Led Zeppelin's 1977 tour of North America-their eleventh in nine years-was unquestionably their biggest, and indeed the biggest tour of its kind yet attempted at that time. Originally scheduled to hit 29 cities over a 5 month span, had the tour been completed as planned the band would have performed for approximately 1.3 million paying customers in halls ranging from the 10,000 seat Dallas Memorial Auditorium to the 95,000-capacity JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.
In many ways it was the very magnitude of this tour, and the previously unimagined heights of their popularity, that caused it to be fraught with so much anxiety and trouble. Though the planned 1980 North American tour (cancelled when Bonzo died) was to have been even bigger, the scale of the '77 tour seemed to push the envelope to the very limit, especially when viewed in hindsight.
Originally scheduled to start in March but delayed a month due to Plant's tonsillitis, the tour was plagued with crowd problems even before it got underway. Their enormous popularity insured record breaking attendance such as the 76,229 they drew to the Pontiac Silverdome (breaking their own attendance record for a single-act show set on the '73 tour in Tampa), but it also brought the potential for trouble.
Just the process of selling advance tickets created such a frenzy in Houston that 3000 fans were hosed down by the fire department after stampeding a Warehouse Records & Tapes ticket outlet, breaking windows and causing one customer to be taken away in an ambulance with cuts on his face.
And once the tour was underway, the enormous and unruly crowds caused problems at many of the venues. In Houston, 40 people were arrested after causing a reported $500,000 damage to the Summit; in Cleveland, a similar story resulted in 37 arrests and $30,000 damage; in Seattle, a railroad worker on a passing freight train was injured by a bottle flung from the crowd waiting in line; and in a little-publicized incident in Cincinnati, a fan was killed when the crowd got unruly enough to inadvertently push him off an outside ramp on the third level of the stadium.
The most well-known crowd debacle of the tour came at Tampa Stadium, where rain forced the band to leave the stage after playing for only 20 minutes. With tension already high due to heavy police presence and strong-arm security, the announcement that the show was cancelled led to a full scale riot, resulting in dozens of injuries, arrests, and the subsequent announcement from city and venue officials that Led Zeppelin would not be allowed to reschedule the show at all.
Events such as these were not necessarily unique to Led Zeppelin. In the late '70s rampant drug use, general rowdiness and police confrontations at rock shows were standard procedure. Zeppelin's shows, however, drew an especially wild element, and created an at-mosphere of frenzy that tended to tip things just a bit further over the edge than most other shows-they were the world's biggest band, after all, embarking on the world's biggest tour.
This is not to say that Zeppelin themselves could be held directly responsible for the crowd problems. Peter Grant, local promoters and law enforcement went to great lengths to see that crowd security was sufficient, even so there were many times when things got out of control in one way or another.
It all just went with the territory, with the hugeness of the band, and it was something that Zeppelin themselves expressed some discomfort with. "The big business nature of the band has always been more of a hazard than anything else," said Jimmy Page at the time. "One day you're just playing guitar and the next day there's a knock on the door and you realize you're in the realms of high finance. It's very heavy."
"Everybody goes through that 'where do I stand in all this?' scene when their audiences go up from clubs to concerts to gigantic arenas and you wonder how far you should go," mused Robert Plant. "There's a kind of excitement in an American audience that belongs only to an American audience. There's a lot of mishandling of kids by the authorities, and there are a lot of kids without manners who don't contemplate their neighbor at all-so that there is a lot of interplay which you're aware of [from the stage]. These things go with the excitement of the moment, I guess, but why people go around armed with firecrackers is beyond me.
"[With] festival seating you got people who've been queuing up all afternoon and they're the first in. By the third number, say, there's this great milling of people and it's a bit chaotic. I have to spend about 30 minutes trying to convince these folk that it would be much better for us and them if they had some semblance of order. Worst of all is the realization that if the mob scenes continue, and people are milling around in a crush, somebody is going to get hurt and hit the deck. It is a constant worry."
Promoter Bill Graham, in the end no friend of the Zeppelin organization but a keen observer of the rock crowds of the '70s, made this observation: "Led Zeppelin always drew a difficult element. A lot of male aggression came along with their shows. This was during the warp of the 70s, which was a very strange era. It was anarchy without a cause. And there were a lot of rebels without causes out there in the audience whenever Led Zeppelin performed."
One of the worst audience problems from the band's standpoint was the proliferation of fireworks, at best a noisy distraction and at worst an enormous potential danger to both audience members and the band. There were idiots in the crowd lighting firecrackers as early as the "Blueberry Hill" show in September 1970-at the very end of that set Plant is shocked by a loud bang and shouts, "Who threw that firecracker? Do you want to go to jail?!" Unfortunately, by 1977 he had gotten more used to dealing with this as the problem had become much worse, and it didn't help matters to be touring the U.S. in June and July, when fireworks become a national pastime in celebration of Independence Day.
Throughout the tour the band was forced to deal with the explosions, doing their best to ignore them and keep playing. In extreme cases Robert would reprimand the crowd and at times even stop the show. The worst incident came in June at one of the Garden dates in New York, where Page was actually hit on the right hand by an exploding cherry bomb. The show was stopped and Jimmy left the stage, but mercifully he was uninjured and the concert continued.
Adding to the problems beyond the band's control were a number of situations within the Zeppelin organization itself. The most commonly discussed of these was reportedly rampant drug use amongst the band, crew, and especially Jimmy Page. There are conflicting reports about what Page specifically was into. In stark contrast to Richard Cole's money-driven accounts of massive heroin and cocaine consumption, 'Creem' Magazine writer Jaan Uhelszki, after spending time on the road with the band, reported that ". . . the general consensus of the members of this tour is that the usually excessive and over-indulgent Mr. Page is virtually drug free. In fact, Robert was overheard to say that this is the first time in years that Jimmy has been straight, adding that this was just like the old days."
In commenting on an incident where some quaaludes were missing from infamous tour doctor Larry Badgley's bag, Jimmy said, "I don't know who the doctor thinks he is, asking me if I took his drugs, especially now, when this is the first time I've been healthy in years." Uhelzski went on to wryly observe that ". . . we can reasonably assume that healthy is a euphemism for straight."
Since Jimmy Page himself has never come out and discussed any of this himself, none of us can be certain of what was going on. What is apparent, however, is that by Jimmy's definition, "healthy" is a relative term. The irrefutable recorded evidence of their 1977 performances shows a level of inconsistency remarkable even for the always-reaching improvisers in Led Zeppelin. There are nights from the tour where it seemed Jimmy could barely finger the guitar, much less produce the speedy intricacies of "Song Remains The Same" or "Achilles."
On April 9th in Chicago, the show was cut short after only an hour, due to Page experiencing severe stomach cramps, reportedly due to food poisoning. "It's the first time we've ever stopped a gig like that," said Page the next day. "We always have a go, really, but the pain was unbearable-if I hadn't sat down I would have fallen over."
Never known as the robust, outdoorsy-type, reports of Jimmy maintaining an all-liquid diet of vitamin-laced banana daiquaris added to the doubts about his general physical state. 'Trouser Press' writer Dave Shulps, who spent several days scheduling and re-scheduling an authorized interview with Page through Swan Song publicist Janine Safer, got his first offstage glimpse of Jimmy on board the tour plane and claimed, "At first sight I was struck by how extremely frail he appeared, escorted by a bodyguard who seemed almost to be propping him up." When the interview finally began, Shulps described Jimmy as ". . . remarkably thin and pale, his sideburns showing a slight touch of grey, his skin exhibiting a wraith-like pallor. I found it hard to believe this was the same person I had seen bouncing around the stage at Madison Square Garden earlier that week. [He] spoke slowly and softly in a sort of half-mumble half-whisper which matched his frail physical appearance."
In addition to Page's questionable health and the unquestionable number of musically "off" nights, the 1977 tour was marred by a road and security crew, assembled by Peter Grant, that was exceedingly heavy-handed even by Zeppelin's standards. A sizable crew of immense men, described by more than one onlooker as "thugs," was headed by their infamous road manager Richard Cole and Peter Grant's personal assistant John Bindon, a "London gangster" who, as legend had it, was once convicted for murder.
This intimidating crew's job included keeping the stars in-sulated from the hassles of everyday life on the road, screening groupies and visitors and procuring drugs and other luxuries on command. They also developed-and apparently reveled in-a nasty reputation as unnecessarily vicious heavies. Reports of strong-arming promoters, roughing up persistent fans, wrecking hotels and restaurants and then paying off or intimidating the victims ran rampant-and were generally kept from the press-throughout the tour.
It was in this atmosphere of thuggery and simmering violence that the tour reached its nadir-and unexpected conclusion-at two Bill Graham promoted shows in Oakland on July 23 & 24. In an oft-related incident touched off by Peter Grant's son Warren allegedly being treated roughly at the hands of a Bill Graham security man, Graham's employee was cornered and beaten up in a trailer by Peter Grant and John Bindon on the day of the first concert. John Bonham and Richard Cole were also involved in the incident.
Zeppelin's lawyers forced Graham to sign a statement waiving the band of responsibility before playing the second date. Knowing that the paper was not legally binding, Graham did sign it, however following the second show he filed charges and on July 25, Bonham, Grant, Bindon and Cole were arrested and taken to jail by the Oakland police department. Though immediately freed on bail, the whole thing dragged on for a year and a half before finally being settled out of court for something like $50,000.
Though the Zeppelin people involved were in no way justified in using violence to settle the dispute, it is known that Bill Graham was a man with something of a harsh reputation himself. As Robert Plant observed several years later, "It was one empire-builder and marauder moving into an area where there was already an empire with some kind of Tartar head. Peter Grant moving into Bill Graham. But you are what you employ. Really. And Bill does like a nice, clean ship. It was all from out of the tiniest event. Egos and territories and domains and kingdoms and pecking orders and all the kind of crap that is rock and roll came into being. It had nothing to do with money. It just had to do with that kind of intangible thing that hovers somewhere between your feet and the top of your hair. It's that power, you know?"
Jimmy Page was asked about the debacle in a 1988 interview with Charles M. Young and had this to say: "All those horrific stories about what's supposed to have happened there, I don't think it was as bad as what it was built up to be, to be truthful with you. I'm not saying that something didn't happen. But you know what it's like over there. If you sneeze on someone, they'll sue you. It got blown out of proportion."
As for Bill Graham, immediately following the event he stated to the press that "I could never in good conscience book them again," and years later he commented, "It was never close to a total vindication for me. I really was very disappointed at what happened in the end. It was a bitter disappointment. One of the large ones. Because how often do you really get to expose something that should be exposed in terms of the abuse of power? Back then, Led Zeppelin was the king of the world. They surrounded themselves with physical might. The element around them was oppressive. They were ready to kill at the slightest provocation. The sad thing is that I got a lot of hate mail on this from real Led Zeppelin fans. Before John Bonham died, there was still a chance that the band might regroup. People blamed me for the fact that they would not be coming back to the Bay Area, because I had said that I would never book them again."
Though he may never have felt vindicated, some kind of a truce must have been reached by 1985, when the paths of Graham and Zeppelin crossed again at Live Aid in Philadelphia. And as stage manager of the Atlantic 40th Anniversary concert in 1988, Graham nixed the idea of an all-star jam to close the show, accurately stating, "No offense to anybody else on the bill, but nobody could follow Zeppelin!"
Despite the trouble in Oakland, the band left California with the intention of completing the final seven dates of the tour, arriving in New Orleans on the 26th to prepare for their July 30 show at the 80,000 seat Superdome. It was here that Robert Plant got the trans-Atlantic call bearing the tragic news of his son's death, and the remaining dates were immediately cancelled. Though no one knew it at the time, it was to be Led Zeppelin's last tour of the U.S., and as Rolling Stone so aptly put it in their coverage of the events, "The wrong goodbye."
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