If you’ve ever wondered when the Sixties died, Michael Walker is here to tell you: it is 1973. Alice Cooper famously said “It’s absolutely true: we were the group that drove a stake through the heart of the love generation.”
In his excellent book What You Want Is In The Limo, Walker backs Cooper’s claim, adding to the mix Led Zeppelin and The Who as the creators of the modern rock-star template we know today. Specifically, it is each of these bands' 1973 tours that created “a new animal in every respect — both creator and benefactor of a post-Beatles pre-MTV, what-you-want-is-in-the-limo, halter-topped, ‘lude-dropping, coke-and-glitter flecked Midwestern-arena-backstage-blowjob shindig.” Wow.
But don’t let the title and jacket artwork fool you (as much as I love both): What You Want Is In The Limo is not just a sex, drugs and groupies-amuck rehash. In fact, it’s much, much more than that. This is nothing less than a concise history of the birth of the business of rock’n’roll as much as it is a tale of innocence lost.
1973 ushered in a younger set of music fans, where “(the) sex is younger, the drugs harder and the rock and roll louder, longer and infinitely more belligerent.” That last point is important, because the press reviled both Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin — and the bands hated them right back. The Who might have been critics’ darlings, but they were being set up for the inevitable fall. Meanwhile, the concert audiences grew and grew and, as the critical assault grew louder, the bond between band and fan grew even stronger. And they brought their wallets with them.
Walker weaves the story of the three bands together into a singular, larger narrative and that’s a real strength of the book. While Alice Cooper was scratching for gigs and being pelted by bottles, The Who and, particularly Led Zeppelin were steadily cementing their live reputations. However, these bands were still playing on bare stages with roadies squatting behind amplifiers until Cooper decides to embrace and exploit the volatility of his audience, and build a Broadway-style show around that love/hate relationship…and that’s the moment everything really changes.
It’s also the moment that the band/fan relationship inalterably changes. The very forces which pushed these bands to the top, would soon be stratified, divided and conquered. The backstage pass is born — along with the infamous “tour rider” — and so is the rock ‘n’ roll caste system. Walker paints the rise of festival seating as a particularly cavalier exploitation — “no reserved seats, and no chairs…which maximizes capacity and profits and forces audiences to stand the entire performance.” Meanwhile, backstage it’s blowjob city, with no brown M&Ms in sight….or worse. A member of the Zeppelin entourage recalls sitting on the Starship, the band’s private plane, and listening in on the two-way radio connected to the concert venue and hearing “people yelling…applauding and I’m being served Lobster Thermidor as we go down the runway and the audience…is still waiting for the encore.” Talk about a betrayal of trust.
There’s a parallel story that runs through What You Want… and it’s the story where the business of rock 'n’ roll grows up (while many of its’ major players become increasingly infantile). It appears that rock 'n' roll, much like nature, abhors a vacuum. When it becomes apparent that there’s money to be made, entrepreneurs start springing up to fill a need, including companies providing lighting, PA systems, monitors and sound equipment. Hangers-on, with little more to offer than tenacity, blind loyalty and some semblance of “vision” (and brute force in Peter Grant’s case) suddenly become management. Effective ones too: Grant, Kit Lambert, Peter Rudge, and Shep Gordon are critical to the success of their charges — Zeppelin, The Who and Cooper, respectively.
But, as in any good morality play, there’s a price to pay. Alice Cooper becomes bitter and divided —never to play again as a unit. Both Led Zeppelin and The Who will lose their drummers to alcohol poisoning, forever altering their futures. It is a heavy price to pay and none of these bands will ever again achieve the success of 1973.
Walker tells the tale at a breakneck pace and his ability to tie all the varying ends up into an overarching story is impressive. If you’re a fan of rock’n’roll, climb aboard because this is both essential reading and one helluva ride.
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