It’s not easy to publish a Led Zeppelin photography book that stands out above all of the other titles on the market.
Photographer Robert Ellis released a book of his own photographs earlier this year. Neal Preston released his excellent digital book “Sound and Fury” in 2013. And Led Zeppelin itself is about to publish its official fiftieth anniversary photo book, “Led Zeppelin By Led Zeppelin,” in October.
“Led Zeppelin Live: 1975-1977,” a new release from British publisher ACC Editions, doesn’t try to present a complete history of Led Zeppelin. Instead, this book focuses on Led Zeppelin’s on-stage performances, arguably the theatre where the band was most effective.
The book, edited by Led Zeppelin author and Tight But Loose magazine editor Dave Lewis, includes photographs from six shows, all from the height of the band’s fame in 1975 and 1977.
The photographs come from three photographers: Terry O’Neill, Michael Brennan, and Baron Wolman. It’s a refreshing approach which pays off, giving the book a clear focus and making it stand out from Led Zeppelin’s upcoming authorised book.
Led Zeppelin at their peak
The book starts with three shows photographed by O’Neill: The May 23, 1975 Earls Court show, the June 3, 1977 Tampa Stadium show, and the June 7, 1977 Madison Square Garden show.
O’Neill’s black and white photographs reflect his experience in taking studio photographs of musicians, rather than live shots. His images are tightly cropped, typically focusing on an individual band member’s performance, such as Plant’s singing or Page’s guitar playing, rather than trying to capture the entire band.
The book includes sequences of photographs taken just after each other, giving the pages a sense of movement as we see Page raising his violin bow during “Dazed and Confused” and John Bonham hammering his kit during “Moby Dick.”
Several full-page spreads show O’Neill’s contact sheets, a raw look at unreleased shots of Led Zeppelin, moving slightly from image to image. There are many previously unreleased photographs here, a treat for the devout Led Zeppelin fan who already has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the band.
The Earls Court photographs show a relaxed Led Zeppelin, three nights into their eventual run of five shows at the venue in 1975. O’Neill’s photographs show a band at its musical peak, a summit from which the band will descend in the pages to follow.
The second show shot by O’Neill in this book, Tampa Stadium on June 3, 1977, shows a remarkably different band from the previous show. Page is thinner now, in the throes of his addictions. And Lewis’ introduction to the show explains the calamitous rain storm which caused the concert to be cancelled after just 15 minutes.
Here, we’re treated to photographs of the band and its manager off-stage. Yes, “Led Zeppelin Live” also includes photographs of the band without their instruments, sat on their plane or hanging around backstage.
O’Neill’s photographs of the bedraggled band members backstage in their bath robes are a highlight of the book. Page’s stare from one image communicates all you need to know about his opinion of the rain storm.
The next show in the book, the June 7, 1977 show in Madison Square Garden, returns the band to a darker indoor show. There are excellent photographs of the band on stage here, and enjoyable contact sheets giving readers an idea of the motion of the live performance.
Michael Brennan, the next photographer included in the book, came from a more traditional news photographer background. This shines through in his images of the band on The Starship, their plane.
We’re transported back to 1975 again as we see the band on the way to their January 31, 1975 show. It’s a jarring move back in time two years to a very different Led Zeppelin. A better layout would have been to move through the six shows chronologically rather than to order the photographs by photographer.
Brennan’s photographs of Led Zeppelin’s January 31, 1975 show at Olympia Stadium include many images taken almost on stage with the band. We’re up close and personal here, sheltering next to the amps as Bonham in his white boiler suit and black bowler hat pounds the drums.
Another interesting perspective is watching the scene off-stage as the band ends the show. Bonham departs, head-down, looking exhausted. Page, however, grins and gives fans a thumbs up.
We only get one show shot by Brennan before moving back to 1977, and two shows at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. These are the “Day On The Green” shows on July 23 and July 24, 1977.
Shot in colour, these images from Baron Wolman end the book. The two shows would be Led Zeppelin’s last in the US and the first day saw a backstage altercation which resulted in the arrest of Bonham, Grant, and two other Led Zeppelin associates.
But on stage, these daytime shows saw Led Zeppelin deliver what looks like a thrilling performance. Plant wore his “NURSES DO IT BETTER!” T-shirt for the first show, and Page wore a black dragon suit.
Wolman’s colour photographs give a vivid idea of what it was like to see the band as they unknowingly said goodbye to the US. The images, taken either from the side of the stage or below it, show an exuberant Led Zeppelin performing in the middle of the Stonehenge festival set.
Snapshots of Led Zeppelin at the height of their fame
The book’s photographic selection is strong, but it does sometimes stumble when it comes to the text and the layout.
A line from Lewis’ introduction is re-used two pages later, making the start of the book feel slightly repetitive. There are also several typos, and the biography for photographer Michael Brennan is simply copied from his agent’s website word for word.
The book relies heavily on on-stage utterances from Robert Plant, often giving the quotes entire pages to themselves and publishing them twice – once in Lewis’ introduction to each show, and again when they appear amongst the photographs.
Whilst interesting, these on-stage “Plantations” start to grate slightly. A full page is devoted to Plant saying “We want you to bear with us because there seems to be some water falling on the electrical equipment.” It’s a photography book, after all, and more images would have been preferable.
One of the reasons why Neal Preston’s 2013 digital Led Zeppelin photography book was such a joy to read was that many photographs were accompanied by audio or video clips of Preston explaining the story behind the shots.
More captions from the photographers themselves would have been a valuable addition – we only have one of these towards the end of the book.
“Led Zeppelin Live”presents a series of snapshots of Led Zeppelin at the peak of their globe-spanning fame. This isn’t the Led Zeppelin of 1969 and 1970, still establishing their sound and stage presence. Instead, the photographs reveal a band revelling in their success.
“Led Zeppelin Live: 1975-1977” is undeniably a success. The publisher’s focus on six shows at the peak of Led Zeppelin’s fame and excess gives the reader a genuine insight into a band that was on the verge of falling out of fashion, and falling apart just years later.
Lewis’ authoritative editing and comments mean the reader is never lost amongst images. Instead, his captions serve to contextualise what we see, offering insights that few others would be able to provide.
Led Zeppelin’s official photo book, due to be released next month, promises to offer a definitive look at the band’s history. But this title, sneaked out months before, is a must-buy for Led Zeppelin fans.
Lewis is also selling a special limited edition version of the book on the Tight But Loose website. The signed version is limited to 150 copies and sells for £29.95.