VIDEO: Led Zeppelin, "Rock and Roll" (from The Song Remains the Same)
Led Zeppelin have rarely missed a promotional opportunity, and the occasion of their current reunion — one that brings Robert Plant and Jimmy Page back together with bassist John Paul Jones for the first time since their 1995 Hall of Fame induction — is no exception. With the December 10 London show set up to honor Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun fast approaching, Zep have reissued both the 1973 concert film The Song Remains the Same as a two-disc DVD (with a newly remastered soundtrack) and a brand new two-disc greatest-hits collection, Mothership, that also comes in a deluxe three-disc version with a 20-track DVD of live performances taken from the 2003 DVD set Led Zeppelin.
Unfortunately, The Song Remains the Same remains, after 25 years, one of the worst concert films ever. Or perhaps I should say it’s one of the more unfortunate advertisements for a rock band ever released as cinema, even if it has been responsible over the years for countless custom van paint jobs of wizards wielding mysterious lights at the top of a hill. That’s not to suggest that the film doesn’t have its redeeming moments: the performances of “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and even the title track go a long way toward conveying the special power of Zeppelin’s fusion of American blues and British folk. And until the 2003 live set was released, The Song Remains the Same was one of the very few live documents of Zeppelin running through their classic repertoire. But by 1973, the year The Song Remains the Same was recorded on an American tour (mostly at Madison Square Garden, though the DVD provides no specific information), Zeppelin were a behemoth of a band — the very epitome of the sort of excess that punk-rockers would rise up against just a few years later. As Robert Plant remarks in an interview about the film that’s part of the bonus disc, “If we’re going to be self-indulgent, we might as well try to expend that indulgence a bit.”
Or does he say “expand that indulgence a bit”? It’s hard to tell. But by ’73, it was no longer enough for Plant, Page, Jones, and drummer John Bonham to get up on stage and play. Everything had to be bigger and better than the last time around. (It says something about where the band’s collective head was at that they’ve included on the bonus disc a news clip from Tampa, where, yes, they finally sold more tickets to a rock show than the Beatles.) It was the era of an arms race in rock and roll, where every huge band would try to outdo every other huge band in terms of volume, light show, and costumery, almost all of which is absolutely unforgivable in The Song Remains the Same. I mean, who dressed John Paul Jones, and why didn’t somebody put a stop to it? Plant’s chest-baring outfit and Page’s black-magic suit aren’t particularly egregious, but Jones is wearing a frock that looks as if it belonged in Middle-earth. The show itself was all about Led Zeppelin overpowering the crowd with flashy displays of skill and volume. Thus the 23-minute version of “Dazed and Confused,” replete with all of Page’s sonic tricks, including the violin bow he’d been using since the band’s inception in ’68. (“Dazed and Confused” was, after all, a song he brought over from the Yardbirds when he formed Zeppelin.)
To say that The Song Remains the Same drags a bit in places would be too kind to films that actually do drag. And that’s just the first 10 minutes. After the gangsters have slain the werewolf (you really must see the film to appreciate just how absurd the little story lines are), Plant and his wife have enjoyed watching their children play in the nude, and Bonham has tooled around in one of his classic cars, it’s a big relief to see the band finally stepping off their plane in the States, on their way to the gig. The problem is that the gig keeps getting interrupted by these fantasy sequences, each of which is supposed to reflect something essential about the character of a bandmember — sort of like the animal costumes suggested in This Is Spinal Tap. So we get a rescue mission back to Middle-earth, where a maiden waits in distress, except it turns out that John Paul Jones is the hideous monster and he’s just headed home to spend a little time with his wife and kids, or something like that. And there’s Plant on horseback with his raven, riding to a castle to dispatch some bad guy with a sword, and Page climbing that hill toward the wizened white wizard, and more of Bonham zipping around with his cars and motorcycles — all interspersed among the actual performances, so that one minute you’re watching Page play a ripping solo and then next he’s off on some mountaintop.