John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham
Kezar Stadium, San Francisco
June 2, 1973
Photos 1-8, 16-26 by Dan Cuny
Photos 9-15, 27 by David Miller
Text by Michael Collins Morton
Led Zeppelin released their fourth album (which did not have a name, but is commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV) in November of 1971. It helped to confirm their reputation as one of the most formidable bands in rock'n'roll, putting them into the elevated company of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. The album, whose tracks included "Black Dog," "Stairway to Heaven" (which became a universal anthem of the early 1970s, with continual airplay on FM stations), "The Battle of Evermore" (with Sandy Denny sharing the vocals), and "When the Levee Breaks," was seen as an enormous milestone for Led Zeppelin, garnering widespread praise and selling in the millions. Over the years it has retained its standing as one of the preeminent landmarks in the history of hard rock.
On that sunny day in San Francisco, thirty-seven years ago, approximately 50,000 fans gathered at Kezar Stadium to see Led Zeppelin perform. The musicians, having hastily flown up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles at the last minute, arrived onstage in the late afternoon and then proceeded to play for two and a half hours, expertly delivering a high-powered set that included five songs from their new album. From the frantic beat of the drums that heralded the beginning of their first song, "Rock and Roll," to the last note of their final song, "The Ocean," they displayed the complete range of their extraordinary abilities, mightily proving themselves to be worthy of their high stature.
Close-up of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page with dove
David: Led Zeppelin playing in San Francisco was a major event in 1973. They were riding on the crest of a wave after the release of their fourth album in 1971. The release of their fifth album was long awaited and much anticipated.
Gary, Dan, and Michael were determined to be first in line and slept overnight in front of Kezar Stadium. They were in a photo that appeared in a local newspaper under the heading, "The Led Freaks." I went with other friends on the day of the show. I figured that since it was at a stadium, there would be no reason to go that early. When I arrived with my friends, they decided to sit up in the stands, away from the stage. I wasn't interested in joining them, and instead carved my own path on the ground, as close to the stage as I could get. Since I was alone, I was not sure how I was going to get home. It turned out I was only a few yards behind Gary, Dan, and Michael.
I spread out on the ground to secure as much space as I could. I thought I might even take a nap. As the fans filled in around me, the space got tighter. Three girls wandered by, looking for a spot to sit down. I heard one of them say, "Let's sit here," which they did, right on top of my legs, as if I was a log. It then became apparent that I had to make a visit to the restroom. I pulled myself out from under the girls and spread my jacket on the ground, in the hope that it would still be there when I returned. Amazingly, it was.
The ads for the concert stated, "Supporting Acts to Be Announced." That left a lot to the imagination of 50,000 stoned "Led Freaks." I heard rumors that David Bowie was going to open the show, and even that The Beatles were going to do a reunion performance.
Instead, Roy Harper was introduced. The wait already had been long and uncomfortable under the overcast San Francisco sky. I remember Roy Harper sitting on a stool with his acoustic guitar. He mumbled something about just breaking up with his ol' lady. That didn't exactly bring the fans to their feet. In fact, I recall a few catcalls.
After that, The Tubes were introduced. It may sound cool today, but at the time they were just a local club act that no one had heard of, including me. Fee Waybill stomped out in giant platform shoes, pretending to snort from a huge bag of cocaine. No one got the joke, and the catcalls turned into actual boos. Then Lee Michaels played. He did his hit, "Do You Know What I Mean."
OK, almost two o'clock. Time for Led Zeppelin. It was another hour and a half before they appeared on stage. That left a lot of time for fans to indulge in various kinds of substance abuse. I sat alone and watched drug deals going on all around me. One happy fellow kept clapping his hands and shouting, "Feel the day!" I wondered what sort of drug he was on.
Finally, Led Zeppelin walked on stage and we all stood up. That made for more room, and everyone moved forward, closer and closer to the stage. The excitement was in the air. They launched into some of their standards before introducing a few new songs. Robert Plant was very animated and obviously enjoying himself. At one point, between songs, he pulled out a newspaper and read something to Jimmy Page. It sounded like it was a negative review, which claimed that the new glitter band, Slade, was taking Led Zeppelin's place. Robert Plant laughed so hard that he actually fell down and rolled on the stage. I could tell that Led Zeppelin were at the top of the heap and knew it.
I could see people standing on the tops of buildings outside the stadium, trying to get a free show. It was loud enough for most of San Francisco to hear. During "Stairway to Heaven," when they got to the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west," Robert Plant pointed at the crowd and smiled. The audience let out a cheer. Another memorable moment was at the end of "Stairway." They brought out a large box and released some white doves. The birds were not that eager to leave and some had to be coaxed out. One dove flew up, but then flew back and landed on Robert Plant's hand. Jimmy Page put his guitar down and walked over. Plant and Page stood there petting the bird, which seemed very much at home in Robert's hand.
There some negative moments, too. A girl in front of me, one of the girls who had sat on my legs earlier, was clearly on psychedelics. Every few minutes she would point to the sky and yell, "Look!" and then collapse into the people next to her. This happened a few times until one guy caught her and began kissing her. He removed her clothes and had sex with her right in front of me. Afterward, she wandered naked into the crowd. When the people around me left, I saw her clothes on the ground and a bottle of pills that she apparently had been taking. I always wondered what became of her.
Musically, it was a great concert. Led Zeppelin were at their best, but it was also an ordeal that I did not want to repeat. One last memory I have is of Robert Plant talking to the enthusiastic crowd of 50,000 "Led Freaks" and asking us, "Do ya feel it? Do ya feel the buzz?" We did.
This was a big event, the biggest concert that we had ever attended. My sister, Sandra (a strong Led Zeppelin fan), also was there with us. When we got to Kezar on Friday, we set up the sleeping bags. I think the beginning of the line was vague and ill-defined. It was hard to tell who was first or where the line began. The crowd was rough. I stayed deep in my sleeping bag when we were in line. Kezar was near Haight-Ashbury and was definitely in a challenging area, with raw behavior and more drugs. I didn't feel comfortable at all there. We stayed in the van at times, to get away from it. This was the dawning of Bill Graham's "Day on the Green" concerts that were popular at the Oakland Coliseum in later years.
Once the gate was opened we ran to the stage, but it was very high, so if you got up close, you couldn't see the band. It was effective as crowd control, because you had to back away from the stage. David came on Saturday, not wanting to wait in line at Kezar overnight, but he was able to get pretty close to us on the grass. I think the best place to see Led Zeppelin might actually have been behind the band. Some of Dan's photos show relaxed people enjoying the show from the stands to the rear of the stage, as the sun was setting behind them. There were no crowds there, and the lighting was probably perfect.
Lee Michaels played before Led Zeppelin. He was the loudest act I had ever heard at Winterland, the year before. In fact, if I tilt my head just right, I can still hear "Stormy Monday" on his shrill Hammond organ, but I don't remember his performance at Kezar at all.
The Tubes were funny with twin guitarists dressed up in bumblebee or butterfly costumes (with insect wings), and Fee Waybill was a clever performer. This was during their "What Do You Want From Life?" period, when they were very sarcastic and outrageously funny. I'm not sure, but Roy Harper might have been the first act of the afternoon. I had heard that he was a good friend of Led Zeppelin ("Hats Off to Harper" on Led Zeppelin III was great). I remember that his acoustic guitar and vocal mike were amplified very loudly, and he was very confrontational. At one point he argued bitterly with a heckler. His set at Kezar was impressive: enjoyable and different. His albums were mostly on import and expensive, so I didn't have any, but I'd heard some tracks on FM radio. I liked his outspokenness and his strong songs.
Led Zeppelin were late coming on, and the crowd was restless. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky, eventually setting behind the stage. Suddenly Led Zeppelin stormed on, opening with "Rock and Roll." The sound was huge and crisp. It almost felt warm. They were at the peak of their career, relaxed and confident, solid and tight, yet also taking chances. They did "Black Dog," "No Quarter" (with John Paul Jones playing moody electric piano), "Whole Lotta Love," and a very psychedelic "Dazed and Confused." Jimmy Page played his red Gibson EDS-1275 Double Neck guitar during a monumental version of "Stairway to Heaven." John Bonham's drums were powerful, and I liked the strong musicianship of John Paul Jones. Robert Plant, in an open shirt and tight jeans, was an even match for Jimmy Page in a flamboyant white suit.
The second half of the Led Zeppelin set at Kezar was performed as the sun set directly behind the stage, so we had to look straight into the sun to see the band. We were fried! Michael and I were very light-skinned, and we both burned red. David did much better with his olive complexion. By the end we were zombies. We had gone through the trials of misbehaving crowds, seeing more drug activity and human foibles in one place than probably we have seen in our lifetimes. We were absolutely burned out, figuratively and literally.
I like led Zeppelin more in retrospect. Led Zeppelin II is a true classic. I'm not sure how they got those sounds. The reverse echo effects that Jimmy Page came up with are unlike anything before or since. The band had a great variety of musical styles. An acoustic and soft side tempered the throttle-open hard rock, which was grounded in blues guitar. They truly loved blues musicians like Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bukka White. Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page's vision of creating the greatest of all rock bands, and he largely succeeded in making it a reality.
Dan: Wow!!! What memories I have of the Led Zeppelin show. I had wanted to see what in my mind were the "gods of rock" for quite some time. It was announced that Led Zeppelin would be playing at Kezar Stadium, in an outdoor setting. This was what would later become known as a "Day on the Green." We wanted to see Led Zeppelin so much that I remember we arrived at the ticket outlet extremely early in the morning, or possibly even the night before, to make sure that we were first in line to get tickets. We did get the tickets, which was a huge relief.
We planned on going to Kezar Stadium on the day before the show, so that we could assure ourselves of being right up against the stage (where we usually were when we went to Winterland) and seeing Led Zeppelin in our customary way. I had asked my older brother, Tim, if we could borrow his '64 VW bus, so we could rest and sleep in it, since we were going so far ahead of the show. I'm sure he did it reluctantly, but like the great brother that he is, he did let us borrow it. I remember that the show was on a Saturday, and I believe it started in the late morning. We arrived at Kezar Stadium early on Friday morning, and we were among the first to get there. There was even a newspaper photo (which I still have) of us in our sleeping bags being first in line.
When the gates were finally opened, the gate we were at wasn't the first gate to open, but nonetheless we were among the first few hundred people to be let in. As we ran into the stadium, we looked at the stage (which at most shows was about five and a half feet tall) and saw that it was very tall. Maybe about fifteen feet tall. We knew that we couldn't be right against the stage, or we wouldn't be able to see the band. We put our blankets down about thirty feet from the stage, right in the center... perfect.
As the day rolled on and more people arrived, it made a show at Winterland look like peanuts. There were thousands and thousands of people at this concert. The opening act was Roy Harper, and then The Tubes, who I thought were pretty funny, especially when Fee Waybill came out in his platform shoes. Lee Michaels also played a short set.
Now it was time for Led Zeppelin. I had my camera primed with film, and I was ready to shoot their performance. They finally walked onto the stage, and the crowd went crazy. Then, it was a sound issue or something else, but the band suddenly walked off. I was wondering what in the heck was going on, but they soon came back out and played an amazing set.
One of the most odd memories I have of their performance is that, about a third of the way into it, I started to feel sick. It must have been the sun, the lack of food, and being among so many people, but I can remember going down on one knee to rest. Then I heard Jimmy Page start to bow his guitar, and instantly felt better. Throughout their set, I was mesmerized by the showmanship of the band. It was truly one of the best performances I have ever seen, and I'm glad I have the photos to prove it.
We began our adventure weeks before the concert, by waiting all night on a sidewalk, so that we could be among the first to buy tickets. Although the concert was on a Saturday, we joined hundreds of other fans in arriving at Kezar Stadium on Friday, in order to be first through the gates and close to the stage. (David wisely declined to wait overnight at the stadium, but the next day he ended up being near us in the crowd.) I must admit that, from the perspective of middle age, we probably put ourselves through more trouble than was necessary, but the show was general admission and we were determined not to let anything keep us from our goal. It helped that we were young and eager.
The show was opened by Roy Harper, a British singer and songwriter who was a friend of Led Zeppelin. He came out on his own, sitting on a chair with his guitar, gamely singing his songs to a crowd that mostly had no interest in him. (Which was a great shame, because he was an excellent musician.) Roy Harper was followed by The Tubes, a local band who were becoming known for their humorous song, "White Punks on Dope." Their singer, Fee Waybill, wore outlandish clothes and was extremely funny. After The Tubes came Lee Michaels, but for some reason I have no particular memory of his set.
While Roy Harper, The Tubes, and Lee Michaels were performing, most members of the audience were occupied with their own activities, which centered mainly on getting themselves drunk and stoned. My friends and I abstained, choosing to remain completely sober. Once the alcohol and drugs had taken hold, the general situation began to get a bit depraved, with many people around us acting in an objectionable manner. I had not witnessed so much excessive behavior since December, 1969, when I attended the infamous performance given by The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway. (My account of that concert can be found here.)
When Led Zeppelin finally appeared, there was a feeling of excitement throughout the stadium, but the band had a problem with their sound as soon as they started to play, forcing them to stop before they had finished their first song. After an awkward delay, they started again, quickly kicking into high gear with "Rock and Roll," played loud and fast. Robert Plant, standing at the front of the stage, looked as he always did in those days, with abundant hair and tight jeans, while Jimmy Page was sharply attired in a white suit and two-tone shoes. John Paul Jones and John Bonham were less showy in their look and demeanor, but they both made essential contributions to the music. It was an absolute thrill to see all four of them on stage.
For several hours, as Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham charged through one famous song after another, I was utterly enthralled by the electric majesty of Led Zeppelin. When I got home that evening, I wearily fell into my bed and slept heavily until the next afternoon. It had been an overwhelming day, long and hot and uncomfortable, but also a day that I would never forget.
After the concert
More about Led Zeppelin at Kezar Stadium here
More about Led Zeppelin at David's Rock Scrapbook
Tight But Loose, an excellent magazine dedicated to Led Zeppelin here
A review of a performance by Robert Plant in Portland, Oregon, in 2011 here
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