Why Led Zeppelin’s Post-‘Live Aid’ Reunion Attempt Didn’t Fly
An army of artists joined in to make the 1985 Live Aid concerts an unprecedented event. Queen, Elton John, Madonna, Bob Dylan and a dozen more A-listers made the London and Philadelphia concerts the spectacle of the year. But standing out from the hype and amazing performances, the Led Zeppelin reunion dominated.
Zeppelin weren't even the only high-profile act to reunite for the event. The Who, Black Sabbath and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all got back together to raise money for famine victims in Africa. But none of those bands seemed to matter when faced with the prospect of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones taking the stage together.
Unfortunately, many considered the reunion at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium a disaster, including singer Plant.
"It was horrendous," he told Rolling Stone 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. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and by the time I got onstage, my voice was long gone."
On top of that, Page's guitar was out of tune and the band’s drummers for the gig, Chic's Tony Thompson and Phil Collins, didn’t get together until the day of the globally televised concert to rehearse -- maybe because Collins played the London show just hours earlier.
“Live Aid felt like one hour’s rehearsal, which we all had after not having played together for seven years,” Page told Modern Guitar Magazine in 1986. “At one point I was almost forgetting why I was really there. I was so worried about forgetting this chord and that chord because I hadn’t played the numbers for years.”
Looking back at video from the event, the performance doesn't seem nearly as bad as Plant remembered it, and most Zeppelin fans seemed thrilled with it at the moment. Obviously, there was some magic to it, because a few months later, the band and Thompson decamped to rural England, hoping to jump start the first Led Zeppelin reunion.
Organized by the band's singer, who spent much of his solo career dismissing Zeppelin reunion rumors, the quartet met up in a secret rehearsal space in Bath, England. “Live Aid was like having the umbilical cord there for me to see again," Plant said. "Because even if it was just a musical umbilical cord, at least the power was there to wake up certain parts or me."
In January 1986, just off the highway near Peter Gabriel's house in Bath, the three Zeppelin members and Thompson spent a week together. In a little village hall, the musicians and a road crew stuffed up the windows and crevices with parachutes, apparently the creative way to make sure the jam sessions don't leak into the street. The group set up its instruments and got ready to make history, but it's unclear how much was actually accomplished -- most accounts put it about two days of good work.
“Pagey duly arrived, and we plugged in,” Plant recounted. “It sounded kind of like David Byrne meets Hüsker Dü, I guess, sounding good and quite odd, because of Jonesy's tendency to play these jolly rollicking keyboards, Jimmy cutting right across the whole thing with these searing, soaring chord mechanisms and me plotting the routes on the bass." But Plant sensed the stars weren't aligned properly: "It wasn't the time for Pagey to do that. He had just finished the second Firm album, and I think he was a bit confused about what he was doing.”
Page was about more cagey about the meeting. Around the time of the sessions, he told Modern Guitar that things went well, if a little strange.
“Well, it feels like playing with old friends so it’s good,” he said. “It’s good therapy too, because everyone is in their own direction, one way or the other. Well we all know everyone is into different things. And it was interesting. I must admit at first it was kind of odd. Not odd but a big smile and slightly tense the first day. The second day was great and we were all close together. It was great, fantastic.”
For Thompson, the gig was a dream job. By that point, Thompson has already conquered the disco, dance and R&B worlds with Chic. He’d also recorded with many of the biggest names in rock and pop, including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Diana Ross and the Power Station supergroup with Robert Palmer and members of Duran Duran.
But playing with Page, Plant and Jones was different. “I grew up listening to Zeppelin -- they were my bible when I was a kid,” he told Modern Drummer in 2002. “Now, I assumed a song like ‘Rock and Roll’ was played a certain way. But when we started the song, Plant said, ‘No, that’s not it’ and Jonesy said, ‘It doesn’t go like that.’ [Original drummer John] Bonham had a way of playing that everyone thought was straight. You’d think ‘Rock and Roll’ is just a big two and four, but it’s not like that. It’s more like a Texas shuffle. ... Bonham was just so good. You can’t copy him."
What they lacked in decisiveness, direction and session time, it seems they made up for in carousing.
The foursome arguably spent more time in a tiny club in a little English village than they did writing, rehearsing or recording. The good times quickly turned into a bit of mess -- including a car crash and hospital stay for Thompson.
“Jonesy and I often chose to walk back to the place we were staying, at two in the morning. Pagey wouldn't come out, which is hardly the way to get everything back together again,” Plant recalled. “Meanwhile, Tony became a celebrity and was metaphorically earned around on everybody's shoulders. He ended up in one of these small mini-cars with five other people. They took a corner too fast and ended up in somebody's basement, went off the road, through some iron railings and down a few steps … . Tony was lying in the hospital going, ‘Oh, man, oh, man.’ So that was the end of him.”
And that was about the end of the sessions too. Page reportedly had tech issues, needing to replace the batteries in his wah-wah pedal constantly, and with no drummer, one of Plant’s roadies jumped in behind the kit. The group just wasn’t gelling.
With the Firm’s second album, Mean Business, already shipped and the band about to embark on a March tour, Page was short on time. And according to Jones’ account in Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man: An Unauthorized Biography, Page and Plant were both short on desire.
“I don't know if Jimmy was quite into it, but it was good,” he said. “I suppose it came down to Robert wanting to pursue his solo career at the expense of anything else.” Jones hoped for more, as he told writer Mick Wall. “There’s definitely the feeling of unfinished business about the band," he said. "We had hoped to do to the '80s what we did to the '70s. I still very much regret that we never got that chance.”
Three years later, Page released his first and so far only solo album, 1988's Outrider, which featured Plant on vocals for one song, "The Only One." Page contributed solos to two tracks on Plant's album from earlier that same year, Now and Zen. Six years later, the duo teamed up for the No Quarter live film and tour, which found them reworking Led Zeppelin classics with the help of both Arab and Western orchestras. This led to another studio album -- 1998's Walking Into Clarksdale -- and a second, more stripped-down tour.
In 2007, Plant, Page and Jones finally reunited for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at London's O2 Arena -- the last time to date the surviving original members of Led Zeppelin have appeared onstage together.