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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.
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
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.”
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.
BIGGER, BETTER, LOUDER
Before the early ’70s, bands seldom toured with their own PA systems — it was the promoter’s responsibility to provide one. As late as 1970, says Cooper’s road manager David Libert, “even big bands would show up, and there would be a sound system they had never seen before. But [good] sound systems were just coming in — there were companies forming at that time.”
One of them was Heil Sound, founded by a pipe organist and electronics geek with no affinity for rock but a keen appreciation for the dynamics of sound in a live environment. In 1966, Bob Heil opened a music shop in his tiny hometown of Marissa, Ill., where he sold Hammond organs. As it happened, rock bands at the time were repurposing the Hammond B-3, a favorite of jazz and blues musicians, into a screaming lead instrument on par with the electric guitar. When Heil heard the pathetic sound systems bands played through, he scavenged two huge Altec A-7 speakers from St. Louis’ Fox Theatre and paired them with radial horns, ring tweeters and thousands of watts of amplification. In 1970, the Grateful Dead’s sound system was impounded while the band was en route from New Orleans to St. Louis, and Heil took a call from a panicked Jerry Garcia. Heil trucked his creation to the Fox and mixed sound at the concert. The Dead took Heil and his PA to New Jersey and on the rest of their tour. Word of Heil’s “really big PA” spread, and The Who ended up commissioning Heil’s unprecedented quadrophonic sound system, used on the U.K. dates of the 1973 Quadrophenia tour.
As Cooper’s band rehearsed for its tour, a massive set was being constructed on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank. Built on multiple levels, the stage comprised two steel cages flanking a Busby Berkeley-inspired staircase that, per Alice’s request, lit up with each step he took. Silvered bodies hung from the superstructure, and a gilded sarcophagus with lasers that shot from its eyes loomed behind center stage. Aside from Alice, the bandmembers were not consulted on the design. On a tour that would increasingly be fraught with unspoken tension over Alice’s emerging superstardom, the stage’s design had the effect, intentional or not, of diminishing the instrumentalists. “I do believe that the stage really made the band look like Alice’s backing band,” says guitarist Mick Mashbir.
THE PARTY NEVER ENDS
When The Beatles toured in 1964, their contract for backstage amenities stipulated: “In all dressing rooms for The Beatles, the purchaser must provide four cots, mirrors, an ice cooler, portable TV set and clean towels.” Minus the ice cooler and TV, that’s more or less what the average jail cell provides today.
The entitlement that would come to define rock stardom in the ’70s — and the ostentatious luxury that embodies it — gained its first foothold in the big tours of 1973. Witness this sample from Alice Cooper’s backstage hospitality rider: “Purchaser shall provide three (3) cases of Budweiser, three (3) cases of Michelob, one (1) gallon of apple juice, one (1) gallon of orange juice, two (2) cases of Coca-Cola, one (1) case of ginger ale and assorted fruit. This is to be placed in a cooler with ice in Alice Cooper’s dressing room. … The Michelob beer must be in bottles and the cases of Budweiser must be in cans. In states where the sale of beer must have an alcoholic content of less than 6 percent (i.e. 3.2 beer), the beer must be imported from another state.”
Bob Gruen photographed and traveled with dozens of acts in the early ’70s — Led Zeppelin, Cooper and The Who among them — and witnessed firsthand the creation of the rock-star mind-set. “It’s contempt for everybody,” Gruen says. “It was just, ‘We’re special, we’re gods, everybody adores us and we deserve whatever we want.’ “
On the Billion Dollar Babies tour, says Libert, “Everybody was living in this bubble. Think of it: You put your bag outside your hotel room, and then the next thing you know, it’s outside your hotel room in the next city. You go downstairs, you hop into a limo, it takes you to your own airplane, the airplane flies you to the next city, you hop out, you hop into another limousine, it takes you to the next hotel. You don’t really touch reality, and there’s people to keep everybody else away.”
One of Danny Markus‘ first tasks when he joined Zeppelin’s ’73 tour was to stock the band’s suites at Chicago’s Ambassador East with stereo equipment. After going to some trouble to assemble audiophile-level gear, Markus stopped by the hotel to check on his charges. “So I’m up in Robert Plant‘s room, I think Jimmy Page was there, and I’m looking around, ‘What happened to the stereo? Did it work out?’ And Robert says, ‘Come here.’ And we go down to one of the guest bathrooms in the suite and there it was, in the bathtub, in like a foot of water.”
Gruen was struck by the immensity of Zeppelin’s success and their eagerness to indulge it. “They had the plane, they’re playing a stadium — that was something that I don’t think the bands of the ’60s would have dreamed of,” he says. “Being in a band in the ’60s was about having fun. Rock and roll was a way to get a free drink and meet a girl. You weren’t expecting to make a lot of money, but you could have fun.” Adds Peter Rudge, The Who’s co-manager, “Woodstock made everybody aware of what the commercial potential was of what up until that time had been, essentially, an alternative culture and in many respects a cottage industry.”
Dave Otto was a Cincinnati entrepreneur whose contribution to rock ‘n’ roll came when he perfected a technique for printing on flexible rayon with an adhesive backing. Thus was born the modern backstage pass. In short order, Otto’s backstage passes became the industry standard and a potent symbol of the stratification of rock culture as the audience-performer dynamic shifted to star-supplicant. “There was a mystique about them,” acknowledges Otto. “A backstage pass was more valuable than a front-row seat ticket.” Before long they became pseudo-currency, and groupies deduced that the fastest route to the backstage sanctum was through a pass proffered by a roadie rounding up talent for the post-show party. And sometimes that pass would require … extra services, earning them the crude sobriquet “knee pads.”
As for groupies, “Some people took it more seriously than others,” Libert says. “One of the things these guys would do to entice a girl would be to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to such-and-such a town the next day, stick with me and I’ll take you with me on the plane.’ So I had to institute the following rules: If you take a girl on the plane, if there’s room, she had to be 18 and prove it. Rule number two: You owed her a plane ticket back to where you got her from. And if you refused to pay, you got fired. We had to protect Alice. It could jeopardize the whole tour. It wasn’t that I was so gallant.”
CHARIOTS OF THE GODS
Although the 1973 rock ‘n’ roll tour was nominally subject to the laws and customs of whatever municipality or sovereign state through which it passed, it created its own law inside the traveling party. Behavior unacceptable to civilians was tolerated or actively encouraged within the entourage if it boosted camaraderie — a private plane is a powerful bonding device for rich young men interested in no one’s agenda but their own. “Sure, it’s expensive,” Cooper manager Shep Gordon said of AC-1, the charter for the Billion Dollar Babies tour, “but having our own plane is good for everybody’s morale. We don’t have to f— around waiting in airports, and we can do what we want once we’re on the plane.”
Zeppelin flew the first leg of the ’73 tour in a Falcon 20, a snug French business jet. After the plane encountered severe turbulence after a gig in Oakland and terrified the entourage, Grant leased the just-commissioned Starship, a former United Airlines Boeing 720-B owned by teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman. Retrofitted at a cost of $200,000 with tacky-chic ’70s delights including a water bed, shag carpeting, brass-trimmed bars and a video library stocked with everything from Deep Throat to Duck Soup, the Starship was a hit with nouveau riche rockers who could afford it — Zeppelin paid $30,000 to lease it during July 1973. “There was nothing like it on the face of the Earth,” says Libert. “It was sort of like Air Force One, but rock ‘n’ roll.”
Compared to the mighty Starship, the Lockheed Electra that transported Cooper and Co. seems barely airworthy: The four-engine turboprop couldn’t climb above 29,000 feet, which led to spectacular turbulence. Nevertheless, it was beloved by the entourage for its crash-pad aesthetics and practicality.
MORE MONEY, MORE PROBLEMS
A new generation of tour managers like Gordon entered the business, and they questioned the wisdom of delegating blind trust to local promoters. By carrying their own sound and lights instead of relying on sketchy rentals, they enhanced the quality of their productions while taking a profit center away from the promoters and turning it into a recoupable expense. “We would bring our own sound and lights and charge the promoters, and the promoters would go crazy,” says Libert. ” ‘I can get that for half the price!’ Well, take it or leave it.”
As arena rock took off, the managers pushed back. Flat fees gave way to guarantees and percentages. Zeppelin’s opening show at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium with 49,236 in attendance, half of them sprawled on the baseball diamond’s grassy infield, grossed $246,000 (the same show would earn more than $1.2 million at 2012 ticket prices).
Selling out 17,000-seat arenas gave the new managers the leverage to demand transparency from notoriously opaque box-office accounting. Earlier in his career, Tom Ross booked Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming into municipal arenas and got to know the building managers. When rock moved into those same arenas in the early ’70s, he was uniquely qualified to call bullshit on promoters who were padding their expenses. “A lot of the costs that promoters would charge us — for catering, for limousines – were actually companies they started and owned,” Ross said. “So they were making a profit from little ancillary businesses that they used to farm out.”
Chip Rachlin worked for ICM as a booking agent in the ’70s, where his clients included The Eagles and Billy Joel. “I was leaving the agency business and my last show date was in D.C.,” Rachlin says. The promoter was Jack Boyle, whom Rachlin knew well. “Charming rogue, great guy, used to hang out with the Kennedys. He said, ‘I’m going to let you ask me any question you want tonight. Just one. I said, ‘Show me where you cheated.’ ” Boyle led Rachlin to the dressing room, where the post-show catering was laid out. “At the center of the dessert section was this five-gallon tub of ice cream. You wouldn’t think anything about it. He said, ‘Take a spoon. Put it into the ice cream.’ So you get it down about half an inch and you scoop that into the bowl. He says, ‘Try and get ice cream below the half inch.’ You couldn’t — it was plaster of Paris. He said, ‘That put three kids through college.’ ” Rachlin observes, “The ice cream would show up as a $74 charge. If you do 200 shows a year … who knew how many other cement ice creams he had around the building? I guarantee you, no tour accountant, nobody would catch that.”
The ’73 tours had consequences that changed the lives and careers of all three acts. The rest of the ’70s were an unfolding nightmare for Zeppelin. In 1975, Plant and his family were severely injured in a car accident in Greece, forcing the cancellation of an American tour and delaying their seventh album. Before a New Orleans show in 1977, Plant received the news that his son, Karac, had died suddenly of a viral infection. The band never again played in the U.S. In the summer of 1980, Zeppelin planned a monthlong return to America in October to promote In Through the Out Door, but during rehearsals, drummer John Bonham was discovered in bed at Page’s home, having choked to death on his vomit after consuming, it was later determined, more than a liter of vodka. He was 32.
Cooper’s band had scarcely unpacked from the Billion Dollar Babies tour before they were back at work recording a follow-up. Alice’s isolation was now exacerbated by an aggressive bodyguard who shadowed him everywhere. The band decided to take a one-year hiatus, and Alice recorded 1975’s solo effort Welcome to My Nightmare. After that, there was no more talk of the original band regrouping. “Now what do you got?” says band publicist Bob Brown. “You got a person named Alice Cooper and a band named Alice Cooper.”
The Who played out the ’70s after Quadrophenia amid personal upheaval and public and private tragedy. Townshend wrestled with drink and drugs. The Who by Numbers was released in 1975 to indifferent reviews and sales. After a three-year hiatus, the band recorded Who Are You, but within a month of the album’s release, Moon died suddenly after an overdose of the drug meant to wean him from alcohol.
Excerpted from What You Want Is in the Limo by Michael Walker. Copyright (c) 2013 by Michael Walker. All rights reserved.
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