Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Led Zeppelin

 It started with a babysitter. In 1969, my parents went out of town and left me and my brother with one of my father’s graduate students. I was almost 11. She was fun and attractive and quickly figured out that we were young rockers. One night she had to go to her house to feed her dog. She took us along. I remember she cut up a couple of hot dogs for her German Shepherd, and then went over to her record collection and pulled out something she was excited about. “Have you heard this yet?” She brandished an LP with a black and white photo of the Hindenburg going down. I knew all about the Hindenburg because of an LP called I Can Hear It Now, a compilation of news clips that included that famous breathless reporter describing the giant airship bursting into flames and crashing in 1937. I was immediately intrigued. She put it on, and like much great music, it scared me. It was heavy with intense guitar and the singer actually seemed to be screaming. It was very different than most of the stuff I was hearing on the radio. Within a few weeks my brother had procured his own copy of Led Zeppelin I. We listened obsessively. This stuff was earthy and exotic at the same time. The music actually matched that incredible image on the cover-especially the side A closer “Dazed and Confused” which defined heavy to my ears. It was the sound of “gee-wiz” popular music crashing and burning on the ground.

Not too long after, Led Zeppelin II was released. Amazingly it had that same image of the burning Zeppelin on the cover again. This time with a sepia-toned photo of the band dressed as World War flying aces superimposed over it. I couldn’t believe their audacity and their confidence. When I heard the single “Whole Lotta Love” on the radio, I just about shit. It once again pushed the boundaries of heavy-with the most punishing opening riff of all time, and a multi-part epic that covers so much ground it feels like you’ve traveled the world in 5 and a half minutes. Led Zeppelin II perfectly describes the end of the 60’s and beginning of the 70’s to me. It has the color and mystery of much of the best stuff of the 60’s but it takes a giant, thudding step forward to a new heaviosity. Years later, when I owned a record store, I learned about and actually got a copy of the rare “Sterling RL.” copy of the album. With recording engineer Robert Ludwig’s initials carved into the trail-off wax, this version of the album is cut much louder than a normal record. It is a profound listening experience.

I can only think of one or two other bands that changed the way Zep did musically. Like The Beatles, every one of their subsequent albums was completely different that the others, and they always seemed to break some new sonic ground. Led Zeppelin III had one of the greatest covers of all time, Houses of the Holy felt like an invocation to a witches ritual, IV contained anthem after anthem, and Physical Graffiti was so full of amazing songs and different styles you just couldn’t believe it was one band doing all this. It still seems like some huge career-spanning best-of instead of just another album in their catalog.

Then there is the photo. Early on in the store, I had a great customer named Steve “Jellyroll” Morton. A true fan and a great guitar player in his own right, he was a big part of the early store. One day he came into the store with a photo. He said, “Did you know Zeppelin played their first American show in Denver?” I didn’t. They had been the opening act for Spirit at Denver auditorium in 1968. Jellyroll had gone to see Spirit, but stuck his camera up over his head and randomly taken a shot of the opening act. The photo was amazing! Jimmy Page onstage playing his psychedelically hand-painted strat with a violin bow. Wow! This could not be cooler. I begged Jellyroll to make me a copy. He finally relented and I proudly hung it up in the store. As it turned out the psychedelically painted strat was stolen from Page shortly after the Denver show. Somehow it got back to Page that we had this picture and he wanted a copy. I contacted Jellyroll and Page was given a copy of this amazing photo when Plant and Page played at Fiddler’s Green. A number of years later, a guy from England called me out of the blue and had also heard about the photo. He wanted it because it showed a rare amplifier in the background. I made him a copy too. Another great piece of Denver rock and roll history. Thanks, Jellyroll!

Jimmy Page at Led Zeppelin's first American show-Denver Auditorium 1968-
with the fated Stratocaster 

And then there was the time I had a whole convention’s worth of record store owners in my living room sometime in the early 2000’s. At just the right moment, when everybody was lit up just bright enough, I slipped in disc 2 of The Led Zeppelin DVD set (possibly the greatest selection of live performances ever assembled of any band) and cued up The Ocean from Madison Square Garden lou-ow-d. A room full of 30, 40 and 50 something hipsters all dropped their jaws and collectively reveled in a moment of pure rock and roll bliss. It was great and to a person everyone came up to me and said some variation of “OMG, I forgot how great Zep was.” It never fails.

Paul Epstein

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