By Jordan Stovka
It was Jan. 20, 1969.
Richard Nixon had been inaugurated as the 37th president of the United States that afternoon; families were huddled around their televisions, crowds of supporters herded to the White House while protesters elected a hog in opposition.
Yet another group of people found themselves at the Wheaton Youth Center in rural Wheaton, Maryland, allegedly for the lowest paying gig Led Zeppelin—or potentially even “The New Yardbirds”—ever played. There were no posters, no ticket stubs, no photos, no records. Days later, the group embarked on their first ever American tour as their first studio album gained popularity in the United States.
There was nothing but the word of 50 music-loving teenagers to prove the existence of the mystery concert.
The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center — in partnership with the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, Special Collections and University Archives, UMD College of Information Studies and the Student Archivists of Maryland — screened university alumnus and filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s latest project on Feb. 13. Led Zeppelin Played Here (2014). The film is a documentary that delves into this long-time conundrum of the music industry.
A panel comprised of architectural history specialist Clare Lise Kelly, ethnomusicologist Jesse Johnston, University of Richmond’s assistant professor of music Joanna Love, The Washington Post’s John Kelly and associate professor of musicology and associate director of academics of this university’s school of music Patrick Warfield followed the screening to discuss the question of public record versus public memory in light of the controversial concert.
The Gildenhorn Recital Hall buzzed as “Going to California” eloquently rang over the speakers as the curious audience of mostly upper-middle aged men and women—with the exception of a few stray college students—filed into their seats.
The 80-minute documentary—which started initially as a project to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Laurel Pop Festival— follows Krulik’s lengthy process of interviewing tour managers, community members, devoted Led Zeppelin aficionados, supposed concert attendees, previous directors of Wheaton Community Center and even Jimmy Page himself all to get to the bottom of the story.
Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, the piece Krulik believes to be most convincing was a small graph in a Montgomery College newspaper published two years later featuring a quote from Barry Richards, the music DJ responsible for bringing many bands through the Wheaton Youth Center and similar venues.
“[The most compelling piece was] the article at the end … the proximity to [the show], the memory hasn’t become hazy yet, there was no reason for it to be made up,” Krulik said. “Barry was doing other concerts. He was working with other acts all the time, so it’s plausible.”
The end of the film, however, is open ended. Despite Krulik’s efforts, no amount of significant evidence could be uncovered to prove or deny the concert, leaving the outcome up for audience interpretation.
Krulik believes the show to have occurred, explaining that bands were likely to have picked up small shows between major stops of their tour during this early stage of the record industry.
“I believe that it happened. I don’t believe it was any form of mass hysteria. I always believed that the rock concert industry came from something, it didn’t just show up. There are stories of The Beatles playing in modest places and all sorts of bands kind of charting their own course when the whole industry is being invented,” he said.
“There are other phantom concerts on the schedule, if you will. There is a pretty good chronology of the band and the dates and it’s easy enough to find them, but there’s holes and dates that nothing was happening so something like this obviously could have happened.”
Skeptics like Kelsey Diemand, a M.L.I.S. student in this university’s College of Information Studies, values concrete evidence over anecdotal, one of her main reasons for voting against the possibility of the show at the conclusion of the screening.
“I also have a degree in history, so my goal is to always go to primary sources first, which is why I kind of voted ‘no’ for if you believe if they played at the youth center, because there was no concrete evidence. There was no primary sources that said so,” she said. “While oral histories are also an important part of documenting history, I was looking for a little more proof.”
Previous university faculty member Eric Zanot learned of the screening after reading John Kelly’s column, and having remembered the era well, thought it to be an entertaining way to spend the evening. Zanot, 73, voted against the likelihood of the concert.
“When they asked for the vote, I voted against, if only because [when] you listen to the whole thing, it was the preponderance of the evidence to me … all types of evidence on one side of the scale outweighed all types of evidence on the other,” he said.
Out of all the sources represented in the film, Zanot values print records first and foremost.
“Nevertheless, if something is in print or tangible, it seems to be a little less changeable,” he said. “You can’t confabulate it around as much as a memory.”
With today’s ever-growing dependence on technology, controversial subjects like the Led Zeppelin Wheaton Youth Center show are unlikely, according to Krulik.
“Everything is documented to death with that [cell phone],” he said. “There is endless documentation. There’s veracity. There’s truth. I think people can still tell fake news or tell stuff that’s not true and believe it, but there’s a lot of ways to poke holes with that now.”
“Now that it is this post-conspiracy theory era, everybody wants hard proof. They don’t want to believe things like this. It’s too far fetched,” he added with a smirk.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of DerekVelasquez’s Flickr account.
Jordan Stovka is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.