No myth-making here: just an impressive document of old friends blowing minds again…
Celebration Day opens with a reminder of how business was conducted during Led Zeppelin’s imperial phase. Over the film’s opening credits, archive news footage plays from Led Zeppelin’s May 5, 1973 concert at Florida’s Tampa Stadium. Channel 13’s John Jones watched it happen. Slightly incredulously, the reporter delivers the statistics. On May 4, Zeppelin – “popular with the acid rock crowd, big on album sales” – played in Atlanta, selling a record-breaking 49,239 tickets. For their show one day later in Florida, they sold 56,800 tickets, grossing $309,000, and breaking the records set in 1965 by The Beatles at Shea Stadium. “It really was the biggest crowd ever assembled for a single performance in one place in the entire history of the world,” says the anchorman back in the studio, as we see Zeppelin’s Falcon jet taxiing to a standstill at Tampa International Airport, before the band and entourage are whisked away in two black limousines, accompanied by an escort of police outriders.
As it was then, so it is now – Led Zeppelin are still capable of delivering unprecedented statistics. 20 million people applied for 18,000 tickets for the band’s first headline show in 27 years. The occasion was a tribute concert at London’s O2 Arena on December 10, 2007 for their old label boss, Ahmet Ertegun, documented here as Celebration Day. Following a brief theatrical run on 1,500 screens in 40 countries in October, Celebration Day is now available across six formats, from a 2 DVD/2 CD Deluxe Edition to an old-school 3 album vinyl set (a percentage of the profits will go to the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund). It has taken five years to get officially released.
So why has it taken so long? On the night itself, the entire performance’s audio was multitracked as well as filmed on 17 cameras by director Dick Carruthers (who’d worked with Jimmy Page on 2003’s Led Zeppelin DVD). Speaking to David Cavanagh in Uncut in our May, 2008 issue, Page explained “we didn’t go in with the express purpose of making a DVD to come out at Christmas, or whatever. We haven’t seen the images or investigated the multitracks. It’s feasible that it might come out at some distant point, but it’ll be a massive job to embark upon.”
We have now reached that ‘distant point’, and according to Page at a London press conference in late September to launch Celebration Day, apparently the ‘massive job’ turned out in the end to be no more than a gentle tweak: “If I say there might have been a handful of fixes, what I’m really saying is the minimum to what other people would do. The concert was what it was. There was very little that needed to be messed about with, because we’d already done it well in the first place.” Specifically, Robert Plant admitted the vocals at the end of “Kashmir” had been tuned “because I’d run out of steam. There’s only so many long notes that you can do.”
In a way, Plant’s tacit admission that he’s not as young as he once was is critical to how we view Celebration Day. Because Led Zeppelin had been inactive for so long prior to the O2 show, our memory of them has always been of the band preserved in their pomp, Page in his black Dragon Suit, Plant with denim bell-bottoms and sideburns like gastropub chunky chips. The myth of Led Zeppelin always seemed predicated on their youth and virility. Robert Plant, the youngest, was 32 when Led Zeppelin split up; unlike the Stones or The Who, we never saw Zeppelin age, they were freeze-framed in their prime.
Now here we are, watching the three surviving members of the band – two of whom have reached retirement age – reconnect with the music of half a lifetime away. They look fantastic, incidentally. Page, with his shock of white hair and three-piece suit, resembles a flamboyant country squire in a Restoration comedy. Meanwhile, Plant and John Paul Jones are discretely turned out in black shirts and dark trousers. Apart from the 1973 footage from Tampa, there is no context – no shots of the band arriving at the O2’s North Greenwich Pier by boat, no jittery pre-gig backstage banter, no grainy, black and white slo-motion walk from dressing room to stage. No fantasy sequences involving questing Arthurian knights and damsels in distress.
Relying heavily on four on-stage cameras, Carruthers provides extended close-ups of the band members in action. You are, quite literally, in the thick of it. You can see the white of Page’s plectrums, while you might notice that he’s scrubbed out certain letters on his Orange AD-30 amp so it spells ‘OR GE’. Look! Here’s a close up of John Paul Jones’ stylish Cuban heels, tap-tapping away. And wait! Here’s Jason Bonham donning a pair of Aviator shades for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, taking them off again once the song has finished. There are no gimmicks to speak of – apart from a handful of freeze-frames, or cuts to Super 8 camera footage filmed in the audience, Carruthers presents the O2 show as it happened, his crew catching every one of Page’s sweaty grimaces as he wrings another solo from his guitar, or John Paul Jones’ unexpectedly hypnotic runs along the fretboard of his bass guitar.
The band play in a tight formation, centered on Jason Bonham’s drum kit, facing inwards and often playing to each other. The pleasure they clearly take in each other’s company, playing this extraordinary music, is striking. The sound mix – by Alan Moulder, presumably overseen by Page – is pristine. The differences in performance style are enhanced by Carruthers’ up-tight camerawork. There’s Page, tearing through some ferocious slide guitar on “In My Time Of Dying“, the sweat beginning to seep through is shirt, while opposite him is John Paul Jones – a more discreet presence, certainly, but completely in tune with Page’s theatrics. A thrilling “Trampled Underfoot” finds Page and – on piano – Jones dueling solo against solo. If there’s one surprise achievement Celebration Day can lay claim to, it’s making explicit John Paul Jones’ contribution to the music.
Carruthers deftly edits out much of the between-song admin – the changing of instruments, lengthy audience applause – but preserves Plant’s good-natured introductions. He attributes “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” to Blind Willie Johnson, claiming the band first heard it “in a church in Mississippi about 1932”. Later, while introducing Jason Bonham on drums, he describes John and Pat Bonham as being “the best Jimi Hendrix impersonators in Worcestershire”.
Weirdly, for a band of such legendary achievements, there is very little here that is romanticized or mythic. Instead, Carruthers’ film is simply a testament to the physical endurance of these men. In admidst the hail of statistics, and judged against their own increasingly epic live shows, Celebration Day is a surprisingly intimate and human thing. On one level, another Guinness World Record broken. On another, a group of friends once more enjoying the glory of their music.
EXTRAS: The DVD/Blu-ray comes with additional rehearsal footage from Shepperton.