50 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Clash With Cops in Pittsburgh
Led Zeppelin were still a young band when they made their second tour of the States in 1970. But as their March 30 stop in Pittsburgh proved, they were definitely a force to be reckoned with, both on and off stage.
Promoter Pat DiCesare was responsible for bringing the band to the city's Civic Arena, and as he later recalled in a quote posted at the official Zeppelin website, their backstage behavior lived down to his low opinion of U.K. acts in general — at least when it came to the headaches incurred by requests on their rider.
"The English acts were always difficult to deal with," DiCesare explained. "The group wanted two cases of Dom Perignon champagne for the dressing room. I had several runners whose jobs were to fetch what the acts demanded, the 'rider requirements.' ... We tried to buy the two cases of Dom but to no avail. Horne's Department store, the premier liquor store at the time, said that 'In all of the city of Pittsburgh, you will not find two cases of Dom. You must order that item well in advance.'"
Undaunted, DiCesare and his team did their level best to fulfill the band's request. "I dispatched my runner to all the state stores in the Tri-State area to fill up two cases with Dom and the next best thing he could find," he continued. "Several hours later, I was again summoned to the dressing room. 'What is this?' the manager asked. 'Champagne?' I responded. 'Champagne? You call this garbage champagne?' he yelled. I tried to explain the incredible effort it took to gather up the champagne to fill the cases, but he kept calling it garbage."
But the yelling was pleasant compared to what happened next: "He reached for a bottle, one that cost me about $100 apiece, and threw it against the wall. Again and again, until all 24 bottles were smashed. Two thousand and five hundred dollars disappeared before my eyes."
If Zeppelin's backstage behavior painted them as profligate prima donnas, the way they conducted themselves during the show sent another message entirely. As had been the case repeatedly throughout the tour, the band noticed an ugly current of tension running between the young crowd and the local police running security at the arena, and at one point, they actually refused to perform.
"The cheering fans stood on their seats and went wild with enthusiasm, but baton-wielding cops ran into the crowd and pushed people off the chairs," wrote Ralph Hulett and Jerry Prochnicky in their book Whole Lotta Led: Our Flight With Led Zeppelin. "It could have turned out pretty ugly. When you were being bombarded with the Zeppelin sound, it was hard to just sit there."
"We couldn't play with that sort of friction so we just stopped playing and walked away," guitarist Jimmy Page recalled. "That seemed to cool the police from running round sorting out the audience, and when we went back onstage after five or 10 minutes, there was no trouble. What we're finding so often on this tour of the States is that the relationship between police and audience are bad from the start. So, it ends up with us having to cool things down."
It all seems a little quaint now, but at the time, Led Zeppelin's brand of hard rock disturbed a number of older authority figures, and with generational friction already running high over social issues like civil rights and foreign wars, any kind of rowdiness could be viewed with fear and suspicion. Arguing that the U.S. was an "uncool country" at the time, the report found Page coming firmly to the fans' defense.
"The police act tough with crowds out of fear but if they just left people alone and didn't get all worked up and scared, I'm sure nothing would happen," he argued. "I mean, you see a cop waving a stick and you get shaky — and how can we carry on playing when the cops are roaming among an apparently peaceful audience, anticipating trouble? That's what's happening."
Led Zeppelin would emerge from their 1970 tour exhausted but otherwise unscathed, although their issues with local authorities were far from finished: During their 1975 tour, the band was infamously banned from Boston after fans who were let into the venue for early ticket sales ran amok and racked up thousands of dollars in damage. Again, Page stood with the fans, noting, "The last thing I want to be is respectable."