When John Bonham died on September 25, 1980, Led Zeppelin immediately suspended all activity. Just two years earlier the Who had pledged to carry on after drummer Keith Moon died, but Led Zeppelin took a different approach. To them, Led Zeppelin was a four-man effort, and they weren't going to carry on with a new member. That doesn't mean the surviving members never played together again. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have reunited a number of times over the years, and every once in a while they let bassist John Paul Jones join them. Here's a look back at various Led Zeppelin reunions over the past three decades. (Note: the band reformed for private rehearsals in Bath, England in 1986 and again at Jason Bonham's wedding in 1990, but there's no video from these private affairs, so they weren't included here.)
Just one year after Led Zeppelin broke up, Jimmy Page teamed up with former Yes members Chris Squire and Alan White to form a new supergroup they called XYZ, which was short for "ex-Yes and Zeppelin." The only problem was they needed a vocalist. Robert Plant came by a single rehearsal, but ultimately decided to focus on his solo career. XYZ died before they had a chance to release any material. That same year Robert Plant formed the Honeydrippers, a side project devoted to swing and rockabilly music from the Fifties and early Sixties. The group then went largely dormant until 1984, when Plant called them back together to cut an EP. By this point Jimmy Page was invited to join the fold. Much to everyone's surprise, their cover of "Sea of Love" became a pretty big hit. The EP came out in September of 1984, but the group split soon afterwards.
In the summer of 1985 former Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof convinced the Who, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Led Zeppelin to reunite in order to raise money for victims of the Ethiopian famine. It was the first time Zeppelin had played together since Bonham died. Phil Collins and Tony Thompson of Chic handled the drums. "It was horrendous," Plant told Rolling Stone in 1988. "Emotionally, I was eating every word I had uttered. And I was hoarse. I'd done three gigs on the trot before Live Aid. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and by the time we got onstage, my voice was gone." Making matters worse, Jimmy Page's guitar wasn't even in tune. Few people seemed to care. Led Zeppelin was playing "Stairway to Heaven" again, and nobody cared how bad it sounded. "Everyone was congratulating themselves for being there, because that's what they always wanted," said Plant. "Yet there are a lot more important things to want than Page and I staggering around again in Philadelphia, me hoarse and him out of tune."
The members of Led Zeppelin have always felt an incredible sense of gratitude to former Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun. In 1988, when he asked them to play at a massive concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the label, they couldn't say no. This time around they invited John Bonham's son, Jason, to play drums. The group closed out the concert with a 30-minute set that featured "Kashmir," "Heartbreaker," "Whole Lotta Love," Misty Mountain Hop" and "Stairway to Heaven." This time, Jimmy Page was in tune and Robert Plant wasn't hoarse, but it was clear to everybody the spark wasn't quite there.
Eleven years after Led Zeppelin's historic two-night stand at Knebworth in England, Robert Plant returned to the concert grounds for a massive festival that featured sets by Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Genesis, Elton John and Eric Clapton. For his final two songs surprise guest Jimmy Page came out to join Plant on "Wearing and Tearing" and "Rock and Roll." It was very well received, and a sign of things to come.
In the mid-Nineties a ton of classic Seventies rock bands returned to the road to refill their dwindling bank accounts. Led Zeppelin refused to go the route of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and KISS, but Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did team up for an MTV "UnLedded" concert and subsequent live album and tour. They were determined not to make this a nostalgic run through the hits. The set focused on deep cuts like "Four Sticks" and "Friends," and the songs were performed with the help of a large string section. They hit the road in 1995, and by that point they were happy to break out the hits – though never "Stairway to Heaven."
Most everyone was thrilled about this tour – except John Paul Jones, that is. They didn't even call their old bassist to tell him about their plans. He read about it in the newspapers like everyone else. "I don' t know what to think, to be honest,"Jones told Rolling Stone in 1995. "I saw a bit of the UnLedded thing. First there was 'No Quarter' without the piano, which I thought, 'Well, OK.' Then they went into 'Thank You,' which used to be one of my showcase tunes – I used to do an organ solo and then go into 'Thank You' – and there's a chap playing my organ parts and a chap playing my bass parts. It was strange, really, sitting there thinking, 'Well, those people are sort of being me.'"
A few weeks before Page and Plant kicked off their 1995 world tour, they headed to the Waldorf Astoria in New York for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In what was surely an awkward reunion, John Paul Jones was there too. Despite the tension, the three surviving members of the band played a three-song set that night, with Jason Bonham once again on drums. Neil Young sat it for "When the Levee Breaks" and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry joined them for "Bring It On Home." John Paul Jones had the best line of the night: "Thank you, my friends," he said during his induction speech. "For finally remembering my phone number."
Three years after Page and Plant's highly successful reunion tour, they went into the studio with Steve Albini to cut Walking Into Clarksdale, their first proper album as a duo. Their first single, "Most High," went to number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, and actually got some radio play. But when they toured that year the setlist was almost entirely composed of Led Zeppelin classics. At the time it seemed like the group would keep on raking in huge money on the road, but Plant grew disillusioned with the scene and called the whole thing off when the tour ended.
In the summer of 2001 Page and Plant agreed to play one final time, once again at the urging of Ahmet Ertegun. They performed an eight-song set at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The day's theme was a tribute to Sun Records, and most of their songs were old classics like "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Baby, Let's Play House," but they did play the 1976 Zeppelin deep cut "Candy Store Rock."
Led Zeppelin shocked fans around the world in 2007 when they agreed to reunite for an Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at London's 02 Arena. It initially seemed like they were only going to do a few songs, but the appearance quickly morphed into a two-hour concert. They spent months rehearsing, and the demand for tickets was simply insane. Once again, Jason Bonham was behind the drum kit. "It doesn't surprise me that we can get together like this now," Page told Rolling Stone in 2007. "That's how we always were. You have nothing one minute. The next, boom, you have that. The great tragedy for me would be if I didn't have that ability in me anymore. To be able to get to this place, to work with the others – it's a gift, and I respect and cherish it." Unlike past reunions, the show was an absolute triumph. Rumors spread that a big tour was coming, but sadly, it wasn't to be. Robert Plant had a huge hit with his project with Alison Krauss, and he simply didn't want to reawaken the Led Zeppelin beast.
After the 2007 reunion show it became quite clear to Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones that Robert Plant wasn't willing to continue with the band. Unwilling to stop everything, they began rehearsing secretly in England with other singers, including Steven Tyler and Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy. A tour was quietly being booked, but for some reason the whole thing got called off. Nobody seems quite sure who pulled the plug, but word is venues had already been held in North America. The closest thing anybody got to Led Zeppelin that year was at a Foo Fighters concert in Wembley Stadium, when Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones came out for an encore of "Rock and Roll" and "Ramble On." It was a disappointing end to an amazing final chapter, but it's probably for the best they didn't damage their legacy by touring with somebody else on vocals.