Neal Preston's best photograph: Robert Plant catches a dove
‘I was Led Zeppelin’s tour photographer. The dove landed on Robert’s hand. Nobody else could have pulled it off without looking pretentious’
As far as I know, I’m the only person ever to be Led Zeppelin’s tour photographer. I was just 22 and knew a plum job when it landed on my lap. People often ask how wild it was, but I always say the same thing: “If you’re using ‘wild’ as a metaphor for sex and drugs, then it was wilder – far wilder – being on the road with REO Speedwagon.” Don’t forget, I’d been hired to do a job. I wasn’t there to sit around consuming unmentionables and fuck everything in a skirt.
This was taken during a gig at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. There were two cages behind the amps on stage, each containing six white doves. To be honest, I think they were probably just white pigeons but we called them doves so let’s stick with that. Anyway, Robert Plant’s a real hippy at heart, so the idea was that at the end of Stairway to Heaven, we’d release the doves and they’d fly off into the air as a homage to peace and love.
But when the cages opened, the birds flew out and one did a low pass over the audience, then must have taken too deep a breath of the San Francisco air – remember, this was 1973 and there was a high chance of being dosed by some deadhead. Anyway, it turned back to the stage and Robert stuck out his hand. The dove landed on it, purely by chance – this was not a trained bird. It was there for about five seconds. I’m just glad it didn’t land on Jimmy Page’s hand or something bad might have happened to it.
There’s a protocol when you’re on stage: don’t step on anything, don’t move anything, don’t trip over a cable, don’t touch the dry ice machine, don’t breathe on any fucking instruments. You’re constantly being tracked by a dozen pairs of eyes otherwise known as the roadies. That stage is their nation state, their Vatican City. Without them on my side, I can’t do my job – whether that’s for Led Zeppelin or Led Zepagain the tribute band.
This was a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right lens. It was the same with a picture I took of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr – I pressed the button just as Frank is goosing Dean in the ass. But you never know if you’ve shot an iconic photo at the time. You need the benefit of hindsight – because it’s not about what you think is iconic, it’s about what the world thinks.
Still, I knew it was a nice picture. With the dove and the Newcastle Brown Ale he’s drinking, it’s so British and so Robert. Nobody else could have pulled that off without looking pretentious. Robert was a country boy. He grew up around animals and has the look of someone who understands nature. Of course, he might just have been thinking: “How the fuck did you end up on my hand?” But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s a look of calm, understanding and respect. I was happy with it, but you know what? If you’re a professional photographer in my line of work and you can’t get a great photo of Robert Plant, you should probably quit your job and go sell donuts.
Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin is published by Reel Art Press on 9 October.