Sometimes it takes new technology to unlock the past.
Neal Preston, whose photos grace the hallways and rooms of the Hard Rock Hotel, was Led Zeppelin’s tour photographer in the band’s heyday. Now, more than 30 years later, he’s releasing an e-book for the iPad, Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury (Warner Music, $10). This is like a traditional book turned up to 11. In addition to photos and text, there are video and audio interviews, set lists and memorabilia (tickets, backstage passes, press releases and Swan Song Records inter-office memos). There’s a forward by Stevie Nicks and testimonials from other bands (Heart, MuteMath, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, etc.) about how much they love to get the Led out. There’s also the fun of swiping and scrolling on a device that would have been unimaginable during those ’70s-era national tours.
Sound and Fury contains more than 250 photos, about 100 of which have never been published. “The most fun was pulling nuggets of gold out of the files,” the Los Angeles-based photographer says, “finding something that escaped your eye, something that’s been on the proof sheet for years and years.”
The best part of the e-book is when the images and technology come together to create an experience that wouldn’t be possible on any other medium: It’s viewing a photo while listening to an audio clip of Preston explaining the story behind it. Or, as Preston says, “It’s like being at my house, having dinner, hearing stories and then going downstairs and looking at the files.”
For that reason, reading Sound and Fury doesn’t quite feel like reading a book. It’s more like taking a self-guided tour of Preston’s memories, rummaging through the attic of his brain to discover personal experiences that have since been enshrined in rock history. “This book is experiential in nature,” Preston says. “It’s not a biography or a documentary. It is, very simply, this band through my experience, my eyes, my camera—the closest you can get to being on the road with Led Zeppelin without being on the road with Led Zeppelin.”
As such, the “history” presented seems almost provisional, like something that readers and fans are creating together with Preston and his fellow insiders. The reader can look at a proof sheet, a list of possible historic images, and see what Preston chose and what he left out. This brave warts-and-all version of his photography is the equivalent of a movie starlet appearing without her makeup. It allows us to finally see the photo that happened before and after an iconic moment. Take the classic image of Jimmy Page guzzling a bottle of Jack Daniel’s backstage. The proof sheet and accompanying audio commentary reveal that it was merely a flash of transcendence in an otherwise mundane moment spent with a group of people (albeit famous ones) standing around waiting for the next thing to happen. It was not, as previously imagined, a still from a raging party. Any magic lost in seeing behind the behind-the-scenes is traded for the thrill of intimacy.
The subtext of Sound and Fury hints at a band that is secluded in the white tower (or rather, dingy windowless dressing room) of their fame. This book opens a window into that tower. Preston’s privileged view reveals an inner circle inside the inner circle. It gets you on the private jet, bringing you so close to these rock gods that you actually feel a little left out for not being in the band.