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The Return of Led Zeppelin

The story of how the most sought-after reunion in rock & roll came to be, and what happens next

LED ZEPPELIN, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page

LED ZEPPELIN; (L-R) John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in the Netherlands on June 21st 1980.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty

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?'”

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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.

Technically, the London show is much more than that. Proceeds go to the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, and the other acts on the bill – ex-Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, Pete Townshend, Foreigner, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and ginger-songwriter Paolo Nutini – were, like Led Zeppelin,  Atlantic artists who enjoyed long relationships with Ertegun.

Still, for the estimated 20 million people who applied for the 16,000 available tickets in an online lottery, December 10th is basically an impossible dream come true: a Led Zeppelin gig. And that one show has set off raging speculation about a subsequent tour. “I’m not saying it’s gonna happen – I just don’t know,” says veteran New York promoter Ron Delsener. “But if they do fifty stadiums, 60,000 people a show, an average ticket price of $100, that’s $300 million gross, up there with the Stones or U2.”

Page, 63, his once-jet-black hair now a white shoulder-length blizzard, professes shock at the hysteria ignited by Zeppelin’s surprising resurrection: “The way tickets went – that was totally unexpected.” But from the start, he has been an astute, determined guardian of his band and its legacy, personally attending to all catalog matters and reissues. He produced the new two-CD anthology, Mothership (disclosure: I wrote an essay included in the package), and has overseen new DVD and soundtrack editions of Zeppelin’s 1976 film, The Song Remains the Same. And when he speaks of Zeppelin, in the past or present tense, it is with a steely gleam in his eyes and a straight, sharp edge in his surprisingly soft voice. In rehearsals, Jason says, “Jimmy is very thorough. I can see him thinking, concentrating on what he wants to do, what he wants to achieve.”

“What are my expectations for the show?” Page asks, repeating the question thoughtfully. “There was only one: that if we did it, we did it really well, because of the shambolic appearances in the past” – a reference to half-baked reunions at Live Aid in 1985 and a 1988 miniset, with Jason, at an Atlantic fortieth-anniversary concert. Jones complains that at Live Aid, “We had drummers who didn’t know the songs” – Phil Collins and Chic’s Tony Thompson. Jason accepts some of the blame for ’88. “I took it for granted,” he says. “I expected it and didn’t do my homework.”

This time, Page says firmly, “We had to be prepared and committed.”  Zeppelin were told by the Ertegun-benefit organizers that they only had to do an hour. But Page says it was clear, after the first rehearsals in June and further practices in July, that an hour wasn’t enough. The set list is now “100 minutes-plus, and it’s not just the usual numbers – ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘No Quarter.'”

According to Plant, Zeppelin spent their second and third days together working on “For Your Life,” a never-played-live track from their 1976 album, Presence. “Then we jettisoned it – but that was the mood of the thing,” he says, nursing a cold in his manager’s North London office. At fifty-nine, with a trimmed gray beard and a mix of silver and lingering blond in his long mane, he looks like an elder-chieftain version of the twenty-year-old Viking who first came to America with Zeppelin in December 1968. Even sitting on a sofa, his booming voice and confident body language radiate a conqueror’s poise.

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“There was almost too much mutual respect at first,” he continues, “but that soon went. John Paul’s eyebrows kept going up and down, and there was that ironic smile. I knew we were back at where we left off with [1979’s] In Through the Out Door.” Plant quickly corrects himself. “No, we’d progressed even further back.”

“There was one song – I couldn’t remember what I played on it,” Jones, 61, says one afternoon over tea, speaking in a lilting near-whisper spiked with jolts of extra-dry humor (he calls his twelve years in Zeppelin “the longest steady job I ever had”). “I said, ‘Jim, do you remember what you played on this?’ He went, ‘No, why is that?’ Then we realized it was because we haven’t played it onstage before.” Fortunately, Jason has an encyclopedic recall of every live bootleg and studio outtake. “When you think, ‘How should we segue into this part?'” Jones says, “Jason will go, ‘In 1971, you did it this way, and in 1973, at so-and-so auditorium, you did it this way into that.'”

“Jason knows the numbers,” Page says. “But not only that, he understands them. That makes a lot of difference.”

“That’s the second main reason for doing this, for me,” Plant explains. “When Jason was younger and more juvenile, he thought [playing in Zeppelin] was a hereditary situation.” Jason concedes that he and Plant “had our ups and downs – before my sobriety, when I was still drinking and partying.”

“But now,” Plant contends, “Jason knows that not only is he the right guy for this – with his enthusiasm and prowess, he’s changing it.”

Jones and Plant are changed men in their own right. In 2004, on a whim, Jones attended a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. “I met this great community of musicians, all Zeppelin fans,” he says, still slightly shocked, “and ended up playing this old-time music.” He recently produced an album for the female bluegrass quartet Uncle Earl; the night before this interview, he played mandolin with them at a club in London.

Plant has been making solo records since 1982, plays his own Indian and North African redesigns of Zeppelin songs in concert and has a new hit album in Raising Sand, a sublime Delta-blues and gothic-country collaboration with singer-fiddler Alison Krauss. Last year, right after the Nashville sessions for that record, I asked Plant the usual Zeppelin-reunion question. “I would love to work with him again,” he said of Page, “so long as it’s not a big deal – so long as it’s real.”

Reminded of that quote, Plant shrugs at the suggestion that the reunion is, in fact, a very big deal. “No,” he says. The first rehearsals “were no big deal. They were just really good.” And the part that’s real now? “What happens in that room when there’s nobody about has been, at times, as good as it ever was.

“I never wanted to do it,” he confesses. “Now I want to do nothing else. How about that?”

I had a blueprint,” Page says, going back to the summer of 1968. “There was a vocal character I was going for, the kind you found in early Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott – someone who’s not afraid to project. That’s why I wanted Terry Reid” – the young, precociously soulful British singer who famously turned down Page’s offer. Instead, Reid suggested Plant, then making his bones in heavy psychedelic-rock bands in the English Midlands. (Plant, in turn, would recommend a drummer to Page – Plant’s friend John Bonham.)

Jones, who knew Page from the London session-man grind and was eager to join the guitarist’s new group, remembers speaking to Page on the phone shortly before the latter went to see Plant at a college gig in Birmingham: “Jim said, ‘I’m going up to see this bloke. I’ll tell you what he’s like when I get back.’ He got back and said, ‘He’s unbelievable. He’s got this huge voice.'”

Plant was also fluid, intuitive – like Page, interested in the dramatic possibilities both in and beyond blues progressions. “The whole thing was expansion,” Page says, citing “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” on 1969’s Led Zeppelin, as an early defining Zeppelin performance. “It came from folk roots” – a ballad Page knew from a 1962 Joan Baez album – “but it’s got all these colors in it, the hypnotic, rippling guitar in the verses, the flamenco breaks in between. There was pedal steel, acoustic guitar – things that were hard, as well as extreme sensitivity.”

“I’ve been listening to the songs for the first time in a long time,” Plant says, “from an analytical angle, to see how many bars there are between particular parts. There was a canny, chemical thing that made some songs go in different directions, at different times. ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ [on Presence] was very spiky – a lot of clenched teeth. But ‘In My Time of Dying’ [on Physical Graffiti] was spectacular and monstrous. It sped up, slowed down, went sideways, careened and spiraled – and I’m in the middle of it all.

“I had an idea initially,” Plant says of the reunion show, “that we should do our entire Royal Albert Hall set [from January 9th, 1970], starting with ‘We’re Gonna Groove.'” He belts the first verse of the Ben E. King song, Zeppelin’s opening number on most nights in 1970, originally cut by King for Atlantic live at New York’s Apollo Theater in 1963. “Just do that! I was there at the Albert Hall, but I don’t know what the fuck happened,” he claims, grinning. “I was flying in the middle of that great storm.”

Zeppelin’s Seventies aura of invincibility – immortalized in classic photographs of the band lounging on its tour jet, the Starship, and Plant royally preening on an L.A. hotel balcony- took its first hit in August 1975, when Plant was seriously injured in a car crash in Greece. In the summer of 1977, Zeppelin canceled the final weeks of a sold-out U.S. tour after Plant’s son, Karac, died of a sudden virus in Britain. The group never played in America again. There were two massive outdoor shows in Knebworth, England, in 1979, to promote the unusually polished In Through the Out Door, a short European tour in the summer of 1980 – then nothing.

Page claims there was no way forward after Bonham’s death. “There had been discussions about the next album,” Page says. “I’d been talking about it with John, of something more rift-based, hard-hitting. It wasn’t a creed, but every album had to be a move on from what had been done before.” The music Zeppelin would have made in the Eighties, Page declares, “wasn’t going to get softer.” Ironically, the December 10th reunion falls almost exactly on the anniversary of the press release, issued December 4th, 1980, in which Page, Plant and Jones announced they were breaking up.

They have all since played Zeppelin songs on their own, in a variety of settings. Page and Plant collaborated on the 1994 MTV special Unledded, then spent most of the late Nineties touring together. “It was not Led Zeppelin,” Page insists. “It was two members of Led Zeppelin. “Jones was not invited to Unledded and only found out about it when he saw the show on TV while touring in Germany. He says he’s long over the hurt: “It’s a long time ago.” In fact, he points out, “Next year, it will be forty years since we got together. That’s unbelievable.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that we can get together like this now,” says Page. “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! 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.”

In one important way, the return of Led Zeppelin is not a true reunion: There is no Bonzo.

Jason speaks frankly about the emotional complications of succeeding his father, whose nicknames – Bonzo, the Beast – referred equally to his drumming, extreme drinking and legendary raging-animal behavior offstage. Jason says that after his first practice with Page, Plant and Jones last June, his mother, Pat, asked him how it went. “I didn’t want to say it was too good. I didn’t want to take anything away from Dad. ‘It’s great,’ I said, ‘but it’s not as great as Dad.’ I was trying to be politically correct.”

“John had this amazing technique,” Page says, “but he also had the imagination to go with it. You hear the pattern he comes up with in ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ from the first album” – an opening combination of thunder-stick beats, cutting, staccato accents and stampeding rolls – “that still perplexes drummers. Nobody else can do that. Nobody else had that imagination.”

“I recognized it in Bonzo immediately,” Jones claims. At Led Zeppelin’s first-ever rehearsal, in 1968, they started with an old Yardbirds cover, “Train Kept A Rollin’.” “As a bass player, my first concern was ‘What’s the drummer like?’ If we don’t gel, it’s useless. And right away, it was like we were on our twentieth tour. We felt and moved in the same place.”

The DVD release of The Song Remains the Same, a peculiar blend of prime-Zeppelin live footage from Madison Square Garden in 1973 and overearnest fantasy vignettes filmed later, shows a John Bonham unlike the one unleashed each night during his quarter-hour “Moby Dick” solo. In their respective sequences, Jones gallops through the night like an eighteenth-century highwayman, Plant plays a heavy-metal King Arthur and Page is a mysterious guru swinging a light saber. Bonham rides a tractor on his farm, plays snooker and kisses Pat as they walk down a country path. A prophetic shot features Jason, not yet a teenager, playing drums while John watches proudly, jamming with his son on bongos.

“That was his real character,” Jones says. “He was a homebody. He was portrayed very badly in a couple of books. But one of the things that was difficult for him was being away from home.”

“The finale – he didn’t plan it,” Plant says soberly. “Intervention, the idea of confronting people, saying, ‘This has got to stop now’ – it’s part of our hip, babyboomer society now. But it didn’t happen then. Everybody would go, ‘Oh, he’ll be all right.’

“There were negatives all the way through,” he says of Bonham’s excesses, “but not half as many as people thought. It was John who looked after me after I lost Karac. He used to drive over with Pat. He was very tender, with a humility and understanding that was fantastic. It was he who got me back to writing ‘Carouselambra’ and all that stuff with the guys.”

“He might have been Bonzo the god on the road, but at home he was Dad,” Jason says proudly, nursing an espresso late one night in a London hotel. “I did motorcycle racing on weekends. But if my grades weren’t good, he would go, ‘No, you broke the rule. The bike goes.'”

Jason saw his father perform with Zeppelin only three times. But Jason is the only drummer other than his dad to have played with Zeppelin in the Seventies – at the soundcheck for Knebworth, while his father was listening to the PA mix out in the field. “We played ‘Trampled Underfoot,'” recalls Jason, then thirteen. “Dad made me rehearse all week. I asked, ‘Will it be the same as it is on the record?’ ‘No, the solo will be longer. Wait for Jimmy to give you the nod when he’s done – the hand going up.'”

In a way, Jason knows and loves his father’s work a little too much. He can point out John’s rare mistakes on record: “He goes to the ride cymbal at the end of ‘Trampled Underfoot’ by accident.” And in one rehearsal, Jason asked the others about doing some kind of tribute to John during the London show. “They said, ‘You’re doing the work. Don’t you feel he’d want you to stand tall, rather than go, “Here you are, have it back?”‘

“That was hard to accept,” Jason admits. “I want to be respectful to where it comes from. He couldn’t give me the last twenty-seven years of his life. Let me give it back to him for that one night.”

But is Jason prepared for it to be only one night?

“To give a truthful answer, probably not. To walk away afterwards and go, ‘Thanks, keep in touch. …’ I try not to think about it. If I thought about it going any further, it would take away from what we set out to do. My mum’s worried for me on that aspect. She says, ‘Take it for what it is.'”

Page, Plant and Jones all respond to the hopes and rumors of additional shows with genial evasion. “I’ve got to go through it, see how I feel,” Jones says with an added dash of hesitation. “I’m not sure how I feel. But I’m not concerned that I’m not sure. I’ve lived my life like this. Something comes along, and if it’s interesting, I do it.”

“It’s a collective, isn’t it?” Page says, acknowledging that the band he started was never merely an instrument of his will. “What I know is that we’ve had so much genuine fun just getting together. It’s good to be able to do this gig and show what we’re about – still. Our target is the 02. That’s it.” And if it sounds too good to stop? “It’s just one day at a time.”

Plant is already filling up his 2008 calendar: a tour with Alison Krauss; a new album with T Bone Burnett, who produced Raising Sand. “The conveyor belt of expectation is bullshit,” he says impatiently. “If people don’t talk about a tour, anything is likely. The more people talk, the more pressure it puts on everybody.”

And if there is no more Zeppelin after December 10th, “That’s fine,” Plant says, “because we will do it with a good heart. Ahmet will look down and go, ‘Hey, guys!’ Bonzo will smile. Pat will feel really good. Jason will stand up and go, ‘Yeah!’ Jimmy will take a bow. Jonesy will shrug. And” – Plant briefly turns on the old rock-god wail – “I’ll be going, ‘Baby, baby, baby!'”


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