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Led Zeppelin’s debauched party in Kent’s Chislehurst Caves was so memorable that, 50 years on, guest Simon Kirke recalls it in vivid detail


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Led Zeppelin’s debauched party in Kent’s Chislehurst Caves was so memorable that, 50 years on, guest Simon Kirke recalls it in vivid detail

James Hall 9 May 2024

“The fact that I can remember it in such detail 50 years later shows you what an impact it made on me,” chuckles Simon Kirke down the phone from his home in New York. The Free and Bad Company drummer may be 74 years old but he has just recalled – with unflinching clarity – details of the most extravagant and debauched party in rock and roll history.

The date was Halloween, 1974, and the location, under a full moon, was Chislehurst Caves in Kent, a labyrinth of centuries-old man-made tunnels just outside London. The occasion was the official launch party of Led Zeppelin’s own record label Swan Song, which was formed half a century ago this week.

Led Zeppelin and their pugnacious manager, the former wrestler Peter Grant, never did things by half. The annals of rock history are stuffed with legendary parties – Keith Moon’s 21st birthday pool party at a Michigan Holiday Inn in 1967, or Queen’s swamp-themed bash in New Orleans for the release of their 1978 album Jazz, for example – but Zeppelin walk away with the prize.

Kirke was at the party because rock supergroup Bad Company were Swan Song’s new star signings. His band – which comprised him and Paul Rodgers from Free as well as Mick Ralphs and Boz Burrell from Mott the Hoople and King Crimson respectively – were picked up from London on the evening of October 31 in a series of Rolls Royce Phantoms and stretch Mercedes limousines. It was the first time the group had been “introduced to the largesse” of Grant, the drummer recalls. As he got stuck into the limo’s well-stocked bar, Kirke pondered the black invitation with its gothic script and pseudo-mystical language urging guests to “do what thou wilt” with “this summons”.
 

“Peter had rented the whole of Chislehurst Caves and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, how do you rent out a national monument?’” says Kirke. He was about to find out. “When we got there the first thing I saw was men dressed in medieval Yeoman’s outfits with those Tiki torches, and there was a whole avenue of them leading up to the main entrance. They were big bouncers, basically,” says Kirke. Inside, a baroque fantasyland had been recreated, “like a f------ Fellini movie”.

“The first thing I saw were two ladies dressed in nuns’ garb and they were frolicking in an extra-wide coffin, doing various things with each other of a very explicit sexual nature. I know this is the Telegraph so I shall draw a veil around it,” says the musician. “Then there was the troupe of midgets who were tumbling and standing on each other’s shoulders. There were fire-eaters, jugglers, very scantily-clad girls [like the ones] who walk around boxing rings carrying the cards. The whole evening dripped with decadence and sex,” says Kirke.

Naked male wrestlers fought in the alcoves beneath flickering torchlight, while a menu of venison and mulled wine was served by waitresses wearing backless nuns’ habits with suspenders underneath. From a stage, George Melly’s band the Feetwarmers performed jazz and bawdy songs to a 200-strong crowd that included Oliver! writer Lionel Bart. Melly himself was dressed as Mother Superior. Journalist David Wigg was also there. He tells me that “it’s a bit of a blur” after all these years. “All I can remember are lots of flashing lights in the caves and everyone not being disappointed with the scale of drama. And, of course, almost everyone was getting out of it in one form or another,” says Wigg. There was “a lot of sniffing and rubbing of noses,” says Kirke.  

There was also an abundance of jelly in those lamp-lit caves. Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris was present, and he once described the party as “like a medieval orgy”. In the past Harris talked about there being “naked girls wrestling in jelly in open coffins at [Melly’s] feet” and how it was a “strange and disturbing night”.

According to Abe Hoch, the executive who ran Swan Song’s London office but wasn’t at the party, Grant had had the label’s logo of Icarus cast in a vast jelly mould. It was into Icarus’s wobbly wings that Nesuhi Ertegun, co-chairman of Swan Song’s distributor Atlantic Records and brother of the label’s president Ahmet, was thrown. “Just boys being boys,” says Hoch.  

And at the centre of it all were Grant and Led Zeppelin, the biggest band in the world. Kirke recalls, “Being a drummer and a big fan of Bonzo [Zeppelin drummer John Bonham] we huddled in a corner and talked drummer stuff – bass drum pedals and skins and sticks – and that lasted all of about seven minutes before we toasted each other and hugged each other.” I ask Kirke, whose daughter Jemima played the hard-living Jessa Johansson in HBO drama Girls, where the evening ranks in his all-time list of parties. It’s easy, he says. “Because of its location and decadence I would put it at the top.”

But nuns and wrestlers aside, there was a serious point to this peak rock excess. The launch of Swan Song was designed to take Zeppelin to the next level of success, explains Danny Goldberg, who ran the label in America (and went on to manage Nirvana). At the time, the band had yet to release Physical Graffiti, to many fans their greatest album. Having their own label on which to release their own music, and that of others, was Zeppelin shooting for the (full) moon.  

“There were three elements to why they launched Swan Song. One was to support artists they liked. Secondly, it was to leverage their superstardom into another business and income stream. And thirdly, there was a status attached to artists having their own label,” Goldberg says. “The Beatles had started Apple and the Rolling Stones had Rolling Stones Records. It was validation of an Olympian level of superstardom that was consistent with how they saw themselves. Those are the three reasons, and I think in that order.”

 

Swan Song effectively sat under the auspices of South London-born Grant, who had a ferocious reputation in the industry. His temper, size and fierce loyalty to Zeppelin regularly reduced promoters and booking agents to quivering wrecks. But Hoch and Goldberg liked working for the manager, who died in 1995. “Peter was very large. He was 300 pounds [21 stone], maybe a little less. He could be intimidating whenever he wanted to be. [But] he was very good to me,” says Goldberg.

Grant had his own way of dealing with things. At one point, a bored Hoch told Grant he wanted to resign. “I went to his office and he stood up and locked the door. He opened up his briefcase and took out a knife. I thought, ‘Woah, this is not going to be good.’ And he took out a pound of cocaine and he said, ‘Let’s talk.’ This was a Tuesday and I think it was Thursday when I left the office,” says Hoch. Did he agree to stay on? “Yes! I didn’t even know what I was saying at that point!”

Despite its esteemed owners, Swan Song initially felt like a cottage industry. When Hoch first arrived at its HQ on London’s Kings Road from his native America, the company barely existed. “The office was above the British Legion, opposite The World’s End pub. It was just an office. It wasn’t set up with an infrastructure,” he says. Swan Song released well-received music by the Pretty Things and Scottish singer Maggie Bell, but it never flew as hoped. There were missed opportunities. Hoch once received a tape from an acquaintance of two women from Seattle singing. “There was a note attached saying ‘These girls sing like Robert Plant but with more balls’,” says Hoch. “I made the mistake of not only playing Robert the tape but showing him the note. It didn’t go over very well. So we never signed Heart.”

Was Swan Song a success? For Grant and Zeppelin, yes. It gave them complete control over everything. And Bad Company became massive. “Neither Apple nor Rolling Stones Records ever had a signing remotely as successful as Bad Company,” says Goldberg. Hoch, however, believes Swan Song’s potential was “infinitely greater than what we did with the opportunity”.

Swan Song, which ceased active operations in 1983, stands as a snapshot of a bygone era, when bands splashed their cash on their own labels and parties were a barometer of status. Even Swan Song’s more sedate launch bashes in Los Angeles and New York were lavish affairs. Groucho Marx attended the LA party at Hotel Bel-Air after Hoch met him through Elton John. “The idea I could bring Groucho Marx to a Led Zeppelin party was very impressive [to the band],” says Hoch.  

Kirke remembers meeting the actor, then in his Eighties. “Groucho was there with two of his ‘neices’, shall we say. One on each arm. I said, ‘Groucho, thanks for all the years of humour.’ He leaned in and he said, ‘You know I’ve got millions of dollars and I’d give a million of that just to have one last erection,’” says Kirke.

Meanwhile, the New York jamboree at the Four Seasons hotel descended into farce after Grant and Zeppelin’s long-time tour manager Richard Cole failed in their quest to hire live swans for the event. “So they ordered half a dozen geese. Peter said no-one would know the f------ difference,” laughs Kirke. “But they escaped their cages in the lobby of the Four Seasons and started running down Fifth Avenue with Richard Cole chasing them.”

Caves, jelly and renegade swan substitutes marauding down New York’s busiest street. Things really don’t get more rock’n’roll than that.
 
© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2024

 

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Having read about this party in several books and magazines, it was awesome to have that insight into the night and party. I absolutely believe that they are and were the only band/group that could have pulled that off. I would give up a lot to have been able to be there. 
 

I don’t know about anyone else, I have been to some wild parties, I have been to some incredible places, but that just seems like it was a tad bit more than most of us get to experience. What else could we expect from the greatest group whoever lived, they truly were unlike any other group before or after. 

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