Led Zeppelin’s Official Photographer Neal Preston Shares His Wildest Memories With The Band

Neal Preston

Despite their status as the biggest band on the planet throughout the 1970s, the kind who shuttled from sold-out arena show to sold-out arena show in a private jumbo jet, Led Zeppelin didn’t really have that large of an entourage. They were an intensely private and largely press-averse group. Only a select few individuals ever made it into the inner sanctum. One of just a handful of folks to gain their trust was photographer Neal Preston. Preston shot the band for the first time in 1970 at a show at Madison Square Garden when he was still just a teenager.

He photographed them several more times in the early ’70s, before eventually securing a position as their sole, official photographer during their massive tours in 1975 and 1977. Though he’s worked with some of the most iconic rock groups of all-time in the years since, including Queen at Live Aid and Bruce Springsteen on the Born In The USA tour, it’s still the time he spent with Zeppelin that has defined his career.

“It cemented my place in the pantheon of music photographers like no other,” he said. “They had other people shoot them but, I’m the only person ever officially hired to be their tour guy. If you have a job like mine, it will never hurt to have that at the top of your resume… what it said to every other band was, if this guy is good enough for Zeppelin, he’s good enough for you.”

Today, Led Zeppelin is releasing their first-ever official book. Led Zeppelin By Led Zeppelin is a massive, 400-page coffee table tome, filled with glossy, high resolution shots of the band at their decadent, high-flying best, with annotations written by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and quotes from the late, great John Bonham. Among the many shots, most of which were taken by some of the most notable photographers of the era, you’ll find a trove of pictures taken by Preston, who got as close to the band as anyone during their heady time as the undisputed kings of rock and roll, when a three-hour gig filled with smoke, lasers, pyro, 20-minute drum solos was considered a light night of work.

All that’s to say Preston has seen some shit. During the course of our nearly two-hour chat over the phone, he gleefully recounts story after outrageous story about his time spent on the road and up in the air with Page, Plant, Jonsey, and Bonzo. There were also several moments where he noticeably pulled back from giving the full, X-rated account of events, because even though the band’s imposing manager Peter Grant has long-departed, to be a member of the Zeppelin inner-circle is to be a member for life, and there are some confidences that he refuses to betray, even four decades later.

Preston first encountered the members of Zeppelin back in 1969 when they happened to be in attendance for a Jeff Beck Group show he was shooting at the Fillmore East. He ran into them again the next year, just a month after getting his high school diploma while covering a press conference at the Plaza Hotel that Page and Plant hosted after Zeppelin bested the Beatles in a popularity poll in the English magazine Melody Maker. “I knew who Robert was, I knew who Jimmy was, and it was a big deal with all this big-time press there,” he said. “Robert had just been told that Jimi Hendrix had just passed away the night before or something, so the reporters were fixated on this whole Jimi Hendrix and drugs thing, and Robert, who can be very genial, he rolled with it. The look on Jimmy’s face though, was like, ‘C’mon, you gonna talk about my band or are you gonna talk about someone else?'”

He shot the band’s show at Garden the next night, and caught up with them again after moving to Los Angeles in 1971, including photographing their gig at Long Beach in 1972 that was eventually released as part of the live compilation How The West Was Won. Eventually, he inked a retainer deal with Zeppelin’s label Atlantic to essentially be on call to photograph shows, record release parties, and gold record celebrations for their different acts. In ’73 he hit the road with the band for the first time on a west coast swing to get pictures for a feature being compiled for the Los Angeles Times by an intrepid young reporter named Cameron Crowe. The two would eventually become lifelong best friends.

All this work didn’t go unnoticed, and by the time the band was plotting another live run, their biggest yet in 1975, their publicist, a former rock writer named Danny Goldberg, who in later years would manage a different band named Nirvana, tapped Preston to serve as the official photographer after securing the okay from Zeppelin’s manager. “Peter [Grant] gave me the keys to the kingdom,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the job without obviously Jimmy’s okay, but also Peter’s okay.”

There’s a certain amount of reverence in Preston’s voice when he invokes Grant’s name, and it’s easy to understand why. As a manager, Grant’s devotion to his clients was absolute, as you can see from the small backstage footage captured of him shaking down a local promoter in the film The Song Remains The Same. He also leveraged Zeppelin’s popularity to gain artist advantageous deals with those same local promoters, leading the way for most bands of that era to demand and receive an 80/20 split of the door, flipping the prior industry standard.

No detail was too minuscule to escape his notice. When Zeppelin played the massive outdoor Knebworth Festival in 1979, Grant actually made Preston fly over the crowd in a helicopter and shoot the audience itself, so he’d later have evidence if the promoter tried to stiff him on some of the proceeds while claiming a smaller number of people showed up than actually did. When this inevitably happened, the forward-thinking Grant took him to court and won extra damages, based on the photos, which he’d had analyzed using some special new software.

Grant also had an uncanny connection to the band, and Jimmy Page in particular. When asked by Preston how he gauged a good Zeppelin show from a bad Zeppelin show, he looked back to Grant. “My litmus test; my barometer was Peter,” he said. “Peter would turn to me at the beginning of certain shows and say, ‘Jimmy is gonna have an amazing show tonight.’ He would know within in the first 30 seconds.” As to which shows he thought were especially strong? “I can tell you ’75 in LA was a killer show. I could tell you that ’73 in Long Beach was great, even though Jimmy had hurt his hand. Some of the shows in Chicago in ’75 were killer. [Madison Square] Garden always seemed to be great. Nassau [Coliseum in Long Island] always seemed to be great.”

It was during the time spent off the stage naturally, that Preston actually got close to the members of Zeppelin, usually while flying from gig to gig in their private jet, the Starship in 1975 and Caesar’s Chariot in 1977, watching Elvis movies like The Girl Can’t Help It, while Jimmy nursed a fifth of Jack Daniels. “We were a very tight knit, cloistered bunch,” he said. “Mick Jagger has the guy who delivers the tea on stage, and that guy has the guy who cooks the tea backstage, who has the guy who buys the tea, etc., etc. We had us.” They also got close in their down time in some of the country’s finest hotels, when things sometimes got a little out of hand. Preston fondly recalls an especially raucous stay at Swingo’s in Cleveland in 1977.

“I had finally gotten into bed at a reasonable hour of 3 AM, because with Led Zeppelin, I would average about 45-minutes sleep a night,” he recalled. “I had just put my head down on the pillow and was falling asleep and all of a sudden, boom! This boot breaks through the door from the next room. It scared me half to death! It’s Robert. He’s kicked down my door. I flipped out. It was like a B-52 had flown into the hotel. I got up and turned my light on, and he said, ‘It’s the prince of peace come to call, do you have a joint?” Fortunately, Plant had kicked down the right door and so, “We sat on the edge of bed and smoked a joint and talked… Robert was a hippie.”

The fun in Cleveland didn’t end there, however. “I happened to be staying next door to Jonesy,” Preston recalled, referring to John Paul Jones, the band’s bass player and all-around musical Swiss army knife. “At one point Jonesey opened up all the doors connecting my room and his room. Bonzo, came into my room and thought it was part of Jonesy’s suite, got really pissed and destroyed my room. He took a telescopic blackjack and smashed lamps and the drapes were off the walls and room service trays were up-ended on my bed.” After surveying the damage, and being the magnanimous rock star he was, Jones invited Preston to spend the rest of their stay sleeping on his couch. “Bonzo could be so sweet, but when he was drunk, look the fuck out.”

But for all the frontman swagger of Plant, the dexterous musical abilities of Jones, and bombastic drum work of Bonham, no one ever lost sight of who was actually in charge. “There was no doubt it was Jimmy’s band,” Preston said, and the guitarist usually asserted his authority in subtle ways, like in 1975 when Preston was trying and failing to come up with quality shots of Jones and Bonham, who played just out of the spotlights gleaming on Page and Plant. “I went to Danny and said, I’m having a problem here, because I don’t have enough light on the other two guys,” he said.

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Led Zeppelin on tour…

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Ultimately, “There was a band meeting where it was decided that we gotta get more pictures of the four of us onstage, and Danny said, ‘There’s not enough light and Neal’s having a problem, and it was agreed that Danny would try to say something to the lighting guys, and if Neal still didn’t get it done, Neal would be fired. So I went to the lighting guy during the show, and I pleaded my case, and the guy said, ‘Listen, the light is on Jimmy and Robert, because that’s the way Jimmy Page wants it, and that’s the way it’s always gonna be.'” In other words, “It ain’t gonna change, so I just had to deal with it.”

When asked about his most memorable moment shooting Led Zeppelin, it’s a memory of Page during one of the band’s iconic shows at the LA Forum in 1977 that remains at the forefront of his mind. “There’s a picture I shot that’s one of my all-time favorite pictures of the band onstage playing ‘No Quarter.’ You see the dry ice, and Jimmy’s got the theremin up, but he’s dragging on a cigarette and he’s looking right at me,” he said. “10 seconds after I shot that picture he came over to me to say something. This is not usually a good thing when the main guy in the biggest band in the world wants to have a word with you during a show. I’m a fly on the wall. I don’t want to be seen.”

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Jimmy Page, 1977

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“Anyway, he comes over to me and he says, ‘Is that the tour doctor in the front row?’ So I peek around the amp and I say, ‘Yeah Jimmy, that’s Dr. Larry.’ Now, Dr. Larry was the tour doctor with a bag full of anything and everything and he’s surrounded by like, five blondes. ‘And he says, ‘Fuck me, he pulls more birds than anyone in this fucking band!'” Then he goes back out onstage and whips out a searing guitar solo.” The fourth wall had been breached.

For budding concert photographers, Preston had a few rules which he gamely shared, most of which come back to his idea of being a fly on the wall and all of which might serve you well as you land your first gigs:

  • “There’s a protocol for being onstage. Don’t touch anything, don’t breathe on anything. You’re being tracked by 12 sets of eyes, the roadies. It’s their domain. It’s their nation-state. It’s their Vatican. And if you fuck up, you’re gonna be shot down like the U2 spy plane over Russia in 1960.”
  • “Make sure your laminate is clearly visible because it’s impossible to argue with some part-time wrestler from UCLA when The Who are playing 11 and a half feet away from you.”
  • “When I’m shooting, I’m in work mode. I mean, I’m listening, but I’m not. That’s one of the things about my job: I don’t sit on the side of the stage and groove.”
  • “When the show’s over and the crew are loading out, get out of their f*cking way because it’s not worth it being impaled by a forklift because you’re out trying to impress some chick from Memphis, who you’ll never see again.”

Before, during and after his years with Zeppelin, Preston has worked with just about everyone who’s anyone in the world of rock music. Guns N’ Roses, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Rolling Stones, and on and on and on. And while his prodigious talents speak for themselves, his iconic shots tell the story of that legendary band maybe even better than words are able. “Look, they were the biggest and baddest, and they swaggered around the country taking no prisoners,” he said. “Sorry Mick and Keith, but you take any Stones show from ’75 and any Zeppelin show from ’75 and Zeppelin wiped their ass with you guys.”

Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin is out now. You can purchase your copy here.