Getting the inside story behind Led Zeppelin's 'lost' film

Plant and Page at the 1970 Bath Festival
Plant and Page at the 1970 Bath Festival (Image credit: Getty)

Unseen film of Led Zeppelin playing at the 1970 Bath Festival – thrown away nearly 50 years ago, and widely thought to be lost – has been unearthed in a British university film archive. Experts are now hoping to digitally restore the footage, and it’s hoped that it will be released to mark the 50th anniversary of what is widely considered to be one of the most important performances of the band’s career.

The 1970 Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music (which took place not in Bath, but close by in Shepton Mallet) was a two-day event featuring Zeppelin, who headlined the Saturday, Pink Floyd, The Byrds, Santana, Johnny Winter, Canned Heat and many more.

The plan – agreed by the band and their fiercely protective manager, Peter Grant – was that filmmaker Peter Whitehead would shoot the concert and interview the band and the footage would be released. But Whitehead got to the festival late, and missed shooting the band arriving by helicopter. For Zeppelin’s performance, he was shooting into the sun, so footage was so dark that both Whitehead and the band deemed it unusable. The rushes were discarded, and presumed lost. Until now.

Earlier this year, De Montfort University in Leicester acquired the Peter Whitehead archive. A member of the 60s counter culture, Whitehead made many avant-garde films and shot numerous band videos for Top Of The Pops. He shot Zeppelin at the Royal Albert Hall earlier in 1970, filmed Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London
– a celebration of swinging London in the 60s – and the early Rolling Stones rockumentary Charlie Is My Darling.

Today Peter Whitehead is in ill health, living in Northamptonshire. His son, Dr Harry Whitehead, a novelist and professor of creative writing, said his father rarely spoke of his band work. “I don’t think he ever thought the band stuff was in any way important,” he says. “He liked his books, his avant-garde films. That’s what he thought mattered. He never considered the band footage artistically important.”

Steve Chibnall, a Professor of British Cinema at De Montfort University

Steve Chibnall, a Professor of British Cinema at De Montfort University

When it was decided to can the Zeppelin footage, Whitehead shrugged and moved on to his next project.

But Zeppelin’s 1970 Bath Festival performance is historically important. It was thought by critics – and the band themselves – to be one of the most important shows of their career. A crowd of around 200,000 were there to witness the performance in which the band played for three hours, including five encores.

“There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the archive, but the Bath Festival footage was a pleasant surprise,” says Steve Chibnall, a Professor of British Cinema at De Montfort University and the curator of the Peter Whitehead archive. “Peter was obviously trusted by the band and Peter Grant and he managed to secure tremendous access – he’s on stage, backstage, interviewing the band, the other acts, the crowd.

“I know he was unhappy with the footage, that he thought it was too dark, but, let me tell you, I’ve seen it. Some of it is too dark, yes, but I think we can rescue that.

Filmmaker Peter Whitehead

Filmmaker Peter Whitehead

“There’s a limit to what we can do, obviously, but we have the technology to make it lighter, better, clearer. And a lot of it, before the sun sets, is perfectly fine.”

The film lasts for about 30 minutes and is in full colour. However, there is no sound.

“I don’t think that’s too much of a problem,” says Prof Chibnall. “There are existing sound recordings from that show. It’s not beyond us to marry the soundtrack and the film.

“I’m by no means a Led Zeppelin expert, but I’ve seen parts of the film with Jimmy Page and his bow, and I suspect at some point they’re playing Moby Dick, with the drum solo, which Bonham plays with his hands.

“What we need to do now is talk to Zeppelin’s management, find out who owns the copyright, and see if we can work on this, improve it and get it realised in time for the 50th anniversary of the festival. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Dave Lewis, editor of Led Zeppelin magazine Tight But Loose, was aware that film existed of the band’s 1970 Bath festival performance, but he never met, or heard of, anyone who had seen it.

“It’s historically very important,” he says. “It was a turning point for the band – their biggest UK show, five encores, great reviews, the first time they played acoustically (they played That’s The Way, from Led Zep III) and it set them up for the rest of their career, really.

“I’d love to see it. I know a lot of people would,” Lewis enthuses. “There’s clearly a lot of work to be done yet – not least that Jimmy Page would have to agree to it – but I hope something can be done.”

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