By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a series intended to shine a light on recordings that are readily available, if not necessarily for sale.
Listening a Led Zeppelin concert recording comes with plenty of history and baggage. This night, recorded at the end of a run at San Francisco’s Fillmore West on April 27, 1969, finds the band beginning to reach their swashbuckling zenith, with screaming blues and searing rhythms knocking out the crowd.
But then I think of what had to happen to even make this recording a reality, and whether the tapers didn’t come out worse for wear. There are stories by the dozens centering around Peter Grant, the imposing manager of Led Zeppelin, and how he displayed his hatred of bootleg recordings.
He would storm into record stores and walk out with crates of bootleg records, threatening the clerks legally and physically along the way. His team would find tapers in the crowds at concerts, destroying their gear and leaving them bruised by the side of the road.
He did this out of brute protection of the band, though. Where other acts were routinely given the screws by promoters and record companies, Grant made sure Zeppelin was granted every penny they were due. Still, I can’t imagine the stress level of trying to tape a Led Zeppelin show. Where contemporaries like the Grateful Dead were much more casual and even encouraged audience taping and trading, Led Zeppelin did their best to stamp out the practice, with security – led by Grant and cohort Richard Cole— diligently combing the crowd and removing anyone who was thought to be trying to make a fast buck off the band.
Zeppelin was a pioneer in music on and off the stage, and their practice of taking control of every end of the business – from production to distribution to even sleeve design – was trailblazing. They demanded and received higher royalties than typically earned by new bands, they played longer shows and they weren’t about to let bootleggers rip them off and sell their music on the side.
Taping and bootlegging are two different practices, of course. Despite the band’s efforts to keep they stray microphones out of the audience, a tremendous amount of the band’s concert life has been taped and shared. And beyond bootlegging, most of these are now available in various corners of the web and in trading circles, available for nothing more than bandwidth.
The first time I came across this Fillmore West show was actually as a bootleg purchase: $5 for a 90 minute cassette at a flea market in Raynham, Mass., and the quality was okay. Nothing spectacular, for sure, but it felt good to have a little piece of history in my collection, wrapped in a plain white sleeve with the setlist photocopied several times over and dubbed who-knows-how-many generations down.
The next time was back in one of these friendlier circles online, and the quality was a tremendous upgrade to the tape I’d kept in reserve on my shelf. Except for a few dropouts patched with an audience recording, it sounds like it was mostly made off the soundboard, and it captures just about every furious, ridiculous note of this show.
It starts with the quick, familiar roar of “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a holdover from Jimmy Page’s days in the Yardbirds, and where the song ran with the steady pace of a muscle car in that late band’s days, now it’s a tank, pounding and screaming down the road. The only thing that slows it is the band’s own move into the blues on “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” which shows the first signs of a young Robert Plant’s mammoth vocal range, bringing in elements of Janis Joplin and Howlin Wolf as he flattens the crowd.
That mix of blues and furious rock and roll introduces the crowd to Zeppelin’s distinct version of “heavy” music, which took what Cream and Jimi Hendrix were doing and dialed up the bass. All the crowd likely had to go on was the band’s self-titled first album, which had been released three months prior, and the rumors that this band of young Englishmen were bulldozing the crowd every night, in some cases forcing the headliners to retreat back to the dressing room rather than follow their primal display.
That shock and awe element is on full display here. The band plays most of that debut album, along with medleys of early rock and blues and early hints to their next album — “The Lemon Song” and “Pat’s Delight,” an early version of “Moby Dick,” would find their way onto Led Zeppelin II before the end of the year.
But even for the familiar, very little of the set was standard. The band stretches out, pushing “How Many More Times” past 20 minutes and incorporating early bits of “Whole Lotta Love,” while a furious medley centered on “As Long As I Have You” runs nearly as long. Page blends the Yardbirds’ “White Summer” with the band’s “Black Mountain Side” before eventually closing with the bowed guitar antics of “Dazed and Confused” — it’s just past 13 minutes here, but it would stretch to more than half an hour in just a couple of years.
With that final crash and some polite parting words from Plant, Led Zeppelin left the Fillmore and San Francisco, leaving a tale of aural destruction in their wake that would foreshadow even bigger crowds upon their return.
The tapes helped, too, of course. Despite all the band’s work, there wasn’t much hope in keeping taping out of the Fillmore West, and documents like this helped spread the band’s reputation, feeding the most ardent fans in between records and converting the skeptical into believers. And 45 years later, it’s still here as an important reminder to how great this band was, even in their earliest incarnation.
They’d get better still, in the studio and on stage. The loose, primal aspect of their music was never quite as raw as it was in their earliest days, though, and it’s captured in the recordings, made on the sly and out of sight from Zeppelin’s bruising security to be copied, sold and eventually released into the wild.