When Led Zeppelin Visited India

The legendary rock band in the 1970s

Legendary rock group Led Zeppelin are to unveil previously unheard tracks recorded with Indian musicians during a visit to Mumbai more than four decades ago. Sidharth Bhatia recalls the band’s visit to India’s entertainment capital in 1972.

The news that iconic rock band Led Zeppelin will release tapes of their Bombay Sessions has sent a frisson of excitement among their fans all over the world.

Fans in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are even more agog because now they can get the entire set of the famed recordings which are available only in bits and pieces on the Internet.

These sessions were recorded in the HMV studio in south Bombay in October 1972 along with Indian musicians. Though reports have suggested the rockers – actually just two, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant – jammed with the Bombay Orchestra, my research shows that there was no such formal entity.

It was more likely a group of freelance musicians brought together under the leadership of flautist Vijay Raghav Rao, who at the time was associated with theFilms Division. Not much is known of who participated in the sessions except that the sarangi – a traditional Indian instrument – player was Sultan Khan. The veteran confirmed that to me when I called him at his home in Rajasthan in 2011.

I came across the Bombay recordings quite by accident.

‘Hippies not allowed’

I was working on a magazine article (and later for my book) about an impromptu gig by Plant and Page at a Bombay discotheque called Slip Disc. That visit – which took the young regulars at the disco by surprise – had become a kind of urban legend, the details lost or mangled over the years.

I knew that the visit had taken place and there had been a bit of coverage too, but it was quite a task to put the pieces together.

Over a period of four months, after talking to musicians, disco regulars and rock fans, a wonderful story emerged.

The two musicians, along with their manager Richard Cole, had walked to the Slip Disc from their nearby hotel, the posh Taj Mahal.

Slip Disc was a grungy joint, open to all who paid the princely entry fee of five rupees (8 cents; 5 pence), unlike the Taj Mahal hotel’s fancier club Blow Up, where only members were allowed.

A magazine in India reported on the band’s time in Mumbai

Plant and Page had gone to Blow Up but found it dull and boring. They tried to enter Slip Disc but were stopped at the gate by a security man who told them that “hippies were not allowed.”

A music lover, Yusuf Gandhi, who was heading to Slip Disc, recognised them and took them inside. The place was reeking of smoke, much of it from suspicious substances. “Back to Sanity at last,” Plant is supposed to have said. The entrants soon ordered themselves a beer and settled down to watch the night’s entertainment, a local band called Synthesis.

Gandhi had an inkling who they were, but was not sure. India at the time got few records of foreign bands and fewer rock and music magazines and was not fully up to the latest rock scene.

World music

But he asked, “aren’t you Robert Plant and Jimmy Page” and was delighted to know that they indeed were the famous rock musicians.

“Except for the very hep crowd, no one even recognised us. They thought we were hippies. It’s a lovely feeling when no one recognises you and you can groove and do what you like,” Plant later told the Indian youth magazine JS.

Soon, there was a buzz in the crowd and it was confirmed when the manager of the disco walked up to them and requested them to play.

Page and Plant happily agreed. The instruments were a bit ramshackle – India did not have the finest instruments available at the time – but they didn’t care. They played a 20-minute set, including songs like Whole Lotta Love and an impromptu blues number.

Word spread that they would come again the next day and long lines formed outside Slip Disc, but they didn’t.

What they did do was to join the Bombay Orchestra to try and work on bringing in eastern elements into their music.

Led Zeppelin was famous for experimenting with world music – Kashmir, their greatest hit, was written while in Morocco, where they were trying to jam with local musicians. Page knew Ravi Shankar who had introduced them to Vijay Raghav Rao.

The band broke up in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham (second from right)

My research in 2011 led me to the Bombay Sessions that had just been posted on Facebook and barely had any views.

The two songs they tried out were Friends and Four Sticks. The attempts at fusion are somewhat awkward, but still enjoyable. Rao’s voice can be heard in some of the takes, as he tries to conduct the Orchestra.

Page later said, “We tried recording versions of Friends and Four Sticks with some percussionists, a half-dozen string players and a thing called a Japan banjo [sarangi?] and boy, was that tricky. They were great musicians but they were used to counting and feeling rhythms in a different way. Moving them from one-time signature and retaining the feel that we had in mind was difficult, but it was exciting and a learning experience.”

A Japanese company brought out a bootleg copy of the recordings but these are not easy to get. Many details are still unavailable. There was also a recording made of their Slip Disc set but it is nowhere to be found.

I have read somewhere that these Bombay Sessions were conducted in February-March of that year. That’s possible, though the flimsy evidence available points to the October visit.

Now we will get the official version and all the music, in one place. It is something to look forward to.

The writer is the Founder/Editor of thewire.in. His book, India Psychedelic, story of a Rocking Generation has more details on the Led Zeppelin visit.

Via the BBC website

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