Wayback tours: When the University of Iowa hosted Led Zeppelin

This article is the second in a series looking back at concerts that shaped the eastern Iowa City imagination as they reach milestone anniversaries.

Led Zeppelin — illustration by Kate Goodvin

This will be a real shocker to you, but 50 years ago on this day in 1969, there was a blizzard: It was very icy, and wind chills were dropping by the second. None of that was going to stop the impending British invasion of Iowa City.

The University of Iowa’s Central Party Committee was in charge of organizing the January concert at the IMU’s Main Lounge, and their hard work already had some unforeseen hiccups—the crappy weather was just the start. They had to book a replacement band for jazz sensation, Count Basie, and they decided to roll the dice with a group of four guys on their first American tour. The show must go on. And so Iowa was introduced to Led Zeppelin.

“I sort of knew them, but we really were just happy to be out on a school night! That was the real thrill of the evening,” reflected Tim Taylor of Iowa City, who was a senior at City High at the time. “Really bad weather is the next thing that comes to mind. I was still in my clothes I wore to school. Penny loafers, slacks, collared shirt and my hair at maximum length.”

Taylor began to laugh. In those days, the schools had a dress code and didn’t tolerate long hair on the boys.

“My parents let me go with my friend, Ty, and we were dropped off in an old jeep that had chains on the wheels. It was awful standing in line waiting to get into the IMU.”

Though Led Zeppelin was still far from their legendary status, the concert organizers had them as the headliners anyway.

“We knew the opening band, Mother Blues, and I was looking forward to seeing them,” Taylor said. “There was only a few hundred of us at most in the IMU. I remember the bad sound system they had at first, but they got it fixed.” Still, he reiterated, “I was just so happy from being out on a school night.” He was obviously living the dream; he had no idea what was about to hit the stage after Mother Blues.

“Led Zeppelin! just—people were going nuts!” Taylor’s memory of the Brits’ performance was once again front in center of his mind 50 years later. “The ovation they got: Not very many of us there, but it was loud.”

The replacement band was doing their job making sure they were as entertaining as the previously advertised headliner. Bryan Dietz, a freshman at the University of Iowa, had a similar experience with his first taste of the future rock gods.

“My friend and I walked through horrible weather to the IMU from Rienow Hall. We kinda-sorta knew [Led Zeppelin] because I was really [a] big fan of the Yardbirds.”

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was a former guitarist of the Yardbirds with his tag team partners of fellow rock superstars, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Who knows what that band could have accomplished if they’d stayed together, but I think we can all be thankful they decided to go off on different paths.

“I was stunned,” Dietz recounts of Led Zeppelin’s talent. “They were amazingly talented instrumentally. Robert Plant’s vocal were great, but what impacted me the most was their raw talent with Jimmy [Page]’s guitar and [John] Bonham on drums. His drum solos—I mean wow.”

It didn’t take long for Iowa City concert attendees to realize they made the right decision to brave the elements and absorb themselves in what was going to possibly be a once in a lifetime experience, all for the price of $2.00 a ticket.

“I was very close to the stage, and I knew they were going to be phenomenal,” Dietz said. “They brought a lot of fun with them. Especially from only 50 feet away!” Dietz was a few human bodies from the performance of Led Zeppelin in a quintessential U.S. college town, with all the bass, high pitches, unmatched vocals and sweat that come with that.

“‘Dazed and Confused’ is my favorite song of theirs, and I remember them playing it,” Dietz said. “I wasn’t aware that they were on their first American tour, but I found out that the U of I was their first campus show in the states. Seriously, watching John Bonham and Jimmy Page was the most amazing part of the show.”

There you have it, folks. We’ve learned a couple of lessons from these first two Wayback Tours:

(1) Take in the opening bands, because you may get a little Rage Against the Machine, and

(2) Don’t be too bummed out if the headliner can’t make it, because your replacement entertainment might be Led Zeppelin.

Iowa City may slow down in the harsh winter months, but that doesn’t mean this town can’t rock the penny loafers off your frostbitten feet. Ask the youth of the ’60s how they spent their days in Iowa, and you just might hear how they got the Led out and their parents let it all happen.

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