The night before Led Zeppelin were scheduled to play a brief reunion set at Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden in 1988, Robert Plant called up Jimmy Page with some news: He wasn’t going to sing “Stairway to Heaven.” “Well, that was awful,” Page said years later. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re not going to sing ‘Stairway’? But that’s exactly the one everybody expects us to do!'”
That was the problem. For Plant, the legacy of Led Zeppelin was an albatross around his neck that seems to grow bigger every year. He’d released four solo albums by that point and had carved out a nice post-Zeppelin career. The last thing he wanted to do was deliver the lines “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” as if they still meant something to him. The only time he’d done the song since Zeppelin split was at Live Aid in 1985, and the performance was a sloppy fiasco witnessed by nearly two billion people. He wasn’t eager to have another go at it.
It was miraculous he was willing to do any sort of Zeppelin performance, but Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun was overseeing this show and Plant simply couldn’t say no to the man that played such a pivotal role in shaping his career. Ertegun also gave Plant a slot to perform his solo work in the middle of the 13-hour concert, which featured Genesis, the Coasters, the Bee Gees, Yes, Roberta Flack and Crosby, Stills and Nash, as well.
Hours before showtime, Plant buckled amidst huge pressure from his former bandmates. “In the end he said, ‘Well, I’ll do it,'” recalled Page. “‘But I’ll never do it again!’ I thought, ‘God, what is this really all about? Where is the spirit of why we’re supposed to be here? I don’t need this.'”
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Led Zeppelin closed out the very long night with a five-song set of “Kashmir,” “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Stairway to Heaven.” On drums that night was 22 year-old Jason Bonham, marking the first time he ever played in public with his father’s band. Most critics felt they were more than a little flat, but fans were so happy to see them playing together again they didn’t care.
That same lineup of Led Zeppelin played again two years later at Jason Bonham’s wedding, but there was no “Stairway.” Outside of a tiny bit of the song played on Japanese TV in 1994, it was also absent from the Page and Plant set list when they toured in 1995/96 and 1998. Plant wouldn’t sing the song until Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert, and even then he insisted they do it in the middle of the show without any special fanfare. Odds are extremely high he’ll go to his grave without singing a note of it ever again.