Led Zeppelin

When Led Zeppelin reunited in 2007 to play London’s 02 Arena, it was one of the most in-demand shows ever – 20 million people reportedly applied for tickets. Five years on, the show is out on DVD, Blu-ray and CD as Celebration Day. Gibson asked visuals director Dick Carruthers about capturing a legendary event.

Carruthers is a well-respected video producer in the rock world, with performances by The Who, Oasis, Snow Patrol, Stereophonics and more to his credit. In November 2012, his direction of Noel Gallagher’s International Magic (also filmed at the 02) was released.

But Celebration Day has taken five years to come to release. Gibson.com asked Carruthers about its slow birth from show to screen…

What was your original involvement for the show?

Only to direct what was being shown on the big screen at the O2. The original notion was for the band to do the show for as a tribute to Ahmet (Eturgun, Atlantic Records chief). It was just, “let’s do it for one night.” So I was brought in as a multi-camera director of rock gigs. I’ve done it many times – Aerosmith, Oasis, to the Rolling Stones to Take That.

But if you are filming a gig now, recording is always a part. There was a point when we wanted to do it right, record the whole thing. It was: what if we wanted to make a DVD of this? So we added cameras, lighted the audience a little more, and so on.

So, was there an intention for a DVD at the time?

Absolutely not. But I was making all of the arrangements, so if that ever happened I knew damn well we’d have everything we needed. Just in simple terms of the camera angles and the audio and decent lighting. But even six months to a year ago from now, there was a possibility this would never see the light of day.

It seems strange to have taken five years for Celebration Day to come out…

It’s not strange to me at all. As John Paul Jones said at the press conference, five years is five minutes in Led Zeppelin time. And he’s absolutely right. There was no commercial pressure to release it, that’s for sure. But they did it to make a statement. They did no warm-up gigs, only a couple of rehearsals, and then they did this one-off show and just blew everybody away. That’s the statement.

Everyone said it was the greatest gig ever, and I was very chuffed about my part in that. But you never really know. It’s like – if you go and see your friend in an amateur production of King Lear, you’ll always say, “oh daaaahling, you were amaaaazing.” Everyone was saying it was awesome, but we didn’t have a plan.

But I knew it was good, brilliant even. But it was a few years later when I got the phonecall saying: shall we have a look it this film again? I’d never even seen it, so I was like, “of course!”

So there was no “masterplan?”

“Oh no. This band is very honest. Gold-plated integrity. There wasn’t one person leading this, in particular. Decisions are made by committee, by senate. Even before I got to pull the tapes out of storage, everyone involved had to agree it was OK I did that.

I first looked at it with John Paul Jones and Robert Plant in a top editing suite. They were sat behind me, so I didn’t know what their reaction was at first. But they were blown away themselves.

And they called Jimmy (Page) and said, “you have to see this.” So Jimmy came in and watched the whole thing, too. After that, it was agreed: we should put this out.

“Because a couple of years had passed, all the furore had died down. By then it was simply a decision of acknowledging that this was really, really good and should be released. So, to me, to release it after a few years makes perfect sense. It’s a very “Zeppelin” thing to do.

What were you doing on the night? Did you actually get to enjoy the show?

Oh, absolutely. It was a fantastic focus of concentrating. I was mixing and directing the whole show – live-mixing all of the cameras and directing all of the on-screen graphics. By the time the band came on stage I had a thousand pre-set buttons that I could recall for the effects – when you watch Celebration Day, it makes sense why I had to do that.

And everything was (audio) recorded perfectly backstage, even knowing it would be locked in a box for probably a few years. But in a sense, I didn’t feel I’d even seen the show. It felt like an intense 10-minutes of 3-dimensional chess just to do it. Like - what just happened?

Were Zeppelin nervous or apprehensive about filming the show?

“There was nervousness about the show, yes. But there was no apprehension. I think there was a degree of nervousness in the crowd - they were there knowing they were about to witness an historic occasion, the outcome of which was by no means certain. So there were palpable nerves in the auditorium. But I felt very fired-up, I just wanted to do it.

There was no time for hesitation. I just had to move the cameras like chess pieces – thinking several moves ahead – and “live in the moment” of each song. It was wonderful to do. Time like that, I think I’ve got the best job in the world.

I think you can feel the nerves in the first song or two, but with “Black Dog” it starts to relax – you can feel those metaphorical shoulders relaxing. By the end of “Black Dog”, everyone seems to relax. By the fourth song, “In My Time of Dying,” it’s flying. And then it gets better and higher, better and higher. It just flies.

For you, what are the key points in the show and the film of it?

“All the way through maybe, haha? Well, I think “For Your Life” is a highpoint. “Stairway to Heaven”, naturally, but also because we had a lot of visuals going on. “Kashmir” seems to be almost everybody’s favorite song in this film… but visually, that wasn’t a big one for my team, we didn’t have a lot of complicated visuals going on. But on “Dazed and Confused” I split the screen into three and did three different visual mixes… What I was trying to do was reflect, spatially and visually, what was going on in the song.

You say there were mistakes, but Led Zeppelin are known for not being flawless, aren’t they?

Yeah, and I love that. Everyone that is a true Led Zeppelin fan understands that! Programmed perfection does not exist in Led Zeppelin’s world. But their ability to switch, change gear, jump a phrase is superb. You’d have to be an anorak to notice it!

Was the show always intended to be a one-off?

Absolutely, it always was. And it increased the pressure, in a good way, that we had to get it right. It wasn’t like we thought we could iron out the rough spots by gig eight!

But, also, it wasn’t definite that this was the last will and testament of Led Zeppelin. We didn’t know. The band didn’t even know! It seems like a fact now, but all this b****cks about will they/won’t they tour again only happened afterwards. I just had to pull-off that one show. To make that night the most spectacular visual show it could be. If they do get back together, my only focus was showing everyone else: this is how it’s done. And I think Zeppelin did that. The pure musicianship of the band, the songs, and the beauty of Jason Bonham on the drums, which he’s always wanted to do… it’s incredible.

But the input from the band in this movie has obviously been high?

Yes. They came in, individually and collectively. In terms of visuals, it was all about the cadences and the accents of the film. Getting the pace and cut of the rhythm of the song is a big job. Y’know, Jimmy could be off in his own zone, then staring at Jason on drums, then having a question-answer moment with Robert… that’s the story of the song being played. You have to tell that story on film.

You’ll always get something “wrong.” I’ve had crazy people slagging me off for not keeping cameras on Jimmy’s solos long enough. But it’s about the ups and downs, the light and the shade, of any song.

There’s an intimacy in the film from the way it was shot. And I think we captured the celebration of the show.