The Song Remains the Same
By 1973, Led Zeppelin had come out with five albums, the last of which was Houses of the Holy an album that hit the U.K. charts at number one and stayed on chart for 13 weeks. This was a significant feat for any band but, by Led Zeppelin standards it was shy of something like their second album release of Led Zeppelin II, which debuted at number one and stayed on the charts for 138 weeks. The first track on Houses of the Holy is The Song Remains the Same which was originally conceived by Jimmy Page as an instrumental piece to be titled The Overture but was later given lyrics by Robert Plant (with a different working title of The Campaign) and was influenced by their life on the road. Lester Bangs, writing for Creem, referred to the whole album as "A true masterpiece" and singled out The Song Remains the Same as a highlight. On a side note, Lester Bangs was the famous rock-critic played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film about himself as a young scribe flirting with rock `n' roll in Almost Famous (2000). Anyone old enough to still own their vinyl copies of The Song Remains the Same might, at this point, be interested to open up the double-album and read the page-long preface on the left and inside jacket written by Crowe himself.
It was in 1973 during a mid-tour break for Led Zeppelin that filmmaker Joe Massot approached Page and Led Zeppelin's infamous "fifth" member, manager Peter Grant, with an offer to shoot the next leg of the concert. What Massot did not know was that other people had tried to film the band as well, but Grant had exercised final-cut rights rather forcefully by dumping buckets of water over sensitive and plugged-in camera equipment and consoles. Massot projected the budget for his project to be $100,000, mixing 35mm concert footage with 16mm behind-the-scenes footage. This would later turn into a nightmare when Massot was kicked off the project and another director, Peter Clifton, was brought in because, as Clifton said, Massot's "biggest mistake was that he shot some stuff on 35mm but he used 400 foot reels, because he was shooting with hand-held cameras. This meant there could only be one three-minute take at a time. And 'Dazed and Confused' was 27 minutes long." (Source: Peter Grant: The Man Who Led Zeppelin, Chris Welch.) The film ultimately wound up costing about six times more than was originally predicted, but more on that later.
Grant wanted all the rights to the film and made sure the band paid all the bills associated with the film. Massot's crew included Ernie Day, the camera operator for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Robert Freeman, a title designer on A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). "Massot and crew flew over and filmed various backstage shots, screen tested the stage act at gigs in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and then filmed all three of their Madison Square Garden dates on July 27, 28 and 29 - Coming at the end of a grueling tour, these particular performances were hardly magical nights." (Led Zeppelin: A Celebration, Dave Lewis.) This sentiment is echoed by Stephen Davis in his widely-read Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga when he notes that after a hard tour full of sleepless nights, "dope, booze, and room service hamburgers" Page was such a basket case that when his "family saw the state he was in - exhausted, malnourished, sleepless, raving - they tried to get him into a sanitarium for a rest. Jimmy himself told a journalist that he thought he belonged either in a mental hospital or a monastery."
The band's woes for that month of July in 1973 were capped by the theft of hard cash they thought had been safely stowed away in the safe of their hotel. A headline in the New York Daily News read: "Led Zeppelin Robbed of 203G - Rock Group's Hotel Box Rifled - Led Zeppelin in Big Loss." That might not seem like a lot of money by today's standards, but keep in mind that, at the time, "Patrons paid $4.65 to $6.65 for tickets" (Led Zeppelin: The Press Reports, Robert Godwin). It seemed a good idea to distance itself somewhat from such trying times by adding some footage later of Led Zeppelin's planned world tour in 1975 & 1976, but these plans would be derailed when Robert Plant suffered a jeep accident, thus putting the tour on hold. "Page used this period of inactivity to tie up the movie and soundtrack, using the footage shot with Joe Massot and employing Peter Clifton to arrange the technical aspects. The movie poster and sleeve design depicted a run-down picture house, which was based on Old Street studios, a London rehearsal theatre they used to perfect the 1973 US stage act prior to the tour." (Dave Lewis)
Massot never stood a chance. As Welch reports, he "had accumulated thousands of feet of film and now faced the mind-boggling task of trying to edit it together into a coherent movie. It almost broke up his marriage and drove him to a nervous breakdown." Subsequent screenings of the rough footage to the band went seriously awry, with one screening causing John Bonham to spit up his fish and chips as he laughed in derision at Jimmy Page's make-up as an old hermit during his fantasy sequence. Massot was shown the door and an Australian director (Clifton), someone the band remembered having approached for an earlier shot at filming them, was tapped to finish the job.
Clifton saw Massot's footage as a jumble that would be impossible to synch and edit together into cogent form unless drastic measures were taken - such as secretly re-recording the whole concert at the Shepperton Studios where they had often rehearsed before. Clifton recalls (as quoted in Welch's book): "I said to Led Zeppelin, 'If you are prepared to take the bits of Madison Square Garden including a couple of incredible action shots, I'll play you the soundtracks, project the bits on a huge screen in front of you and we'll put the cameras between you and the screen. When the shots come on, the soundtrack will be right, you play along and I'll shoot you again.' At first they couldn't believe I could do it and the trick was to work with an editor called David Gladwell, who had worked for Lindsay Anderson and later became a director himself. Between us we matched up these three nights from Madison Square Garden."
When the film was finally released three years after the initial Madison Square Concerts that inspired it, the opening grosses were a respectable $200,000 and the soundtrack album went platinum. There was a wide divide between the many critics who savaged The Song Remains the Same as a messy affair and the fans who gave the film a standing ovation at a New York premiere - presumably the same premiere that Joe Massot had to buy a ticket for from a scalper just to see what had finally come of the project he had launched. Whatever its shortcomings, fans would guarantee that the film continued playing long past its theatrical run as a staple on the midnight movie circuit. No matter how it was sliced-and-diced together this was, after all, and as Cameron Crowe cites in the liner notes to the soundtrack, Led Zeppelin's "first adventure into cinema."
Producer: Peter Grant
Director: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot
Cinematography: Ernest Day
Film Editing: Peter Clifton
Music: John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Cast: Jason Bonham, Patricia Bonham, Richard Cole, Roy Harper, Carmen Plant, Karic Plant, Maureen Plant.
by Pablo Kjolseth