Frederick Film Fest: 'Led Zeppelin Played Here'

Jeff Krulik really likes horse racing.

Most every day, he listens to the same horse racing radio show on the same talk radio station. He likes it so much that he could talk for hours about how much he has enjoyed filming footage of races everywhere from Maryland to West Virginia to Kentucky. He was beyond disappointed when a string of professional circumstances stole his ability to bet on the Preakness this year. And while Derby winner Orb was the pre-race favorite at the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes earlier this month, the Maryland native claims he was one of the few who accurately predicted that Palace Malice would finish the one-and-a-half-mile trek before any of the colt’s peers.

“It’s such an interesting sport,” the former Discovery Channel producer said recently. “You feel connected to it.

“You feel as though you can see everything.”

Krulik can’t make that proclamation without at least a tiny bit of irony if only for what lies at the center of his most recent project, “Led Zeppelin Played Here,” a documentary chronicling what some people believe was the iconic rock act’s first Washington-area concert, performed Jan. 20, 1969, in, of all places, Wheaton’s youth center.

The operative phrase? “Some people.” Because while many are certain the concert went off without a hitch — Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones tearing through tracks off their critically un-acclaimed self-titled first record — there is an equal number of individuals who believe the night never even happened at all, dismissing the story as nothing more than local folklore.

As the documentary — set to be screened for the first time in an extended 90-minute cut at the Frederick Film Festival on Friday night — suggests, valid arguments regarding the (non?) event lean both ways. On one hand, Krulik believes, the tale moves beyond being merely plausible and settles into the Land of Likely.

“I’ve cross-checked everything, and the stories jibe,” he said. “The band was barnstorming across the country, and I think that playing a hastily assembled concert makes sense. They were making it up as they went along. Their manager sent them here and said, ‘Go out and play as much as you can,’ and that’s what they did.”

Or did they?

Falling firmly on the other side of the debate is Michael Oberman, a former music columnist for The Washington Star who also appears in the movie. Always on the lookout for the next big thing, the writer-turned-photographer said he penned an article about the rock quartet in December 1968, one month before the relatively unknown Brits came to America and during a time when the group was nothing more than a vehicle for buzzy guitarist Jimmy Page to showcase his chops.

Being what he said was the only music writer in the country at that time to write about the group, Oberman is convinced he would have heard about the concert if such an event did go down. Central to that assertion is Barry Richards, a former DJ on Gaithersburg radio station WHMC, who Oberman said would have wanted him to write about the night, had it actually occurred.

“I’m skeptical,” Oberman said. “There are no ticket stubs, no posters, no radio spots, no press at all. The only reason it’s listed on the band’s official website is because of this movie. If someone would have known that members of The Yardbirds were in town that night, someone would have brought a camera and someone would have taken a picture.”

Maybe, but contrary to Oberman’s recollections is the belief that Richards was actually the guy who brought Led Zeppelin to Wheaton that night. Cumulus Media public affairs director Tom Grooms, who cited the former DJ as the inspiration for his own career, recently reflected on memories of that snow-filled evening ... and how he wound up exchanging words with who he believes was singer Robert Plant after walking in on the last few songs of the group’s set.

As he tells it, the then-teenage Grooms hadn’t even contemplated the event beyond what it was — which in his words was just a “typical who’s here” kind of circumstance — until the idea for the documentary formulated. Trekking from a local McDonald’s to the youth center, the Arlington, Va., native said he walked into the venue during a performance of the 1951 hit “Train Kept A-Rollin,” a song Page’s earlier band, the Yardbirds, made famous years before the (possible) concert.

“It’s for real,” Grooms said almost passionately when asked to recall the night. “It really happened, but no one was there — maybe 25 to 30 people. We didn’t know who they were, dude. It was the era of free love and free music.”

The debate rages on like an extended Robert Plant moan throughout the crux of “Led Zeppelin Played Here.” The film isn’t Krulick’s first trip around the track — in 1986, the director caught the attention of die-hard metal fans around the world when his cult hit “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” landed on bootlegged VHS tapes everywhere. After that, he went on to create a plethora of short, comedic-leaning films that earned him a modest if not loyal following before landing at Discovery in 1990.

It’s his latest endeavor, however, that has launched him back into conversations between underground music enthusiasts. He screened the film (then, a 72-minute cut) at AFI Silver Theatre in January, and while he still admits to “fiddling with it,” Krulik explained that the version to be presented at the Frederick Film Festival will be as close to the final edit as anyone has seen.

Outside the pantheon of rock, the Maryland native maintains that his biggest passion is local history, having worked his way from public access television to a spot among beloved cult directors. He’s always been drawn to true-life stories, he said, and this most recent documentary was a way to combine his general interest in music with both his fixation on state culture and his desire to tell stories.

Whether or not this one in particular is a fact, however, remains a mystery to this day.

“We try to connect the dots as best as possible with this movie,” Krulik said. “We are not on a mission to promote Led Zeppelin. What I’m doing is something different. I want it to be an oral history of the place, culture and time period. I would love to find a diary entry or a snapshot or a student newspaper with a reference to it, but I have a firm belief now that it will never surface.

“I do believe that it happened. I do believe that there were about 50 confused teenagers there that night at the Wheaton youth center, watching Led Zeppelin,” he continued with an affable laugh. “Enough people say it that I believe it, even though I know that there are just as many detractors.”

And as for those detractors ...

“To this point, no one can say that I’m right or wrong,” Oberman asserted, “and no one can say that Jeff is right or wrong. Maybe in five years, someone will honor it with a photo or something to prove it. It could have happened, of course, but until someone shows me proof, I just don’t think it did.”

Then, after a brief pause, he continued.

“It sure is a great story, though,” Oberman said. “It’s such a great mystery.”

(1) comment

mneufeld

Jeff Krulik is a friend of mine, and I've known Jeff for more than 30 years now, going all the way back to when Jeff and I and other colleagues in film, journalism and the arts were students at the University of Maryland at College Park. I also have known Mike Oberman for about 20 years. Both, actually, are justified in their contentions on either side of the issue--although if you talk to some folks who claim that they were actually there at the concert on that winter night in Wheaton, according to some folks involved with the issue, there is little reason for any of them to lie about the concert taking place. But, again, if you talk to detractors, their arguments tend to be somewhat strong, too. I tend to lean toward believing that the concert did indeed occur, but there is a wish for strong journalistic proof in the form of something--a ticket stub, a picture, a poster, a contract, a document, something, a strong statement from someone who was involved with the event on an administrative level!! The best answer, of course, would be a definitive answer from Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, other members of the band and crew, a road manager, a crew tech, someone with the Wheaton Center who talked with the band, someone with the county who oversaw the Wheaton Center on an administrative basis--just someone who was involved with the actual show that night on a managerial, organizational and administrative level. That's what's always needed in a dispute like this--real journalistic proof from someone who was actually there, someone who participated in the actual event, someone who was actually there who can provide some journalistic, documented proof that something did indeed occur. Stories like this need people who were there, who participated, who were involved. If there are enough of those actual, real people who were involved with the concert who were there and who talked and spoke and dealt with Led Zeppelin and their crew, then you have to believe that the concert occurred. But if no one steps forward and confirms that certain events actually occured as stated, then you have to have some doubt. Hopefully, there are people out there who were directly involved with the organization and production of the concert who can verify that, indeed, Led Zeppelin played there, at the Wheaton Center.

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