appearance made it to Led Zeppelin DVD, and that's "Dazed and Confused." Scenes involving the hall porter, as Page mentioned, were replaced on the DVD with still images of the group presented as a slide show with the musical backing. The band's performance of "Communication Breakdown" from the same show was omitted from the official DVD but can be found on some bootlegs.

What is evident on the DVD is the strange crowd Page was referring to; the costumes on the audience members are almost as strange as their unmoving demeanor. Many look frozen to their seats, while a handful are somehow engaged in side conversation. It's a stark contrast to what's happening onstage: Plant and Page are belting out their aggression in harmonious cacophony, and John Paul Jones is bouncing around next to a flailing John Bonham.

"We decided to stand up and be counted purely by live albums and live appearances," Page said in 2003, long after Led Zeppelin accomplished what it set out to do.

Another one of the relics from just before this decision was recorded only a few days before the French TV show. Using the BBC's recording studio at Aeolian Hall in London on June 16, 1969, Led Zeppelin recorded some songs and an interview for BBC Radio One's Sunday morning radio show "Tasty Pop Sundae."

As for the music, the group was certainly inspired that day, unleashing an improvised blues-rock piece based on a riff similar to the one being tossed around at the time intended for the "Moby Dick" drum solo on Led Zeppelin II, inventively combining with the lyrics of a Sleepy John Estes number called "The Girl I Love." The band also churned out a clever rendition of the Eddie Cochran tune "Somethin' Else" that day, with Jones helping himself to a piano solo between verses. Both of these songs were released on the 2-CD set BBC Sessions in 1997.

But as for the interview with host Chris Grant, Jones started things off on a bad note, speaking just off microphone and insiting that he be labeled "a musical arranger as well as a bass guitarist" rather than "a musical arranger as well as a composer" or "a composer as well as a musical arranger." (In truth, he was all three things.) Throughout it all, Page strummed his guitar audibly in the background and Plant blew into a harmonica, while Bonham and Jones struggled to think of anything interesting to say. The two chattier members of the group, Page and Plant, didn't really have much chemistry with the host. Despite continuing with the full band's interview for six minutes, the show ultimately scrapped the entire conversation when the broadcast took place on June 22, 1969.

In that interview Plant said the band's second album was about "half finished." But even this subject didn't appeal to a mostly subdued Plant. When asked whether there would be a new direction, Plant wouldn't project; he merely stated, "We can't tell until it's finished when we can play the two side by side." Page did chime in, "There are a lot of new sounds on it that weren't on the old one."

Just about the only enthusiasm expressed by the band during this interview emerged when Plant said, "We're going back [to America] again in about a week's time, in about a fortnight." Judging from his apparent boredom, as well as the disappointment he experienced in France three days later, he probably couldn't wait.

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