With their debut album just released, Led Zeppelin hit the road for the first time in the US. Their first show was on Boxing Day, 1968, at the Auditorium Arena in Denver, playing unannounced support to Vanilla Fudge and Spirit.
Other landmarks on the tour included a show at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, where they were billed as "Led Zefflin", and a short run of dates at the Whisky A-Go-Go in Los Angeles with the Alice Cooper band. A coin was to be flipped to decide who would headline as both acts were largely unheard of, but the rising Detroit rockers graciously acquiesced and agreed to open "because Jimmy Page was in The Yardbirds”.
The important shows – the ones the band absolutely had to get right – were were the ones promoted by legendary impresario Bill Graham: four bookings (two sets per day) at the Fillmore West in San Francisco supporting Country Joe & The Fish, with Taj Mahal opening, then four shows across three nights at the Fillmore East in New York, supporting Iron Butterfly.
"The first few shows were a bit shaky and the press wasn’t good to them," Zeppelin tour manager Richard Cole recalled. "Robert [Plant] used to sing in his bare feet in those days. He was always a fuckin’ hippie. But by the time we got to New York, the whole thing had gotten so solid that it became the one unit that it was to be for many years."
Amongst the crowd at those Fillmore East shows were several musicians who'd go onto bigger things. And they'll all tell you how Led Zeppelin got it absolutely right.
"That show at the Fillmore East changed my life," said future Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley. "I was 16 when I saw them. A lot of people didn’t know who Led Zeppelin were, although the 'in' people did. The lead singer in the group that I was playing with at the time, who was a couple of years older than me told me, 'There’s this great new band called Led Zeppelin that’s gonna play at the Fillmore East and you’ve gotta see them.'
"I think I got their first album a week or two before the show and I fell in love with it. I was real excited about going to the show. I remember it like it was yesterday. They were using Rickenbacker amps, which you can’t find anymore. Back then Page wasn’t using a Les Paul, he was using a Telecaster.
"Between him and Robert Plant they destroyed. They took over the Fillmore East to the point where, after they went off and the headliner was coming on, half the people walked out and didn’t come back. I still think about that first time I saw Led Zeppelin at The Fillmore from time to time. God, I wish somebody had a video camera back then, it was incredible."
"I was there when they headlined the Fillmore East [in New York] on January 31, 1969," recalled future Twisted Sister guitarist Yay Jay French. "I was only there to see Iron Butterfly, the headlining band. I had a front row seat. Believe it or not, the opening act was a gospel group called Porter's Popular Preachers [brought in as a late replacement for The Move]. And then out comes Led Zeppelin.
"It was one of the most startling performances I ever saw. Page was playing a Telecaster and they played the entire first album, from start to finish. At one point the band stopped playing and Robert put the microphone aside and sang just through the strength of his lungs and basically filled the Fillmore. It was insane. I ran out and bought Zeppelin’s album on the way to school the next day.
"I ended up burning those Iron Butterfly records. I had the honour of having dinner with Robert Plant in 1988, and we spoke about that show. He asked whether I remembered burst of laughter during Ron Bushy’s drum solo during In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. I didn’t hear it but apparently there was a dressing room-come-balcony that hung over the stage, and [John] Bonham was doubled over in hysterics at how bad the solo was. Zeppelin knew they’d eaten the headline band for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Another wannabe musician blown away by witnessing Led Zeppelin at the Fillmore East was future Ramones drummer Marky Ramone, whose happy memories of the night were somewhat at odds with his eventual career path.
"I first saw Zeppelin play live at the Fillmore East," said Ramone. "I was 13, 14. I knew an usher and he let me in for free. I was just blown away. Outrageous. They were the ultimate band at that moment. They blew away everybody that came before them: Hendrix, Cream… Bonham’s quadruples around the drum set and his triplets and Page’s triplets. Plant’s range was just amazing. And the bass tones that John Paul Jones used were incredible. They played seven-minute songs. They didn’t do two-minute songs."
The four nights were an overwhelming success – although Led Zeppelin's third set started without John Paul Jones onstage after the band left his bass guitar at their hotel – and Bill Graham was happy. The tour wound up at the Civic Center in Baltimore, MD, on February 7, and when they returned in April for a second US tour, they were suddenly headliners: eight sets at the Fillmore West, and four at the East.
Led Zeppelin were on their way.