Gary James' Interview With
The Official Tour Photographer Of Led Zeppelin
Neal Preston

Neal Preston has photographed quite a few recording artists in a career that just keeps going and going. We're talking Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Queen and of course, Led Zeppelin. Neal Preston served as Official Tour Photographer of Led Zeppelin. We turned to Neal Preston for an inside look at some of the biggest names in Rock.

Q - When I see your name I associate it with Van Halen. Did you photograph Van Halen for magazines like Circus or Hit Parader?

A - It's funny that you even mention that because no one has ever told me that. They always link me or associate me with the obvious, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Fleetwood Mac. Never Van Halen. I've only worked with Van Halen once and that was on the last tour that David (Lee Roth) did with them. So that had to be around '84, '83, something like that. It might have been the last couple of dates on a certain leg of that tour. It was down in Florida. That's the only time I ever really worked with them. Anything that you saw in Circus pre-dates that tour easily. Neil Zlozower worked a lot with Van Halen.

Q - Is it true you were shooting Rock shows before you even graduated high school? And where were these photos being published?

A - Well, it's a very simple story. I graduated high school in 1970, June of 1970. For all you young ladies out there, it was actually June of 1990. (laughs) I used to take my camera to Rock shows. Photography was a big hobby of mine. When I was a young teenager, thirteen or fourteen, I was one of those people whose life was changed within one hour on a Sunday night in February (1964) when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. Teenagers lives, everyone I knew were instantly transformed to music loving, music fanatics, English Invasion crazies. Two days before it would've been, "What are the Yankees doing? What's Mickey Mantle up to?" The Monday after Ed Sullivan it was "I gotta get Beatle boots."

Q - You didn't pick up a guitar, you picked up a camera.

A - Well no, If fact I did pick up a guitar. Like everyone else, I had a little garage band. The level of my musical prowess was that I just was never going to be a professional musician. I just wasn't good enough. I hit sixteen and I obviously wasn't going to get better. A couple of years before that, I'd been given my first camera by the first of three former brothers-in-law. (laughs) My sister was married three times. One of 'em gave me a camera and photography became a big, big hobby of mine. What essentially ended up happening was the two hobbies, music and photography kind of morphed into one super hobby. I started taking my camera to Rock shows. There was a concert series near my home in Queens. I grew up in Forest Hills. Me and a couple of buddies shot some pictures of a few of the concerts. We figured if we show some prints to someone at the ticket office for the local concert series, maybe we can cop some free tickets to one of the shows. Well, it turned out to be one of those very weird forks in the road where you go one way, your life ends up like this. You go another way, your life ends up like that. It turned out the office we went to, to show some pictures to, to get some free tickets, was in fact the promoter's office. I met the guys who were promoting the local concert series. Their names were Shelly Finkel and Gary Kurfirst. Shelly went on to become a very successful boxing promoter. I believe he managed Mike Tyson for a long time. Gary, who did pass away four or five years ago, went on to become a Rock manager. Talking Heads among other people. At the time he was managing The Vagrants, which included Leslie West, parenthetically originally Leslie Weinstein. (laughs)

Q - You know your Rock 'n' Roll!

A - Oh, well, I've been doing it a long time. But I grew up with these guys. I used to buy hash from Leslie's brother, (laughs) when I was a kid. Anyway, that's how I started being let into shows. I just kept shooting and shooting. By the time I graduated high school I had applied to three different colleges. I was accepted to all three. I made the decision to go to Philadelphia College Of Arts and literally one day I woke up and decided I didn't want to go to college. I'm already working. I'm already a photographer. I just didn't want to go through all the Liberal Arts crap that I knew I was going to have to go through. I went to the same high school that Paul Simon did. When he wrote that line in the song "Kodachrome", When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all, that was my high school. (laughs) I didn't go to college. I'm completely self-taught. The year after I graduated high school I moved to L.A.

Q - Who started this idea, or should I say practice, of granting members of the press, backstage passes or photographer's passes? I was told it was Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin's manager). Is that true?

A - I wouldn't think that's true. I would highly doubt that. The only reason I say that is because even before I graduated high school I used to shoot The Fillmore East all the time. As I recall, you had to have something, some kind of pass or stick-on thing to delineate you from the crowd. They had a girl who did press at The Fillmore East. She was the one I would always speak with, but that doesn't sound right to me. It sounds a bit like an urban myth.

Q - And maybe somebody giving Peter Grant more credit than he deserves, although he was a pretty good manager.

A - Well, Peter Grant deserves all the credit in the world in terms of management. If I can take a little detour off of this for a second; as a writer I think you'll appreciate this. I think there's a very good story to be told or a very good book to be written about that generation of Rock managers, basically Peter Grant, Don Arden, people like this, guys who really shaped the business in the late '60s, who used, how shall I put this? Gentle persuasion in many forms to get what they wanted for their artists. You always hear about the great managers today, we all know the names, but Peter came from a different DNA. Brian Epstein, that generation of managers who were writing the book as they went along.

Q - Really, there are only two managers who helped set the stage for everybody else - Brian Epstein and Colonel Parker.

A - Right. I was going to mention Colonel Parker. He's got to be the template for a lot of those guys, although if you've read about Colonel Parker you know there were personal issues shall we say that were always lurking in the background that colored a lot of hid decisions , ie Elvis never going overseas, ie all the bad movies.

Q - You're talking about Colonel Parker not being a U.S. citizen?

A - There was something major that he was worried enough about so that he did not want to leave the country for fear of extradition or not being able to get back in or whatever it was. But if you use him as an example of a guy who went to the mat for his artists then I think that's valid. Peter Grant is certainly a very interesting guy. A lot of street smarts. Basically, as a kid he decided that I was trustworthy. It wasn't a matter of "Can I get the job done?" Clearly I could get the job done. That was not going to be an issue or else we would never have even spoken. I think there are other questions that arise in a situation like that, especially with someone like Led Zeppelin, who was so cloistered and had such a small inner circle. Once you're in, you're in and don't get out. Once you're out, you never get back in. That kind of thing. The questions are, can you keep your mouth shut? Do you act like a fifth member of the band? If you take a picture that should never be seen is it going to stay in your desk drawer? The answers are obvious. If you run around thinking you're the fifth member of Led Zeppelin or any band, then you got a big fat fucking problem. (laughs) If you don't know what it is, get out of the business.

Q - To be the Official Photographer of Led Zeppelin you would need the blessings of Peter Grant, correct?

A - Beyond the blessings. He held the key to the kingdom.

Q - Did you have complete access to Led Zeppelin?

A - Yes.

Q - Did you fly on their private plane?

A - Yup. Look, a lot of it Gary is common sense. You're on the road with the band. I don't care if it's Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Bruce, whomever. You're on the road with the band. You have access. You become a trusted member of the crew, part of the machine, whatever you want to call it. But, you have to use common sense. Do you walk into a bathroom stall while someone is taking a whizz? You just have to use common sense and know what to shoot and what not to shoot and figure it out as you go along and be as surreptitious and invisible as possible. There's no rule book for it. It's just as far as I'm concerned, it's common sense.

Q - What did Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin have in mind with you, bringing you on the road to take all those photos?

A - Okay. That's a very good question and one that I don't get that often. The first time I ever photographed them was in 1970 on a fluke. They did a press conference in New York, which was to publicize the fact that they came in first in a Melody Maker poll rating them as the most popular band in the world. The Beatles had won five or six years straight. Led Zeppelin was the first band after The Beatles to hit number one on the Melody Maker fan poll. So, that was considered a big deal. Somehow I was invited to the press conference and that was in 1970. I looked for footage of that press conference on YouTube. There is some footage, but it never pulls wide enough so I can see myself on it, which is a drag, but I shot that press conference that afternoon and I shot the show that night at Madison Square Garden. After that I'd already moved to L.A. in '71 and I had a retainer deal with Atlantic Records. My partner at the time, Andy Kent and myself had a retainer deal for a couple of years, which just meant that we had to have one of us on call at all times in case they needed a concert shot or a quick photo shoot with some band or Gold Record ceremonies with hand shaking. All that stuff. Within that capacity I worked a little bit with the band here and there and also in '73 as well. Then Danny Goldberg came aboard. I had known Danny since he was a writer, a Rock writer for Hullabaloo, which was the name of Circus magazine before it was Circus magazine. We shot some dates in '73. Cameron (Crow) had interviewed them, my closest friend, for the L.A. Times and a couple of other things and I went along as a photographer. It's not that they were getting comfortable with me being around, but I was just kind of the Atlantic people around L.A., plus I knew Danny very well. In '74 they started their own label, Swan Song. They had a big party out here (Los Angeles), a big launch party for the label, one in L.A. and one in New York. I remember saying to Danny, "If you guys go out on the road next year I would love to be considered to come on and be your official guy." In about November or December of '74, it must've been November, he called me up and said, "If you're still up for doing it, we want you January '75", and the rest, as they say, is history.

Q - How long were you on the road with Zeppelin?

A - I would go out a month, month and a half. I wouldn't do every gig of every leg. The reason they wanted someone is very simple, because being the biggest band in the world, and there's no doubt they were, and they were really a fan's band. They weren't media darlings like The Rolling Stones. They wanted to get a little closer to the press, which I believe they were not afraid of. They were not reticent to embrace. Within that mode of thinking came "We want to be able to have pictures, new pictures that we can approve and feed to outlets and people come on the road with us." That's where I came in. Danny likes to tell a story, told me a story once that there was no question that I was the only one. Most of the guys working in the Rock 'n' Roll business were all like nut cases. (laughs)

Q - Rock 'n' Roll will do that to you.

A - I'd known him and Jimmy (Page) had seen my pictures and really liked them. It was a done deal. That's how I got the gig. It's funny. They used to pay me $500 a week for the first two weeks I was around. X amount of weeks after the first two weeks I got knocked down to $300 a week. (laughs)

Q - Did they give you a per diem?

A - I don't recall.

Q - Did they pay for your hotel?

A - Of course.

Q - Food?

A - Of course. You don't want a malnourished photographer on the road with Led Zeppelin. We did a pretty good job of malnourishing ourselves, if you know what I mean. (laughs)

Q - Do you own the copyright on these Zeppelin photos or do they own them?

A - I own them.

Q - That's like money in the bank.

A - I'm not going to respond to that question other than to say every photo that I have in this house, and there are many of them, probably a million frames, if I didn't own them they wouldn't be here. And that includes all the editorial stuff I've done that's not music. I had a People magazine contract for over twenty-five years with seven hundred shoot days. I'm the most assigned photographer in the history of People magazine, which these days is not that big a feather in your cap, but at the time when it was a real magazine and not this paparazzi toilet paper, it kind of meant something. It was spawned out of the people from Life magazine.

Q - What was L.A. like for a photographer in October of 1971?

A - Wow! Good question. October 15th, 1971 was the day that I walked down the hall from my Mom and Dad's apartment, got in a cab to J.F.K. (Airport) and flew to L.A. It was paradise. There's really no other way to describe it. I had actually spent the previous Summer here (Los Angeles) for about a month, a month and a half. I'd been part of a press junket involving Three Dog Night where twenty-five press people got flown to Dallas from L.A. and twenty-five from New York. I was one of the people flown from New York and I managed to have my ticket re-written to New York, Dallas, L.A. instead of New York, Dallas, New York. I knew a couple of people out here and I ended up spending a month or so out here. I ended up right before I left hooking up with a girl who I later moved in with when I made the decision to move to L.A. and she was a publicist for Rock bands.

Q - Was she famous? Would it be someone I would know?

A - No, but I had already known a certain amount of people in L.A. Once I moved here I dived right it. It was the epicenter of the whole record business at the time. The weather was amazing. I thought every girl in L.A. was going to look like the two girls on the cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers record, "The Gilded Palace Of Sin", and they did! (laughs) It was just Disneyland for someone like me. I was nineteen. I was already established in the record business in terms of being a photographer and here I am in L.A. with the whole world in front of me. It was just amazing. It was incredible timing. I believe a lot that happens in life is about timing. You meet a girl on a Monday, she hates your guts. You meet the same girl on a Friday and she falls in love with you. A lot of it is timing. It was amazing. It was just an amazing time.

Q - You photographed Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Did you get to spend any time with those people?

A - Whitney I met through a friend of mine who used to work through The Rolling Stones. She became Whitney's publicist for years and years. She kind of brought me into the camp. I started doing a lot of stuff for Whitney for many years. I went to South Africa with her when she did the tour in South Africa. I wasn't going to her house and hanging out with her, but I probably did well over a dozen photo shoots plus concerts and all kinds of things. As far as Michael is concerned, Michael I started shooting for a couple of teeny bopper magazines in the early '70s. It was really interesting when you would go and shoot The Jackson 5. It was like a conveyer belt. You'd do fifteen minutes with Marlon. You'd do fifteen minutes with Michael. You'd do fifteen minutes with Tito, etc, etc. The end of that, group shots. Boom! We're done. The kids could turn on the smiles like flicking a light switch. I probably did six or seven of those kinds of shoots. Again, I never hung out with them. They were certainly familiar with me. I did a couple of things with Michael. I was never like his guy, but I did a couple of record things with him and shot a couple of shows on the Victory Tour. I went to Japan on the Bad Tour and shot three or four shows and a quick photo session out on the street for a People magazine cover. The last time I photographed him was when he did the satellite broadcast for Oprah, his response to the first lawsuit, the first kid. Remember, there were two kids. This was a publicity thing they (Michael and Oprah) did. It was a 'live' satellite broadcast from the Neverland Ranch that Oprah conducted. There were two photographers there. There was me and Sam Emerson, who was doing Michael's personal stuff for him. That was it. That's the last I saw him. It's funny 'cause he remembered me. He came over to me and said, "I remember you. How are you doing?" He gave me a hug and shook my hand. Thirty seconds of small talk. When he walked away all I could smell was this kind of cheap perfume odor, like a seventh grade girl would wear. I realized he had doused his hands in some kind of perfume. It kind of reeked, which I thought was kind of an interesting incident. But I shot him a lot of times from when he was twelve or so, however old he would have been in '72.

Q - He was born in '58, so he would've been fourteen.

A - Well, he looked eleven.

Q - You're sure it wasn't hand sanitizer on Michael's hands?

A - Yeah. This was clearly aromatic in nature, and on purpose. (laughs)

Q - Do you have to like the person you're photographing?

A - When you do as many photo shoots as I've done and been as prolific as I've been, sooner or later you're going to shoot someone you don't care for. It's the mathematics of the situation. That being said, I always tried, well, let me back up for a second. I think the key is to whenever possible to keep to shooting things that you enjoy shooting. For People magazine I would have to shoot everything imagineable, not the paparazzi stuff, lots of not only music people but TV celebrities, movie stars, behind the scenes on movie sets, the Olympics, the Olympic training, baseball players. The only thing I didn't like shooting were shoots that involved the guy who would invent the new Slinky or the new Boomerang that's a Super Boomerang. Some kind of whimsical invention. I'm just not good at that. I don't know why. I had to shoot a guy who invented a golf putter that was backwards. So, instead of the part that was hitting the ball facing out, it was facing in. It was called the Bass Ackwards. (laughs) It's hard enough shooting golf. I just thought, oh man, what am I going to do with this guy. I don't remember his name, but you've got to come up with something. In the 1980s for People magazine it was all about coming up with something that grabbed the eye. So I ended up making him wear his clothes or backwards as he golfed. It's stupid, stupid. But I called one of my editors and said, "I can't do one of those shots anymore. I'm just not good at them and I know you can get someone better to do that." A lot of what I had to do for People was going back and cleaning up other photographer's messes as well. Look, you're going to end up shooting people you don't care for. But within the context of doing a shoot you want to do, that's going to happen. If the question is who was the worst and who was your favorite, that's a different question. Not everyone's wonderful. Not everyone's a prick.

Q - So, can anybody with a camera do what you do, or is there something else going on here? Are you seeing something different through the camera lens that appeals to the person you're photographing?

A - Well, that's a very broad question. I have always approached my job as a trained photo journalist, even though I'm self-taught. As a trained photo journalist, you do not become part of the story. You try to remain as invisible as possible, fly on the wall. Call it what you will. That's how you get the goods, so to speak. Now, there are a lot of factors that come into play, access, timing, personality. Personality is a big part of it. I have a personality that is certainly outgoing and I know when to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I learned that a long time ago. What I was saying before, a lot of it is common sense. You blend in. Being a photo journalist doesn't only mean that you're a fly on the wall too. If you're shooting a magazine cover, that's a different type of photography and that's a different kind of subject / photographer relationship that comes into play. If you're shooting 'live' photography, shooting 'live' photography well is not easy. It's something that few photographers do really well. I discovered one day that I was good at it because it's so natural to me. As I've said before, you can't teach it. You can't learn it. You just do it. There's a recipe. One part photography. One part love of music. One part a love of theatre and theatrical lighting, one part hero worship and one part timing and 95% part instinct. It's really all of those things. I know that my performance photography is second to no one's. I wouldn't say that about anything else I do because my ego doesn't require this. I've taken a lot of piss poor pictures and I appreciate the photograph no matter who took it, you, me, my dog or the man on the moon. A good photo is a good photo and a bad one is a bad one. But shooting 'live' photography is just something that was instinctive to me and I know that my stuff looks different from other people's. I know it. I know it because I've seen everyone's and I've seen mine. I'm thankful for that. It's just the way it worked out. I happened to find that out early in life. I don't know what else to say about that. A lot of it is I'm a fan. As a fan of The Who, the two idols of my life, Pete Townshend and John Lennon. Okay? If I walk into a gallery and I see some incredible shot of Pete that I've never seen before and it just grabs me, you know what I'm doing? I'm pulling that puppy right off the wall and it is now mine. I will pay for it. I will trade some prints for it. I will do whatever I have to do, but that baby is coming home with me. (laughs) I am a fan. I know what it means to be a fan. It's part of what "Almost Famous" was all about. Fans, especially these days, and people who've grown up around Rock 'n' Roll, people who knew that Rock 'n' Roll means so much to them, are fascinated beyond belief with not me, but the things that I do. My ego doesn't require anyone liking me, loving me, hating me. I couldn't care less, but if there's a picture of mine up on the wall that someone derives a lot of pleasure out of, that's how I got off and that's how I get my cookies. Just like the pictures I have up on my walls, none of which are shot by me, other than my other little office, I've got shots by David Bailey, Robert Freeman, Herman Leonard. I've amassed what I now realize is a very great collection, just of stuff that I think is beautiful and amazing and I'm a fan of the photographers and the people in the photos. A lot of people find it very hard to wrap their heads around the fact that someone like me has had the kind of job that I've had and has spent it around the people I've spent it around. What they don't realize is, it's a job. I don't take it for granted, but I spend so much time doing my job that you sneeze, a month goes by and here I am talking to you. It goes quickly. I've worked very, very hard. There's very few people in the world who've had the kind of job I've had and less who've done it well. So, I consider myself one of the luckiest guys on earth. I could do nothing but tell Rock stories for the rest of my life and people would not get enough.

Q - Did you ever meet John Lennon?

A - I never met John Lennon. I've worked with the other three, one on one here and there. I never met John Lennon. I was once driving a friend's car on 57th Street in New York and saw him and Yoko walking down 57th Street. I'm headed East on 57th Street around 6th Avenue and they're walking on the same side of the street I am, but they're walking West. I can't believe it! I try to whip around the corner and whip around the block which in Manhattan is not the easiest thing in the world and I get back and they're gone. They've gone into a store or a cab or wherever. It's the only time I ever saw him. What are you gonna do? It wasn't meant to be. I'll never forget that. I almost wrecked my friend's Cadillac. (laughs) But it would've been a small price to pay. What can I say? I've got very few idols in my life and John Lennon and Pete is an idol for a lot of reasons which that could be a whole interview in itself. So, I won't bore you with the gory details.

Q - I guess you'll have to save it for Part Two.

A - It's just a long explanation and I didn't even figure it out until very recently, like into the last two months, why this guy means so much to me. You'll be happy to know that I'm about to sign a deal for a retrospective book, just of my music stuff. My goal is to make it the best music photography book that's ever been done, with all the real stories. How did it feel? What was it like? I want the reader at the end of this book to feel like they've just spent a year on the road with Zeppelin with one day off, then six months with Guns 'n' Roses, with one day off and then five years with Bruce (Springsteen). Exhilarated and exhausted. Actually, that's not a bad book title. The book deal I'm about to sign is with Reel Art Press. Release date is going to be Fall of 2017. Sounds like a long time away, but it's not that long.

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