The year 1973 was a wild ride -- three wild rides, actually, according to "What You Want Is in the Limo." The book by Michael Walker details the tours of three enormous rock bands -- Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who. Groupies, jets, managers, buses, crystal balls of cocaine: Walker's got a backstage pass to them all.
Walker, the author of "Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood," will be reading from "What You Want Is in the Limo" at Book Soup on Saturday at 4 p.m. He spoke to us via phone about his new book.
One of the bands you focus on is Alice Cooper. You wrote that he had a great rapport with the press. How did that come about?
The band had a meeting early on with a publicist named Pat Kingsley. And Pat Kingsley went on to become the most powerful Hollywood publicist in history, but back in 1970 or whatever it was, when Shep [Gordon], Alice Cooper’s manager approached her, she was just a publicist starting out. She met with the band, and said, “Shep, tell the guys to step outside for a few minutes.” And she said to Shep, “Look, five guys named Alice Cooper, I don’t know what to do with that. You give me one guy named Alice Cooper, that I can sell.” So Shep went out into the hallway and said, “One of you guys has to be Alice Cooper.” And the guy that got the nut was Vincent Furnier -- he was already the lead singer, but everything they did going forward would concentrate on him and the Alice Cooper character because it’s an easier story to sell to the press. There’s a band that was working the press from day one. In the ’73 tour Shep had the road manager tell the rest of the band they weren’t welcome at press conferences anymore because they didn’t know how to get good press, they didn’t know what to say. So Alice became the personal superstar and they kind of got left behind.
Why do you think Led Zeppelin had a bad relationship with the press? You say their music didn’t resonate with Rolling Stone.
The big rock critics at Rolling Stone venerated the '60s bands a lot: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane -- all the great ‘60s bands were what they knew, what they approved of. They did not approve of Led Zeppelin at all.
The fan age of Led Zeppelin was far younger than they were accustomed to and Led Zeppelin was commercially successful independent of them. Here comes Led Zeppelin who, in their opinion, is doing pretty crass music -- crass, commercial, just unredeeming. They thought the music was bombastic, simplistic, it was way too derivative of stuff that had already been done and better by bands they liked.
Simultaneous with Led Zeppelin’s arrival around 1969 and 1970 was the rise of the FM radio. FM radio hadn’t really existed before, at least for promoting rock 'n’ roll, and it came on in a big way. Led Zeppelin very insidiously courted FM radio; they didn’t court the rock press, they just went completely around them. They got their album on the radio without the help of the press.
The third thing that hurt Led Zeppelin was they signed with Atlantic Records for what was at the time a very large amount of money, a $200,000 advance I think, and therefore they were a hype band. Back in those days that mattered --the fact that they extracted such a large amount of money out of Atlantic Records, they were automatically suspect.
Robert Plant cultivated his stardom very, very carefully and really, really wanted it. Robert Plant was way too earnest, and that’s kind of what also killed it. Because reporters want to be in on the joke, and Alice Cooper let them in, he basically said, “This is all ridiculous, we couldn’t get arrested three years ago, now we have the No. 1 album in the country. You do the math.” He was a really charming guy, I interviewed him for the book, he’s hilarious, he knows exactly what to say.
You write that in the 1960s, the music industry was free and open, while in the 1970s the industry refocused to being more about money and consumption. What do you think caused this shift?
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the year 1973 -- I think it is a dividing line between the values and culture of the 1960s and the 1970s. What interested me about that year is that the '60s aren’t quite over yet.… At the same time the decade the ‘70s would become wasn’t quite invented yet; it was starting to get there, you’re seeing signs of it. So you have this year that’s got one foot in the ‘60s and one foot in the ‘70s; I thought it would be interesting to take three bands that were formed in the 1960s and were helping define what the 1970s would be.
In the late ‘60s, Woodstock happened, and no one had really known how big the audience was for rock music until that show -- 300,000 people show up on a side of a hill in New York: it opened everybody’s eyes. What had been a cottage industry, the record business back then, it didn’t sell that many albums… in the early ‘70s record companies began to consciously go after money in ways they had not before.
There was another thing…the second half of the baby boom generation was coming of age in the early 1970s -- 18 million people had been born in 1957, which made them 16 in 1973; all of the sudden teenagers have allowances and part-time jobs and they’re buying albums as never before. There’s also a change in attitude, when the big money started coming in, people at the record companies began to realize how big this business could be and it changed things.
Also, the drug menu was changing. In the ‘60s it had been marijuana and acid, drugs of inclusiveness and sharing; cocaine was coming in in 1973, and that was the opposite.
In the book you mentioned that one of the music PR firms displayed a crystal ball of cocaine.
Yeah, that was Gibson & Stromberg in L.A., it was a cut crystal ball -- the only rule was you couldn’t take it with you. You couldn’t scoop it up and use it later that night.
Can you explain how women were involved? This time in history they seem caught between the sexual revolution and this male-dominated industry.
I very much wanted to include what women were doing on these tours and how women were being treated in the industry at that time -- and it turned out there was more involvement than I thought. There were women publicists who weren’t fantasizing about sleeping with Robert Plant, they were there to work for him. There was Mary Beth Medley, the right-hand to road manager Peter Rudge, and she ran the tours as much as he did. Women were not just being groupies, they were working it. There’s a part of that in the book.
There were a few pages in the book where you had talked about women in the industry, and I thought that was really interesting that they found power being behind the scenes.
Yeah, they made things work. They ran the publicity, they made things happen for these road managers who were completely unsentimental about who was helping them. They just wanted to get the job done because there was so much money on the line. While they were backstage making these tours happen, they’re surrounded by these glitter-covered girls there for one thing and one thing only, to service these guys sexually and get them to the next gig. It’s an interesting time, in the thick of the women’s movement but in a completely male-dominated, not very woman-friendly industry. Most of these guys' perceptions of women were based on the groupies they ran into on the road, so it was nice that they had to occasionally interface with a professional woman.
Record covers seem to have been so important. Can you give me a sense of what the album cover was like from the perspective of someone in 1973?
These album covers were beautiful and they were big. People would clean their pot in them. Double albums, if you’re at a party and someone had a bunch of pot with stems and seeds in it, you open up Jethro Tull’s "Aqualung" or, I think "Houses of the Holy" was a gatefold as well, and you sift the pot back and forth till the seeds and stems came out. There was a practical use for it, that of course was not me or my friends ever, but let’s just say I’m told that that’s what was done. Say the marijuana had been consumed, and you’re staring at these beautiful things and if you’re a little high they’re fun to look at I suppose.
But it also speaks how the entire package mattered back then, it was as important as the music to some degree. You wanted to make sure your album cover was just right. It was a piece of the culture that grew out of the beautiful psychedelic posters they used to do for the auditoriums in San Francisco and New York. It wasn’t just the musicians, it was also the artists and artists that served in addition to the rock music back then, because rock music was so important, it’s just not as important now. That generation, that was it. That was everything.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about the book?
What I wanted to was to give people a real flavor for what that year was like, and hopefully that comes through because it was a really specific time. It is really interesting to me that you can have a time that was informed both by the ethics and culture of the '60s and also what became the ‘70s, drugs, money was going around. Also, the bands left those tours utterly changed -- they all began to decline after 1973. That’s another reason why I wanted to write about those bands in that year because it was the peak, it was an interesting time in that regard.
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