Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Two Led Zeppelin songs permitted for use in documentary 'Dogtown and Z-Boys'

This story originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

In 2001, two of Led Zeppelin's more obscure 1976 songs were presented in a film documentary of a 12-member team of teen-age skateboarders from California who influenced a generation of kids and revived the art from once being another passing fad like the hula hoop and the yo-yo. Their efforts are easily responsible for the existence of modern competitive skateboarding.

To convey what it felt like to be a member of the Zephyr Skate Team in the 1970s, Stacy Peralta directed and co-wrote the film Dogtown and Z-Boys. To capture what it might have sounded like, he teamed up with editor Paul Crowder, who had previously worked as a drummer, studio engineer and songwriter.

In supervising the selection of music to complement the film's narration, interviews and fast-paced videos and photographs, Peralta and Crowder chose more than 40 pieces of music. Among the songs they picked were some likely choices heard frequently on classic rock radio: ZZ Top's "La Grange" and Jimi Hendrix's "Foxey Lady," to name a couple.

But some of the classic rock tracks Peralta and Crowder wanted were deep album cuts like "I'll Give You Money" by Peter Frampton, "Seasons of Wither" by Aerosmith and "Bad Boys" by the Pretenders. The Led Zeppelin songs they wanted were "Hots on for Nowhere" and "Achilles Last Stand," two lesser known tracks from the group's catalogue. Presence, said Peralta, "is a great album."

"We got Led Zeppelin on board," said Crowder, "because 'Hots on for Nowhere,' apparently, allegedly, is one of Jimmy Page's favorite tracks, and he dug the fact that we were like, 'Can we use this song?' and he's like, 'Sure!'"

Debra MacCulloch and Marc Reiter worked during the making of the film to secure the rights to use songs. "From what Marc Reiter said, Jimmy was stoked that we weren't going after what everybody else does, which is like 'Whole Lotta Love' and, you know, 'Stairway to Heaven' and stuff like that," said Peralta.

In one early scene, some original 8mm footage shot in the early to mid 1970s depicts surfers weaving through protruding planks of wood that had years before been the track of a roller coaster. As Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" plays in the background, some guys describe how they used to risk their lives surfing at their secret "Cove," in the midst of the wreckage of the Pacific Ocean Park pier. One of them said, "You knew that if you made a mistake, you were going to pay in flesh."

Led Zeppelin's rocking music kicks in soon thereafter, just as the screen shows a series of signs with the menacing words "Positively No Visitors" and "Invaders Must Die." The song gave the scene a "dangerous" feel, Peralta and Crowder agreed. An earlier take of that scene using "20th Century Boy" by T Rex, was scrapped when the narration was rewritten. "[In] the first cut of P. O. P., we never got the tone right. It didn't feel dangerous," Peralta said.

But in one way, the T Rex song was more fitting. Having been released as a single in 1973, "20th Century Boy" would have better represented the music of the era in which the underlying surfing footage was shot. The footage being shown was from the early to mid 1970s; therefore, it predated both "Godzilla" and "Achilles Last Stand" by at least two or three years.

Said Crowder, "I was a little worried about using 'Godzilla' because it's 1977. I wanted to try and stay close enough to the time ... but we gave ourselves a little three- or four-year window either side around."

Peralta said that one scene was sort of an exception: "That was the one area where we started talking, and I said, 'Look, I don't think we have to stay absolutely chronological to the time the music was,' although all the music that we've used here is a reflection of what we were listening to."

Much later in the film, "Hots on for Nowhere" provides the soundtrack for a biographical sketch on one-time skateboarding world champion Tony Alva. In the film, interviewees spoke about how Tony Alva revolutionized the sport of skateboarding: "His timing and balance and speed and agility were far beyond everybody else's." One interviewee said, "Tony was probably the first person who taught me what the word 'ego' meant."

According to Peralta, the music played when people talk about Tony Alva's personality could not have been any more fitting. "This to me is, when I hear this song, this was who Tony Alva was," he said. "Tony was Led Zeppelin." The scene had originally been cut to "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones because one comment said Tony was a front man like Mick Jagger.

In doing the editing, Crowder was able to replicate a nifty aspect of Led Zeppelin's "Hots on for Nowhere." In the original song, the music ends after four minutes but suddenly returns for an additional 40 seconds. In the film, Crowder played the song until its first ending, cut to 20 seconds of an interview and then made the song suddenly reprise. Another two minutes of "Hots on for Nowhere" complement more footage of Tony Alva.

Shortly thereafter, the raucous of Ted Nugent's "Motor City Madhouse" leads seamlessly into the somber ending of "Achilles Last Stand." "This music transition, to me, is just so beautiful," said Peralta. "It just brings it down beautifully." In the meantime, the documentary describes the events of the fall of 1977, when Tony Alva stylishly accomplished an aerial jump in a steep pool called the Dogbowl.

A DVD version of the film was released in 2002, and among its special features was a track of audio commentary from Peralta and Crowder, from which many of the comments here are taken.

Peralta was named best director at the Sundance Film Festival 2001, and the film was presented with the Audience Award. At the Denver International Film Festival that same year, the film was given the People's Choice Award for Best Documentary, and the following year, the Independent Feature Project named it Best Documentary.

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