The Song Remains the Same

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

13 July

Live Aid, 1985

On this day in 1985, some of the world’s most popular music acts got together at Wembley Stadium, London, UK, and John F Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, USA. Live Aid was a spin-off from the single Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song co-written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure after Geldof had seen footage of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Expected to make around £70,000, the single in fact made around £8 million. The shows, in summer the following year, were designed to capitalise on what seemed to be the public’s happiness to dig deep if asked to by a large collection of their favourite pop artists. In London, the Coldstream Guards kicked off the day with God Save the Queen, and were followed by Status Quo. In Philadelphia Joan Baez opened, followed by the Hooters (“Who the fuck are the Hooters?” Geldof is reported to have asked). At Wembley proceedings were brought to a conclusion ten hours later by Paul McCartney, followed by an ensemble performance of Do They Know It’s Christmas, whereas in the USA the trio of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood were followed by a massed-artiste rendition of We Are the World, rounding off a 14 hour show. No African musicians took part at either venue, unless you include Sade (born: Nigeria), Freddie Mercury (Zanzibar) and impromptu Led Zeppelin member Paul Martinez (Morocco).

The Song Remains the Same (1976, dir: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot)

Led Zeppelin were still the biggest rock band in the world when this film debuted. Made when rock bands amassed huge amounts of money from record sales, lived like modern medieval monarchs and existed pretty much below the publicity radar (computer game billionaires have a similar existence today), the film is the high point of rock before punk kicked its legs away, and the high point of a sort of lifestyle that welded a fey hippie dandyism to bohemian entitlement.

Don’t bother looking it up if you’re expecting to see definitive Zep performances. One half of the film is a slog through Zeppelin’s show at Madison Square Gardens, in support of their Houses of the Holy album. The rest, intercut, is a series of fantasy sequences intended to give us an insight into the lives of our heroes (bassist John Paul Jones reading to his kids, drummer John Bonham drag racing, guitarist Jimmy Page as a hermit on some fanciful quest, vocalist Robert Plant on horseback, manager Peter Grant as a gun-toting mobster) plus peeks backstage.

The fantasy stuff is the funniest, with band members frequently looking like bad-haired hobbits as they wander through a backlit Middle Earth. On the other hand the music stuff, the gig, is not funny at all – Page’s playing is frequently meaningless noodling and he looks raddled, Robert Plant’s voice is failing on the top notes, bass and drums are frequently struggling to drag Page back to the beat.

It’s a film inadvertently about that moment when a band or an entire scene goes bad, in other words.

Original director Joe Massot had shot more than enough raw footage of the gig, both out front and backstage, but he fell apart trying to edit it all together. So Zeppelin called in Peter Clifton to edit and finish the film. Clifton’s solution to the poor syncing of visual and sound – re-record the band at Shepperton.

So the film isn’t just a record of a bad gig and the band’s idiot fantasies played out for the camera, it’s also highly dishonest. And it still doesn’t sound good. There are exceptions – Since I Been Lovin’ You, Black Dog and The Rain Song all sound like the band mean it and can hear each other. But for all the many negatives, if you want a record of Zep in their pomp (and the word applies to them more than any other band), and an insight into a lost world of the rock squireocracy, before things went more democratic – and stayed that way – in 1976, then this is the historical document for you.

Why Watch?

  • It’s Led Zeppelin, man
  • Play “spot the recreated live footage”
  • When they’re good, they’re very very good
  • Hippie nonsense at its most hilarious

The Song Remains the Same – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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