Led Zeppelin Just Want To Celebrate
Updated: May 28, 2020
Led Zeppelin at the New York Museum of Modern Art press conference for the release of “Celebration Day.” (l to r: John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Jason Bonham)
Just Want To Celebrate
by Jay S. Jacobs
There are very few opportunities that a music journalist will jump at quicker than the opportunity to see the three surviving members of the legendary (and legendarily squabbling) rock group Led Zeppelin together on the same stage. Even if you are not the band’s biggest fan (and I can’t claim that I am), this may just be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see one of the most storied bands in rock and roll history.
After all, the three original members have only played together three times in the over thirty years since original drummer John Bonham died of an overdose in 1980. The first two of those reunions were mostly notable for their lacklusterness. At both short sets at Live Aid and the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show, the rust was quite noticeable and the band members decreed that they were further proof that the band should not go on without Bonham. (Also lead singer Robert Plant and lead guitarist Jimmy Page did work together in the 80s as part of the Honeydrippers and the 90s as Plant Page Unledded.)
Therefore, it was quite a shock in 2007 when all three members of the band (and Bonham’s drumming son Jason) agreed to do a one-off full concert in London as a tribute to the recently deceased Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who discovered the band and was instrumental in making them stars. Ertegun was also a good friend. The show, at London’s O2 Arena, quickly became the hottest ticket of the millennium – 20 million people entered a lottery for 18,000 show tickets.
Six years later, that show – rechristened Celebration Day – will be doing a short theatrical release before being let loose on CD and Blu-ray in November. To celebrate this release, the four members did two press conferences together, one in London and one on October 9th at New York’s Museum of Modern Art Film Center.
It was a rather surreal experience to see the four of them up there. They basically seemed to be getting on well. There were no real snipes at each other like when John Paul Jones suggested in London that he was glad the other two found his number this time around, an obvious shot at the others for famously excluding him from the Unledded album and tour.
However, just because they were on the same page doesn’t mean that it was all roses. A few different radio personalities tried to ask the band about reuniting – and the band flatly refused to answer. There was complete silence. It got so uncomfortable that on the third time the question came up, one of the other journalists in the crowd came to the band’s defense and yelled out angrily to the questioner, “It’s been answered a million times, sir!” Our own Brad Balfour was able to get Plant to open up on the idea working together again a bit, simply by not asking about it.
Other questions were occasionally too fawning, leaving the band little to say but thanks. Plant was occasionally a bit goofy, musing about how one of the journalists had used to be a massage therapist he had used, at another point calling a questioner a schmuck. Page was sage and slightly inscrutable. Jones was the most down to earth of the three, humorously pointing out that he enjoyed playing “Kashmir” so that he could sit down a bit in the show. And young Bonham seemed like a huge fan, almost as awed by the other three members of his group as the crowd was.
Still, it was an exceedingly rare opportunity to see rock and roll deities together on one stage, and well worth the experience. So, here, direct from second row left of the MOMA theater, is a transcription of the entire press conference (even the uncomfortable parts).
Jason, did you ever step outside yourself and say “holy shit, it’s Led Zeppelin?”
Jason Bonham: It happened on more than one occasion for me over the years. Getting a chance to play with them again 19 years later, when probably the first time we did it, it wasn’t as rehearsed as now. I was just getting to know them for about six weeks. There were lots of moments where I kept saying (awed) “I’m playing drums for Led Zeppelin.” This really is something very special. Something that I dreamed about all my life, in a strange way. [So] all in all, yeah. I remember there was one incident, John won’t remember it like I do, I watched The Song Remains the Same [Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert movie] so many times and John had this look during “No Quarter” and I remember it was just like Song Remains the Same. He gave me the look! And it probably wasn’t for the same reason as it was with dad, but I’m sure it was very special.
John Paul Jones: That was the “where are we?” look.
Jason Bonham: But for me, as I said, it was a huge, huge honor to play. When we were playing I wasn’t thinking about the crowd, I was concentrating on who was on stage, really. I just wanted to impress my mates here, my dad’s friends.
Which songs did each of you pick for the set?
Robert Plant: The funny thing is that Presence, as a collection of songs, has been very important to all of us, obviously. We didn’t get much of an opportunity [to play it live]. “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” maybe, and “Achilles’ Last Stand“ we visited quite a lot, but it’s such a great piece of music. I was talking about it the other day. It has an amazing sort of math, as a piece of music. Just like Jason, I was amazed I was there playing with Led Zeppelin. I was just saying “where does the crew come in?” I know I had made a couple errors and had to shut up instead of doing too much but I think that was my favorite part of the show, to be honest. None of us could bring too much back from having ever played it before. It was a great experience and that is flying by the seat of your pants and these guys did such a great job. Very exciting. Great light show, too.
Jimmy, was there one song you had to do?
Jimmy Page: Well, “Kashmir” obviously we had to do, but we had played that before. The rest of the set, “For Your Life” was fair because it is quite a testy song to do, there’s a lot to remember. Not having played it before it was a very interesting one out of all of them to be approaching. We did a really good job with that one, but we went right across the board and had a good assault on all of them.
John Paul Jones: Nothing new here. “For Your Life” and “Kashmir,” definitely. “Kashmir” is real good, I get to sit down. Plus I can make a lot of noise with the keyboards. “Good Times Bad Times” was interesting actually because that was the start. Had we done that before? No we hadn’t. That was all new and fresh and a good kicker off.
What was it like having the drums done by Jason?
John Paul Jones: It was very exciting. As a man that was taking chances, and he’s a chance of course. It was really good and it was always the natural focus of our band. We’d start the shows maybe a little more spread out, but as soon as it got serious, everyone meets by the drums and that’s when you can actually feel everything happening. It was still just as exciting as it always was.
Jimmy Page: We had a series of rehearsals running up to the show, actually. In every rehearsal Jason played his heart out and it was really good. I mean, we all played our hearts out, to be honest, but it was really good. We had a really good communion on the night of the 02.
Robert Plant: There are some people in here who are not journalists. There’s a masseuse in here who is not a journalist. I think that’s ever so exciting.
When you watch yourselves, are you able to enjoy it or do you nitpick it or are self-critical?
Jason Bonham: As long as it’s good, we enjoy it.
Robert Plant: I used to be better looking than this. I’m quite concerned about all that stuff. It didn’t bloody matter.
We have some former and current Atlantic Record employees here. Obviously, Ahmet Ertegun was the reason for this concert to begin with. How did the chain of events occur to bring this reunion together?
Robert Plant: When we were kids in England, actually before Jason was born, we were individually in different parts of Britain and really avid music lovers and vinyl junkies. The greatest thing on the planet was be to ever be considered signed to Atlantic Records for British people. The integrity and the roster of Atlantic music was phenomenal and probably unbeatable. Maybe a couple little labels in New Orleans did some great stuff too. That first album, taking that home with an Atlantic label on it and showing it to your friends, it didn’t really matter what happened after that. Everybody hated you for getting that far. As the years progressed Ahmet became quite attached to us. I think he liked the after-show relaxations we had, more than perhaps Jerry Wexler did. I think, Jim? Time went on and Ahmet never lost his energy and love of music and the musicians he had gotten to know even if they had changed labels and gone some other place. It was more important to know that between us all. So when he had the accident, everything hung on his returning back to normal and that never happened. So in England and also here in New York everybody wanted to do something to recognize how much we loved the guy and bit by bit things took shape. They changed quite a lot along the way. At times the Stones were going to be involved. Is that right, Jim?
Jimmy Page: Yeah. The other night I went to the Beacon Theater to see some blokes, [French singer] Johnny Hallyday, actually. It dawned on me: of course that was where Ahmet had the accident [Ed. note: Ertegun fell down and hit his head backstage at a 2006 Rolling Stones benefit concert at the Beacon, which he never recovered from]. The feeling was really strong, actually.
Robert Plant: Also,Clapton was going to do something. I think he was going to put Cream back together and I think we were going to do The [Royal] Albert Hall, but things changed. Someone suggested we go to a bigger venue and it became what it became, but never out of sight of the fact that Ahmet was a personality as well as an absolute music lover. He continued forever to love. He was a seer in many respects. Everybody’s got a different story about him and I don’t think we’re gonna tell you any of them. But it was great, you could have a wonderful time with him talking about anything from Coltrane and Modern Jazz Quartet through to Ratt and White Lion.
You were rehearsing for six weeks for this. What were you thinking? Is this film in anticipation for something bigger for the band?
Jimmy Page: The period we rehearsed over may have run over six weeks, but we weren’t rehearsing every day. We had a little block here and a little block here. I just wanted you to know that.
Robert Plant: We’d been thinking about all sorts of things, but we can’t remember what we were thinking about. (long pause) Schmuck.
What was the process like to find the right songs, the right length and what songs fell by the wayside?
Jimmy Page: The first incarnation of Led Zeppelin, in the past when we toured in the 70’s our sets reflected what we had done in the past and what was there on that latest album. With this show we had a chance to have a real retrospective of the career. That’s why we arrived at the first number being “Good Times Bad Times,” which was the first track of the first album. Then let’s see what goes on from there. I think we made a pretty good choice right across the board for the time we had. We paid good attention to it. The pacing of the set was interesting because with no warm up gig we had to get it right. We assumed we’d work on it and get it right and I think it went well.
Would you describe the feelings you had at previous reunions? Was there a feeling of unfinished business?
John Paul Jones: There’s an immediate sense of relief that we actually got through it and did well. I don’t know, I didn’t feel much after that, to be honest. It was kind of numbing.
Jimmy Page: I feel we had the opportunity to get back together again, which we had there with 02, with those things that left us a little uncomfortable like Live Aid and Atlantic 40th. But we really just wanted to get it right and go out there to play to people that maybe had never heard us, but heard of our reputation and what we’re about. Basically go out and stand up and be counted for who we were. That’s what I thought, anyways.
Robert Plant: I think expectations are horrific things. If you go out and play in North Africa or something like that, you know you’re going to have a good time and work with people and there’s nothing else about it. That’s how we started in a little room with Jason’s dad all that time ago. So to do anything at all together is such an incredible weight because sometimes we were fucking awful. Sometimes we were stunning. A couple of times we tried to get together. In the meantime I assume you’re referring tot he fact that the 40th Anniversary wasn’t as good as this. We were really propelled by Jason and his enthusiasm and his dark glasses.
Jason Bonham: Prescription.
Robert Plant: I don’t believe that. Wait, it’s not in your family, I’ve known your family for 50 years. He really broke the atmosphere of expectation for us because he knows far more about us than we do. He’s got all the bootlegs and he’s in touch with all the people make the bootlegs. He has a strong interest in the bootlegs.
Jason Bonham: If I may, for me when we did the Atlantic 40th, I probably feel that I was still in the “the world owes me a living” stage in my life and didn’t really take anything that seriously. 19 years later, with the world going to proving to everybody [that wasn’t the case] and there was a lot of doubt out there. The road to the 02 there was a lot of enjoyment and pressure at the same time. I like to read the internet and there were some not nice comments that I shouldn’t be doing it. But I was playing with these guys and they were fantastic, every one of you and it was a special night and I really, really enjoyed it. For me, it was what it was.
What would you say to the people that see the film, but still want to see you in the flesh?
[Long uncomfortable silence, then finally:]
John Paul Jones: (shrugs) Sorry. [Ed. note: I’ve seen other articles attribute this to Robert Plant or Jimmy Page, but I was right under him, John Paul Jones was the one who made the comment.]
You mentioned journalists, and over the last 40 years the journalists and critics were really snobby to you yet you seemed to apologize to them in a way, despite all the fans. Why didn’t you stand up for yourselves. Also, why would you not want to play music with musicians elsewhere in the world?
Robert Plant: Isn’t that a great idea, to explore? That’s how we got to be good. We kept developing and nuancing ideas and it came from all over the place. I like the idea of exploring.
What about the first question?
Robert Plant: Why were we so sensitive? Because we were.
But if you think about it, it’s silly.
Robert Plant: Well you’re right.
Jimmy Page: Well it depends what you mean with journalists. As far as the albums went the critique of the album, it’s quite clear it went over their heads and they didn’t have time to review it over an evening when they got a white label. They just missed the point of the album, but our audience can’t miss the point of the album and that’s why it just went from strength to strength over here.
Maybe the critics were jealous and picking you apart?
Jimmy Page: So what? They just didn’t know the joy of playing a three hour show with the rest of the band.
Robert Plant: Also they were a lot older than us at the time. Who knows what happened to them? Some people wanted it to be different. Everyone wanted the Iron Butterfly and they got us. Sensitivity is a crazy thing. You write, you create music you think “am I doing it right, or are we as a group doing it right?” You never really know. When you get to a certain point go “shit, is any of this right?” And thank God it’s like that because if you took it for granted, you’re finished. All hail sensitivity, I say.
Why is there no chance of a reunion? It looked like you guys were having fun. Why is it so hard?
Did the fact that this show went so well, does that make it easier to say that’s the last waltz?
Jimmy Page: At this time four years ago we would have been rehearsing to get to the 02. In December it will have been five years since the 02. So that’s a number of years of passing in between and it seems unlikely if there wasn’t a whisper or hint two years ago of something, then it seems pretty unlikely. That’s what I think.
Do you see things when you’re watching yourself that you don’t otherwise see? Can you see what you do well?
Robert Plant: That’s a very interesting question, it’s almost transcendental. I think that night back then we were just hanging on for dear life watching each other and those expressions of working together, we were so happy we were getting it right and enjoying it and taking it beyond what we thought we were about that night. There were moments where we just took off and went to another place. The responsibility of doing that four nights a week for the rest of time is a different thing because we’re pretty good at what we do, but the tail should never wag the dog. If we’re capable of doing something in our own time, then that will be what will happen. So any inane questions from people at syndicated outlets, you should really think about what it takes to answer a question like that in one second. We know what we got and que sera.
Did you guys flashback to The Song Remains the Same?
Jason Bonham: I grew up watching that thing as well as being the little kid playing the drums in it, which I just recently found out it was actually Dr. John I was playing to. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. For me, obviously when I was on the stage, I grew up watching that movie over and over again. Then, as I got older, I watched that movie over and over again as well as every bootleg I had that had been handed through by different Zeppelin fans. I was very lucky because it’s knowledge for me. I was like a Zeppelin sponge with a thirst for Zep trivia. It was constant. I loved the movie. I would look over it and point at the stage and be like “oh this reminds me of that.” A bit daft, really, but wonderful for me. I did have moments of The Song Remains the Same in my performance because in half of my performances I was playing, I was thinking of Song Remains the Same versions, like a lot of people do. Those versions, the live versions, people have grown up. I really felt in that moment.
Robert Plant: I want to know what happened to that blonde chick, Guinevere.
Celebration Day is on multiple formats; Jimmy has released vinyl only albums. Is vinyl the best way to listen to Zeppelin?
Jimmy Page: It’s a matter of taste. Personally, I never let go of vinyl all the way through, even as CDs came on the scene. What I would recommend you do is don’t listen to Led Zeppelin on MP3, that’s for sure.
Were there any moments of doubts during rehearsal or on stage?
Jimmy Page: No, the rehearsals were going strength to strength. Each day’s rehearsal had its own character, which is quite exhilarating because we’re working towards this one point. No, we put enough time into it for Jason and myself and John playing together so we can be tight knit come the day of the show. Should something go really wobbly we had a musical communion between us to straighten it out. Fortunately we were really lucky.
John Paul Jones: It was something we’ve always known how to do, to be honest. It was just a matter of getting back to that point again.
Robert Plant: We used to call ourselves the Band of Nods because if you miss a cue you wait a bit and just nod. That has nothing to do with opiates or anything, we were just nodding and those nods have turned into middle-aged grins.
The state of rock now is a complete mess, we’re stuck listening to classics. What were the first and last records you bought?
Robert Plant: That’s not a trick question. What’s going on? Jimmy’s got amazing records from when we first met. “Lights Out.” Jerry Burton. First record for me was probably a ‘78 of Little Richard. Not the rock and roll trio, Dreaming on Liberty produced by Snuff Garrett with strings. I’m not trying to be some kind of rockabilly purist, but I do know a lot about it now. The last record I got was on First Avenue and Sixth Street from Kim’s Records where I bought Translucent, their new album. I love Mumford and Sons’ Beam Me Up, Scotty.