On June 10th of this year, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin – guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones – met in a rehearsal space to play some songs. It was the first time they had been in the same room with instruments since their rough four-song set at Led Zeppelin's 1995 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This time, the stakes were higher: to see if they had the strength, empathy and appetite to truly perform as Led Zeppelin again, in their first full concert since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980.
The location of the rehearsal, somewhere in England, is still a zealously guarded secret. In interviews a few weeks before Led Zeppelin's December 10th show at London's O2 arena – a benefit tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records – Page, Plant and Jones claim they can't remember the date, what they played or even how the idea of reuniting in honor of Ertegun, a close friend and mentor during and after the band's years on the label, came up. They all agree that playing together again, after so long, was a momentous, emotional occasion.
"It was immediate," Page says brightly, sporting a small splint on his left pinkie, the result of a fracture suffered in a fall at home that forced a pause in rehearsals and the rescheduling of the concert, originally set for November 26th. "Everybody went in with a will to work and to enjoy it. It was a delight."
Plant recalls "a lot of big smiles," wearing one himself. The day was "cathartic and therapeutic. No pressure, no weight." Jones claims he "didn't have any doubts. Someone picked a song. We got through it. And it rocked."
But Bonham's son, Jason, can tell you the exact date and hour Led Zeppelin became a band again, because he was there, taking over for his dad. "They might not know what time it was," he says of the other three, "but I know." For him, it was "a real lump in the throat.
"I didn't think there would be an instant sound," says Jason, 41, currently a member of Foreigner and now a father of two himself. "I thought, 'It's going to take some time.'" He was wrong. The band went right into the slow, dark fury of "No Quarter," from 1973's Houses of the Holy. "When the riff came in, there was this look that went around. It was brilliant." Next, the four hit the desert-caravan march of "Kashmir," from 1975's Physical Graffiti. "Then we stopped. Jimmy said, 'Can you give me a hug?' And Robert shouted, 'Yeah, sons of thunder!'"
Finally, at the end of that day, Jason says, "They said, 'When we get together next . . . '" He laughs. "I thought, 'You mean I get another chance at this?'"
The hardest thing was getting the four of us in that rehearsal room without anyone knowing about it," Page reflects between sips of coffee in a London hotel suite with a panoramic view of Hyde Park. "We could have fallen at the first hurdle. It would have been too intimidating, having everybody around us going mental."
That, of course, was the original plan. Page was twenty-four, an ex-Yardbird and already a certified guitar hero when he formed Led Zeppelin in the summer of 1968. He wanted not just a band but "a powerhouse – four virtuoso musicians," he says, "that made this fifth element." Within a year, Led Zeppelin were the biggest new band in the world and about to rule the Seventies with a vengeance, crushing audiences and selling out stadiums. Six of the band's eight studio albums, all produced by Page, went to Number One. The group's sudden end, after John Bonham's fatal drinking binge on the eve of a North American tour, created continual, overheated demands for a reunion.
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