In late 1976, Led Zeppelin released their live album soundtrack to the film, “The Song Remains The Same”. Although I didn’t begin my lifelong fascination and fandom for the band until several years later, this album and film were one of the defining components of my musical existence from about 8th grade leading up to college. There are so many memories, so many thoughts… I will see how many of them I can capture in a single post.
Around 8th grade, I began to notice “Led Zeppelin” scrawled everywhere around my junior high school. In books, on lockers and desks, and anywhere else you turned. Giving in to the curiosity, I discovered this four-person band that captured my attention like no other as I dove into the world of rock music. Even as I acquired most of the studio albums, the obsession continued as we all imagined what it would have been like to see the mighty Zep live in concert. Prior to the days of the internet, our practical access to live footage was limited to this album, and this film, and consume it we did.
In addition to taking our boom-boxes with us anywhere we could with this double album constantly on play, we realized that the film was still accessible on a weekly basis, at the midnight movies. Showing along with “The Wall” by Pink Floyd, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, “The Song Remains The Same” became our weekly obsession to attend, whether it be through the generosity of some parent being willing to drive, or even better, one of us acquiring a car, a license, some gas money, and permission to drive and stay out late. We didn’t always make the best decisions prior to the show, but two and half hours in a theater was enough to sober anyone up, and the biggest challenge by the end of the film, particularly during John Bonham’s drum solo on Moby Dick, was just staying awake at 2 AM.
For those like me who truly obsessed over Led Zeppelin, each screening was a magical transportation back to a world that we could never again experience in person, due to the tragic death of John Bonham in 1980. This was the closest we thought we would ever come to seeing the band live, and with a few rare exceptions, we were right. The film itself is a mixed bag. The cinematography is far from great, and some of the movie has stood up to the test of time better than other parts. However, the basic premise still gets me going, 40 years later. After 15 minutes of previewing life off the road for the band, they gather in New York City, taking a police escort through the Lincoln Tunnel to Madison Square Garden. We even get a few shots of the relatively new World Trade Center towers, as this concert was filmed in 1973. As “Bron-Yr-Aur” softly plays in the background, the band readies, as does the crowd, and we are then presented with a darkened arena full of screaming fans. Over the din, we hear Bonzo yell “Alright, let’s go!” and the first cymbal crashes of “Rock and Roll” kick in. When the guitar rips on, the lights explode and there they are, the most electric and powerful band of their time, taking the stage to dominate for the next three hours.
The film covers most of the concert in approximate sequence, and each of the four band members has a “fantasy sequence”, like a music video, that runs during a song of theirs that particularly features their performance. At the end of the film, after an explosive and fiery performance of “Whole Lotta Love”, the band is escorted back to the airport, where they board their custom 720 Starship plane, to fly off to their next destination. At that time, and even today, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham were absolutely larger than life, and they had a tight grip over the cultural community of rock music in the 1970s, and their dominance of that genre remains ever-present to this day.
The album itself is an interesting story. It is a double album, and the original soundtrack release was the one we all memorized by note, through the 1970s up until the 2000s. They ultimately released another version of the album, re-mixed, with the rest of the concert that was not included on the first version. It is a higher quality production, but Jimmy Page altered several of the tracks noticeably, so it has its pros and cons. He was known for tinkering with several different versions to mold the version he liked best, and if you really want to geek out, there is no better source for this than this website here, The Garden Tapes – The Song Remains The Same .
On the original album, after the opener, “Rock and Roll”, you have the amazing guitar solo on “Celebration Day”, and the rest of side one is just as phenomenal, with spectacular versions of “The Song Remains The Same” and “The Rain Song”. Although I think there are better versions of “Rock and Roll” now available, the other three are as good as I can find anywhere.
Side two is one song… the nearly 30-minute live version of “Dazed and Confused”. In high school, one of our classmates, who shall remain nameless, pushed back as we were rocking to Jimmy Page’s bowed guitar solo, saying, “It’s just so shrill!”. It’s an acquired taste for sure, and not for those with a short attention span, but for Led Zep fanatics, it is Jimmy Page’s ultimate showcase.
Side three opens with another “best of” version, “No Quarter”, featuring John Paul Jones on organ, and then what I consider to be just an average version of “Stairway to Heaven”, other than some of Robert Plant’s entertaining in-song ad-libs. “Stairway” was tough to re-create live, as it missed the initial acoustic opening that allowed for further build, and even by 1973, Robert Plant’s voice had lost the upper range the last part of the song required.
Side four opens with the 12-minute version of “Moby Dick”, Bonham’s extended solo assault on the drums. Although it was always at risk of being too much of a good thing, at its best, it was the best drummer in rock music being the best drummer in rock music. The album concludes with an extended version of “Whole Lotta Love”, which included a 5-minute rockabilly jam improv in the middle section.
On the new release, we get several tracks that were in the film, but not on the original album. We get the best version of “Since I Have Been Loving You” that I have heard to this day, and Page’s guitar solo is from another world. We also get the entire version of “Heartbreaker”, along with previously unheard presentations of “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”. From the film, we have a raucous version of “Black Dog” with a great audience sing and respond, and the actual last song of the concert, a tearing rendition of “The Ocean” where Bonham not only counts off the opening chant, he also sings harmony backup vocals with Plant.
Most Zeppelin fans will tell you this was a good, but not great performance by the band. It was at the very end of a long tour, and as noted, Plant’s voice was already a lesser entity as a high-end dynamo after years of overuse and abuse. That said, for us, for more than two decades, other than the odd bootleg audio performance, usually of mediocre sound quality, this was our only captured representation of Led Zeppelin live, and we treasured it.
I will never forget those dozens of times we challenged the clock, authority, our bodies and common sense to go see that movie. Mike, Jim, John, Matt, Shane, Doug, and many others I’m sure, although those are the names I most commonly associate with our weekly pilgrimage to the midnight movie. This movie and album truly framed most of my growing years, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I committed this day to listening to both versions of this album, and on top of it, I then watched the movie in its entirety, with a clear head and focused mind tonight. It was just as I remembered it, and in many ways, surprisingly better than I expected.
Finally, tonight around 9:00 PM, the Zeppelin marathon ended, and I headed to the gym for a late workout. With one last sign that this is the world of Led Zeppelin and we are just living in it, as I walked into the gym, the first riff of “Black Dog” was blasting… “Hey, hey mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove…”
Yes indeed, after all of these years… The Song Remains The Same.