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Really, within the frame of my stipulations for this article, it’s possible the highly unique The Song Remains the Same concert/feature film makes more sense here, but the Led Zeppelin double DVD set is such a piece of historical gold, documenting the iconic rock band through four concerts over a ten-year timeframe. If you’re new to Led Zeppelin, you can start here; if you’re a fanatic, this is your bible. It comes off like a textbook as the quartet’s history and evolution unravel before your eyes. And, since Zeppelin basically called it quits after drummer John Bonham died in 1980, it feels like more of a trip back in time compared to old footage of some of the group’s counterparts who are still playing. Meaning it’s also been more subjected more to the test of time, since less live footage of the band exists. It unsurprisingly continues to stand its ground and it will continue to do so.
The slow, rhythmic, heartbeat-like percussion during the intro to Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii paired with quick cuts of the ancient city is like slowly rising up the first big hill of a roller coaster. But, instead of dropping, it just continues to float upward for an hour, with a whirlwind of ominous, heavy songs and imagery that leave you in limbo between fidgeting in your seat and being in a trance. It’s the closest a concert documentary has ever gotten to an acid trip. Director Adrian Maben’s idea is so good that it seems almost too obvious when thinking about it in hindsight: have one of the most spacey, creepy bands of that time play in a city that was leveled by a volcanic eruption and lost for 1,500 years. The theatrical version, which splices in live studio versions of Dark Side of the Moon tracks, dilutes the concept a bit in the name of making it more digestible, but, either way it’s a fantastically weird film that captures Pink Floyd in a special place and time.
The impact of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s The Concert for Bangladesh is incalculable. It’s the godfather of large-scale humanitarian concerts. And even though it initially struggled with financial problems, it did earn $250,000 for refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War and eventually sent millions of dollars in relief. It’s easy to see why this thing made so much money in royalties: George Harrison and Leon Russell share the mic with Bob Dylan—who had not performed live for two years at that point—on “Just Like a Woman”, Billy Preston, with his unmatched energy, steals the show, and, in general, all these musicians—many of whom were at strange or reclusive points in their careers—just get on stage and kill it. But, maybe most importantly though, The Concert for Bangladesh showed how a night of intercontinental friends getting on stage and jamming could bring instantaneous household attention to a really sad situation. Clapton said it best: “These things will always be remembered as times we could be proud of being musicians; where we actually just weren’t thinking of ourselves for five minutes. We were doing something for a bigger issue. And we need that.”
It seems impossible that one man in a khaki suit with a boom box and an acoustic guitar who plays a song called “Psycho Killer” while looking vaguely like a psycho killer could make the most unequivocally cool and iconic intro in concert documentary history. It would be hard to explain to someone who is unaware of Talking Heads. But, it’s perfect. This is one of the many reasons David Byrne could compete for the title of coolest man on Earth. Like a great studio album, Stop Making Sense is a cohesive product: Byrne begins the set by himself; then, one by one, another musician walks on stage for each successive song, until every member of Talking Heads and a few guests fill the stage, culminating with everyone together playing an unforgettable version of “Burning Down the House”.
Although Levon Helm looked like he wanted to punch Robbie Robertson in the back of the head, Neil Young was pale as a ghost, and Bob Dylan had to be negotiated with to get on stage—because he had his own film, Renaldo and Clara, coming out—The Last Waltz, which served as the Band’s 1976 “farewell” concert, captures nothing short of brilliance. Some of it is actually because of its flaws: the numerous stories and myths add to the larger-than-life legends, while the vulnerability and tension humanize them. But, once you get to the core of the thing, it’s the collaborations, performance, and energy that makes The Last Waltz the best concert of all time. Most of those performances still send shivers down my spine, even after being dozens of watches deep.