Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sonic wave

On this day in 1977, Jimmy Page accomplished something onstage during his guitar solo at the L.A. Forum that impressed him enough to revisit that performance two years later. When preparing for the Knebworth concerts in 1979, Page used a soundboard recording of three distinct parts of his solo from that night, totaling 12 minutes and 18 seconds in all, to dub a cassette tape for a laser technician, complementing a handwritten set of instructions about how to follow along.

It's the L.A. forum concert bearing today's date in 1977 that became known among bootleg collectors as the "For Badgeholders Only" show, and the one that would see Keith Moon at the microphone and Robert Plant at the drums. But today, my focus is on Page's guitar solo only and what it had to do with fine tuning the same presentation during the 1979 Knebworth concerts.

In Los Angeles, Page began his guitar solo with a demonstration of the harmonizer effect. Over the course of this 1977 North American tour, he would often take this time to venture into "The Star-Spangled Banner," "God Save the Queen" or even "Dixie," or sometimes a combination of the above; however, none of these was in his plans on June 23. Little over a minute into this segment, he used his whammy bar to lower the pitch drastically, several octaves at a time, and then switch back and forth. This segment of the solo he labeled "Harmoniser" on a sticker affixed to the cassette tape he made two years later.

The next sound heard is that of Page's theremin. It is the musical instrument he used in the middle section of the "Whole Lotta Love" studio recording. It had become a favorite instrument of his onstage as well. During this particular performance, Page used the theremin to create many blaring siren-like wails for just under three whole minutes. This portion of his solo coincides with Page's writing on the second sticker on the tape, which reads, "Sonic Wave."

While echoes of the theremin were still resonating, Page returned to his guitar to use a muting effect. Whatever notes he played were quickly triggered on and off. And then, out came the violin bow, giving rise to the third sticker on that cassette tape, which reads, "Bow." Now, he was wringing out the same familiar series of notes and chords he had been invoking onstage for years during "Dazed and Confused." And while Led Zeppelin was no longer playing that song live this year, it should have been fresh in the minds of any concert goers who had viewed "The Song Remains the Same" in a movie theater over the past eight months. During all of this, a rotating laser pyramid would encircle Page.

In 1979, Page requested improvements for Led Zeppelin's return to the stage that August at the Knebworth Festival, jotting down notes explaining everything he envisioned for his guitar and theremin solo and how these visuals coincided with his musical cues, including how his violin bow should glow when he pointed it above his head to the sky.

Page wrote: "Bow strobed overhead leading into first bowed chords and appearance of pyramid. Staccato repeat (pyramid turns 1/4). Repeat speed up and pyramid revolves and stops when I start on the wah wah. Smoke on the back of pyramid. More high and low wah wah notes leading to more staccato repeats ending with bow waved strobeing [sic] above my head. Pyramid builds to a spin even before drum entrance."

This piece of looseleaf paper was given to Steve Jander, the technician who headed up the laser department for Showco between 1977 and 1980, along with the personalized cassette tape and its three handwritten stickers. And with that, Jander set about putting into reality for the Knebworth shows what Page desired. More on how he accomplished this another day!

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