It could have been the biggest tour in the history of rock & roll, a stadium juggernaut to dwarf even recent efforts by U2, Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones. Had they agreed to a two-year trek, taken on sponsors and charged exorbitant rates for tickets and merchandise, Led Zeppelin could possibly have been the first act ever to gross $1 billion on a single tour. They spent nearly a year prepping for their reunion show at London's O2 Arena in December of 2007, but just when his bandmates, concert promoters and fans all over the world were practically salivating over the thought of the group's first tour since 1980, Robert Plant walked away from the group, and nothing was going to change his mind.
It's been nearly seven years since the show at the 02, and the topic of Zeppelin's aborted tour still rankles Plant, who has come to a pub near his North London home to talk about the group's new series of archival releases. As explains his decision to not tour with Zeppelin, he leans forward with menace, and his eyes nearly double in size. "You're going back to the same old shit," he says. "A tour would have been an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that's shitty about big-time stadium rock. We were surrounded by a circus of people that would have had our souls on the fire. I'm not part of a jukebox!"
Nearly all of Plant's peers are happy to deal with such a circus considering the insane financial rewards. "Good luck to them," he sneers. "I hope they're having a real riveting and wonderful late middle age. Somehow I don't think they are."
Needless to say, Jimmy Page has a very different take on the situation. "There's bound to be fallout if you just do one show," he says. "At the time of the 02 show we were led to believe there were going to be more. You'll have to ask Robert why he changed his mind. I don't even know if he considered it. I don't know what he thinks."
When Robert Plant walked away from the group after the O2 show, Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham continued to rehearse together in England, even auditioning singers for a possible Plant-free tour. Most names have remained secret, but Steven Tyler and Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy have both admitted to spending a few days playing with the group.
"Singers were being thrown at us from here and there," says Page. "The material we were coming up with was really, really good. Obviously, other people wanted to just get us out on the road quickly. I wasn't feeling comfortable. Going out with the three members from the 02 show and another singer might have looked like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. I wanted to see what we could come up with musically."
Tour plans were put on hold and Page, Jones and Bonham continued to hold secret rehearsal sessions through 2008. They only stopped when John Paul Jones got an offer from Dave Grohl and Josh Homme to play bass in their new supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, which he eagerly accepted. "I guess," says Page, "that was a pretty definitive statement."
Jones (who wouldn't comment for this article) made no secret about his deep disappointment with Page and Plant in the years after the break-up. He initially wasn't even invited to their reunion at 1985's Live Aid, getting phoned up only the day before and forced to play keyboards on "Stairway To Heaven" while Plant's touring bassist handled his parts. He didn't even get the courtesy of a phone call about the 1994 Page and Plant reunion, hearing about it on TV. At a press conference for the tour, Plant joked that Jones was parking cars out back. When the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Jones, through gritted teeth, thanked his former bandmates for "finally remembering my phone number."
Them Crooked Vultures toured throughout 2009 and 2010, and Zeppelin didn't come back together in any incarnation when the tour ended. At this point, any sort of tour — with or without Robert Plant — appears extremely unlikely. "People ask me nearly every day about a possible reunion," Jimmy Page says with a sigh. "The answer is 'no.' It's been almost seven years since the O2. There's always a possibility that they can exhume me and put me onstage in a coffin and play a tape."
That said, Plant refuses to make a Sherman-esque statement forever ruling out the possibility of him fronting Zeppelin again. "I don’t think there’s any reason for me to do that," he says. "Otherwise we’ve got nothing to be mystic about...Everything will develop as it develops. All doors are open. All phone lines are open. I don't hear from anybody. Talk is cheap...But I just think everything has to be new. Then you can incorporate history."
Does that mean he's open to the idea of recording new songs with Zeppelin? "You can't be the marriage guidance clinic here," he says, clearly irritated by this line of questioning.
Strangely, he's among the few people who felt it was a good idea for Zeppelin to carry in without him. "They kept rehearsing after O2 and they had a singer," Plant says. "I don't know what happened. It seemed like a great idea to me."
Plant stands up to leave, but turns on his heel. "Do you know why the Eagles said they’d reunite when 'hell freezes over,' but they did it anyway and keep touring?” he asks. "It’s not because they were paid a fortune. It’s not about the money. It’s because they’re bored. I’m not bored."