The Summer of ’69: When Led Zeppelin Landed In Milwaukee   Leave a comment

August 19, 2011

Reassessing Led Zeppelin Forty Years Later

It’s not like it’s right in front of you, in plain sight. Well, actually, it often is. But the problem is perspective. People in airplanes look down at the earth and see “ants” walking around and driving cars. Ants look up and see “bugs” flying through the air leaving vapor trails behind them.

In a conversation the other day, a friend and I were talking about Led Zeppelin and which of their recordings—more than 40 years later—were still relevant, interesting, and from a personal perspective, worth listening to. Over the years I had not fully embraced Led Zeppelin as one of the “must have in my record collection” acts to emerge from the post-Beatles Invasion era. It wasn’t about their talent, musicianship, amazing success, or cultural relevance. It was simply about whether the songs and the recordings connected with me personally. And that’s always the rub with the arts.  Perhaps, with a little bit of focus, I could actually gain the perspective needed. Thinking out loud, I finally came to the realization that there is a long list of Zeppelin recordings that I might include on a desert island i-Pod.  I stopped counting when I got to 23:

“All My Love” • “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” • “Black Mountain Side” • “Bring It On Home” • “D’Yer Mak’er” • “Dazed and Confused” • “Fool In The Rain” • “Going To California” • “Good Times, Bad Times” • “How Many More Times” • “I Can’t Quit You Baby” • “Immigrant Song” • “Kashmir” • “Over The Hills and Far Away” • “Rock And Roll” • “Since I’ve Been Loving You” • “Stairway To Heaven” • “Thank You” • “The Lemon Song” • “The Rain Song” • “Whole Lotta Love” • “You Shook Me” • “Your Time Is Gonna Come”

Upon further reflection—and a re-listen to a dozen selections from the above list—it becomes obvious that most of their songs get hold of you from the opening guitar riffs, while others have some element midway or late in the recording that ties the whole thing together. “Dazed and Confused” needs only 8-seconds of the bass-line and Jimmy Page’s guitar harmonics; “Immigrant Song” hooks you within the first 20-seconds, and pulls you in when Robert Plant’s vocal takes off; “Thank You” starts 26-seconds in, the moment Plant sings the first two lines of the lyrics. And if “The Lemon Song” (“Killing Floor”) hasn’t gotten your immediate attention, that will change in about 3 1/2 minutes when Plant moves to the refrain “Squeeze my lemon…”. Sex always sells. As for any of us late-bloomers, who knew that their opening riffs, melodic hooks, and high energy sound could quietly slip into one’s subconscious?

On August 8, 1965, rock ‘n’ roll concert-touring changed forever. On that day, The Beatles performed for more than 50,000 people at Shea Stadium in New York and helped move concerts outdoors with a vengeance. I wasn’t there. (fyi, ticket prices on August 8 ranged from $4.50 to $5.65; and yes, rock ‘n’ roll performed outdoors before the Beatles, but the magnitude of the possibilities hadn’t been realized prior to Shea.)

Four years after Shea I attended a concert at the State Fairgrounds on the west side of Milwaukee. In 1969, this type of outdoor venue was a still-developing reality in the music industry—specifically, as a regular option for an increasingly important part of rock-music concert touring; and the performance at the Fairgrounds pre-dated the creation of a local dedicated fair-weather concert venue—Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley—by almost a decade. In its inevitable march to improve gross revenue by tapping into the potential of the outdoor summer season, more and more rock ‘n’ roll concerts began moving outdoors, at least for music’s major artists. Some of these venues were “shed” dates, outdoor venues (like the Wisconsin’s Fairgrounds) with music fans at race tracks or rodeo grounds. Others were larger venues, like baseball and football stadiums. And 1969 was going to be the year remembered for the mother of all outdoor venues (then or since). I saw Led Zeppelin in Milwaukee on Friday, July 25, 1969. Three weeks later the Woodstock nation descended on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York.

What was unique in my perceived 20/20 hindsight, was having been so close, literally, to the music. I had an access pass that enabled me to stand at the edge of the stage. (The pass was a then-small token of friendship based on my having worked at the local “Underground” radio station WZMF-FM, having played throughout the area as a local musician, and having begun my record label career in Milwaukee that year.) For the day, equipment included the new standard of massive amplifiers, drum kits, numerous microphone stands, and lighting rigs. However, from a contemporary perspective, there was a noticeable dearth of security people, all of whom were positioned randomly along the front of the stage, or were along the sides or in back to prevent the uninvited any easy access the stage. Compared to the rather imposing security people at most live events today, it was like asking the local Brownie or Cub Scout troop to handle security.

Standing along side the stage was the perfect vantage point to see one of the most important new imports from England. With Led Zeppelin’s first chord, the audience erupted. Considering the fact that this was an outdoor venue without any real roof (other than the covered stage performance area) the noise was startling. (Had it been a sold-out show, it might have actually been thunderous.) But forget the noise; once the music took over, the audience spent more time listening than screaming. In contrast to the scene at many a Beatles concert, where the noise was often a steady din of incoherent screaming mixed with the ongoing shouts of “I Love You Paul” (or Ringo, or John, or George, etc.,) this audience was more interested in offering occasional outbursts than drowning out the music. At least that’s the way it sounded at the epicenter.  I don’t honestly remember the set (which is available here), but I remember the performance, including Robert Plant singing “Squeeze my lemon….”  It’s a lyric that you don’t easily miss or forget. I remember turning to look at the audience to see if any volunteers were moving toward the stage to assist Plant.

In any case, the conversation with my friend brought back memories. Picking up on my Led Zeppelin confessional at the start of this blog, I liked what I heard at the show that day, but I spent the next few decades in denial. I guess I couldn’t bring myself to recognize their importance in the genre even with the release of what today are considered landmark albums, i.e., Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II  in 1968 and 1969 respectively. I can stand here today and declare: The music ignites memories beyond the recordings and the recordings themselves do continue to resonate with me.

I didn’t know it then, but so many years ago, on that Friday evening in Milwaukee, Led Zeppelin’s music snuck into my brain and stayed there. Today is the moment when perspective is transformed into clarity. It’s like completing a 12-step program in “Led Zeppelin under-appreciation”. Whew. I feel so much better.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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