Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin :: Celebration Day


Led Zeppelin never did get a proper send-off. I suppose there’s Knebworth ’79 , with a bloated, but still brilliant, John Bonham behind the kit. That was his last stand, certainly. But by then Plant had grown up, discovered irony and started to parody his own Golden God ridiculousness. Knebworth was good. It wasn’t great. Let’s not even go there with Live Aid (Phil Collins was the drummer). Then, to honour their mentor Ahmet Ertegun, who had signed them to Atlantic after hearing one demo, they did reasonably well, with Bonzo’s son Jason on drums, at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary do in 1988. A couple years later they all jammed at Jason’s wedding. Seriously. And that was that. Until Ertegun passed away and, for his charity foundation, they agreed to do one big show at the O2 in 2007.

It’s been felt that Plant is the one who has moved on most successfully, professionally and personally. He’s a clever and engaging man, a blues scholar, a country bluegrass singer, a wonderful interpreter of song , and a hundred other things including a very private fella (so would you be if you’d had kids with two sisters in different decades). But this show, this one night, was his last chance to just drop it all and say ok, I give in, I’ll shake my mane and tilt my hip and play the part all over again. Everyone who attended went crazy about how good it was and then that was that – a DVD was expected but never arrived. Everyone knew it was recorded so what was the problem? Well, anything that has the Zeppelin name has to be perfect, and every fan knows that. It’s why their Live Aid show was kept off the box set. It’s why Plant refused to let half of his performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert go onto the DVD. That’s how they are. So what a shock when, a month ago, it was announced that, five years after the O2 show, it was coming out on DVD and in the cinema. Cue fan frenzy. I had to go and see it on the big screen. I’ve just returned and I’m waffling because I don’t know how to begin to describe this overwhelming, extraordinary musical experience I’ve just witnessed. I should say that I had a bootleg CD of the show the day after and a bootleg DVD the week after so I knew the content. But seeing it properly fixed up, on the big screen: it just knocked the wind out of me.

Right from the start – Good Times, Bad Times, track 1 from their 1969 debut album – the band crowd round the drum riser, and they barely move from that central square throughout. They’re connected, in a way that very few musicians are, and every nuance, every note, every smile, every single aspect of the performance is utterly, completely, inevitably and beautifully perfect. Every band member is on his own personal journey. If Bonzo himself were alive there’s not a chance he’d have been as good as Jason was that night. His powerful, muscular, frenzied energy powers the entire concert; he’s the rock on which everything builds from, and it’s clear how much everyone else relies on him to provide that explosive foundation, as strong as the one his dad built those 40 years ago. Listen to The Song Remains the Same and tell me that he doesn’t outdo his old man with ease. Listen to Kashmir and try not to feel your spine bending with those thunderous bass drum kicks. And listen to that final flourish in Rock and Roll and you’ll know in that moment that not a drummer on earth could have done it better.

John Paul Jones, then aged 61, has carved out a rather fascinating career as a collaborator, with the likes of Diamanda Galas and Brian Eno, and as a producer/arranger, most notably creating the gorgeous string parts on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. After this show he found his taste for playing live again with Them Crooked Vultures but at this performance he’s a serene, anchoring presence, though I could have stood to hear his bass a little more crisply in the mix. He comes into his own on keyboards and organ on a flawless No Quarter, fluidly nails the lovely melody line on Ramble On, leads the show during Trampled Underfoot, and what a pleasure to hear that bass run on the big finish at the end of Dazed and Confused. He and Page have an almost telepathic connection, two old stagers butting heads and grinning at each other when they know they've hit a perfect moment, when everything has gone just right.

Jimmy Page, then aged 63, is looking a little haggard these days, but so would you if you’d lived the life he’s had. There’s a reason that kind of guitar playing died out – surely looking at those scrunched up faces just got too funny after a while. In a way he has the hardest job of all, because he’s not played these songs, or indeed any songs, on stage regularly since the band broke up. He turned up for Plant’s 1990 Knebworth Festival encore , and reunited with him for a quite brilliant 1994 TV special for VH1, followed by two well received tours together in 1995 and 1998. But on the whole you know he’s the one who’d most love to be that guy again. The one who is the least creatively satisfied with what he’s accomplished in the last few decades. (Whisper Coverdale/Page if you dare.) He just wants Plant to be his guy again. And there’s no way he can play like he did when he was 25, just as Plant can’t possibly sing like he did when he was 25. But with all that said, he delivered one of the performances of his life. Not every note was perfect, not every run was as fast as it used to be, but he put every single shred of himself into that performance – from riffs to solos to violin bows to a bit of Theremin, it was all there. And he got better and better with each passing song, as if he was finding inside himself some internal clock that he was able to force backwards.

Oh Planty, Percy Plant, the former layer of tarmac on the road to West Bromwich. The Golden God (age at gig time: 59). The man who survived the 80s, somehow, to go on and win the Grammy for Album of the Year . The man who launched a thousand utterly terrible copyists. The man who shook his luscious blond hair, wore the tightest pants in rock, stuck his bare chest out, and howled like the hammer of the Gods was upon him. He has so very much to answer for. It all rests on him, truly. The band played like demons and shook the foundations of the venue, the cinema and my aching, bruised head (I fell off a spaceship the day before, but that’s another story). The groove these guys got going behind him was out of this world – no pressure then. But which Plant would turn up? The one who’s barely bothered to look back to those days, to his credit? Could he just shove it all aside and play that role for one night only, for the last time ever, and not ruin it by winking or getting the tone wrong? He had to be the last hold-out, the last person who wanted to do this, but he was doing it for Ahmet, not for himself. So he just stepped out onto the stage and, like an actor playing a classic role in his twilight years, he howled and preened and nailed the shit out of the songs. He took it seriously, finally. Not the songs themselves, after all, half of them are about rescuing maidens from castles or climbing mountains dressed like Gandalf, but the music. The sound, he just used the noise itself to push his performance to the limit. And, like Page, he just got better song by song and, being as smart as he is, he knew what to hit and what to leave. He knew which songs to excise (no Communication Breakdown or Rain Song; too high, they’d sound wrong sung lower) and he knew which moments to let go. He’s no fool: there were notes he’s a mile away from being able to hit so he used his voice, as he has been doing for the last 20 years, very cleverly and gained power and confidence with each passing minute. He’s still snake of hip (if not of jowl) and manages to exude sex almost every minute he’s on stage. And blow me down, he truly looks like he’s enjoying the night, getting off on every second and the camera captures some wonderful moments of exchanged ‘we’re really doing this!’ recognition and affection between him and Page.

They turn to Jason often, and these precise, insanely powerful songs just come at you in waves. It’s actually highly moving, seeing these four people on stage side-by-side. And that’s why they should never do it again – because it was so perfect. I hear people say that there are no bands like Zeppelin around any more. And perhaps it’s good that the more bloated bands of that ilk are long gone. But I tell you what – there were no bands around like Zeppelin even when they were around. No-one could touch them. They were out there on their own for so many years. And that’s not bad considering that I can’t tell you what a single song lyric is about. It’s the sound, it’s the interplay, it’s the alchemy – man for man, Zeppelin are the best rock band there’s ever been. And that holds true in 1969 and in 2007. I used to say that, if I had a DeLorean, and I could go back in time for certain gigs, I’d choose a particular bunch, like Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon ’73, Hendrix at Monterey ’67, and a dozen more. And then I would always add to that list, Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden July ’73, aka The Song Remains the Same concert film. But now, today, right this minute, I’m taking it back. That night, December 10th 2007, is the one I’d choose as the crowning night of their career and the one I’d have given anything to attend.