Song of the Day: Led Zeppelin at the Boston Tea Party

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Led Zeppelin At the Boston Tea Party ©Steven C. Borack #6

I write this column as I sit watching Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals. To escape the tension I feel at the end of the second period, and the interminable Geico commericals (the camel ad was funny last week), I turn to rock and roll: Zeppelin Rules.

Last week I wrote of the Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party, a venue that occupies a curious, mostly-forgotten corner of 1960s music culture. It was a major stopping point for English bands beginning their first American tours, among them Jeff Beck Group, The Who, and– amazingly, Led Zeppelin.

In the week since writing the column, I learned of the tremendous Facebook group “Who Remembers The Boston Tea Party, 1967-1970?,” a repository of oral history, anecdotes, and photos from the great shows of the past. The photo above, from active group member and photographer Steven Borack, is one of several that make your jaw drop. These are the same three guys Londoners paid thousands to see from the nose-bleeds of O2 Arena in 2007. On January 23, 1969, one of Led Zeppelin’s first American concerts cost $3.50 a ticket.

Ben Blummenberg, in a concert review for The Boston Phoenix on February 5, 1969, wrote, “I expect the Led Zeppelin to be flying high for some time. They and the Jeff Beck Group are to rock what Formula One cars are to road racing. Their raw power is compelling and hypnotic while their complexity makes repeated exposure a pleasure.”

I write this paragraph 44 years later, and a retirement services commercial just interrupted the third period of Game Six. The backing music is a watered-down instrumental version of “Baba O’Riley,” the classic three chord anthem by Zeppelin’s English compatriots The Who. Somehow I cannot imagine “Dazed and Confused” underlying messages of fiscal responsibility. Yet until now neither could a song with the lyrics, “it’s only teenage wasteland.”

The quality of the bootleg recording is tinny, but you can hear everything. In particular, Jimmy Page’s guitar cuts through, and it cuts deeply. The plodding “You Shook Me” is held down by his classic blues riff, and then takes off to the outer reaches. With knowledge of the studio version, this is expected. But it takes particular excitement with knowledge this is among the first times it explodes on an American stage.

Speaking to New Musical Express in 1973, Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones said, “As far as I’m concerned, the key Zeppelin gig, the one that put everything into focus, was one that we played on our first American tour at the Boston Tea Party. We played our usual one hour set, using all the material for the first album and Page’s White Summer guitar piece and by the end, the audience just wouldn’t let us offstage.”

He goes on to describe the end of their four hours on stage, where they played “anything that would come into our head.” I hear this with teases of the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” in the middle of “How Many More Times” at the end of this recording. But sadly the tape runs out before we could hear Zeppelin rock out to “Please Please Me” or other unexpected covers.

That notwithstanding, listen to the show, immerse yourself in Boston’s musical history, and put Led Zeppelin into focus.