A deluxe reissue of the band’s 1976 live fantasia highlights its charms and absurdities. It remains a messy, psychedelic document of Zeppelin in their imperial era.
The witching hour approaches. A full moon peeks through the thick, English fog. Jimmy Page, hair curled like a hobbit’s, crawls up the slopes of a jagged mountainside. At the summit, he encounters a Gandalf figure in a white, hooded robe, lamp in hand. The mountain wizard raises his head and fixes Page with a serene look. But this is no passive observer—the wizard’s wrinkled visage ages in reverse to reveal Page himself, first as a man, then a boy, a baby, a fetus bathed in starlight. Somewhere, in the distance, we hear the atonal skronk of a violin bow slapping against guitar strings. The wizard re-ages. Lightning crashes. Then, he pulls out a sword.
Maybe it was never publicly acceptable to be a nerd until the internet made everyone a nerd. But the historical record does not quite account for the world-breaking popularity of Led Zeppelin, who married a musical synthesis of blues, rock, and cock with a deep love of all things occult and fantastical, and more specifically, The Lord of the Rings. They worked from the midpoint between the jocks and dungeon masters, singing metaphorical allusions to anal sex and literal references to Gollum. The critics thought they were hacks, but the fans regarded them as golden gods, and for a decade they expanded and crystallized the myth of rock’n’roll as portal to primordial consciousness.
Stoned longhairs will blast “Dazed and Confused” out of parking lots for the rest of time, but to see what Zeppelin were all about you have to watch Robert Plant perform. A newly remastered reissue of The Song Remains the Same, the band’s 1976 concert film, provides a technicolor document of the band at its extravagant, excessive powers. Filmed during a three-night stint at Madison Square Garden in 1973, The Song Remains the Same is not the best music the band ever played or the best they ever sounded live. But it is a faithful portrayal of Led Zeppelin during their imperial era, as they rode an unbroken streak of creative genius and shattered sales records all over the world. (This reissue follows a previous remaster from 2007; the new one is louder and available on more formats, if that’s your thing, and switches up the sequencing to allow a nearly half-hour long version of “Dazed and Confused” to live on its own side of vinyl.)
The Song Remains the Same was stitched together from those three shows (in part because the band was partying too much to nail it every night), and the film footage was fleshed out with new material shot at a sound stage the next year, where the passage of time required bassist John Paul Jones to wear a wig. In When Giants Walked the Earth, a highly subjective and salacious biography, Jimmy Page said the soundtrack “wasn’t necessarily the best live material we had but it was the live material that went with the footage so it had to be used. So, you know, it wasn’t like A Magical Night. But it wasn’t a poor night. It was an honest sort of mediocre night.” The soundtrack is made more relevant by the accompanying movie, which comes as part of a “super deluxe boxed set” including assorted memorabilia associated with the film and an essay from Cameron Crowe.
The movie combines the traditional concert film with a few backstage vignettes (mostly starring band manager Peter Grant, a notoriously bombastic and protective figure) and, most infamously, a series of narrative sequences featuring symbolic representations of the band’s members. That’s how we get Jimmy Page climbing up the mountaintop, and somehow more absurdly, Robert Plant sailing a skiff toward a beach where he buries a flaming sword in the sand and battles through several knights to save a fair maiden. These cornball scenes were dated even then—the movie, which blew through its deadline by 18 months and required two directors to finish, was savaged by critics—but they do give you a sense of the magnified egos at play. The performances do the rest: the defiantly open-shirted Plant cradling his microphone against his sweaty chest; Page’s sparkly epaulets and double-necked guitar dramatics; the entirety of “Moby Dick,” a technically astounding drum solo nonetheless so alienating as a visual experience that the rest of the band would literally leave the stage to refresh their drinks.
Zeppelin hadn’t yet lost the thread—that would happen a few years later, when heroin entered the picture—but they still sounded a little haggard. Plant’s quadruple-octave range was starting to go, evidenced by the high notes he doesn’t even attempt on the notably restrained “Rock and Roll” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” (The latter, which features a wildly meandering solo, was left off the initial film release.) But even a haggard Led Zeppelin was an elemental example of what a rock band could sound like at its most kickass. John Bonham hits his drums like he’s tunneling a hole through space and time; Page’s sleazy, psychedelic guitar tone would launch a million imitators. Playing this loud is a mandate, not a suggestion.
To avoid overthinking it: It’s Zeppelin in their near-primes performing nearly two hours of some of the heaviest music ever made. If you’ve ever enjoyed their music, or rock music in general, you’re going to find something to enjoy. You have the paleosexual grooves of “Whole Lotta Love,” the cosmic frippery of “Dazed and Confused” (the violin bow, however pretentious, still sounds great), the head-kicking riffage of “The Ocean” and “Black Dog.” That they pull off the tempo and coordination required on the title track is a kind of magic trick, and though Plant has disavowed his “Does anybody remember laughter?” ad lib during “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s still a sweetly earnest moment in a song that, to many ears, has calcified into a hokey sigil of the whole classic rock era. Rock stars would soon age out of presenting themselves like this without irony, or self-consciousness. Why not giggle about bustles and hedgerows, if that’s what it took to have a good time?
Despite his fraying vocals, Plant is the star of the film due to his sun-god looks, a driving force of the band’s appeal. (”They thought it was my fault Robert Plant had such a big cock,” said director Joe Massot, who was eventually replaced, of an early screening the band hated.) Not long after, he’d break his leg in a car accident, signaling a chaotic period where Page got deeper into drugs and Bonham got deeper into the alcohol addiction that made him an occasionally violent terror. Most tragically, Plant’s five-year-old son would die suddenly in 1977, creating an emotional chasm between him and the band that never healed, not before Bonham’s death in 1980. They were a transcendent group for only a short while, a function of their era and talent.
Because they never stayed together like the Rolling Stones, or became public-facing cultural ambassadors like the solo Beatles, it can feel a little tricky to place Led Zeppelin in a modern context. Maybe it’s banal to suggest yet again that the popularity of rock music has diminished since the 1970s, but it’s frankly mind-blowing to watch this and remember that millions of people once wanted to watch Robert Plant pretend to sword fight and Jimmy Page encounter a fictional wizard version of himself, wrapped around scruffy solos and vocal runs meant to ignite stoned minds. It feels like a true documentary, in that it locates and explains this particular moment in time. Unlike some other concert films, there’s plenty of audience shots. Two fans, seen during “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” stick out to me: A woman in some kind of embroidered robe, who sits with her hands folded as though she’s watching a play. Next to her, a man in a mustache stares ahead, mouth open, totally slack-jawed and transfixed. Slowly, he begins to smile.
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