The Song Remains the Same on Laser Disc (1998)

 

(Originally posted in 1998 in
Compuserve's Video Home & Theater Forum)

 

Return with us now to those lazy, carefree days of 1977, when giant behemoths like Led Zeppelin ruled the earth, and bloated concert films like "The Song Remains The Same" ruled midnight movie houses.

"The Song Remains The Same" is both an entertaining and frustrating disc. Entertaining because it's just about the only widely available concert footage of a hugely popular rock group, and frustrating because it's such a clunky film.

Led Zep had a camera crew follow them around on their 1972 tour, one which smashed many box-office records, and found
them playing some of their most popular music. Many of the introductory "getting off the private plane and driving to the arena" shots in "TSRTS" come from when Zeppelin 1972 Pittsburgh gig, but the onstage footage was shot over three nights at New York's Madison Square Garden.

(Or at least most of it does. One Web site, which sounded very informative, regarded "TSRTS", claims that some of the concert footage was reshot a few years after the 1972 MSG concerts in an otherwise empty concert hall, to provide additional footage, such as close ups and better camera angles).

 

The visual quality of the concert footage, shot in 35mm, is by far the best available visual documentary of a Led Zeppelin concert. And while the sound is uniformly excellent, the MSG concerts were near the end of 1972 tour, and the band has always claimed that these weren't the most inspired nights it had. If you are a die-hard Led Zep fan (as I, and many other redblooded American teenagers were <G>) you might notice the performances *are* a little flat, at least as compared the recently released BBC Concerts. Disc Two of the BBC CDs covers similar territory as this concert.

Because there were gaps in the concert footage, and because the band admirably wanted to go beyond the standard "Woodstock" and "Monterey Pop"-type concert films, Led Zep decided to cover them up with "fantasy sequences", where each member dreamed up a visual sequence to accompany selected songs.  While their intentions were admirable, their execution left much to be desired. However, these clunky fantasy sequences were as a precursor and inspiration to MTV videos of the heavy metal bands of the 1980s. Unfortunately, they look very dated today.

First, there's bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones' "midnight highwayman" sequence, overlaid on top of an excellent Jimmy Page guitar solo during the extended instrumental break of "No Quarter".

This is followed by Robert Plant's extended "hippie Dungeons & Dragons" bit, where he sails a ship like a psychedelic Erik
the Red, eats a wild mushroom, then rescues a blond maiden imprisoned in a castle. The music during this is the title
track, and "The Rain Song", both of which feature excellent playing by Jimmy Page on his 6 & 12 string double necked
Gibson.

 

Jimmy Page's fantasy sequence may be the best of all. It's certainly the most symbolic, as he climbs a mountain during a full moon, then sees himself age from embryo to old man and back again. Page is a follower of the demonic Alester Crowley, an expert mountain climber (even going so far as to buy Crowley's house overlooking Loc Ness, where Page's scenes were filmed). The music underneath this is Page's solo where he plays his Les Paul electric guitar with a violin bow (this is the inspiration for the hilarious bit in "Spinal Tap", where Nigel Tufnel plays his Les Paul with a *violin*), the centerpiece of "Dazed & Confused", pages 28 minute long guitar tour-de-force.

Drummer John Bonham's scenes overlaid on top of his endless "Moby Dick" sequences were are by far the most
straightforward, as they show Bonham not in any swords and sorcery or mysticism, but doing the things he loved best: racing motorcycles and hot rods, playing billiards, and spending time with his wife and son (Jason, who would later grow up to be a talented drummer in his own right).

The fantasy sequences at least fit in with Zeppelin's mystical and occasionally medieval image. Interspersed throughout the film are ugly real-life vignettes, with Peter Grant, Zep's foul-mouthed, suomo wrestler-sized manager accusing a concert promoter of ripping off the band (just before they launch into the title song), security guards armed with billy-clubs chasing a drugged-out fan through backstage hallways, and lots of assorted shots of Led Zep's spaced out fans and groupies. There's also some television news footage the robbery of Zep's hotel safe deposit box to the tune of about $200,000, spliced into scenes of the band playing "Heartbreaker".

 

The implicit message in all of these New York-vignettes, in between the fantasy and opening sequences shot on the band's bucolic English mansions and farms is that Led Zep lives in a Valhalla-like atmosphere, and occasionally deigns to visit the teenage peons in America, cannon-fodder males who live in urban slums, and lead lives of moronic desperation, saved occasionally by their communes with Led Zeppelin in vast "Houses of the Holy" (Plant's description of the sports arenas like Madison Square Garden that Zep played in, and the title of the album that Zeppelin was promoting when these concert scenes were shot).  I don't think that's the message that Zeppelin conciously wanted to leave their fans with (it wasn't until the punk revolution of the late 1970s, just around the corner when this film was made, that bands started *explicitly* to insult and berate their fans.), yet unfortunately, because the band, or their directors, decided to intersperse these typical "rocumentary" scenes in a film that they had no business being in.

Image's recently released LD of "The Song Remains The Same" is a big improvement over previous LD and VHS version of the film. This is the first time it's been letterboxed, and while that doesn't make all that much difference, the compositions *do* look better framed, with a bit more visual information. Also, there will be less cut off when this film is viewed on 16X9 television sets.

 

The disc has digital pro-logic surround sound, with a terrific surround sound sequence just before Page's before mentioned fantasy sequence. He bangs out a number of staccato power chords with his violin-bow, which go left, center, right, behind, left, center, right, behind, in quick succession. The sound on this sequence was originally screwed-up, so that it sounded like left, center, right, muffled noise, left, center, right, muffled noise, something that even Page complained about in an interview when he saw the first VHS version of TSRTS.

Also, a number of poor splices, where a frame or two of the film was missing, which caused the music to hiccup, have been replaced, so that the music flows *much* better than it did before.

The disc has chapter stops between most songs, which makes jumping past the long, boring opening scenes easy, although there could have been a lot more chapters added.  I would have liked to have seen chapter stops before and after the violin solo during the 28 minute long "Dazed and Confused", and there's no excuse for not having a chapter stop between "Heartbreaker" and "Whole Lot of Love"

As I said near the beginning, "The Song Remains The Same" is still the best live footage that exists, and for many people, the only chance of seeing Led Zeppelin performing live. I saw it numerous times after the group had broken up in the early 80s, when it played to midnight movie halls that reeked of cannabis.  My best friend and I, both in our late teens and guitar players for a couple of years, walked out of our first showing and said "man, we better practice a helluva lot more!" I imagine this disc could start a whole new round of guitar hero worship. [grin]

If you're a fan of the Led Zeppelin, or at least the hard-rock genre, you'll have a lot of fun with this new disc.  If heavy rock isn't your cup of tea, then you'll probably watch this disc and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Rock on, dudes!

1998, Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.

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