Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day
On Monday night I went to a preview screening of the concert film Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day. It was promoted by The Sound radio station (so thanks go to them and Warner music for providing me with a double-pass to the screening).
It opens in cinemas tomorrow and then next month you'll be able to buy the DVD, the Blu-Ray and maybe they'll even add in a hologram of John Bonham as one of the special features...
Celebration Day is the concert recording of the Led Zeppelin reunion from December 10, 2007, the three surviving members teamed up with their old drummer's son to pay tribute to Ahmet Ertegun; the three-quarters Led Zep being the main act of a tribute show for the industry mogul.
For five years the film has sat unreleased - you can catch snippets (or even bootleg copies of the whole thing) on YouTube. But this film is the real deal - finally ready for release (meaning the guitarist wants some more money for surgery or to buy wizard's hats and such).
Let me tell you straight away - even though I know I have before - I am a huge Led Zeppelin fan. I fell under the band's spell when I was about 14, the Re-Masters compilation was what did it. Right through high school and university Led Zeppelin was a big part of my musical diet. Still is. For a while there I couldn't listen to them anymore. Now I find new things every time I play any of the albums. A few years ago I would have told you that the first five albums are where it's at. Now I prefer to listen to everything that came after. Push comes to shove I'll say outright that Physical Graffiti is their best album (or albums - it being a double). It is their shining artistic statement; the best all-around example of everything brilliant this band could (and did) do.
Presence bugged me for a long time - but now I think it's a remarkable album. And In Through The Out Door gets written off, it's definitely thin in places but there's some great playing (and songs). And I grew up hearing about Coda as some sort of "traitor album"; that's a teenager zealot's pronunciation of the word posthumous. And there are some killer tracks on Coda.
That doesn't mean I've forgotten about the first four self-titled/numbered albums. I love them. And Houses Of The Holy is great too.
I own the other Led Zeppelin DVDs and a few bootlegs. I definitely know a few people that are more fanatical about Led Zeppelin, but I'm no slouch. And I fervently believe that the band's impact and influence on hard rock and metal is similar to The Beatles' impact and influence on pop music. I used to hear - and even use - the term Heavy Metal Beatles. Then I thought it was silly. Like any cliché it has a validity, one that's been trampled (underfoot) but there's still something in that idea/ideal.
And so there are always naysayers, people that tell you, for example, that Bonham was heavy-handed and led-footed - he was no such thing. He had power but he had grace, he was one of the greatest compositional-on-the-fly drummers to ever spontaneously rework a track in performance. He was also - not words that are often used to describe him or his playing - incredibly subtle.
Like many bands of that era Led Zeppelin isn't always best served by the hits and classic rock radio staples. A lot of people seem to have their mind made up on Zeppelin these days without doing the requisite listening. There's too much going on for this band to be written off as plodding dinosaurs of riff-based rock.
And though I probably don't need to preamble on - I felt I should reiterate my love of the band because Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day could just as easily have been called Led Zeppelin: Commiseration Day.
For it was in the theatre watching the concert footage from 2007 that had me wishing they'd never done the gig. I understand why they did it - I get that it would have been amazing for the people there on that night. But I wish it didn't exist now.
We'll never get Jimmy Page back. It's hard to know quite where he got to. It's easier to know how it happened. But he's not coming back. He cannot play as he once did. And for anyone convinced that you reach a point and plateau with playing, that you can't and don't get better with age I have two words for you (and for Mr Page): Jeff Beck.
So I'm watching Celebration Day and I want to like it - I want to have a lump in my throat, I want to think that this was the right thing for them to have done, not just in playing the tribute show but in releasing the footage officially.
But I don't experience anything close to that. There are a few moments of relief - midway through In My Time Of Dying, the fourth song of the night, Page finally shows some semblance of his former playing. He also appears, after nervously ploughing on without listening to anyone else for the first three songs, to be clicking with the band.
It was always going to be a big call - and it was always more about the sentiment, the spectacle and the moment than the music. But this version of Led Zeppelin - the first time that the three remaining members had performed publicly since a disastrous attempt in 1988 - is so far removed from the Zep we know and love and can still listen to any old time we want.
Robert Plant comes out of this well. I was impressed and amazed. I like Plant - I like where he's going (and most of the places he's been) with his solo career. But I did not think he would be able to handle this. He nailed the set and managed to do so with dignity, with looking and sounding and seeming his age, no attempts to try to recreate his youth, he simply served the myth and legend of the band - and its songs - as best he could. Yes, the songs have been rearranged, you'll notice them down a tone, and in some cases slowed - In My Time Of Dying is, until the bit where Page finally wakes up, ponderous and one of so many songs that misses Bonham Snr's frankly irreplaceable skill-set.
So, Jason Bonham. Big day for him then. And he looks rightly chuffed. And that's cool. And he doesn't do a terrible job - he was the correct choice because he gave it his all, he's lived his whole life in the shadow and he has the surname and most of the chops to get the work done. He was always going to give 100 per cent. And he does. But he uses a double-pedal. That means he can't get the groove and swing and the crispness out of the hi-hat that was so effortless for John. He can't make the songs sing from behind the drums. And anyone convinced that Bonzo was just a tub-thumper and any old fill-in could have put the fills in isn't really listening to the hundreds of live recordings on the market (or under the table) that show Bonham to be the real soul and star and stamp of the Led Zep sound. Page had the strut. But if Zep was on it was because of Bonzo. And second in command was Robert Plant.
John Paul Jones looks timid and unconvincing. His keyboard playing is downright awful on occasion (he totally botches the intro to Trampled Underfoot - but to be fair Page does help him botch that and Jason Bonham weighs in a bit too). When he's good he's great. But he never had any stage presence. He looks like a music teacher when attempting No Quarter - it used to seem like he inhabited the role, living in the tune while it was happening. Not now.
So what I thought about across the two hours of Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day was that I did not need to see one of my favourite bands do this to themselves, namely show that they were almost good enough now to be taken seriously as one of the better Led Zeppelin Tribute acts on the market.
And I was also thinking that Page is just dead in the water. He's got nothing on what he had. And he'll never get it back.
It's gone. He couldn't play the solo on Stairway To Heaven. He botched the lead to Whole Lotta Love - granted he was always an erratic live player, that was part of the charm, the magic and fire of what he brought to the band. But here he just looks silly and sounds, well not off so much as never quite exactly on.
And I thought - most of all - that it doesn't matter what I think. Because I was always going to go to this film or see the DVD. Everyone that loved, and loves, Led Zeppelin will want to go and see this film. Or will at least check out the DVD.
Perhaps there'll be people outside the film handing out glasses for you - not 3D ones, no. Regular-looking glasses but with rose tints.
So it's in cinemas tomorrow. Limited release. Will you be going? Have you seen it already? Maybe you attended a preview screening or you've seen it online? Or will you wait for the DVD and CD and triple vinyl editions timed for the Christmas market?
Postscript: If you are going to go still make sure you have your copy of Physical Graffiti at the ready as soon as you arrive home. It really does help.