Here’s a clip of stadium rock pioneers and erstwhile New Yardbirds known as Led Zeppelin. It’s a live take of “Going To California”, originally a cut from their untitled fourth album, which is sometimes called Led Zeppelin IV. Here we see it performed on film at one of their five appearances at Earl’s Court, this specific one on May 25, 1975. You can see the entirety of the show on 2003’s creatively titled Led Zeppelin DVD on disc 2.
This is perhaps one of the most era-defining performances in rock history, capturing the band at the height of their powers during a time they were being hailed as the biggest rock act of the era.
No expense was spared in creating the event on an appropriately epic scale. The lighting rigs and sets used during these shows were shipped from the States where the band had recently toured to Earl’s Court in London, then the largest venue in Britain. Rehearsals stretched out over days while the sound on a technical level was tested and perfected.
It was kind of a big deal.
But, there again so were the band, the biggest concert draw of the era by then in terms of sheer numbers in the seats. Considering the era, this is saying quite a lot, what with both the Who and the Rolling Stones also on the road in 1975. In terms of commercial appeal, they were sitting pretty.
Yet, even if the commercial traction they’d created would sustain them in the immediate years that followed, this series of shows at Earl’s Court would represent the pinnacle of their success for many. And, how so?
By the time this appearance was recorded, the group had completed what many consider to be their last fully realized record in Physical Graffiti. It was the record they had been heading toward since they debuted, musically representing the most important aspects to their uniqueness as a musical unit. By the time of these Earl’s Court shows, they were bringing their sound into its sharpest focus.
“Going To California” had been a stalwart in set lists since it appeared four years earlier on Led Zeppelin IV. Many of the tunes on Physical Graffiti were of the same vintage, recorded in various places over that time including Headley Grange, and while at Bron-yr-aur, a cottage in rural Wales that in addition to being the title of a Jimmy Page acoustic number, also served as something of a spiritual retreat for Page and Plant who turned to more acoustic and pastoral textures while there.
In addition to hooking into that particular strain of acoustic folk music, one of the things this song does is to show the connection the band had with the West Coast of America, which is arguably where they built their Transatlantic appeal. From the innocence of the “children of the sun beginning to awake” to the violence of “punch in the nose that’s starting to flow”, it seems like a pretty good snapshot of a band of young men confronted by fame, with luxuries, temptations, and pitfalls aplenty. In some ways, their whole story is right here in this one song, a wistful tribute to their early days as a band touring America.
It also shows the modern connection that British folk music has with American roots music, which is one of Led Zeppelin’s contributions to popular music. That’s something that often goes unsaid. This connection would serve Robert Plant very well in particular later on in his career by the time he made an album with Alison Krauss in 2007.
But, this song serves the legacy of the band to an even greater degree, on one of their most bittersweet, and poignant performances they would ever lay down. This performance frames them as a band who accomplished what they set out to do by 1975. Although they continued to earn considerable returns for the rest of the decade, they had reached the crest of the hill by then. They would create high-quality work after this period of course. But, after some troubling times for the band, both critically and personally, they came to an abrupt end as a band by September 1980, when drummer John Bonham was found dead.
Led Zeppelin made good on their decision to dissolve their partnership permanently, although they reunited in one-off appearances a few times since that initial break up. But in the meantime, they’d pursue other avenues as solo musicians including a couple of collaborations between Page & Plant in the 1990s, revisiting the Zep catalog and imprinting a pan-cultural spin on it that had always been hinted at in much of the original material.
Despite their demise as a group, what they’d achieved was embodying the idea that various and seemingly disparate musical strains as far flung as rural blues (“In My Time Of Dying”), to acoustic English folk music (“Gallow’s Pole”), to Brazilian music (“Fool In The Rain”), to Middle-Eastern and Far Eastern music (“Kashmir”) could be combined even in the context of a straight-ahead hard rock group, while also garnering mainstream commercial success at the same time.
Robert Plant is an active and stylistically adventurous musician even today. And today happens to be his birthday; he’s 64. Happy birthday, Percy!
Jimmy Page’s influence as a guitarist continues to resonate. He recently appeared in the film It Might Get Loud, along with the Edge and Jack White.
John Paul Jones is a sought-after arranger and multi-instrumentalist, working with artists as diverse as R.E.M and Diamanda Galas. Most recently, he’s been involved in the Them Crooked Vultures project with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme.
Led Zeppelin were unique and of their time. I think they bowed out right when they should have, saying that with respect to their lost bandmate. Yet, their music can still be heard within the music of many other acts, from The Black Crowes, to Jeff Buckley, to The White Stripes, to Akron/Family, to Wolfmother.