Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, The Who and the Birth of the Mega Rock Tour (Book Excerpt)

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
 Bob Gruen

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In the classic rock movie Almost Famous, set during the spring and summer of 1973, rock critic Lester Bangs laments "this dangerous moment" in rock history when fame and money threaten to "strangle everything we love about rock." In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road With Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born, THR contributing editor Michael Walker uncovers the facts beneath Cameron Crowe's thinly veiled fiction.

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It was the year the concert business went big time with the stadium tour. The crowds were bigger, the travel more decadent, the groupies more eager and the behavior of the stars more outrageous. Into this came three legendary acts touring to promote three career-defining albums: Led Zeppelin with Houses of the Holy, The Who with Quadrophenia and the original Alice Cooper band with Billion Dollar Babies. The Who, the last of the great British Invasion bands, was a critical darling after such albums as 1968's rock opera Tommy. Quadrophenia, another concept album, was its attempt to grow and connect with a new generation that missed 1965's "My Generation."

Led Zeppelin, formed in England in 1968, was a commercial success (the band's 1971 fourth album sold 32 million copies) but was dismissed by critics. Houses of the Holy, its fifth album in as many years, was its first to feature all original material. Alice Cooper the band was just coming into stardom in 1973. Like Zeppelin, it was reviled by critics -- for its outrageous stage-show theatrics, including fake blood and live snakes, that anticipated David Bowie's outre-glam and Kiss' demonic makeup. Unlike Zeppelin, Cooper's first two albums were commercial flops.

The 1971 hit "I'm Eighteen" and 1972 follow-up "School's Out" changed that trajectory. With its themes of decadence and power, Billion Dollar Babies captured the zeitgeist of a country about to be engulfed in the cynicism of the Watergate scandal and reached No. 1. Shifting to an all-stadium tour, Alice Cooper grossed $4.5 million (when tickets were $6.50), drawing a then-astounding 820,000 fans and paving the way for modern tours like Lady Gaga's $181 million-grossing Born This Way. In 1973, these three seminal acts would herald the transformation of the rock concert into the rock concert business. -- Andy Lewis

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OPENING LICKS

Led Zeppelin crashed into the United States in May 1973 fresh off a string of European shows with Houses of the Holy on its way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. By design, the first two dates of the tour -- held in outdoor stadiums to capacity crowds in Atlanta and Tampa -- were meant to convey the band's new world-beating status and generate the respectful press that had gone to The Rolling Stones the previous year. Peter Grant, the notoriously blunt manager for Zeppelin, made as much ominously clear to Danny Goldberg, the band's new publicist. Goldberg seized upon a brilliant strategy to link Zeppelin to rock's ultimate touchstones. Tallying the capacity audience at Tampa Stadium, he noted that, at 56,800, it slightly exceeded the attendance for The Beatles' record-­setting 1965 Shea Stadium show. "Of course, the contrast with Shea Stadium was a reflection of the size of the stadiums, not the relative popularity of the groups," Goldberg later acknowledged, along with the fact that rock festivals like Woodstock had drawn far larger audiences. "But I figured those crowds had been drawn by multi-artist packages rather than single headliners." Goldberg typed a press release declaring that Zeppelin had broken the attendance record set by The Beatles for a single-­artist concert and dropped it off at the local UPI bureau -- "where it was a slow news night." The next day newspapers around the world ran stories with headlines blaring that Led Zeppelin was now "bigger than The Beatles."

The Who arrived in San Francisco to open its American tour at the 14,000­seat Cow Palace on Nov. 20. The band traveled with 20 tons of custom sound and lights and other staging that required three 45-­foot trailers and a 12­-man crew. Tickets for the show -- as with every city on the itinerary -- sold out in hours, and anticipation for the band's first concert in America since 1971's Who's Next was acute. But within minutes of the group striking up "Magic Bus," drummer Keith Moon appeared vacant-eyed, flailing at his cymbals, before passing out face ­first into the tom­-toms. As the band played on, he was hoisted as if from a fishing net and carried offstage, limp and pale as a mackerel. "When Keith collapsed, it was such a shame," Pete Townshend later recalled. "I had just been getting warmed up at that point … I didn't want to stop playing."

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Such was Townshend's mind-set when he turned to the audience and half quipped, "Does anybody play the drums?" A cheer went up. "I mean somebody good." In the audience near the stage was Scott Halpin, a 19­-year­-old Iowa transplant who had paid for a scalped ticket and was attending with a friend. When his pal heard Townshend's request, he got the attention of stage security and, indicating Halpin, shouted "He can play!" The next thing Halpin knew, he was backstage downing a shot of brandy someone handed him and being escorted to the drum set. As he settled in, Townshend reached through the cymbals to shake his hand. "I'm in complete shock," Halpin recalls.

Given the circumstances, Halpin acquitted himself reasonably well before joining arms with Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle for the curtain call. Backstage, Daltrey gave Halpin a tour jacket and pledged to pay him $1,000. Whereupon Halpin climbed into his VW Beetle and drove himself back into obscurity. Townshend sent him a thank-you note after the tour moved to Los Angeles, but the thousand dollars Daltrey promised never materialized.

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