Paul Jones uncovers the story of Led Zeppelin’s initially tepidly-received, now widely lauded, live album The Song Remains The Same – remastered and reissued by Rhino/Warner this month.

Despite guitarist Jimmy Page breaking a fingertip and Robert Plant losing his voice to the flu, Led Zeppelin began a 39-date North American tour in January 1975 to support their forthcoming sixth studio album, the double LP Physical Graffiti.

Five nights, three in succession, at London’s Earl’s Court in May followed before the band took a break from the punishing tour commitments. With dates booked in the US, Asia and Europe from August through to December, they had planned to reconvene in Paris on August 14 to rehearse.

However on August 4, Led Zeppelin’s own record label – the London-based Swan Song – received a call from Rhodes, an island off Greece, informing them that Robert Plant and his family had been involved in a car crash. A broken ankle, foot and elbow put Plant on the course to what would become a lengthy convalescence. Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant had no option but to cancel the remaining tour dates.

The band managed to record their seventh album, Presence, in late ’75 while Plant recovered, and it was released the following March. But the astute Grant was mindful of Zeppelin’s absence from the live circuit, and with Plant’s continued troubled rehabilitation preventing them from performing, he needed a solution.

The answer came in a series of three shows that Zeppelin had performed – and filmed – at the end of their North American tour in late July 1973 at Madison Square Garden. In a last minute decision before the planned dates, the band and Grant fronted up the cash themselves and approached director Joe Massot to capture the three nights for a proposed film. Legendary producer and audio engineer Eddie Kramer was enlisted to record the performances.

Thoroughly unhappy with the film shot by Massot, an enraged Grant fired him on the spot and recruited the late Australian director Peter Clifton to see what could be salvaged. Clifton quickly deduced that much of the footage was unrestorable and suggested that the band recreate the stage and wear the same clothes so Clifton could shoot some close-ups. The group duly complied, re-enacting the gig a year later in August 1974 at Shepperton Studios, England, performing to a playback screen. In the interim, bassist John Paul Jones had cut his hair short, so he had to wear a wig.

The Song Remains The Same premiered in October 1976 to mixed reviews. The majority of the criticism centered on the banal fantasy sequences of the band interwoven with the live performances. A live soundtrack double album was released in conjunction with the film and featured nine tracks including a 27-minute version of Dazed and Confused.

Also check out the band’s Complete BBC Sessions.

Known for the their excessive exploits both on and off the stage, the double album captured Led Zeppelin at the zenith of their success; a seemingly insurmountable dominance in both the recorded and live arena. The Song Remains The Same is filled with ambitious – bordering on hedonistic – improvised versions of studio songs, a trait Jimmy Page adhered to throughout the band’s 12-year career.

Poorly received on release (even the band registered disdain for the album), the perception has changed immeasurably over the years, as younger audiences turned on to the band, eager to hear what Led Zeppelin sounded like live at the apex of their career. The Song Remains The Same provides a pertinent historic snapshot of the band that revolutionised stadium rock in the 1970s.

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