LED ZEPPELIN: JANUARY 1969
"Led Zeppelin, the Jeff Beck Group, Procol Harum – those people sought me out to take their photos, and I never figured out why. I found the British guys fun to work with. It was something entirely different, but it could be very difficult. You couldn’t understand a word anybody said!"
By January 1969, Herb Greene’s gift for rock portraiture was well established in the circles that mattered. As the man behind some of the most iconic images associated with the San Francisco rock’n’roll explosion, his classy touch was world-renowned. Thus, countless musical personages, local, national and international, sought out the photographer, riding the freight elevator to his workshop atop an old one-time opera house in the Western Addition ghetto. The space was shared with underground filmmaker and light show auteur Ben van Meter, as well as the printing presses of Underground Comix. This period was to produce some of Greene’s best and most celebrated work, and in cases such as this Led Zeppelin shoot, capture a never-to-be-repeated zeitgeist. They had asked promoter Bill Graham about Herb, having been impressed by his pictures of the Jeff Beck Group.
"The stuff that came out of that studio, once it was printed, was spectacular. Out of the Jeff Beck Group sitting, I got the cover of Rolling Stone, which was pretty phenomenal. But the window light and stuff required a lot of work in the darkroom. Bill Graham got me the commission to do Led Zep, he recommended me. It was their first US tour. So they showed up and I really didn’t know whom they were. I mean, I knew who the Yardbirds were, but I had no idea that this was the "new" Yardbirds."
When the final line-up of the Yardbirds splintered in the summer of 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page had a mandate to fulfill the groups outstanding concert commitments, and to do so, he ended up assembling what would prove to be a crack team from quite unexpected sources. Though the bassist was an unknown quantity outside the UK, John Paul Jones was a first call session player, the British equivalent of Motown’s James Jamerson. Singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham were more obscure musicians from the Midlands, who had toiled in unexceptional beat groups up until Page tagged them for what was dubbed Led Zeppelin. Page himself had a burgeoning reputation as a player in the United States, largely due to the huge influence of the Yardbirds.
This then was the quartet that would evolve into the true behemoth of 70s rock and become the most successful British group of the era, surpassing even at one point the sales of the Beatles. But these shots depict a different Led Zeppelin. A freshly-minted troupe, who had yet to establish their hard-rocking credentials with the American audience. A relatively innocuous aggregation, some way from hosting the debauched bacchanals of future legend. That January, the unknown Zeppelin was in San Francisco on their first US tour to open for Country Joe & The Fish at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. Coincidentally, that weekend also saw the release of their eponymous debut album, a signal record in the evolution of rock during the coming decade.
Greene’s portraits convey a remarkable innocence, despite the somewhat bleary-eyed look of the musicians; unsurprising perhaps for a session held within a grueling winter slog across the States. Interestingly, the group’s members are not decked out in the Kings Road-Carnaby Street finery of their stage get-up, although one can espy a lacy stage top beneath Robert Plant’s tightly buttoned velvet jacket. Instead, they sport basic on-the-road attire, and in fact the frosty temperature of San Francisco in winter sees Page take to wearing the lengthy greatcoat that would soon be the virtual uniform of many male British rock fans in the 1970s. Nevertheless, these are still some of the most revealing photographs of Led Zeppelin every taken. Four men on the cusp of rock’n’roll immortality, captured for posterity by the knowing lens of Herb Greene.
THOSE WESTERNERS AND THEIR GUNS . . .
On paper, the unexpected and impromptu appearance of the Grateful Dead at Herb Greene’s photo shoot with a youthful Led Zeppelin in January 1969 seems like a fairly momentous prospect. East meets west: a tantalizing summit between two of the heaviest pied pipers of their particular rock generation. Except, at the time that they crossed paths in Herb’s studio, neither act was anywhere near such a status. Jimmy Page might have previously experienced the San Francisco mindset as a Yardbird, and Robert Plant, at least, was already something of an avowed Friscophile. For their part, the Grateful Dead were no doubt aware of Zeppelin’s pedigree. But as Greene himself suggests, the meeting was neither as fortuitous nor as gratifying as it would have been just a few years later. As raunchy and unfettered as Zeppelin’s rock may have come across in concert, the group’s collective personality was cowed when confronted with the freewheeling, libertarian West Coast mindset of the Dead.
"The session was rolling along when I got a phone call. It was Rock Scully, telling me, "we got a new band member [Tom Constanten], so we need a picture right now – we’re downstairs!" I had photographed the Dead just before then, Jerry with a knife and all that stuff. It was that nice set of portraits. I told him that I was kinda in the middle of something, but they came up anyway. My set-up was in a very large room, almost half a block long. There was a row of theater seats at one end that Ben Van Meter had set up, so you could sit and look across the room to a screen. Pigpen was wearing a little .22 revolver, in a holster, and he pulled it out and started firing it off into the theater seats. I guess I was almost done with the session when all this happened, because it was pretty disruptive, ha ha! Actually, it freaked Zeppelin out. They exclaimed, "these westerners and their guns!" In fact, Led Zeppelin got so distracted, that they quickly left and didn’t pay me."
"In retrospect, when the Dead called, I maybe thought OK, this is great, hands across the seas, we’ll have a party but that didn’t happen. The Dead didn’t want to hang out, they were just there to get a photograph. There was no interaction at all between them, no curiosity. Garcia didn’t want to talk to Page, and I don’t think Led Zeppelin even knew whom the Grateful Dead were. They were definitely not like how they would be on their subsequent tours, trashing hotel rooms and shit. Had it had been then, they probably would have pulled out their own guns and joined in the fun. It could have been a really nifty thing, but it turned out to be a fiasco. Which is OK, because I didn’t get paid but I got these pictures of Led Zeppelin, and in the pictorial history of Led Zeppelin, there’s nothing even close."