I did have my room semi trashed by John Bonham one day, he did a pretty good job on it.”
Neal Preston: Hey Nando.
Wikimetal (Nando Machado): Hey Neal, nice to talk to you!
NP: Hey, how are you doing, man?
W (NM): I’m very happy to be talking to you, it’s a real honor.
NP: Well, thank you very much.
W (NM): And congratulations on your terrific work, it’s quite legendary. We normally interview musicians and artists, but it’s great to have the chance to speak with you.
NP: Oh, really? That’s great. I may not be a musician, I can’t play very well, but I try to be an artist.
W (NM): You are a great artist. We had the chance to also interview other photographers in the past, like Bob Gruen and John McMurtrie, who’s the Iron Maiden official photographer. It’s very similar in way to rock N’ roll and hard rock, they’re very visual kinds of art.
NP: I’d say it’s almost exactly the same.
W (NM): So, just for us to start: for many years you were the official photographer for Led Zeppelin. Do you remember how you first met them and how you got hired to become their photographer?
NP: The first time I photographed them was in 1970, before I actually met them and worked for them. I photographed the press conference that they had in New York, and I photographed the show the next day at Madison Square Garden, in New York. But a couple of years later, after I moved to Los Angeles, I started doing a lot of work for Atlantic Records, and through Atlantic Records, I started doing more and more work for Led Zeppelin through the record company. And then, before the 1975 tour, Danny Goldberg, who was their press representative at the time, called me and said “If you want to go on the road with Led Zeppelin, the job’s yours.” So I said yes.
W (NM): And when you were photographing those four legends, did you know how big and important they would become? Did you have any idea that you were being part of such important moments in rock history?
NP: No, I had no idea at all. Even if I were to stop and think about that – which I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been real, you can’t look ahead like that. And besides, I was too busy working to even think about what was going to happen to the pictures, are they going to become famous? In a lot of ways, it was just another job – a very good job, no doubt, but it was a job, and I worked very hard at it. But, you know, you never think when you’re doing it, you never think about how these photos are going to be remembered, or if they’re going to be remembered. You have no idea.
W (NM): So talking about the book you are releasing now, it’s a very interesting digital book with hundreds of photos of Led Zeppelin, and even some unpublished photos. What are the main differences between the making of a conventional book, which you have released in the past, and this book, which is exclusively sold through the iTunes store?
NP: Well, the main difference is I can’t autograph any copies.
W (NM): I was going to ask you about that, there won’t be signing sessions, I suppose.
NP: No, although someone did e-mail me and wanted me to sign their iPad. Well, look, the differences are huge. With a traditional book, you have an art director that you work with, that helps you with the layout, and organizing everything, and then you look at the first run, and make sure the reproduction is OK and everything, and then they print the book, and then you wait for it to come from China, or Italy, or wherever its printed. But with a digital book, we don’t have an art director, we have a software developer. So it’s a very, very different process. The software developers that I used for this one is a company called Brandwidth. It’s in the book, you’ll see it. And they’re in England, so it was kind of a long process just dealing with that, and also because I’d never done anything like this before, you know, pretty much no one had ever done anything like this before, so we were learning as we went. We were blazing a new trail, as they say. But it was a very, very different experience from doing a regular book, and it took a long time.
W (NM): I can imagine. Changing the subject, Neal, I’ll ask you to choose a song. We have a classic question on our show, one that we ask every single person that we interview. Just imagine you listening to your mp3 player in a random way, or maybe a rock radio station, and suddenly a song comes up, and you just lose control, and you feel like you need to start head banging or whatever, you just lose control completely. Which song is that so we can listen to it on our show now?
NP: Won’t Get Fooled Again, by The Who. In fact, I listen to it pretty much every day. My neighbors always know when I’m coming home, because they hear the song first, and then the car afterwards.
W (NM): Since you mentioned The Who, and you had the chance to photograph Led Zeppelin, The Who, Queen, and all these legendary bands, what do you think was so special about Led Zeppelin’s performance? I haven’t had the chance to see these bands playing live. Do you think that they’re a step ahead of any other live act, or there were other acts that were as good as they were?
NP: I don’t know about a step ahead. I mean, you mentioned those three bands: Led Zeppelin, Queen and The Who… They’re all fantastic, but they’re all different. With The Who, I tend to focus more on Pete Townshend, because I’m a huge fan of Pete Townshend, so the photographer in me, and the fan in me, would just want to watch Pete Townshend the whole show. With Zeppelin, there’s that element of a little bit of danger, like “What’s going to happen tonight?”, it’s hard to describe… But again, when I’m working, I’m not really thinking about anything like that. With Queen, it’s more of a spectacle, it’s more like a carnival.
W (NM): And talking about The Who and Led Zeppelin again, I don’t know if you had the chance to travel with The Who as their photographer, but who could trash hotel rooms more, Led Zeppelin or The Who?
NP: Well, I think the question would be Keith Moon or John Bonham.
W (NM): Exactly.
NP: Well, from the little bit that I’ve seen, I would have to give the award to Keith Moon, probably.
W (NM): Really?
NP: In terms of longevity, amounts of rooms trashed, he would probably be the winner… I don’t know for sure, but it’s an interesting question, though. Maybe we’ll have a trash off.
W (NM): And how about odd things that would happen on the tour?
NP: There’s some I can talk about, there’s some I can’t, if you know what I mean. I did have my room semi trashed by John Bonham one day, he did a pretty good job on it. He thought that John Paul Jones had a bigger suite than he did, because my room was next to Jonesy, so we opened up all the doors, and instead of Jonesy having a two-room suite, it seemed like he had a three-room suite, and when John Bonham came and saw that, he decided to trash the third room, which unfortunately was mine. So I had to sleep on Jonesy’s couch for about five days, unless I wanted to sleep with hamburgers and Coca Cola in my bed. And worse.
I watched Celebration Day, I thought it was good, but it was like a different band. It didn’t have the same vibe… It was very good, but it wasn’t Led Zeppelin.”
W (NM): And Neal, how did you become a photographer? How was the beginning of your career as a photographer?
NP: Well, I was in high school, and I used to take my camera to rock N’ roll concerts. At that time, nobody cared if you did or not, you could bring anything you wanted. So, like every kid in my neighborhood, I tried to play in a rock N’ roll band, but I wasn’t very good. I turned out to be a better photographer than I was a guitar player, so I started taking my camera to rock N’ roll shows, in the late 60s. And I happened to meet a couple of guys, who turned out to be the promoters of the local concerts by my house, and I would give them prints and they would let me into their shows for free, and I would shoot pictures, and I started meeting people in the business… People who started a couple rock N’ roll magazines, and it was a very new feel back then, and it just kind of happened, I was still in high school. By the time I graduated high school, I’d already been working in the business for a year and a half, or so. And that was in 1970. God, I’m old. And in 1971 I moved to Los Angeles, which was kind if the center of the whole music business back then, at least as far as I was concerned, and I’ve lived here in LA ever since. But that’s how it happened, it happened without me trying to make it happen, if you know what I mean.
W (NM): I read an interview where you said you’re an old school guy, and you liked the contact sheet, and your film cameras… Do you still use those? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of the new technology in photography?
NP: Well, yeah, I still do use film whenever possible, I’d say probably half and half, film and digital. The only reason I ever use digital is if the client requests it because of a deadline issue. I prefer film, I like the way it looks, I prefer the editing process with film, I think that digital cameras are a tool to be used when you need them, generally for speed. But I don’t particularly like the way the pictures look… They feel a little like they’re going to break, you know? And I really dislike the editing process and the work flow with digital, I can’t stand moving those pictures around on a screen. But they’re a tool, but whenever it is up to me, I use film. Absolutely, film. I have my Nikons, and I have my Hasselblads.
W (NM): That’s great. Talking about Led Zeppelin again, do you hold in your memory any Led Zeppelin photo that you didn’t take? Some moment that you wish you had your camera with you, or maybe you were changing the films, or anything like that, that you thought “Damn, I wish I took that picture”?
NP: Maybe one or two personal moments – nothing that I’d want to talk about. Generally I was there to document everything, and I pretty much did. There was a time we did a cover for Rolling Stone, and unfortunately, the camera was broken, and nothing came out. And I’ll tell you what: I’m still upset about that.
W (NM): I can imagine.
NP: That was at the Plaza Hotel, and that was the first Rolling Stone cover story that Cameron Crowe did, and it was supposed to have been a group shot that we did, but like I said, we had a camera problem, so… C’est la vie! I’m still pissed off about it. Why did you bring it up?
W (NM): How is your relationship with the band members today, and what did you think of the Celebration Day concert in 2007, and also about the DVD that was released at the end of last year?
NP: Well, the relationship is good with them, I gave Jimmy a lot of pictures for his big auto biography book that came out from Genesis Publishing, two or three years ago. I did photos for the reunion concert, and I kind of felt… I was there for the real thing, and I wanted that to live in my memory the way it was, not for the reunion concert. I watched the films, I thought it was good, but it was like a different band, I thought. It didn’t have the same vibe… It was very good, but it wasn’t Led Zeppelin.
W (NM): I had the opportunity to go to the premiere in London, and the band as there, and I felt like they wanted to do a reunion that proved how good they were, instead of the other reunions that they had after Bonham died, in Live Aid, for example, where the concert wasn’t that good. I think they wanted to prove to the world that they could do a great show. That’s the way I felt.
NP: Well, that’s what they said in interviews, that they didn’t like it in the previous reunions. I was at the Atlantic 40th reunion, in 87 or 88, something like that, I was there. I don’t remember that being very good. The Live Aid one I saw on TV, because I was in London, working at the Live Aid show in London, and they were in Philadelphia. So I saw that on TV, and I thought it was pretty bad. And other ones I can’t remember, other than the Celebration Day.
W (NM): I think those were the main ones.
NP: Without John Bonham, none of them are going to be Led Zeppelin, he was a big, big part of the band, and it’s funny, because you can say the same thing about The Who without Keith Moon, but there’s something about… I think Pete Townshend is so strong that it overshadows any other drummer they could get. But John Bonham… I don’t know, it’s just a different band.
It took me until the second album to get into Led Zeppelin.”
W (NM): Yeah, I was going to ask you that. You have worked with many talented and different kinds of artists, but what do you think Led Zeppelin had that made the band so unique? Maybe they are four equally talented and charismatic and… What do you think that made it so unique?
NP: I’m not sure, I’m not a rock critic, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask, but there’s saying that sometimes you capture lightning in a bottle, and it kind of seems like that’s what happened. You know, when I was growing up, I used to listen to all the English bands, and I was more into the Jeff Back band than Zeppelin. It took me a while, it took me until the second album to get into Led Zeppelin. But I don’t know, I’ve been asked that question before, and I just can’t put me finger on it. It’s easier for me to talk about other bands, and what they’ve done special… But I don’t know. I remember when I was 18, 19 and I had just started working in the business. I’m a huge fan, I remember everyone had to go, you had to get tickets. It was really, really important, and you were going to die if you didn’t get tickets to see that band. I guess they belong to the people.
W (NM): Yeah, these are unknown things that make them a huge myth. How do you think you earned their trust?
NP: Well, I don’t know, but I think that I have to thank Peter Grant for that, because he just had a feeling about me, and that’s how he works, he was kind of like a street guy, you know? They call it street smart. And he used to say he could smell someone, if they were cool or if they were not cool, and he could literally smell it. I think I smelled OK that day. That’s one of the big questions I never got answered: why me? To which, I guess I have to say: why not?
W (NM): You’re right. I guess it’s a mixture between talent and luck, maybe.
NP: Look, if you get a job like that, needless to say, if you don’t have the talent, you’re not going to get the job, so that’s a given. But I think that the other stuff is just as important. You have to know how to conduct yourself around them, you have to know when to keep your mouth shut. You can’t act like you’re the fifth member of the band, or you’re going to get fired pretty quickly. So it’s just that other stuff that I think a lot it is just common sense. But you know what, I was so young I don’t think I ever considered any of that. Like I said before, earlier in the interview, it was another job, it was a very, very, very important job, but it was a job, so I didn’t really conduct myself any differently with them than I did with anybody else. But there definitely was an element of trust involved, without question.
W (NM): Do you think that today there are bands that will become relevant in 40 years time? Does that have anything to do with the technology revolution, or the media revolution, or it can happen any time?
NP: Well, I think it can happen any time. Good music is good music, and shit music is shit music. And the only question is: will people get to hear it? I don’t listen to a lot of new music. If I happen to turn on the radio, and there happens to be something on that I like, fantastic, then I’ll hear something new. But I don’t sit down and say to myself “Well, tonight I’m going to listen to a bunch of records that I’ve never heard before, and I’ll find something I like.” I’m not like that, I like my old reliable stuff, but I think that you never know when the next big band is going to come around the corner, you never, ever, ever know, and when it does, it’s a very good think. I think music is a very important thing in people’s lives.
W (NM): Absolutely. Before I ask you the last question, I would like to thank you so much, Neal, we’ll tell our listeners to buy this great book on iTunes, it’s unbelievable, it’s a different experience for anybody that enjoys music, and listening to Led Zeppelin while you’re reading the stories and looking at the images. And even if we had the chance, it would be great if we could bring you to Brazil for an exposition, or something like that.
NP: I would love to. I would love to come down there for an exposition, for a gallery show or something. I’ve been there a bunch of times. I was in Brazil with Queen in 1981, I was in Brazil on the Amnesty International tour, in 1988, with Bruce Springsteen.
W (NM): I went to that concert.
NP: Oh yeah? It was a good show, right? In São Paulo, right?
W (NM): Exactly.
NP: Are you in São Paulo, or Rio?
W (NM): I’m in São Paulo. I was 15 years old in 88, but I was there. But I couldn’t go to Queen, and I’m still frustrated about that, because I was 8.
NP: Well, it was great, when we were there with Queen, it was like being with The Beatles, it was huge.
W (NM): Yeah, I had the chance to see a DVD they released not long ago, called Rock Montreal. It was the same tour, so it was the last tour where they had only four of the members on stage, so it was just unbelievable. So tell me a piece of advise to a young kid that wants to become a photographer.
NP: Well, piece of advise to anyone who wants to get into the music business, I would say, things are very different now than they used to be. And if you want to try to make it in the music business, you should find the band that you love, and latch on to them, ride their piggy back, and if they become successful, than you become their guy. Instead of poking around with this band, and that band… Latch on to one band, one artist, whatever you want to call it, and put your cards on their table. And keep working at your craft, because you never stop learning. I’m still learning about photography, and I’ve been doing it a couple years. You can always learn. And sometimes it’s not the light that you add, it’s the light you take away.
W (NM): Allright, Neal Preston on Wikimetal, thank you so much, one of the greatest photographers in the world, and I hope to see you soon. It was really nice talking to you, Neal.
NP: Anytime, you too. Say hello to everyone in São Paulo, and I hope I can come there soon.
W (NM): Great, thank you so much.
NP: Bye, bye.
Listen to the full episode here: