Led Zeppelin was an autonomous unit. Songwriting, record production, promotional materials, and anything with the band’s name was handled directly by the group. If a decision wasn’t made by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, or John Bonham, it was handled by manager Peter Grant. If Grant didn’t take it, which was rare, then it never entered the band’s purview. Together, the five of them revolutionised the way bands play large concerts, the way groups get paid to play large concerts, and the way they can market themselves without television appearances or multiple singles.
But that’s not to say Zeppelin were ignorant of the media. In fact, they were quite savvy with how they could present themselves best for the largest possible audiences. They knew that the Led Zeppelin experience couldn’t be contained to brief appearances on the BBC or in truncated promotional singles. To get Led Zeppelin, you had to see them live. If you couldn’t see them live, the band found an alternative: a concert film.
The Song Remains the Same was conceptualised as a way to take the legendary Led Zeppelin live show around the world without the band having to play a single note. They would take the best cuts from a series of shows at Madison Square Garden and release them upon the world. Suddenly, everyone could see the majesty and might of Zeppelin without having to wait for them to come around to their city. If only it was that simple.
You see, The Song Remains the Same came out in 1976, but the concerts at Madison Square Garden occurred in 1973. That three-year gap was filled with production headaches and logical mismanagement that basically amounted to the band shooting themselves in the foot at every turn. And it all started with their decision to fire director Joe Massot.
Massot had staked out a few Zeppelin concerts with his film crew in order to get a sense of what a live Led Zeppelin show was like. Unfortunately, the prior research didn’t translate to a smooth shoot. “We quickly realised there were huge gaps in the filming,” Jimmy Page recalled to author Brad Tolinski. “The crew hadn’t covered the basic things like filming the verses to certain songs.”
Adding: “We surmised that some of them were probably stoned — simple as that,” Page said. “Nearly everyone was stoned at the time, but at least we did our job.”
Due to the lack of continuity, a few creative solutions had to be implemented. A series of fantasy sequences were inserted to fill in the gaps, and the band shot a new performance on a sound stage to stitch together a somewhat cohesive final product. But these new sound stage scenes were filmed with director Peter Clifton – the band fired Massot after reviewing the initial footage.
Despite the hiccups, continuity errors (it’s always comical to see John Paul Jones rock the wig he had to wear in order to cover up the fact that he got a haircut after the Madison Square Garden shows), and dismal initial reviews, The Song Remains the Same is a snapshot of a band at the height of their powers. Perhaps in spite of itself, the concert film accurately illustrates why Zeppelin staked so much of their reputation on their unmatched skill as live performers.