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Led Zeppelin, Photographs by Neal Preston

October 15, 2009
Led Z

Stairway to Heaven

ISBN: 9781847726490, Price: $29.95, Height:12″, Width:10″, Pages:192, Binding: Paperback, Publication Date: 9/1/2009, Available here from amazon.com.

There’s them and there’s us. The rock stars on stage, the fans squished below. It would seem that we are forever blocked in climbing from our world to theirs. Until now. This book of spectacular, oversized Led Zeppelin photographs by Neal Preston is the unlikely means. Caught in a shutter click, we can see what we mostly heard before. There have been film documentaries of concerts, but these stills let us stop time and study the camera’s subjects in a way we were never before possible.

But that’s not all. There is an interview of Preston by Cynthia Fox—a LA radio and TV personality—that links the pages of photos and even better, pulls us directly into the middle of this iconic group, much as the young high-school aged photographer is introduced to the backstage world of pop music. He’s a fan but trying to understand what he experiences not in terms of being an aspiring musician, but on a more human level. We learn of his first days with Led Zeppelin. How he had to gain their trust, not just in terms of what he could photograph, but as a member of close knit group of musicians building a legacy we still cherish today.

Led Zeppelin was, of course, the English rock band formed in 1968 by Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass guitar, keyboards, mandolin) and John Bonham (drums). With their heavy, guitar-driven sound they are regarded as one of the first heavy metal bands. However, the band’s individualistic style drew from many sources. Their rock-infused interpretation of the blues and folk genres incorporated rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, pop, Latin and country. The group disbanded following Bonham’s death in 1980, but surviving members have since performed in “comeback” concerts.

Some of the questions asked of Preston in the interview (and his answers) are things we have all wondered about, but even if we could, might be hesitant to ask. “How familiar were you with Led Zeppelin and their music before becoming their photographer?“ How did you, as a high school kid, meet people and show them your work?” “Was there ever a moment when, ‘oops’ suddenly you were in the way?” How do you catch a moment, know something special is coming and be ready? and even, “How soon after a show would you be showing the band your sots and getting their feedback? and What kind of feedback did you get?” None of the answers probe much beyond the visual images we have of the group’s members. Nor do we expect or want them too. There is something challenging about coming face-to-face with myth, yet wanting to keep it magical and alive.

The photographs themselves are sharp, dynamic, helpfully labeled and rich in variety. I couldn’t find one that I would call ordinary, yet they were never repetitious. And like a fine painter, Neal Preston makes his subjects accessible, yet larger than life. There is a heightened reality I have seldom felt about comparable books. It might have been a nice touch to have the names of the groups albums or list their hits on a page in the back. I have one of their original LPs but never made the conversion to cassettes or CDs. We hear their familiar music through the amplification of our imagination. But memories like mine need an occasional boost. In any case, I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever yearned for that stairway to heaven.

φ φ φ φ (four roses out of five)        – John Lehman

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