Led Zeppelin and the shows that broke America (and blew Ace Frehley’s mind)

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Led Zeppelin played the last concerts of their first US tour, and although the crowd may not have been ready, the band was.

Led Zeppelin began their first US tour after just releasing their debut album. On Boxing Day of 1968, they performed their debut performance at Denver’s Auditorium Arena as an after-hours support act for Vanilla Fudge and Spirit.

In addition, they performed as “Led Zefflin” at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and shared a short run of performances at the Whisky A-Go-Go in Los Angeles with the Alice Cooper band. Both groups were largely unknown, thus it was decided by flipping a coin, but the up-and-coming Detroit rockers kindly conceded and agreed to open “because Jimmy Page was in The Yardbirds”.

The crucial performances, which the band had to nail, were those supported by Country Joe & The Fish with Taj Mahal opening, four bookings (two sets per day) at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and four performances over three nights at the Fillmore East in New York, both in support of Iron Butterfly.

Tour manager Richard Cole recalled, “The first few shows were a bit shaky and the press wasn’t good to them. Robert [Plant] used to sing in his bare feet in those days. He was always a fuckin’ hippie. But by the time we got to New York, the whole thing had gotten so solid that it became the one unit that it was to be for many years.”

Several musicians who would later achieve greater success were in the audience at those Fillmore East concerts. And they’ll all extol the virtues of Led Zeppelin’s flawless execution.

Future Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley said, “That show at the Fillmore East changed my life. I was 16 when I saw them. A lot of people didn’t know who Led Zeppelin were, although the ‘in’ people did. The lead singer in the group that I was playing with at the time, who was a couple of years older than me told me, ‘There’s this great new band called Led Zeppelin that’s gonna play at the Fillmore East and you’ve gotta see them.'”

“I think I got their first album a week or two before the show and I fell in love with it. I was real excited about going to the show. I remember it like it was yesterday. They were using Rickenbacker amps, which you can’t find anymore. Back then Page wasn’t using a Les Paul, he was using a Telecaster.”

“Between him and Robert Plant they destroyed. They took over the Fillmore East to the point where, after they went off and the headliner was coming on, half the people walked out and didn’t come back. I still think about that first time I saw Led Zeppelin at The Fillmore from time to time. God, I wish somebody had a video camera back then, it was incredible.”

Future Twisted Sister guitarist Yay Jay French recalled, “I was there when they headlined the Fillmore East [in New York] on January 31, 1969. I was only there to see Iron Butterfly, the headlining band. I had a front row seat. Believe it or not, the opening act was a gospel group called Porter’s Popular Preachers [brought in as a late replacement for The Move]. And then out comes Led Zeppelin.”

“It was one of the most startling performances I ever saw. Page was playing a Telecaster and they played the entire first album, from start to finish. At one point the band stopped playing and Robert put the microphone aside and sang just through the strength of his lungs and basically filled the Fillmore. It was insane. I ran out and bought Zeppelin’s album on the way to school the next day.”

“I ended up burning those Iron Butterfly records. I had the honour of having dinner with Robert Plant in 1988, and we spoke about that show. He asked whether I remembered burst of laughter during Ron Bushy’s drum solo during In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. I didn’t hear it but apparently there was a dressing room-come-balcony that hung over the stage, and [John] Bonham was doubled over in hysterics at how bad the solo was. Zeppelin knew they’d eaten the headline band for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Future Ramones drummer Marky Ramone was another aspiring musician who was inspired by seeing Led Zeppelin at the Fillmore East; yet, his fond memories of the evening were somewhat at odds with his chosen professional path.

Ramone said, “I first saw Zeppelin play live at the Fillmore East. I was 13, 14. I knew an usher and he let me in for free. I was just blown away. Outrageous. They were the ultimate band at that moment. They blew away everybody that came before them: Hendrix, Cream… Bonham’s quadruples around the drum set and his triplets and Page’s triplets. Plant’s range was just amazing. And the bass tones that John Paul Jones used were incredible. They played seven-minute songs. They didn’t do two-minute songs.”

Bill Graham was pleased with how well the four performances went, even though Led Zeppelin’s third set didn’t begin because the band had left John Paul Jones’ bass instrument at their hotel. When they returned in April for a second US tour, they were suddenly headliners, playing eight sets at the Fillmore West and four at the Fillmore East. The tour came to an end at the Civic Center in Baltimore, MD, on February 7.

The band Led Zeppelin was en route.




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