Before “Stairway to Heaven” made an ongoing hit out of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album — four years after its release in 1971 it was still selling 15,000 copies a week — the blues cover band from England had to pay some road dues in America. In the January 30, 1969, issue of the Village Voice, we find that they were second on the bill at the Fillmore East, weighed down by the more well-known Iron Butterfly.
Both bands were supporting albums — Iron Butterfly was following up the cosmic strains on In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida with their third LP, Ball, while Zep was making their vinyl debut — and their labels put them on another shared bill.
By the mid-1970s, however, Zep had outpaced Iron Butterfly and, in terms of record sales, just about everyone else. Reviewing a 1975 Led Zeppelin concert at Chicago Stadium (known as the “Madhouse on Madison” and the “Loudest Arena in the NBA” before it closed, in 1994), rock critic Wayne Robins wrote, “For this high school generation, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English.” Scalpers were selling $8.50 tickets for up to $100 a pair outside the venue, Robins reports, and Zeppelin was scheduled for six arena concerts in the New York area later in their tour.
In his feature article Robins looks back over the band’s career, and writes that guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, drummer John Bonham, and lead singer Robert Plant had achieved an “aesthetic peak against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured.… Led Zeppelin chose as reference points on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon, but without paying the kind of strict homage to the form common among English blues bands. They mutated the blues into a mega-amplified, manically surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form.”
Robins gets up close and personal with Page, noting that the band was dissatisfied with its first Chicago show, partly because the guitarist had “jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, [and] couldn’t really execute the involved improvisations on his tour de force, the six-year-old ‘Dazed and Confused,’ so the tune was dropped temporarily.” Then he adds, “Before the second Chicago show the band seemed enthusiastic. Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine.”
“Page is the musical magnet of the stage show,” Robins writes from the scene, adding, “After a particularly incisive display, a fan exhibited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a roll of toilet paper.”
As Robins reported, Zeppelin was a triumphant live band. An ad for their 1976 concert film, The Song Remains the Same, proves that no matter where you’re from or how big you get, you still want to make it in New York City: “Concert sequences filmed at Madison Square Garden.”