The Song Remains the Same (DVD) – Led Zeppelin

In which I describe more what plays in my head than what shows on screen.

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You are at a rock & roll concert, and this is what you see: a slight black-draped figure stands before the insignificant profile of a Theremin, his chest heaving from earlier exertions. He reaches towards it to draw out a sound that the ear instantly determines is unnatural - not made by voice or instrument. Gesturing at it like Frater Snape in a mannered magical duel, he beams orgasm waves from its slim antenna into the man behind him, who writhes and moans in response. He glances back, and when he confirms the man is under his command, he flashes his meat puppet a wide grin, eighty percent schoolboy and twenty percent pure Evil Overlord. He keeps his pick in his hand and his guitar slung within easy reach behind him but he concentrates on his baroque sonic espresso machine, dancing like Rumpelstiltskin as confetti fall on the stage about them both. It's Led Zeppelin.

I went to the premiere of TSRTS in London in November 1976. It was one of the highlights of my young life. A few days before it showed, Zeppelin announced that there would be two simultaneous premieres. That was one of the pissingoffiest moments of my young life. On the night, Led Zeppelin themselves filed in from the back and waved at us in approved rock-god-like fashion. We waved back, and then they departed, either for the other premiere or for a few beers. I was happy again.

TSRTS is primarily concert footage of Led Zeppelin's 1973 American tour, in particular the shows at Madison Square Gardens. The whole film was shelved for three years, until continuing problems inside Led Zeppelin made touring difficult. In order to have product out, the cans were dusted off, the film augmented and it was released three years after it was shot.

There’s been a lot of bollocks talked about The Song Remains the Same, mostly by hypothetically pro-Zeppelin anoraks falling over themselves to say that here Jimmy Page is sometimes sloppy or over-reaching, or that Robert Plant is off-key. The wank is most noticeable when they trade the tokens of a true geek, a list of places and dates and notes that were ‘better', as if it were possible to assemble a perfect Led Zeppelin concert from an Ikea-like kit inside one's own mind and enjoy that instead. The worst feature of TSRTS – and here I agree with common knowledge – is the insertion of 'fantasy sequences' generated by the band members. It's been alleged they are in there to cover up gaps in the concert footage – the film used for the movie was selected because it was the only coverage available, not because it was the best – and if that's true, there are some parts where I think that putting a "technical difficulties" card up on the screen for a few minutes might have been better option. But mayhap I am too harsh.

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The movie begins inside the first fantasy sequence, and at the showing I attended it confused the living shit out of me. It's a parody of a mob rubout, featuring Peter Grant and Richard Cole (the manager and the road manager, of whom I had never heard). Predictably, I spent the rest of the movie wondering if the band was 'in danger' and the gangsters would reappear again. It's a dumb start to a movie about the Led Zeppelin experience.

Within this mob sequence we see the band at home receiving notices that they are booked to appear at a concert. It's a gimmick, but we've never seen much else about this band's private lives, so it's a document of sorts. The band prided themselves on being squires, lairds and gentlemen farmers and the images are of beautiful children, rolling Welsh hills, sheep, prize bulls, Sussex riversides, and a barely street-legal dragster driven down t'pub by Bonham on the way for a pint or eighteen. Cut to the band's plane landing and the first genuine images of the movie as Jimmy Page trudges down to the Pittsburgh tarmac [1], coughing in the summer evening smog of Jet-A and leaded gas fumes from the copious seventies-era American cars parked in a haphazard pile up around the logoized private plane. A screaming motorcade of police cars accompanies the band's limos to the gig.

With an economy not to be repeated later on, the film moves straight on to the performance. Led Zeppelin open with the barnstormer Rock & Roll. It's a good choice of opener; it's their most undifferentiated track and one that requires no warm up. When you press the electric start button it springs up like a Jack in the Box on Viagra, the amps at 11, the attack level at DEFCON 2, the drumbeat somewhere in the microwave frequencies, and it drives on relentlessly for four lethally zealous minutes. In professional hands – which they have – it can't fail. It doesn't entirely overcome its muddy mix and dry, tired audience but it's better than the other choices.

Page is in black adorned with silver moon and stars, Robert in a blouse and what may be jeans or may just be a light application of woad; both the camera angles and the tight clothing dare you to stare until you work out whether or not he's circumcised. Both men have masses of long hair. Plant's is a lion's mane and Page's hair is a vision of soft black curls. His studied beauty is a contrast to the natural, earthy and aptly-named Plant, and this contrast paradoxically intensifies as the night wears on and Page's hair, soaked in sweat, reverts to ringlets. The rhythm section, John Paul Jones on bass and John Bonham on drums, are slightly sparkly but generally stay in the background and the camera shuns them. The stage lights are bright at first; perhaps trying to avoid the night-vision look of other seventies films like Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust. Both the sound mix and the lights improve as time goes on. At the outset it's difficult to see why the film coverage had to be patched. There appear to be at least seventeen cameras in use, twelve on Plant's crotch and five on Page's fingers, so you’d think nothing important could have slipped through the cracks.

Then we're into the set proper: A few riffs from Bring It On Home segueing into Black Dog, the quintessential Zeppelin track. The profound dynamics and tricky timing, the riffing interleaved with quiet, the song's foreground and background constantly switching, form a typically Pageian Necker Cube sonic construction. It soars and dives, exactly unlike a lead balloon. It's a vigorous contrast to the aural Spam of the opener.

Unbelievably, the editor decides to spill the film's momentum, taking us backstage to listen to the gorgeous but incomprehensible Robert Plant talk about . . . stuff . . . and to watch backstage traffic in a seriously unsightly dressing room for a long moment, and then we're right back on stage for the standout of the set: Since I've Been Loving You. This rendition scales heights even the album track never attempted. It's British blues at its finest, a country mile away from the Immediate-label leaden trad blues of the sixties. In Zeppelin's hands the blues done suffered, I mean hath suffered, a sea change into something rich and strange. Page is fast – people think he's just heavy, but he's fast – and the guitar runs here are like collectible medallions of rock music. Page's multiple solos are impressionist in nature. He paints a thousand dots of sound to suggest a picture of radiant beauty. Describing music is always a dance of inexactitude. I thought of the words "flurries" – fast but wimpy, and "blizzard" – which has the right connotations of blinding and overwhelming, but rejected both as too insubstantial. I settled on the image that was Homer Simpson's most feared weapon: "You'll release the dogs? Or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you?" When Page's guitar barks, a furious hornet swarm shoots straight for you, apparently imbued with volition and heft. It can make you burn, it can make you sting. In a rare example of Proper Film Making, the camera cuts to reaction shots – a stunned young security guard and then a pretty young woman in a shawl smiling in innocent delight at Plant's accompanying vocals. This one is a keeper.

No Quarter cannot match the previous song, but it is dull only by comparison with the shining star it follows. I had a slight brow-furrow at the Spinal Tappiness of Plant looming through banks of dry ice mist, but it plays out well in the end. Although its structure is based on keyboards, and there are wonderful moments from Page, Jones and Bonham (particularly Page's final solo, which is enough to stop your breath) it's Plant's lyrics and vocals that tie it together. Plant has never "sung lyrics over" a song – he's an instrumentalist himself. The vocals are part of the composition, as integral as the guitar or bass, a fundamental ingredient. He owns No Quarter, although it's JPJ's fantasy sequence that it accompanies.

For no good reason, the editing then takes us offstage again to really shed lift from the airship; this is where we learn a Zeppelin can stall like a heavier-than-air craft and almost succumb to a deadly flat spin. We get to listen to Peter Grant chewing out a luckless concessionaire in his finest Anglo-Saxon, bringing the fully negative vibes of seventies New York into the movie and setting up a shoes-are-dropping-all-around atmosphere that dogs the film. (The editing was finished at a low point in the band's history, so perhaps they'd been down so long it seemed like up to them.) The film picks up again with The Song Remains The Same, another classic of light and shade. It heralds the first appearance of the famous double neck guitar. (Talking of necks, this is must-see cinema for lovers of men's necks and chins. Both Page and Plant are collarless – shirtless in fact – and shot from below. The stage lights bring out the best in their sweat-shining bone structure.) This song is the setting for the Robert Plant fantasy sequence, which is about as ambitious as Foundation and Empire, and perforce has to continue into the next piece, The Rain Song. As Page swiftly moves from chords on the twelve-string to fingerpicking on the six-string, he drops his guitar pick on the stage. Later, he takes his pick out of his mouth. No wonder we all believe Page sold his soul to the devil. It's magic! At the end of the back-to-back songs someone throws a couple of doobies onstage for Plant. He picks them up and throws them to the back for later.

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That marks one of the last actual "songs" that Led Zeppelin plays in this film. Now we come to the part of the program that is pure Zeppelin, the part that abandons Rock & Roll as an outworn modality. Zeppelin took risks with their music that no contemporary band dared to do. It's been savaged as self-indulgent, this loss of structure, this refusal to conform to AABB versifying and 12-bar progressions. It isn't. (Well, ok, it often isn't. Or at least sometimes isn't.) Dazed and Confused is first. This started out many years ago as a regular song first aired by a folkie, Jake Holmes, his acoustic guitar spiraling into a wavebreak of manic electric scream. In Page's hands it begins with furious but restrained electric guitar and the break becomes a tsunami of crippling sonic attack. From the start the audience members are at their most vulnerable, quite entrained, and the hypnotic riff saws away at their holdfasts. You can discern how Zeppelin got their reputation for dealing with dark forces. The doom-laden guitar-and-bass figure studies evil all the time, and Page and Plant together shriek like men slipping into a hellbound antlion trap, scrabbling for a footing and stretching out desperate hands to the unconcerned walking on level ground above. The interplay borders on telepathic; Plant and Page may as well be one creature. Bonham and Jones stick close together and use the time-honored mystery communication of a bassist and drummer. At one point there's a flash of humor between them as JPJ mouths, "oops" at the drummer and they both crack up. (I didn't catch what the error was; something that only telepathic rhythm sections can pick up.) Bonham goes back to his drums and hits out the next break automatically, like a distracted production line worker.

Ultimately, Led Zeppelin sounds like no one on Earth. This isn't Rock & Roll. (It ain't genocide, either.) It owes little to Jerry Lee Lewis or to Elvis. If you hadn't heard this before in its calmer incarnation on record, hadn't heard it as it evolved over the years, it wouldn't be recognized as rock music, just as a hyrax and an elephant have nothing in common but their ancestry. To drive home this strangeness, Page brings out the bow. The camera is in the right place to capture both his hands and his deep concentration. This isn't (yet) a gimmick to him. It's an exploration. But Page is also a classy showman, easily bringing the audience along for the ride. He canes the guitar, swift punishment blows, stretching the bow high the air after each stroke as if it were an antenna to disseminate the aural consequences of the beating. He does this eight times, facing the four compass points in two passes, an obsessive-compulsive's threatdown. He ramps it up, rail-gun shots of quarry blast-sirens one after another, a chorus of Pythia's ravings, interstitial clicks and scuttles evoking the specter of unseen mandibles in a profoundly dark cave. The organic bow, the active agency, is shredded, inevitably losing the battle against the passive metal strings. And as the sounds they produce together become not-music, we see Jimmy Page's fantasy sequence.

When the journey is over, Page quickly pulls his guitar pick from between his teeth where he kept it for safekeeping (having had his hands full with bow and guitar) and his traditional electric guitar crashes back in at a double-fine 35 mph over the speed limit, unleashing all the pent up tension of the overwrought band and hysterical fans. It also unleashes a famous Jimmy Page drool. With the guitar pick in his mouth for the whole seven minutes of the bow sequence, Page must have been salivating like a gagged sub. Hands free to do what he must, he accelerates the band from 0 to 60 in seconds and brakes just as recklessly. The imperturbable Bonham and Jones follow his unvoiced lead. He downshifts and corners, a black Corvette with race suspension, throttling into a blistering solo, dancing a ghost dervish caper like a triumphant god trampling underfoot the skulls of demons. Plant and the band, unbelievably, keep up with him. At the end, Robert Plant simply says, "Jimmy Page, electric guitar."

Stairway to Heaven's next. It's good. You don't need anyone to describe STH to you. If you've heard it too much in the past, give it five years' rest and listen with new ears. Its gentle spirituality spreads an aloe salve over raw flesh lacerated by the pit viper dynamics of Dazed and Confused. But if it's spirituality you want to see, you, unlike the cameraman, might prefer to keep your eyes above Robert's shoulder level. His features are angelic but his sprayed-on jeans and the cyan glow of his hairy, sweating chest wager against him changing the road *he's* on any time soon. Page, who rarely gives guitar-face, lets slip a little emotion in the solo. It's Stairway, and like a spin on a Tibetan prayer wheel, every time it's heard a little bit of darkness is erased from the world. Then, for Moby Dick, the band nip offstage to have a fag and leave Bonham to thunder away, accompanied only by his fantasy sequence. For me any interest in a drum solo is in watching how the drummer does it. Since I can't watch Bonham drumming, I tune out until the band troop back onstage.

Now the Song of Hope is out of the way, the band's natural downer emotions again show on the surface like a rainbow of gasoline on water. The offstage inserts are overwhelmingly of longhaired kids separated from their pack and taken by nightstick-bearing guards into rooms locked behind them, or stoned kids thrown out half naked onto the street. On stage, Zeppelin play the soaring, genuinely heavy Heartbreaker, and what must be gaps in the underlying footage begin to appear on screen. The song fades in and out over the whoops of police sirens in New York and stock shots of Times Square. Spinning bales of newsprint stop to reveal a headline: The band has been robbed of their takings, more than two hundred thousand dollars.

Urban sounds fade again to allow a rather shoddy rendition of the Whole Lotta Love riff to foreground in the mix. Like Dazed and Confused but more so, this Zeppelin anthem has come untied from its moorings and now drifts, pretty and massive but rudderless, over the teenage wastelands. As the mind-numbing drive of the introduction ends, the song turns into an exploration of psychic entanglement. Instead of the bow, Jimmy has his Theremin, and in the form of Robert Plant he also has the only man on Earth who can compete with the chilling instrument in a half-human hybrid call and response. To ‘play’ a Theremin you must violate its non-physical essence with your body, and its reaction to the hole you are tearing in its electromagnetic framework is to produce pure tones modulated by the shape you assume. How he 'plays' Robert Plant and gets those tones from him – well, that’s a good question, but Page does it, drawing the sounds from him as if tearing a hole in his psyche too, bypassing any conscious volition on the part of the singer. He dances; Robert postures. It’s an interaction between two men that I’ve never seen before or since. Confetti like post-apocalyptic ash drifts around them, but they are oblivious.

Robert, recovered from his psychic bondage, winds up his oldies spring to splurge forth Boogie Mama. I do wish he hadn't. The power of the extended songs comes from the tension that screws more and more tightly until it is instantaneously released in a flash of gamma rays as the song resolves back to the basic riff. With the song extended indefinitely, the tension drains away. At times the band sounds like a Camden winebar blues band on half-price drinks night, proud of its authenticity and yet adding nothing. (But they do it fantastically well, it must be said.) It appears the cameramen gave up by this point. The incomplete film is slowed down, speeded up, treated with effects and even then doesn't stretch through the whole song – John Paul Jones' shirts change over the course of a few shots as film from different nights is spliced in. [2] Eventually, the Whole Lotta Love riff roars back in like a runaway freight train, and thunderflashes blind the audience, triggering mass hysteria.

That's it; the band leaves the stage - to be told, no doubt, that the takings for the show have been stolen.

About those fantasy sequences: Not one of the band is a budding screenwriter, and the lack of writing, rehearsal and special effects conspire to doom all of them. Grant's gangster hit is at least funny. The fake blood is played for laughs. John Paul Jones sticks to things he can do – ride a horse, play an organ – and although it adds up to nothing, it's not bad. Bonham also sticks to things he can do – drive dragsters, show prize bulls and love his wife – so the lack of plot hardly matters. But it hardly rewards watching on its own merits. They are, as the band has said, expensive home movies.

Robert's historical romance is unbelievably ambitious, and that sets it up for failure. He's a Celtic warrior, landing in a boat and doing . . . stuff. . . a classic moistened bint hands him a holy sword and he sets off to do . . . other stuff . . . . He finds an Amanita muscaria and nibbles on it, which I guess means that the rest is hallucination. Or not, I don't know. Anyway, he soon has a horse (not sure how) and a trained attack hawk (ditto) and gets into a fight with Bad Guys guarding a castle. He dispatches them and saves(?) a generic blonde damsel with severely plucked eyebrows and a vacuous look who possibly symbolizes a pure ideal. He sticks his sword up in the sand and broods for a while. I forget what happens in the end. Robert is so photogenic that he could just sit and do a crossword and we'd want to watch him, all long blond tossed curls and hawkeyed tribal intensity. Instead, he rides his horse into a marsh, where it stumbles, and he fights several people without benefit of screen-fighting training, so he looks like a beginning re-enactor: great sheepskins, poor footwork. Not his fault, I'm sure, but not a shining example of cinematic exploration either.

Jimmy keeps it simple, acting the role of a seeker after truth, evidently determined to reach The Hermit of the Tarot (which appeared on the cover of the 4th album). Jimmy climbs a steep mountain and, on reaching the top, stretches out to touch the hermit's staff. The hermit is revealed to be Jimmy Page himself, impossibly ancient and yet still unborn. The hermit sets down his lantern and swings his now refulgent staff like a lightsaber. (Yes, I know the movie came out before Star Wars.) As a concept, it's easy enough to follow, if you're big on symbolism or magic and particularly on credulity, and as a dramatization it works. It's marred by the fact that aging/deaging special effects were in the dark ages and concentration on the message is difficult when one is reminded so emphatically of the medium that carries it. Another distraction in the piece is seeing the ethereally light and invariably fashion-clad Page wearing hobnail boots. On Jimmy Page, it seems like cross-dressing.

Watching the relationship between Page and Plant brings out wonder in me. I've seen guitarists use tape loops before, and heard the structure the machine imposes on music, as they play along with the predetermined sequence of sounds sent back to them. I've never seen a band, before or since, which had a singer and instrumentalist who understood each other well enough to make that concept flexible, that far from the mechanical response of the tape machine. If one of the respected, cool composers of modern music had developed the theremin, the Robert Plant and the bowed guitar, he would have been lauded as a genius developer of new paradigms. Since Page found them first, they are regarded as just Led Zeppelin, old dinosaurs mostly famous for their debauchery and trousers. [3] Page couldn't win, it seems.

Give the movie a(nother) listen.

[1]Wikipedia entry
[2]The Garden Tapes
[3] Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary Edition: Led Zeppelin Sex Gods: Led Zeppelin Packaged Sex-literally. Their obscenely tight trousers left noting to the imagination, and their unbuttoned shirts showcased their hairy chests. Even their flowing manes were a sign of virility. […] At the height of their success and excess in 1973, Zeppelin posed in front of the Starship, their private plane cum playground. Nut hugging jeans? Check. Bare chests? Check. King of the world stance? They invented it.

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