Led Zeppelin's 1977 Tour - A Tragic Ending!
Led Zeppelin's 1977 Tour as told by Steven Rosen - rock journalist.
Steven Rosen has been a rock journalist for over 30 years interviewing the likes of Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Mick Fleetwood, Joe Perry, Billy Gibbons, Tom Petty, Les Paul, Ginger Baker and Brian Wilson just to mention a few of these rock legends.
Since 1973 Steven has accumulated over 1000 hours of audio content and 700 articles of published interviews. All this content is now available for licensing or purchase. Contact Steven Rosen for more information.
I’m sitting aboard Caesar’s Chariot, Led Zeppelin’s customized Boeing 707 jet. Appropriately named after the conquering emperor who was ultimately doomed by an addiction to his own glory, this flying fortress now carries onboard an invading modern-day musical force. Zeppelin has just annihilated a sellout crowd of pagan revelers in St. Louis. We’re returning to Chicago where the band has set up its base of operations, the city that will represent ground zero for the next several weeks.
For the previous two tours, in 1973 and 1975, they have adopted a similar strategy of positioning itself in one location and then flying out to concerts from a central point. It is the refuge for only the high and mightiest of groups. And it is the brainchild of tour manager Richard Cole, Peter Grant’s first lieutenant and longtime fixer.
“It (Led Zeppelin's 1977 tour) wasn’t a lot different to me from the ’75 tour; it was the same process of workin’, you know. We had our 707 jet, and I worked out what cities were in range of Chicago. It was easier to leave at 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon and then just go to our plane and fly straight into the city we were performing in. It was specifically because it was much better and more comfortable for us to be based in one city and fly in and out. And leave straight afterwards and go straight back to Chicago.”
And that’s where we’re headed now, back to the Windy City’s Ambassador East Hotel. I’ve been sequestered there for eleven days, a week-and-a-half of unchecked excess and dark rumblings. The former balances the latter. The plane, for instance, has been refitted to accommodate a bar, two bedrooms, a 30ft. couch, and a Hammond organ. Luxury comes at an uncomfortable price - $2500 per day leasing fees. Still, amidst this opulence, you can’t help but notice how John Bonham lumbers about the cabin, a bottle of something in his hand, greeting everyone he encounters with barely-concealed contempt.
Bonzo walks by me and I don’t dare make eye contact. This is one of the many instructions I’ve been informed of during my stay. I’m still seat-buckled in, trying to make myself inconspicuous and ruminating over what I’d been through this past week or so. Only a couple days earlier was I finally granted my first audience with the guitarist. I had begun to think that might not ever happen. But my room phone rang one late morning and a voice informed me that Jimmy would see me now. As I was ushered – you never walked anywhere within the hotel compound without an escort - into his spectacular suite – multiple rooms exquisitely furnished – it was impossible not to notice the busted telephone, the hole in the wall, and a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels perched on his nightstand. Telltale signs of an angry young musician. He would upend that bottle at regular intervals during our conversation. His speech would become increasingly slurred and deliberate but this was more than a guitarist getting drunk in the early afternoon.
This is 1977, Zeppelin’s eleventh U.S. tour, and Page’s drinking habits are by now, well documented. No, there’s more, an underlying current of anger in every word slowly muttered. As if he’s in a constant posture of self-defense or even, paranoia. In fact, he’s ripped the telephone from the wall because he felt intruded upon and didn’t want spying ears listening in.
“I’ve got two different approaches,” Jimmy explained, as he fiddled with the remnants of a broken telephone receiver. “I mean onstage is totally different than the way I approach it in the studio. (On) Presence, (I had) control over all the contributing factors to that LP – the fact that it was done in three weeks, and all the rest of it, is so good for me. It was just good for everything really, even though it was a very anxious point and the anxiety shows group-wise, you know. ‘Is Robert going to walk again from his auto accident in Greece?’ and all that sort of thing (on August 4, 1975, Robert, Maureen, Plant’s sister, and the singer’s and guitarist’s children were in a rented car that skidded out of control; Robert suffered a broken ankle and elbow and the children were severely bruised and traumatized).”
Obviously, Jimmy is still feeling the pain of that near-fatal crash. And so, Led Zeppelin's 1977 tour kicks off under a black cloud. This is just a small taste of the underlying drama that will haunt every aspect of the operation. No one realizes it at the time but this will be the foursome’s final fully blown march across America, their swansong.
Upon boarding for the return flight, Janine Safer, Swan Song publicist, has instructed me that it may happen on tonight’s flight – the all important follow-up. You come to recognize, early on, that the Zeppelin machine is well oiled and finely tuned. Schedules are maintained and rigidly enforced. If anything is going to happen, it’s because Zeppelin wants it to. They wield total control over their own destinies, and the fates of everyone around them. So, when the press liaison informs you there are 15 minutes to be squeezed in during a flight that only lasts 30, you heed the instruction.
Indeed, after reaching cruising altitude, I’m accompanied to the rear of the plane. Safer is on point, a monster of a security guard follows her, then me, and another security soldier brings up the rear. Military precision, though, for all the world, this feels more than anything else like a dead man walking. And I’m about to understand why. I greet Jimmy (it’s hard to tell whether he recognizes me from a few days ago or not), sit down, and begin talking. As I’m hunched over, trying to hear him above the din of the whirring white noise, from behind, a vise-like grip grabs my right shoulder. I’m thinking that was a fast 15 minutes when I’m physically lifted from the seat and violently spun around. Standing before me is one seriously pissed-off John Paul Jones. And that’s when my world unravels.
“Rosen, you #%*#@ @$#% liar, I should %^&*@# kill you.” The venom in his voice staggers me. I feel as if I’m having an out-of-body experience. But each time I shut my eyes and open them, I’m still there, standing on an airplane traveling 600 miles an hour, hurtling towards a destination I know I don’t want to reach.
What makes this all the more unnerving is that John Paul and I had spent some illuminating time together just two days after I’d arrived. No Jack, no mutilated furniture. Only a soft-spoken bass player telling me about his life.
“The first time, we all met in this little room just to see if we could even stand each other. It was wall-to-wall amplifiers and terrible, all old. Jimmy said, ‘Do you know a number called ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ I told him, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A.’ He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’ And we just sort of built it up from there. (And now) I wouldn’t be without Zeppelin for the world.”
And I believed him; you couldn’t help but believe him. Led Zeppelin was his life and passion and he was forever protecting it, as he told me, from those who would try to run it down. He was talking about critics, in the main, journalists who would tell him how much they admired the band and then turn around and write scathing reviews. And here, confronting me now, is all that passion turned poisonous.
The bassist hurls curse after curse, and even motions in a gesture carrying with it physical implications. Though I’ve never been in a fight in my life, his veiled threats do not cause me much alarm. John Paul, I felt, was someone against whom I could probably hold my own. No, it is the standing mountains of muscled beef surrounding him – his security team – that give me pause. They shoot me looks that convey a pretty simple message: Make even the slightest motion towards this man before you, and what happens next will surely be one of the less pleasant moments you’ll ever experience.
At that point, it’s hard to determine whether it’s more the fear or embarrassment that has rendered me speechless and immobile. But, no, it’s the fear, definitely the fear. As I fall in and out of moments of lucidity, I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been singled out for Jonesy’s personal attentions. Then I see, there in his right hand, a copy of Rock Guitarists. It is a compilation of Guitar Player stories collected over the past several years. He has rolled it up into a tube shape and smacks it repeatedly into his open left palm. I had written the Jeff Beck story gracing the cover and had brought copies for him and Jimmy. Peace offerings. They both knew Jeff, of course, and I thought the gesture would present me as a writer with a bit of street cred. And in that terrible second, it hits me – no, not the magazine as a billyclub – but the realization: I have sent Jonesy off the deep end because I’ve betrayed his trust. Repeatedly I told him how honored I was to be on the road with him. And I know he believed what I said – until he read what I’d written. The very thing that has brought me here is going to bury me. I had been warned. On the very day I arrived, the rules were outlined for me. And now, only eleven days later, I had already broken the 5th commandment. Incidentally, he also demanded all the interview tapes be returned. I instantly obliged.
Chalk it up to inexperience – and maybe no little bit of stupidity. At this point, I’ve only been freelancing for about 3 ½ years, plying my trade in various local and regional papers. I made my bones and cracked the inner sanctum of magazines like Creem and Circus. And then in December 1973, Guitar Player, after rejecting multiple submissions, accepted a Q&A on Jeff Beck and used it for that month’s cover. This is the story – the first one I’d ever written for GP – that would make Jones go crazy. It was my breakthrough as a fledgling scribe. And here, now, all that hard work was culminating with the opportunity of a lifetime. After nearly a year’s worth of phone calls to the Swan Song offices in New York, I was going to be given entrée to Led Zeppelin. I’d be allowed to travel with the band on their private plane and stay with them in the same hotel. After all this, getting this close, I was going to leave empty handed. Or with a broken finger - same difference.
The JPJ encounter will finally resolve itself, but in order to put things in true perspective, it’s essential to understand the juggernaut that was Led Zeppelin. By 1977, the quartet had nothing left to prove and no one left to prove it to. On April 30th of that year, the band had set a new world’s record for the largest paid attendance at a single-artist performance. They drew 76,229 people to a concert at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and grossed a staggering $792,361.50 (also a record breaker). The concert was sold out in one day.
The year before, Led Zeppelin had been the Best Group in the Circus Reader’s Poll. Page kicked Jeff Beck and Brian May a couple pegs down the popularity ladder to maintain his spot as Best Guitarist. Robert Plant was voted Number One Male Vocalist; and Plant and Page had a lock on the Best Songwriting team, pushing Elton John and Bernie Taupin down a notch.
Also, in 1976, the group issued Presence, an album that truly revealed the band’s complex musical makeup (though not selling tremendously well). And later that same year saw the release of the soundtrack for The Song Remains The Same, the film revealing personality-through-indulgence. This hedonism would be carried to ridiculous extremes on the upcoming tour.
Needless to say, here was a band that lived life like super heroes. They were pampered and treated as kings and couldn’t see, or refused to, that they were being devoured by the very machine they’d created. Still, when you were with them, you, too, became a part of their bigger-than-life adventure.
“I am sure we all felt a little invincible on this tour,” explains Gary Carnes, head of the lighting crew. “By being associated with Led Zeppelin, it seemed impossible not to have a false sense of power. I am sure the band felt that way and I know everyone on the road crew had a feeling of being invulnerable.”
On the day I arrived, a black limo had been sent to the airport to retrieve me. After a glass of champagne, I, too, could feel wings sprouting. Janine Safer, the group’s publicist, accompanied me, and as we rode back she instructed me on the Five Rules of Engagement:
Rule 1. Never talk to anyone in the band unless they first talk to you.
Rule 2. Do not talk to Peter Grant or Richard Cole – for any reason.
Rule 3. Keep your cassette player turned off at all times unless conducting an interview.
Rule 4. Never ask questions about anything other than music.
Rule 5. Most importantly, understand this – the band will read what is written about them. The band does not like the press. This is the one that would prove my undoing.
Not much to get lost in translation here. Seemed simple enough. I do hesitate for the briefest of moments before handing to Janine two copies of a special issue Guitar Player magazine. I’ve brought them along because I thought they might curry favor with the band. Little did I know. She tells me she’ll personally deliver them to John Paul and Jimmy.
I have arrived during the first leg of the American tour. The kickoff segment began on April 1 – April Fools’ Day - in Dallas, Texas, and notwithstanding record-breaking attendances and grosses to come, everything seems filtered through a glass, darkly. No one is able to erase Plant’s near disastrous car accident a couple years earlier and now, the 51-show, thirty-city invasion kicks off a month late due to the singer’s contraction of tonsillitis. Additionally, Peter Grant has suffered through the ignominy of a wife dumping. And so it didn’t take long before the Fantastic Four started succumbing to the weight of this terrible cloud bearing down upon them. After only the second performance, in Chicago, Page was taken sick, owing to what Jack Calmes describes as the “rockin’ pneumonia.” Calmes is head of Showco, the company that provided lights, sound, staging, and logistics for the tour.
“There was an extraordinary amount of tension at the start of that tour,” recalls Calmes. “It just got off to a negative start. It was definitely much darker than any Zeppelin tour ever before that time (Jack and company were involved in the 1973 and 1975 tours). The kind of people they had around them had deepened into some really criminal types. I think Richard Cole and perhaps some of the band and everybody around the band was so far into drugs at that point, that the drugs turned on them. They still had their moments of greatness (but) some of the shows were grinding and not very inspired.”
Indeed, of the four or five performances I witnessed, the band felt as if it was
merely playing by numbers. Though there was no opening act and they often played for more than three hours, the music had no life, no emotion. Many crowds grew unruly during the marathon performances, throwing firecrackers and various other garbage at the stage. I saw more than one Zeppelin bouncer grab an offending party and muscle him/her outside.
Gary Carnes, Showco’s lighting chief, had a bird’s eye view of every show. Sitting on stage about ten feet in front of the guitarist, he heard conversations, sotto voce, between Page and Plant.
“I could hear what they were saying. Quite often Robert would announce a song and Jimmy would go, ‘Robert, how does that song go?’ And Robert would sort of turn around and hum it to him. And Jimmy would go, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah, I got it, I got it.’ Or Robert would announce a song and Jimmy would go into the wrong song. And the times when Jimmy couldn’t remember how a song went, it was just very, very rare but it did happen.”
Besides these problems inside the arenas, there were almost nightly rituals of crazed Zeppelin fans outside engaging in minor scuffles with local police. Prior to the St. Louis show, I witnessed ardent but non-ticketed fans attempting to break through barricades. Roaming packs of hardcore Zep devotees threw beer cans and generally engaged in low-key mayhem. During one arrival, Peter Grant emerged from his limo and walked over to a phalanx of policemen holding at bay a crowd of rowdy would-be gatecrashers. Though I couldn’t hear specifically what the 300-pound plus manager was saying, his actions were startlingly clear. He pointed to several of his own security crew and motioned them in the direction of the battling cops. Grant would make certain no one entered the concert without a ticket.
Peter Grant, former bouncer and wrestler, was, in many respects, the physical embodiment of a led zeppelin. Standing over six feet and weighing over 300 pounds, he used his intimidating presence to maintain order and to keep his charges safe and worry-free. He was protective, and by ’77, insanely so. He isolated them as much as possible; hence, the private plane and the ritualized hierarchy of security, handlers, and crew. He accepted no insubordination from his own people, and with outsiders his brand of justice was swift and not necessarily just. His raison d’etre was simple - protecting his band and their finances. When a bootlegger or unauthorized photographer was identified, it was the lucky offending party who was let off with merely a severe verbal reprimand and confiscation of unauthorized t-shirts and film. I never saw an incident escalate from there, but I was told about one.
“I took the plans and everything over to the band in England before this tour happened,” recalls Showco’s president, Jack Calmes. “They had their offices on Kings Road and spent most of the time down the street in the pub. But we had a big meeting and we were upstairs in Peter Grant’s office and they said, ‘OK, Calmes (purposely mispronouncing his name as Calm-us instead of the proper Cal-mees), what have you got for this tour?’ So I stood up and gave my presentation and showed them all these cool lighting effects and lasers and said the price will be $17,500 per show. The whole room went dead silent. They kind of looked at the window and Bonham went over and raised the window like they were going to throw me out of the window. And they might have done it. Then after this drama went on for what seemed like a long time, they all just started dying laughing. Because I’m sure I looked like I was about to shit my pants.”
Zeppelin humor. Well, no one was laughing when John Paul Jones confiscated my tapes. I can understand Jack’s apprehension because the flight back seemed interminable. We returned to the Ambassador East, I packed my bags, and prepared for an early-morning flight back to Los Angeles. Menacing scowls from bouncers told me I was an unwanted entity and I made a hasty retreat. Janine came to my hotel room door and encouraged me to go and talk to John Paul, to try and explain my side of the story. I went down to his hotel suite, knocked, and as it swung open, my head went blank, my tongue shriveled and I stood there, once again, like an idiot. As a failsafe, I had written him a letter. I handed it to him, he took it, and shocked me by returning my tapes. He told me he thought I was a lowlife piece of shit and the worst writer he’d ever read, but that I did have a responsibility to the magazine.
I wrote the story and the cover appeared on GP’s July 1977 issue. It was a great piece and though I wish it could have been more extensive, I was quite happy with it. Page was on the cover and John Paul was the main feature.
One evening, about a month after the Zeppelin road trip, I’m at the Starwood club in West Hollywood. I’m sitting there with my brother, Mick, watching Detective, the band Swan Song was signing to its label. Mick tells me John Paul Jones is in the corner and he’s walking this way. I’d told him about the encounter and I know he’s just goofing with me. I turn around and once again, Jonesy confronts me. I don’t know whether to go into a boxer’s crouch or what when he extends his hand in friendship. He had read my letter and understood that what I’d written in that Jeff Beck story was created by an inexperienced journalist. He loved the story. We hugged.
Not that it’s important but the offending line was, “A contemporary of Beck, Jimmy Page has failed to recreate the magic he performed as guitarist for The Yardbirds. Led Zeppelin started off as nothing more than a grandiose reproduction of Beck’s past work..” and so on. It was stupid and ridiculous and I’m ashamed to this day for authoring it.
Jones was in town to see Detective and to play six nights at the Inglewood Forum, another record-breaking achievement. Following Los Angeles, the band flew to Oakland for the final dates of the tour. If there had been no significance in the Zeppelin curse, what happened in Northern California certainly breathed new life into the legend. It was a terrible, dark, and ominous way to finish things out. Jack Calmes was there and he describes the violence of Zeppelin’s last dance.
“I was standing right by the trailer when all this went down. Peter Grant’s kid (Warren), kind of spoiled, was there, and he walked into a secure area and one of Bill Graham’s guards kind of moved him aside; he didn’t hurt him or anything. The Bindon brothers and Peter grabbed this guy, took him into one of the trailers, and beat the crap out of him. I wasn’t in the trailer but I was right outside and this guy was a pretty tough guy and they were taking him apart in there. From what I understand they tried to pull out one of his eyes, really bad shit. John Bindon, who was in on this, subsequently murdered a guy and went to prison for life.
“The Bindon brothers were the thugs that were friends of Peter Grant’s and were on this whole tour as security guards. And they kind of brought an element of darkness into this thing. The only thing I remember about John Bindon is that we were in The Roxy (in Los Angeles, prior to the Oakland shows) and he was in the back corner with Zeppelin and he had his dick out swinging it for a crowd of about 50 people that could see it.
“Yeah, John Bindon later stabbed this guy through the heart; it sounds like something out of a blues song.”
Richard Cole, another principal, takes up the story.
“When the band came off the stage, Peter went after the guy with Johnny Bindon. I was outside the caravan with an iron bar, making sure no one could get in and get hold of them because people were after Granty and Bindon then. The next day, the four of us got arrested. Fortunately we were lucky because one of our security guys knew one of the guys on the S.W.A.T. team and said to them, “These guys aren’t dangerous, I’ve worked for them for years.” And so they agreed and they asked Peter and John Bindon and John Bonham and myself to meet them. They handcuffed us, took us off to jail, and then they let us out after an hour or so. And off we went.”
And indeed, if the saga of Led Zeppelin was being played out in the lyrics of an unfinished blues song, this was not the final verse. The ’77 tour had taken a terrible toll on everyone and all anyone could think of was putting as much distance between himself and fellow musicians as possible. Following this ordeal in Oakland, the members separated: John Paul remained in California and went on a camping trip with family; Jimmy and Peter remained in San Francisco; and Bonzo, Cole, and Plant headed to New Orleans, the site of their next show. Within hours of arriving at the Royal Orleans hotel, Robert received a call from his wife. The last verse was being written.
“The first phone call said his son was sick,” describes Cole, “and the second phone call, unfortunately, Karac had died in that time.”
The song would never again remain the same. In 1979, the band played some warm up dates at Denmark’s Falkonerteatret and, in August, the pair of landmark shows at Knebworth. About a year later, on September 24, 1980, John Bonham would be found dead of an overdose. He was at Page’s house at the time.
“I will never forget the final words I heard Robert Plant say,” sums up lighting director, Gary Carnes. “It would be my final show with them, my 59th show with them. I was on stage and this was the second show at Knebworth. The band had just finished playing ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ Robert stood there just looking out over a sea of screaming fans with cigarette lighters. There were about 350,000 people in the audience. It was a magical, mystical moment. He then walked to the edge of the downstage portion of the stage with the microphone. And again, just stood there looking. And then he said, ‘It is very, very hard to say ….. Goodnight.’ It was an enchanting thing to witness. I will never forget that moment.”
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