Led Zeppelin may have disbanded in 1980, but the band's legacy lives on. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham always insisted that the music they made, onstage or in the studio, w
To do so required iron-clad concentration, and this level of performance can be seen in the film footage of the Albert Hall date [Led Zeppelin filmed a 1970 show at London's Royal Albert Hall, footage that went unreleased until 2003's "Led Zeppelin DVD"]. Jones explained: "You had to be on the ball in those days, especially in the improvised parts, because the stuff would change all the time. You'd have to watch each other for cues. There was a lot of eye contact. Page always looked as though he was looking at the floor, but we'd watch each other's hand movements all the time. There would often be seemingly amazing unrehearsed stops and starts. We'd all go bang -– straight into it. The audience would think, 'How did they do that?' It was because we were paying attention."
These intense sessions of music-making in front of their audiences sometimes meant they sprang musical surprises on each other that perhaps no one else in the hall would notice. "Lots of things happened onstage to alter the songs," said Jones. "In the fast part to 'Dazed and Confused' John and I would turn the riff round backwards and Pagey would come across and shout, 'What the fucking hell do you think you're doing!' That was good fun."
Plant may be thought of by some as an onlooker during the long instrumental passages when he was not singing or playing harmonica. But that would be to misread his role, as demonstrated conclusively in the Albert Hall film. Plant doesn't spend all his time striking poses and prancing around the stage demanding to be the centre of all attention. He puts on his own spectacle, but his movements and expressions are a reaction to what his fellow band members are playing. His manipulation of the microphone and its cord during Page's solos might be thought of in isolation as a posture, but it is not. He's doing his own version of air guitar in reaction to what he's hearing.
Plant has talked about this a number of times in interviews over the years. Recently he said: "Some of the crucial elements in the performances were those indefinable moments inside the actual music. There was a feeling of reaching and stretching for something that wasn't quite so evident on the records. Playing live was the real jewel in our existence."
On an earlier occasion, Plant revealed that during his first years in the band he often used to stand onstage thinking what a privilege it was to witness this remarkable music making. His movements were a reaction to that music. He underlined the spontaneous nature of his stage presence; although he was being written about as a new rock sex symbol, he didn't see it that way at all. "I don't really know what or how people think about sex symbols... Really you can't take it seriously. You just get into your music and the sexual thing isn't really apparent to you. It's simply not what you're there for." The audience were people in whom you found inspiration. "Without the audience throwing back vibrations, I just couldn't do it," he commented. "When you're looking into those thousands of faces, it just seems to pour out of me."
The film shows that Led Zeppelin worked very hard at the music, drew their inspiration from each other and the excitement of the crowd, and delivered everything they had to give musically on that particular evening. It also details the very different nature of their act compared to other bands of the time. It is true that Plant would be uninvolved musically sometimes for minutes on end and that, for example, Page would be in the spotlight for long stretches. But he wasn't merely taking a cranked-up guitar-hero solo during those periods. He was constantly interacting with the bass and drums to roll in and out of different themes, sections, riffs, and rhythms, to create different angles to the same music, to change tempo, to inject a huge range of variations on the basic structure that the band toyed with during any given piece.
The musicians were taking enormous chances, working collectively and pulling off some stupendous performances. It was with these methods that they were able to evolve such long and ever-shifting versions of 'Dazed and Confused,' 'How Many More Times,' and 'Whole Lotta Love.' Similarly, a guitar feature instrumental such as 'White Summer'/'Black Mountain Side' finds Page seated onstage playing his Danelectro, sticking relatively close to the outline of the piece that Zeppelin had been essaying for the past year, but allowing for twists and turns in detail and new phrases and glisses in response to what Bonham, especially, was contributing behind him.
The onstage jams were crucial to Page in developing the germs of ideas he had for new riffs, tunes and patterns that would be used at some future point in new Led Zeppelin songs. It was during this early period of the band's live work that Page made rapid progress with a guitar technique he'd initiated in his Yardbirds days, and which many observers of the day took to be something of a pose: his use of a violin bow.
People with technical knowledge about the structure of the violin and guitar families of instruments will know that bowing a guitar is a completely different proposition to bowing a violin. On a guitar, the strings are not positioned on an arched bridge, and the neck is flat. The arch in a violin bridge means that each string is available to be bowed individually. With the flat bridge of a guitar, only the outermost two strings can be bowed individually: the only other option with a guitar is to bow combinations of notes, from double stops up to complete six-string chords.
Such difficulties had stopped any serious exploration of bowing techniques before Page, as it seemed of minimal use -– although Eddie Phillips in British group the Creation also occasionally deployed a bow on electric guitar. The Albert Hall footage shows that Page had managed to turn any limitations into a strength. He concentrates on the sheer colour and texture of the sounds generated by the bow in combination with the electronics available to him and the great sonic weight brought about by extreme amplification. He may not have been harnessing the power of electronics in the same way as Hendrix, but he was finding his own original path. That it was a serious pursuit he made perfectly clear a number of times. "I'd like to play violin but that's not as easy as it looks," he said at the time. "When I use a violin bow on guitar it's not just a gimmick, like people think. It's because some great sounds come out. You can employ legitimate bowing techniques and gain new scope and depth."
The onstage alchemy that allowed Page to push these experiments with sounds into new areas each night was an important workshop of ideas for the future of the band. Seen from that point of view, Plant's oft-repeated comments about how a single change in personnel at its inception would have resulted in a radically different band make a great deal of sense.
Plant himself is a prime example, for he was one of very few singers not only deeply knowledgeable about the blues, folk music and other forms, but also willing to be spontaneous, to improvise onstage, and always to be on the lookout for new ways to present his contributions to the songs that allowed for a great deal of latitude in their interpretation. In the Albert Hall film this is evident when he scats (uses wordless vocals) in the longer numbers. His game-for-anything attitude is crucial to the success of such songs, as is his ability to react quickly to the changes to a song of the type Jones described. He is quick on his musical feet and is not easily fazed. Not only that, but Plant gets off on the challenge that such situations throw his way.
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