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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Been a long time’: Led Zeppelin’s first live recording was a bootleg made at Gonzaga 50 years ago today

On a cold winter’s night 50 years ago today, Len Zefflin rolled into town.

That’s what readers of the Spokane Daily Chronicle and Spokesman-Review were led to believe Dec. 30, 1968. The truth – that the band that would define hard rock for the next decade was playing the 3,800-seat Kennedy Memorial Pavilion at Gonzaga University – was lost on many who showed up that night to see the headliners, the psychedelic outfit Vanilla Fudge.

But by the end of the night, everyone in the audience knew the name Led Zeppelin.

“We’re all looking at each other and saying, damn, this (stuff) is really spooky-sounding. But cool,” said Curtis Hoffman, who was 16 at the time and bummed a ride from Newman Lake to catch the show. The gig has been immortalized in what is believed to be the first bootleg recording ever of the foursome of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones.

Bob Gallagher, who was also 16 at the time of the show, attended the Kennedy Memorial Pavilion to see Vanilla Fudge, who’d just opened for Jimi Hendrix at the Spokane Coliseum in September.

“Colleges were the center for shows,” said Gallagher, who since 1989 has owned 4,000 Holes record store, now on Monroe Street. Gallagher paid the $3 to see what was just Led Zeppelin’s fifth show stateside.

That translates to about $21 in today’s dollars. Tickets for the band’s much-hyped reunion in 2007 fetched several thousand dollars on the secondary market.

Tickets for Led Zeppelin show at the Gonzaga University on Dec. 30, 1968. (Spokesman-Review Archive / Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Tickets for Led Zeppelin show at the Gonzaga University on Dec. 30, 1968. (Spokesman-Review Archive / Spokesman-Review photo archive)

Spokane was one of the first stops on Zeppelin’s first North American tour, a swing that took them through West Hollywood and the famed Whisky a Go Go club just a few days later, where they played four nights with a five-piece shock rock outfit that had recently changed their name from the Nazz to Alice Cooper. From there, they traveled to San Francisco for a four-night engagement supported by blues musician Taj Mahal, and later joined Jethro Tull for two shows in Chicago in February.

A publicist for Plant, who has gone on to a successful solo career that includes a genre-busting team-up with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, couldn’t reach the 70-year-old singer for comment on this article. Inquiries made for comment from Jones and Page went unanswered. Bonham died in 1980, leading to the breakup of the band.

Matt Jernigan, who performs as Robert Plant in the tribute band Zoso that took the stage Friday night in Spokane, said he hadn’t heard the Spokane bootleg, but that it carried several hallmarks of the band’s early work.

“They were still finding themselves, but they still had a lot together,” Jernigan said.

Posting to Instagram Sunday, Page gave his own shout out to the 50-year anniversary.

“#OnThisDay, fifty years ago, in 1968 I played Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA with Led Zeppelin,” he wrote. “This is reputed to be the first primitive Led Zeppelin bootleg: it seems unusual that a support band with limited billing might be recorded before the main attraction, but I think it may well have been a guitar fan in the wake of the Yardbirds who might have recorded this.

“The Americans were quite muso and would follow the onwards incarnations of musicians on their journey,” he wrote.

A 2012 oral history of the band, compiled by author Barney Hoskyns, provides some insight into that first Led Zeppelin U.S. tour, though the Spokane date isn’t mentioned specifically.

“We just knew we had something that other people didn’t have,” Page told Hoskyns of the early days of the band in “Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band.” “All four of us in the room knew that this was beyond anything that anybody else was doing.”

Richard Cole, who served as the band’s tour manager throughout their 12 years of existence, said Led Zeppelin clicked as a four-piece just before that fifth show in Spokane.

“It was maybe during the fourth show, in Portland, that they started to gel … Jimmy (Page) was an old hand at America, but the others were relatively new to working there, and I think they had to feel the audiences out and get comfortable with them,” Cole told Hoskyns.

The audience at Kennedy pavilion would have been well-versed in rock traditions by the time Zeppelin came to town.

Gallagher remembers seeing the James Gang, Frank Zappa and others at the pavilion, which was built in 1965 and could seat 3,800. Rush played the pavilion in March 1976, part of its “2112” tour. But the Zeppelin show was different, because the band was an unknown commodity.

“We knew it was Jimmy Page’s new band,” Gallagher said. “But we weren’t expecting what happened. Nobody did.”

A bootleg recording found its way to Gallagher’s shop a couple decades ago. Gallagher doesn’t remember the name of the man who brought it in, but the tape was posted online after some scrubbing. Interested fans can listen to the entire 58-minute set on YouTube, absent the “horrible hissing” Gallagher said had been present on the original tape.

Though the sound is somewhat distorted, the unmistakeable drum beat of Bonham kicks off the recording, along with a thumping bass line from Jones. At 20 seconds, the wailing vocals of Plant kick in on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a leftover track from Page’s previous outfit, The Yardbirds.

Led Zeppelin originals mostly round out the rest of the set, including a 10-minute version of “Dazed and Confused” that Plant introduces as a track of “an album (that) comes out in about three weeks time on the Atlantic label.” The record would go on to sell more than 8 million copies.

Hoffman remembers hearing the full album some months later, on an after-midnight show that aired on KREM-FM.

“The music was very seductive, the way it was composed and everything,” Hoffman said. “It was all four of them, the chemistry between all four of them was just like a great big magnet, drawing everybody in. We hadn’t heard anything like that before.”

The performance didn’t merit a mention in the 1969 Gonzaga University yearbook, with a two-page photo spread instead reserved for a Feb. 18 performance by psychedelic rockers Iron Butterfly, best known for the surreal 17-minute track “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Such a booking was in itself a huge get for organizers at the Kennedy pavilion. Iron Butterfly’s record would go on to sell 4 million copies in its own right, with the title track peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard charts that year.

Much of the history of the Spokane show remains shrouded in legend and lore, not unlike the Tolkien-inspired lyrics of a later Zeppelin hit, “Ramble On.”

The special collection at the Gonzaga University library, a repository of primary documents that now includes newspaper clippings of the Richard Nixon hearings on Watergate and a vinyl copy of the Christmas record produced by alumnus Bing Crosby and David Bowie has no remembrances of Zeppelin’s first appearance 50 years ago, said Stephanie Plowman, the special collections librarian at the school.

Shows were booked independently of the university, she said, so those records likely weren’t kept.

The other reason artifacts don’t exist is perhaps the same reason behind that mistake in the newspapers so many decades ago (both the Portland and Seattle newspapers couldn’t quite get the “Zeppelin” right, according to archived photos on the band’s official website). It’s also why, upon hearing songs that would later come to define an era of hard rock in the 1970s, the Spokane crowd can only be heard on the bootleg offering polite applause on that evening in December 1968, said concertgoer Gallagher.

“They weren’t Led Zeppelin yet.”