Led Zeppelin at the San Diego Sports Arena on Monday, March 10, 1975 was my second concert experience. My first was Foghat and Rod Stewart at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino , three days earlier. The Swing Auditorium was the very same venue where my older brother David and his music loving friends caught Led Zeppelin nearly three years before in 1972 (captured on the bootleg Berdu [which is San Bernardino’s nickname]). At David’s invitation, I skipped school that Monday to join him and these same party-animal/concert veteran friends in their trek down to San Diego to see Zeppelin on their Physical Graffiti tour. I knew I was in for a treat; however, what actually awaited me was the musical equivalent of an atomic explosion to my 16-yr old mind; a concert that would change my life and become the standard by which I judged all subsequent musical experiences.
As many Led Zeppelin fans know, the San Diego performance was a one-night stand with no opening act (normal, of course, for this band). The venue was sold out, and the seating format for this show was “unreserved.” In other words, first come, first served. This created frenzy outside (and inside!) the arena the day of the show, as one can imagine. When the doors to the arena opened at 3:00 on that cloudy afternoon (people had been camping on the grounds for weeks, and were now joined with newcomers in a huge line), a stampede almost took place. Several of the people in my party got pressed so tight into the crowd as it merged towards the doors, their feet were not even touching the ground as they were pushed along! The frenzy was in force. A pivotal detail (and one that had quite an affect on Zeppelin’s performance that evening) was that there were no seats on the arena floor! As the crowd entered it, folks either stood their ground or sat with their friends until the start of the show. Consequently, there was this crazy, uncontrolled atmosphere to the place. (Two years later, during Zeppelin’s 1977 concert at this arena [and with a regular, seated floor], Plant comments on how the San Diegans finally found their seats and how nice it was for the venue managers to provide seats for you people. The band remembered this gig!) With the show scheduled to begin at 8:00 that evening, what ensued was a massive, six-hour party with 16,000 people present all waiting for one thing and one thing only: the arrival of the band.
Everything about this concert event had big stamped all over it. From the 2,000 or so Frisbees (more than I’ve ever seen in one place!) to the 9-foot balloon which looked like a monstrous globe with the words, 1975 North American Tour emblazoned on it. The mammoth sphere bounced and rolled over heads, hands, and bodies which were huddled tightly together on the arena floor. The concert stage hardware was gargantuan, as well. Suspended from and flanking the sides and rear of the stage were 5 massive lighting towers upon which at least a dozen technicians worked non stop, readying them for the visual pyrotechnics that would awe the crowd later. Also, there was a large sheet of cheesecloth stretched across the rear of the stage. This was used to full advantage during the performance to create a hazy dream-like effect, as well as to reflect lights and upon which scenic effects were projected, notably during Kashmir (more on this later). Another dozen techies and roadies busied themselves around the stage floor, running wires, checking monitors, and testing the instruments themselves. On what would be Jimmy Page’s side of the stage, three guitars leaned upright on stands: A black and white Dan Electro (wielded during In My Time of Dying), the familiar cherry red double-necked Gibson (for Song Remains Rain Song, and Stairway) and the famous starburst Gibson Les Paul (which would be Jimmy’s mainstay for the evening). For what seemed like a long time, a roadie pounded on Bonham’s drum set, a clear-yellow Ludwig that was flanked by Tympanis and a huge gong. What intrigued me most about the drum set was the kick drum. Set against the 3-circle rune printed on the face of it was a huge microphone–the largest on the stage. (Always reaching for the heaviest bottom-end they could get!). Hanging from the ceiling by steel cables, were speakers that looked like mutant Altec Lansings. The tweeters alone were as big as the front of a house. And they were ridiculously loud. As the pre-concert music mix blasted forth (I distinctly remember Skynyrd’s Free Bird being one of the tunes played) I had to shout just to be heard by the person sitting next to me. I later learned that Zeppelin’s ’75 sound system was the largest ever assembled for a single act up to that time.
This pre-concert preparation continued from the time I entered the arena (at approximately 3:30) until nearly 8:00 when the show was scheduled to begin. However, as the arena floor filled up to standing room capacity, the pressure in the very front grew more and more intense. As the crowd pushed forward, the yellow-shirted bouncers (it appeared as though the entire San Diego State University football team was there) pushed backwards against the crushing human tide. As this went on, bouncers on the stage itself were leaning over, pulling fainted victims out of the crush. Since pleas to the crowd to stop pushing were ignored, the announcement to postpone the show for an hour went forth at 8:00. This was met with a boo! so deafening I thought a riot was about to break loose. Fearing the same, the announcer immediately added (in a semi-panicked tone), The show won’t be shortened in any way! Still, this did not pacify the rowdy patrons, who flipped the guy off with over 15,000 birds. (These middle fingers would be replaced by as many matches and Bic lighters later in the evening). For one hour (which seemed endless in duration), the crowd waited in unbearable anticipation. It had been a year and a half since Zeppelin had last been in town. The stage was prepared. The crowd was waiting. As each piped-in song ended, the angst-ridden mass became more boisterous and impatient.
Finally, at around 9:00, 6 hours after the arena doors opened the house lights went out abruptly and were replaced by the blinding flashes of a couple hundred flash bulbs. The audience’s roar of approval shook the building. Everybody was standing. All eyes were fixed on the darkness of the stage. A few loud notes from a bass and electric guitar were heard, as well as a few loud chops from Bonham’s Ludwig. The announcement was now made introducing the band. The cymbal crashes of Rock and Roll began and what happened next was utterly unexpected and brutal: When the sound blasted forth for the first time with the band in action, it was so loud, everyone in the seated sections sat down! This was Zeppelin’s “hammer of the gods their answer to the frantic eagerness of the southern California crowd was to flatten it with the fury of their musical assault. It was an unprecedented display of force. (The band would mellow the volume out considerably after about 3 songs. This at least allowed for the audience to know what was being played but it was still incredibly loud. Long before I heard anyone else use the term, I told my friends that Zeppelin’s live music wasn’t hard rock but thunder rock or earthquake rock. I’m not at all surprised therefore that someone titled a bootleg Thunder Rock or that an article appeared in a magazine that year entitled, Led Zeppelin Stages A Rock And Roll Earthquake With Physical Graffiti!). Bathed in radiant spotlights, Robert Plant threw back his mane and stomped his feet pompously while Jimmy Page, as animated as I have ever seen him, bent over and furiously picked at the strings of his Les Paul which was swung low as he strutted in a wild and uncoordinated fashion. Looking more like a music teacher than a player in the world’s biggest rock band, John Paul Jones stood coolly in his corner, steadily sending out earthquake-like vibrations from his Fender bass, and John Bonham, wearing a white jumpsuit and sporting a derby hat (a Clockwork Orange-like getup), leaned forward over his snare drum and thundered out the first Zeppelin number of the evening. Their music was so loud, that it was almost impossible to tell what was being played! Plant’s voice cracked out of the speakers as it wailed above the din of a veritable assault of beat and tone changes. Whatever song it was, it was an onslaught from note one. When the 2-song medley of Rock and Roll and Sick Again ended, Plant was already pleading with the crowd to shut right up and to step back since people were now being pulled from the crowd right and left, in what appeared to be unconscious states. It was barely controlled pandemonium. However, this electricity only propelled the band to greater heights of intensity resulting in the most incredible audience/band interaction I have ever witnessed. As I will mention later, by the end of the first encore, even the band was taken aback!
The stage production on this tour was the zenith of Zeppelin’s 12-year career. The lighting effects for this tour were astounding (and much more intricate and bombastic than the toned down [but tastefully executed] ’77 shows). I disagree with critics who claim that these 1975 visual pyrotechnics “covered” for the band’s physical inadequacies on this tour (e.g., Page’s broken finger; Plant’s flu-stricken voice). Not distracting an iota from the music, they actually accentuated the full force of the dynamics of Zeppelin’s music. As the third song, “Over the Hills and Far Away” began, there were dim blue lights on Jimmy and Robert as the intro was sung. When the rest of the instruments blasted forth with that great riff, huge yellow spotlights (resembling the kind of searchlights used during store “grand openings”) on each side of the stage floor lit up and spiralled upward. We were being hammered unmercifully. But the show was still young! In My Time of Dying followed with a tumultuous cheer of approval when Robert announced the release of Physical Graffiti. Jimmy bent, and crouched, and basically went berserk as his steel bar slid all over the strings of his Dan Electro. In the middle of the song, when the guitar, bass, and drums culminate in those synchronized, staccato blasts, multi-coloured light bulbs went off like strobes under each band member and perfectly to each note. Screams of amazement filled the moments in between. It was breath taking. The Song Remains the Same followed with the same unrelenting blast, until finally, The Rain Song, brought the audience to the band, so to speak. It was as if the arena had been momentarily transformed into a massive nightclub. Emanating from the crowd, dense clouds of smoke billowed through the bright yellow spotlight that illuminated Robert as he leaned against the mike stand and sang the lyrics. When the song came to its rousing end, Plant cried, Welcome back to San Diego! After five whoop-ass songs in a row, The Rain Song was our first chance to breathe!
One statement that stuck in my head was when Plant introduced the next song in the set. He said, Even if you’ve just been to San Bernardino, you can still go where we go Kashmir. This is too much, I thought, Led Zeppelin remembers San Bernardino?! Then “Kashmir” thundered forth. Zeppelin’s mysticism had matured to this powerful and majestic epic. As spacey red and purple lights lit up the stage, desert “clouds” drifted across the cheesecloth screen behind the band, creating the dream-like Shangri-la “sky” depicted in the lyrics while Bonham’s drums cracked and thudded thru the sound system like Godzilla stomping thru Tokyo. The song was a triumph and was my immediate favourite from the Graffiti album. Nothing, however, prepared me for “No Quarter.” As dry ice fog rolled off of the stage, Jones’ hands floated over the organ keys. As the song drew to its end with Plant’s wails and Page’s wah-wah’s growing to full intensity, four white spotlights hit an afore-unnoticed gigantic mirrored ball hanging from the centre of the ceiling, creating a dizzying effect. Plant threw up his arms as if to say, behold this is for you! Bathed in the scattered reflections, the entire arena appeared to be spinning! During Trampled Underfoot, Jimmy’s wah-wah riffs were so loud, it was as if the sound just sprayed from the speakers when he lifted his foot off of the pedal. There was absolutely nothing subtle about this song!
Moby Dick followed from the already legendary second album. It should be mentioned that by 1975, Led Zeppelin II was considered a bone fide classic, a must-have milestone in rock music. I had heard this record countless times. But live, Moby Dick was an altogether new experience for me. The opening and closing riffs by Jimmy Page came across as being so massive and powerful, I was utterly blown away. Sheer classic Zeppelin. What a riff! Bonzo soloed for nearly half an hour with female cries of Go Bonzo! making him grin throughout. Multi-coloured lights stationed in and around his drum kit created kaleidoscopic visual effects which were matched by the auditory “hallucinations” of his synthesized drum rolls. As the tympani solo rescinded into Bonzo’s “gong smash,” it sounded as if five hundred trains were pulling into a station. With my mind reeling under the still shimmering sound waves, Jimmy Page (now absent for a good twenty minutes) ran out just in time to close the marathon with that classic, powerful riff. A far cry from hearing vinyl spun on a home stereo turntable (or 8-track!), the sound and sight of Page and Bonzo laying down that amazing riff live before my ears and eyes provoked me to jump up as another uproarious ovation ensued. Studio recorded Zeppelin would NEVER sound the same. (In fact, during the 2-hour drive home from the show that night, a Led Zep II 8-track was playing continuously on the van’s stereo how abysmally crude and outdated that studio production sounded after 3 hours of live Zeppelin! Indeed, even the recorded songs themselves came across as mere stick-figure sketches compared to the 3-dimensional masterpieces performed that evening.) By now thoroughly overwhelmed and stunned by the proceedings, I had all but forgotten about what was then my favourite Zeppelin tune, Dazed and Confused. So when the opening bass notes shook the arena floor underneath my feet, I let out an astonished yell. As the rest of the audience roared in approval, literal flames shot up from the stage as Plant sang of women created “below.” I was now in for the most intense musical voyage of the evening. Jimmy Page, the brain behind Led Zeppelin, was now to be showcased for over 30 minutes of guitar histrionics. During the bow segment, the audience gasped when three Krypton laser beams (2 blue, 1 green in the middle) shot out of nowhere just over Page’s head, through the eerie smoke rising from the stage floor and across the entire expanse of the arena. In a technologically induced display of psychedelic sensory-melding, sight and sound became one as Jimmy struck his guitar with the bow and pointed, “making” the sound and the lasers do his bidding and travel to that very point in the arena. Smiling broadly at his new bag of tricks and his audience’s obvious appreciation of them, Page treated each segment of the crowd to the effect, including the people seated behind the stage. Equally mesmerizing was the effect produced by what appeared to be glitter or confetti, which continuously fluttered down onto the stage throughout this song. The overall result was mystical and breath taking. Dazed and Confused was the centre piece of the set. It was the Led Zeppelin at its most amazing.
Having journeyed to the gloomy world below, the audience was now ready to go back up (where the path runs straight and high). Crouched over his double necked Gibson, and bathed in heavenly blue lights, Jimmy picked out the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven and was nearly blanketed by lingerie which floated over the edge of the stage and onto Page and his Gibson. As Robert began with, There’s a lady a yellow ray of light illumined just his head as screams shot forth from the crowd. This, I thought, is the ultimate rock and roll band. The first encore was Whole Lotta Love with a sound phaser used in full force. This device (utilized earlier in Page’s laser-throwing light show) pushes the sound around the arena and was used in conjunction with the Theremin segment of Whole except that it was “left on” after the first encore making (I swear) the audience’s noise itself propel around and around the arena. For 3 weeks afterwards, my hearing went up and down like this effect! Whole went into Black Dog which crescendo with massive flash pots and explosions which triggered the borders of the lighting towers to light upward from the stage on both sides which in turn lit up a huge neon LED ZEPPELIN sign behind the band. It was too much! As the smoke on the stage cleared, this glowing billboard spelled out the name of the rock group that just kicked 16,000 asses for the past 3 hours! The audience roared in approval with a massive and deafening ovation. Even Zeppelin was visibly blown away by the response (no kidding!).
After Black Dog, the band exited for a good ten minutes. More Bic lighters and matches than I’ve ever seen at a concert lit up the arena floor and perimeter. This ocean of flickering lights made the massive concert hall look like a sparkling universe as the audience relentlessly whistled, yelled, screamed, and stomped. Finally (and not captured on the bootleg of this show, Symphony in A Thousand Parts), Jimmy Page emerged with a huge grin and strutted out from the rear of the stage with the opening notes of “Heartbreaker.” The audience responded with yet another deafening roar! As the song progressed many memorable moments ensued. I’ll mention three of them: First, Zeppelin’s playful side was in full force. Robert and Jimmy (now bathed in sweat) interplayed throughout this song with uninhibited abandon. At one point, Robert hung his arm around Page’s neck and kissed the back of his head. When Jimmy turned around and grinned, Robert winked at the crowd and planted a couple of more kisses on Jimmy’s face. They were playing up the “sexual” side of their musical personas to the hilt. At another point, when Page was bent over in his trademark stance wailing away at his Les Paul, Robert turned his back on Page and skipping backwards, pressed his butt up against Page’s! Jimmy threw his head around and laughed. Finally, a young woman on the arena floor about five rows back and dead centre of the stage got up on some guy’s shoulders and pulled off her blouse and her bra. As the broad yellow spotlight that engulfed Plant was now aimed at the girl (so the whole arena could see what was up), the lead singer seized the opportunity to play up his sexual bravado. As the song climaxed with Plant wailing “heartbreaker,” the lead singer rubbed his crotch and pointed at the woman in playful accusation. The young lady’s response was to heave her breasts in abandon holding her arms up towards the band in total surrender to its potent sexual/musical assault. Over to the right of Page and Plant, at the rear of the stage, John Paul Jones shook his head and laughed at his crazy comrades. And the audience roared again.
In point of fact, the audience roared in the final ovation of the night. As the band put down their instruments, Bonham threw his drumsticks and then flung his derby hat into the audience. Joining his band mates at the edge of the stage, Bonzo laughed and, playing off of the naked woman’s antics, motioned with his hands to his chest as if he were bouncing his own breasts! The place was in a state of such tumultuous approval of the band, roaring continuously with arms outstretched from every quarter of the arena, even the pompous Plant appeared to be humbled! As the band locked arms and did their bows the floor of the arena shook under the roar! Robert picked up the mike once more and, exasperated, shouted, “Sssannn Diiiieeeegooooo!!!” It was a mind-bending triumph with the band as blown away as the audience! At one point, Robert looked at Jimmy and the rest of the band and threw up his arms as if to say, “My God really???”. Begging for yet another encore, the audience lit their Bics and stomped again. This time however, the house lights came up for the first time in 3 hours. A rude awakening to a dazed audience! The lights were met with a thunderous “BOO!” as the roadies slowly appeared out of the back stage darkness and began their post-performance duties. The show was over.
As we exited the arena, dazed and confused, I followed one of my brother’s friends to our van. Dodging bumper-to-bumper traffic and blinking raindrops out of our eyes, he kept muttering, “They were so hot ! Forget Rod Stewart, none of those bands even compare to them!” I was too muted by the experience to verbally agree. But I did agree. Hell, I was pulverized! What can I add except that this was a stunning and amazing experience? The next day at school, I was unable to even say a word about the show except that, “words can’t describe it” In fact, I was at a loss for words for weeks. But gradually and with greater detail, I began to recollect moments of the show to my high school buddies. Funny thing is, 30 years later I am still in awe and still unable to really communicate my remembrances the way I would like to. Guess that’s why us Zeppelin junkies seek after bootlegged CDs and Video Tapes to relive our experiences through sight and sound (the way Zeppelin intended), and not merely via words. But hopefully, some of mine have painted a picture, however vague and inadequate, for you.
At the LIVE AID reunion, Plant reported that people on the sides of the stage were weeping when the surviving Zeppelin members began playing. He remarked that he was amazed that people were still that impacted by what he dubbed “the Zeppelin experience.” I recall hearing that reunion on the radio as it happened. When the announcer shouted, “Jimmy Page just walked onstage!” I totally rushed out! Hell yes we were impacted by “the Zeppelin experience”! Nobody else came close to delivering the goods like what was the most amazing and talented hard rock band of all time. The Zeppelin experience is multi-layered, as well. There are so many sides to that band. So much subtlety and craft in their studio productions; so much mysticism and magic coupled with raw, street-level sexuality in their live performances. They employed so broad a vision and delivered so complete an experience. They were simply amazing.
Although I caught Led Zeppelin twice more during their ’77 L.A. Forum gigs, 3/10/75 marks the best concert I ever had the privilege of attending. As a magazine devoted to the ’75 shows put it, “Cities Zeppelin played were frenzied in anticipation, stunned in performance, and dazed in aftermath.” This was just part of the Zeppelin experience.