By the summer of 1980, Led Zeppelin knew they had to make some rather serious changes to avoid being dismissed as dinosaurs from a distant rock & roll past. The rise of punk and New Wave had made the sort of stadium spectacles they invented seem cliche and pompous, so when the band consented to a 14-date European tour for June and July they decided it was time to strip everything down. Unofficially, they labeled it the “Cut The Waffle” tour.
Over the past decade, many parts of their show had become highly ritualized, from John Bonham’s epic “Moby Dick” drum solo to Jimmy Page’s violin bow theatrics during “Dazed and Confused” to John Paul Jones’ ethereal keyboard intro to “No Quarter.” For the 1980 tour, those three show-stoppers were taken out. Still, they couldn’t fathom doing a show without standards like “Stairway To Heaven,” “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love,” which all stayed in the set.
The stage was also radically stripped down, with many of the lasers, smoke bombs and giant screens of recent tours completely absent. The band even got haircuts and wore less garish clothing, occasionally even sporting skinny New Wave ties. MTV was still a year away, but it was apparent that a seismic musical shift was occurring and Zeppelin were determined to find a way to survive.
Many shows on the tour were recorded, but nothing was professionally filmed. The only surviving footage was shot by amateurs on Super 8. Here’s audio from the group’s final concert with the original lineup, taped July 7th, 1980 in Berlin, Germany. They opened up with “Train Kept A-Rollin'” – a number they’d been doing since their earliest gigs in 1968 – and they end with “Whole Lotta Love,” their 1969 breakthrough single.
About two weeks before this last show, at a gig in Nuremberg, Bonham collapsed three songs into the set and the concert was called off. The rest of the tour finished without incident, but the drummer’s alcoholism was spiraling completely out of control. He died on September 25th, 1980 after drinking approximately 40 shots of vodka in a single night.
Led Zeppelin had already put tickets onsale for a fall North American tour at the time of Bonham’s death. There were rumors they were going to carry on with a new drummer (much like The Who did after Keith Moon’s death two years earlier), but they were squashed in December when the band announced their break-up.
It’s impossible to know how long Led Zeppelin would have survived had Bonham lived, but the 1980 tour made it pretty clear they were not quite ready to call it quits.