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.
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Robert Plant – San Francisco – 1973 At Led Zeppelin's Kezar Stadium gig there were some white doves behind the amps that were to be released at the end of Stairway To Heaven. When the time came, out they flew – but one circled the crowd for a moment, then took a U-turn and landed right on Robert's hand. I guess the Zeppelin crowd freaked the bird out. #ledzeppelin #robertplant #kezarstadium #sanfrancisco #nealpreston #musicphotography #whitedove #legendary
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.”