16 September 2021

National institution unearths rare recording of Led Zeppelin interview

| Ian Bushnell
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The National Film and Sound Archive’s discovery underlines its digitisation program. Photo: NFSA.

A rare radio interview unearthed by the National Film and Sound Archive is featured in a new film documentary on the legendary rock super group Led Zeppelin.

The tape of Australian broadcaster Graeme Berry’s expansive hour-long 1972 interview with drummer John Bonham for Sydney radio station 2SM had lain in the NFSA vault for decades when filmmaker Bernard MacMahon reached out to the national institution in 2019.

MacMahon, director and producer of the band’s first authorised documentary Becoming Led Zeppelin, had heard a bootleg recording on vinyl and had spent a year searching for the original tape.

Recognising Berry’s Australian accent, he contacted the NFSA but researchers were initially unable to find the interview in the collection.

The NFSA’s Access Services Manager, Sean Bridgeman, then went to the curatorial team which was making its way through cataloguing about 8000 tapes in the 2SM collection, many of which were unmarked or had no identifying information.

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As luck would have it, curator Chris Arneil had come across a tape marked Led Zeppelin: Robert Plant and John Bonham the week before.

“After digitising the tape and conducting research, we confirmed it was the hour-plus interview with John Bonham that Bernard MacMahon had been searching for,” Mr Bridgeman said.

The digital file was then lent to the documentary creators and it plays a key role in the film.

The discovery of the interview recording underlines the valuable work being undertaken to digitise content in the NFSA collection.

‘There are many items in the collection that are “hidden” or undiscovered – in that we either don’t have enough catalogue information, or they have yet to be digitised,” Mr Bridgeman said.

“The interview was held only on the original quarter-inch magnetic audio tape, so it was essential we digitised the recording for preservation.”

Mr Bridgeman said magnetic tape formats were at risk of further deterioration and eventually could not be preserved digitally.

The NFSA is prioritising magnetic audio-visual formats for its Deadline 2025 project, which aims to digitise as many items as possible before 2025, after which they will likely be lost forever.

The interview itself, conducted at the home of lead singer Robert Plant ahead of an Australian tour just after the release of the landmark Led Zeppelin 4 album, is considered a rare gem.

Before his death in 1980, Bonham rarely gave interviews or spoke in public – and if he did, he wouldn’t say much at all.

But this time was different, NFSA curator Thorsten Kaeding said.

“In the interview, he really opens up and engages with Berry … uncharacteristically, he seems very happy to talk,” NFSA curator Mr Kaeding said.

“They touch on many aspects of his career, as well as moments leading up to it … including how he started out in music, where his interests came from, and what he was doing before Led Zeppelin. For a documentary maker, it is absolute gold.”

Mr Kaeding said the Bonham recording was a testament to Berry, and his brilliant interviewing skills.

“It’s often forgotten how successful Australian DJs and music journalists have been internationally,” he said.

“As with this interview, they were often able to get their subjects to open up in ways that others could not.”

Becoming Led Zeppelin is the band’s first authorised documentary, and it premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival this month. It is expected to be released in Australia in 2022.

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