Live Aid featured amazing reunions by everyone from Black Sabbath to the Who to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but the most anticipated one of that incredible day in 1985 was easily Led Zeppelin. The three surviving members hadn’t performed together since John Bonham died five years earlier and expectations were extremely high when they took the stage at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium.
Unfortunately, the group failed to live up to the hopes of their diehard fans. “It was horrendous,” Robert Plant told Rolling Stone in 1988. “Emotionally, I was eating every word that I had uttered. And I was hoarse. I’d done three gigs on the trot before I got to Live Aid. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and by the time I got onstage, my voice was long gone.”
Making matters worse, Jimmy Page was handed a guitar right before walking onstage that was out of tune. The monitors were also malfunctioning, meaning the musicians could barely hear themselves. “My main memories, really, were of total panic,” Jimmy Page said years later. “John Paul Jones arrived virtually the same day as the show and we had about an hour’s rehearsal before we did it. And that sounds like a bit of a kamikaze stunt, really, when you think of how well everyone else was rehearsed.”
Drum duties were handled by Chic’s Tony Thompson and Phil Collins, who had just flown across the Atlantic on the Concorde after playing Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. It didn’t give him much time to learn the material.
They played for 20 minutes, dusting off “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Most people were so overjoyed to see them again that they didn’t even notice the problems. And watching the footage all these years later, it’s clear they weren’t quite as bad as legend suggests.
Despite all the snafus, Robert Plant got a buzz off playing with his old band again and six months later he organized a secret rehearsal session in Bath, England. Tony Thompson returned as the drummer. “As much as he wanted to do it, it wasn’t the time for Pagey to do that,” Plant said in 1988. “He had just finished the second Firm record, and I think he was a bit confused about what he was doing…We did about two days. It was most embarrassing moment, to have all that will and not knowing what to play. Jonesy played keyboards, I played bass a bit. It sounded like David Byrne meets Hüsker Dü.”
Things got even worse when Tony Thompson took off and Plant’s tour manager took over on drums. “The whole thing dematerialized,” said Plant. “Jimmy had to change the battery on his wah-wah pedal every one and a half songs. And I said, ‘I’m going home.’ Jonsey says, ‘Why.’ ‘Because I can’t put up with this.’ ‘But you lived with it before.’ I said, ‘Look, I don’t need the money. I’m off.’ For it to succeed in Bath, I would have had to have been far more patient than I have been for years.”
The group reunited at the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records at Madison Square Garden in 1988, Jason Bonham’s wedding in 1990 and at London’s 02 Arena in 2007 to honor the late Ahmet Ertegun. The latter show was the only time they played a full set. They were absolutely amazing, and odds are extremely high they’ll never play together again.
As for the Live Aid set, the group was so unhappy with it they refused to allow it to appear on the DVD package released in 2004 to commentate the upcoming 20th anniversary of the concert. Lucky for Led Zeppelin fans, a little thing called YouTube hit the web a few months later.