I’ve tended to avoid reunion shows from my favorite bands of old, and I’ve missed some great performances because of it, I’m told, and also a few clunkers and forgettable nostalgia trips. But sometimes it really doesn’t matter how good or bad the band is ten or twenty years past their prime—or that one or more of their original members has left their mortal coil or shuffled off into retirement. It’s such a thrill for fans to see their heroes that they’ll overlook, or fail to notice, serious onstage problems.
The crowd of thousands at Philly’s JFK Stadium exploded after “Rock and Roll,” Led Zeppelin’s opener to their 1985 Live Aid reunion gig (above), with Phil Collins and Chic’s Tony Thompson doubling on drum duties (because it takes two great drummers to equal one John Bonham, I guess). But according to the musicians themselves, the show was an absolute fail—so much so that Collins nearly walked offstage in the middle of the 20-minute set. “It was a disaster really,” he said in a 2014 interview, “It wasn’t my fault it was crap.”
Collins expands on the problems in his candid autobiography:
I know the wheels are falling off from early on in the set. I can’t hear Robert clearly from where I’m sat, but I can hear enough to know that he’s not on top of his game. Ditto Jimmy. I don’t remember playing ‘Rock and Roll,’ but obviously I did. But I do remember an awful lot of time where I can hear what Robert decries as ‘knitting’: fancy drumming…. you can see me miming, playing the air, getting out of the way lest there be a train wreck. If I’d known it was to be a two-drummer band, I would have removed myself from proceedings long before I got anywhere near Philadelphia.
As for the Zeppelin members proper, Plant and Page had no fond memories of the gig. “It was horrendous,” said Plant 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.” Page, writes Rolling Stone, “was handed a guitar right before walking onstage that was out of tune.” “My main memories,” he later recalled, “were of total panic.” Apparently, no one thought to ask John Paul Jones about the show.
Barely rehearsed (Jones arrived “virtually the same day as the show”) and with failing monitors ensuring the band could hardly hear themselves, they struggled through “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The footage, which the band scrapped from the 2004 DVD release, doesn’t show them at their best, for sure, but it’s maybe not quite as bad as they remembered it either (see the full concert above).
In any case, Plant was so inspired that he tried to reunite the band, with Thompson back on drums, in secret rehearsals a few months later. The attempt was “embarrassing,” he’s since said. “We did about two days…. Jonesy played keyboards, I played bass. It sounded like David Byrne meets Hüsker Dü.” Now that is a reunion I’d pay good money to see.
22 years later, at London’s O2 Arena, the band was confident and totally on top of their game once again for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert, with Jason Bonham behind the kit. Probably their last performance ever, and it’s damned good. See “Black Dog” above and buy the full concert film here.
The clip below lets you see more than 90 minutes of Led Zeppelin reunion concerts. Beyond their Live Aid show, it includes performances at Atlantic Records’ 4oth anniversary (1988) and at the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame (1995).
Hear Led Zeppelin’s First Recorded Concert Ever (1968)
What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inimitable Style
Led Zeppelin Plays One of Its Earliest Concerts (Danish TV, 1969)
Jimmy Page Describes the Creation of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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