Only in the 70s: The Song Remains the Same (1976)
ONLY in the 70s is a feature where we take a look at films that could not have existed in any decade, as true products of their time. This time, rockstar bombast runs roughshod.
There was once a time when giants walked the earth… or, at least, that’s what the myriad breathless accounts of rock bands in the 1970s would have you believe. With the dissolution of The Beatles and the death of the hippie dream at the conclusion of the 60s, there was a Biggest Band in the World-shaped hole in the popular consciousness that was ready to be filled by any number of aspirant artists on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. As Bob Dylan counted his money at the Isle of Wight and The Rolling Stones reeled from the horror of Altamont; as Hendrix and Morrison and Joplin all joined the 27 Club within months of each other, into the void stepped a little band called Led Zeppelin.
Comprised of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, Zeppelin were a veritable monolith of rock n’ roll excess in a decade of artistic and narcotic indulgence. Forming at the tail-end of 1968, they were poised more than anyone to seize the nascent 70s by the scruff of the neck from its very outset, evolving from the psychedelic power-blues that made them (in)famous to the progressive light and shade that characterised their greatest work. Along for the ride came millions of their adoring fanbase, who propelled them to record-breaking attendance figures and five-and-a-half years on the album chart.
With such success comes caveats, of course: The band were notoriously averse to outside interference. Shunned by a music press that preferred the more delicate sensibilities of Carole King or the song-writing prowess of Springsteen, Zeppelin closed ranks, retaining a fiercely loyal (and fiercely aggressive) inner circle that propelled the core group through a whirlwind few years of endless tours across the globe. In an era when radio play was near-essential, they never released singles. They seldom gave interviews; when they did, they were cagey. And, of course, under no circumstances were they to be filmed.
If you wanted to see what Led Zeppelin were like in their element – live, on-stage, feeding off the carnal fury of tens of thousands of screaming human beings – you’d have to get your ticket and get in the queue. The group, in a rare fit of self-awareness, realised that there was only one other way to expand their reach even further: enter the visual medium. Television, and its inferior sound quality, was too quaint; no Old Grey Whistle Test or Top of the Pops for the Zeppelin. In 1973, 28 dates deep into a record-breaking North American tour, only the silver screen would suffice for the Biggest Band in the World.
And so, The Song Remains the Same, a document of the final three dates of the tour in the hallowed Madison Square Garden. It is, at least in part, a record of four musicians operating at the peak of their collective artistic abilities. More importantly, however, it is a monument to rock n’ roll self-indulgence on a hitherto unprecedented scale. While concert films like Woodstock sought to capture the featured artists as pure and candid documentary, The Song… is more akin to Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, which sought to elevate Floyd’s mystique whilst simultaneously showcasing their music. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that The Song is an unholy amalgamation of both: it captures Led Zeppelin at their best, and, indeed, their hilarious worst.
The trailer for the film is perhaps the most concise description of what transpires in The Song…: “Led Zeppelin, in concert and beyond.” This cuts to the core of the film – it is, indeed, Led Zeppelin in concert and beyond. What does that nebulous “beyond” entail? Over the course of the 137 minutes that comprise the film, approximately half of that is exclusively dedicated to capturing the band on-stage. You may be surprised to learn, in this concert film about The Biggest Band in the World, that the opening 13 minutes are devoid of music altogether. Instead, it opens on a duo of gangsters (manager Peter Grant and road manager Richard Cole respectively) rolling into a seedy club/bar and gunning down the rather conspicuous occupants: a faceless man, a werewolf, and a table decorated with Nazi memorabilia.
Quite what this has to do with Led Zeppelin is uncertain, but we’re quickly wafted away to the Welsh countryside where Robert Plant and his then-wife Maureen hold court over their young and naked offspring cavorting in a brook, like the idyllic flower children of yore. Elsewhere, the other band members receive letters in the comfort of their (massive) homes, demanding their presence at Madison Square Garden. “But this is tomorrow!” John Paul Jones laments, in the most unconvincing manner possible, and off we fly to the Big Apple.
After a few establishing shots of New York, we’re finally treated to the sturm und drang that was Led Zeppelin in their imperial prime: Plant, practically shirtless in cock-first jeans; Jimmy Page in one of several “dragon-suits”, and John Bonham slamming the kit in a comparatively restrained embroidered shirt. Jones, for what it’s worth, looks like a matador entangled in a Renaissance Fair wardrobe. It’s not surprising to see why the band conquered the world so rapidly as Plant swaggers and shudders across the stage, as braggadocious as any would-be James Brown. He’s magnetic to watch, made all the more remarkable by the fact he was only 24 at the time of filming.
Page, for his part, rises to the challenge presented by his frontman, wielding his various guitars with gleeful abandon and pouting aggression, no doubt acting up a little more than usual for the cameras. Jones and Bonham, for their part, are as rocksteady as their peerless reputation suggests, holding the fort while Page wildly solos for minutes at a time. This was the dynamic of the Zeppelin live show, and it’s captured in all its conquering glory by director Joe Massot’s hastily assembled crew.
Commissioned on two days’ notice, Massot scrambled a crew together as the tour winded down and, as a result, the concert footage was riddled with crucial gaps. Unable to wrangle a coherent whole from what had been filmed, Massot was unceremoniously kicked off the project and replaced with Peter Clifton, who recommended the gig(s) be re-shot at Shepperton Studio in 1974. This, aside from the generally rushed production in ’73, is part of the reason behind the blatant continuity errors present in the finished product (Jones and Page both wear different outfits from shot to shot in some songs), and it’s also responsible for the hilarious wig that Jones sports throughout.
The ‘concert’ footage that appears in the film is an awkward amalgam of Shepperton and Garden, and the result is surprisingly intimate. The performers are mostly shot close, dominating the frame, and while this certainly evokes the rock titan imagery synonymous with Zeppelin, it also provides a curious, unintended effect: that of an up-and-coming group strutting away in a club to dozens, not thousands. We rarely get a true sense of the scale of the arena or the crowd, with precious few shots of either, the most notable appearing at the film’s conclusion. No doubt the studio footage is partially responsible, but it’s an interesting decision not to prominently feature the baying legions of Zeppelin faithful.
More interesting, however, are the fantasy sequences that accompany certain songs; A.K.A. the true source of the film’s eventual notoriety. For reasons that probably still elude them, the band members allowed themselves to be depicted in various fantastical scenarios that attempted to visualise the music; in essence, music videos, long before the advent of MTV. During the improvisational jam section in ‘No Quarter’, Jones becomes a highwayman marauding an 18th century hamlet, before removing his mask and laughing it up with his period-attired family and hand-servants(?). In ‘Moby Dick’, Bonham’s drum solo spectacular (for the rest of the band gratefully fuck off to have a ciggie), he pisses about on his farm for a bit, watches his son batter some skins and partakes in a bit of drag racing.
These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, restrained in comparison to Page and Plant’s. Amidst the witchy violin bow segment of ‘Dazed and Confused’, Page slowly climbs a mountain, only to be confronted by an elderly version of himself holding a lantern. (And then he turns into a star child and back. It’s a tarot thing.) Plant, meanwhile, presumably come from the land of ice and snow, appears in resplendent tunic as an Arthurian Viking during ‘The Rain Song’, where he proceeds to badly swordfight baddies in the courtyard of Raglan Castle before turning his face to the camera as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?” It’s definitive proof that they’re all having a bloody good laugh; further, it’s an invitation to the audience to laugh along with them.
These sequences are campy, of course, and are undoubtedly the reason why Peter Grant called the film “the most expensive home movie ever made”, but they provide a compelling snapshot of what the band wanted their audience to think of them: “Power, mystery, and the hammer of the Gods,” as Page would later say. Unlike the random backstage snippets – including one where a freeloading fan legs it from burly security men, and another where Grant berates a promoter’s perceived slackness over pirated posters – the fantasy sequences aren’t completely incongruous with the concert footage. As per the film’s promotional material, they help comprise “a personal and private tour of Led Zeppelin”. It goes without saying that The Song… shines brightest when the band are playing their souls out on-stage, but it would be less interesting without these strange and, frankly, ill-advised inclusions.
Above all else, The Song Remains the Same is a portrait of a fiercely insular group of individuals attempting to connect with the masses beyond the immediate scope of a packed arena. When it finally arrived in cinemas – two years late and in excess of its initial budget – it was duly excoriated, with critics decrying the venture’s self-indulgence, low-budget home footage and the comparatively substandard performances. Despite this, the film would go on to achieve cult status, being screened on a regular basis in various late-night cinemas; moreover, until 2003, it was the only publicly available visual document of Led Zeppelin in concert. Above all else, for better or worse, it demonstrates exactly why they were The Biggest Band in the World.