One of the most exciting Zeppelin tapes to surface recently is a superb audience recording from the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, from August 23, 1971. How was this gem created? Why did it take 26 years to circulate? And what happened when the taper (who we'll call "Nick") actually got backstage following the show?
These and other questions are addressed in this exclusive interview with the man behind the tape, conducted by noted Proximity correspondent ERIC VON SCHLIPPEN
PROXIMITY: You were living in Texas in the late 60's and early 70's. Were you seeing a lot of concerts at the time?
Nick: Yeah, it seemed like a concert every couple of weeks and it was always somebody. Hendrix, Zeppelin, The Doors, Spirit. . . it seemed like a constant parade of people, you know? It was a really good time for concerts.
P: The Zeppelin gig is definitely from Fort Worth August 23, 1971, and not Dallas on the 24th?
N: No, no. It's Fort Worth
P: When did you start taking a tape recorder to gigs and recording shows?
N: Early 70's. Maybe 1970 through '74, and it wasn't every concert, just from time to time. I'm sure a lot of the shows I did tape wound up being recorded over later on, out of ignorance (laughter).
P: What type of tape machine were you using?
N: It was a Sony TC-110. At the time it was sort of the workhorse for radio journalists. I had a friend who was a disc jockey and from time to time he would have me go out and do interviews for him. I don't know if it was really intended to record music, it was pretty much the standard for radio journalists. It wasn't really a stealth recorder, it was similar to the mid-size you'd find at Radio Shack. It was about 8 inches long by 5 or 6 inches wide.
P: What kind of microphone did you use?
N: I used the Sony mic that came with it. It was an external microphone, which seemed to work fine especially if you were seated in the first ten rows. I guess it was pretty directional-if you aimed it towards the stage you didn't get a lot of crowd noise, so it was good in that way.
P: Were you usually located close to the stage for the shows you taped?
N: I was spoiled back then. The concert ticket buying scene was so much different than it is today. You didn't have Ticketmaster with dozens of outlets. It was a situation where on the day tickets went on sale you had one outlet in Fort Worth and one in Dallas, and whichever town the show was in got the best tickets. The workers would physically bring in the tickets, they weren't spit out of a machine, out of a computer. So you knew where to go to get the best seats. Depending on who the act was, you either had to go spend the night, or else go down at 6 in the morning. As long as you had a good spot in line you were pretty much guaranteed to get good seats. For the Zeppelin gig I think we went out to a bar until about 2 in the morning and went down to line up for tickets at about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
P: So you decided to take the machine to the August 23 Zeppelin show, but you only took one cassette to record on?
N: Yeah, I only took one blank Sony 120 minute cassette.
P: Or else the bootleg would have been a 4-CD set. . .
N: Yeah (laughter).
P: How did you get the tape recorder into the Fort Worth Tarrant Convention Center?
N: I don't remember taking extraordinary measures to sneak it in. I probably just slung it over my shoulder and had it nonchalantly hidden under my arm, or else I put a little shirt on and had it between the shirt and my T-shirt. If they'd said anything about it I would have just said, "fine," you know?
P: At what point did you start the tape rolling when Led Zeppelin came on?
N: I think I began at the start of the show, and once I had taped 60 minutes on both sides, I flipped the tape over and began recording over the stuff on the beginning of side A!
[Editor's note: The tape as it exists begins halfway through "Dazed & Confused," in the bowing section. This means that what has survived is really "side 3" and "side 4" if it had been a complete tape, as the first part of the concert was taped over by the last part.]
P: There seem to be gaps where you turn the tape recorder off between songs. Were you trying to save time on the tape?
N: No, I think what I was doing was shutting the tape machine off and checking the tape to see if it was time to flip it over or not. It was dark in there, and you couldn't really see through the little window to see how much time was left on each side. After a few minutes I would turn it off between songs to see where it was on the tape, and whether I should flip it over or not.
P: After the group completes "Whole Lotta Love medley" they leave the stage. What did you do then, before they came back for an encore?
N: I was always on the lookout for the opportunity to go backstage at these various places. It was easier back then, and there was always a "window of opportunity" to get backstage, which I took whenever I could. They didn't have regular concert security guys back then, they would hire off-duty police officers whom, if they were contracted to stay until say, 12:00 a.m., would at the stroke of midnight look at their watches and say, "hey, I'm off duty," and away they would go! After the last song I take a look around and I say, "hey, nobody's guarding backstage, I'm going back." So I wandered back there, and of course the trick is, "act like you know what you're doing."
P: Did anyone try and stop you as you entered the backstage area?
N: No, the stage didn't extend right to the edge of the arena, so they just had barricades, like sawhorses, from the edge of the stage over to the railing. So it was just a matter of walking back there.
P: Were there many people going backstage at that point?
N: No, I guess I was just a little more savvy in that way, and I was always looking for those opportunities. There wasn't a lot of activity back there, I guess everyone involved with the concert was on the stage area, rather than in the 'dressing room' area. So I get back there, and lo and behold, there's Robert Plant leaning against a door frame, just kinda catching his breath, you know, breathing kind of hard, covered with sweat. I'm thinking, "well, here's Robert Plant but what do I say to him?" If I walk up to him, what am I going to say right after a show like that, when he's getting ready to go back on for an encore? I don't really want to start talking to him about his music like you would in a restaurant or something because it just didn't seem right. Basically, I just said, "nice show." He kind of nodded and grunted something (laughter). He looked a little perplexed about what I was doing back there (laughter).
P: Did you see any other members of Led Zeppelin back there?
N: I don't remember seeing anyone else. When I heard the music starting up I was headed back towards the front when this guy confronted me, I had no idea who he was, and said, "what are you doing with that?" referring to the tape recorder! He was an English guy, long hair, mustache, not really a big guy. I think he was part of Zeppelin's touring company.
P: At that point you immediately shut the tape machine off. What did you say to him?
N: I just made an excuse about planning to interview the band afterwards to ask them what they thought of the show. And I just kinda kept walking, I didn't hang around to give him any long explanation or to be questioned any further.
P: Was he making an attempt to follow you?
N: No, I don't remember that, 'cause I made it back out OK.
P: You went back out front and resumed taping the encore "Communication Breakdown," which you cut after a couple of minutes. Why was that?
N: I think I realized at that point that I was taping over a lot of good stuff from the beginning of the concert, and that I would rather have that than the end of the show. Then I just went home. We would just replay and re-live the concert for the next week or, until the next concert came to town, then the tape would go in the drawer!
P: So where were these tapes stored for the last 26 years?
N: They were in a storage shed for a while, or else they'd move with me, or they'd be in a closet, or a cabinet. Many of them were not even marked, but there were always in their cases, never exposed to sunlight or anything, always at room temperature, which I think is one thing that helped preserve them.
P: How long had it been since you'd brought that particular Led Zeppelin tape out and listened to it?
N: Probably 15 years!
P: In all these years since you recorded the show, did you ever think you had such a rare and important piece of Led Zeppelin's history in your possession?
N: I knew I had the tape, but I never participated in any forum or talked to serious Led Zeppelin fans to know that anyone was even interested. I figured it was just a recording of Zeppelin on a night that they had replicated all over the world at similar concerts. I thought everyone would be satisfied with what was already available!
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