On May 14th, 1988, legendary label Atlantic Records celebrated its 40th birthday in extravagant style. The celebrations were packaged as a full-day event at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Billed as “It’s Only Rock And Roll”, the mammoth show was televised and featured a whole host of iconic artists that had featured on the company’s roster throughout its life. These included The Rascals, Yes, Genesis, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Geldof, Booker T. Jones, The Spinners, Bee Gees and Ben E. King, to name but a few.
Although the audience was treated to a once in a lifetime convergence of some of the world’s biggest stars, the general feeling of excitement was more concerned with the night’s headliners. Billed as a Led Zeppelin reunion as well as being Atlantic’s 40th birthday party, it grabbed the attention of every rock fan around. This was only the second performance the surviving members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had given since drummer John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980.
Led Zep only played five songs. However, this triumphant return did not turn out quite as intended. The evening prior, frontman Robert Plant had threatened to disappoint the band’s swathes of fans by proclaiming that he refused to sing their magnum opus, the 1971 smash ‘Stairway to Heaven’. After all, the three surviving members had achieved their own personal success with their respective post-Zeppelin solo projects and resisting such tropes appeared to be the only way Plant would take the stage.
Typical of an iconic band who feel burdened by their biggest hits, Plant viewed the insatiable lust for ‘Stairway’ as reductive and was reluctant to give in to the fans demand. His fear was also enlarged by the band’s last performance of the song at Live Aid in 1985, which, by all accounts, was severely botched. Plant’s feelings were valid, as the song had taken on its own life as a cultural reference. “Stairway denied” anyone?
Luckily for fans, Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun persuaded Plant. Eventually, the song was included as part of the 30-minute set, including ‘Kashmir’, ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Misty Mountain Hop’. However, like at Live Aid three years prior, Led Zeppelin’s return was far from triumphant.
The show was hampered by a poor sound mix, which sent everything out of whack. Page’s guitar pierced through and was far too loud. On the other hand, Jones’ bass and keys were so deep within the mix that he may as well not have been playing. This severely hindered the renditions of ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Stairway’, two songs that were famous were their dense sound and instrumentation.
One high point of the show was the introduction of Jason Bonham on the pots and pans, son of the band’s late drummer, John. He matched his father’s energy and skill, and the sight was a special one. Ultimately though, this did not sate the band or the fans’ thirst.
Page later labelled it “one big disappointment”, and in 1997, Plant plainly called it “foul”. Stemming from the reunion’s disappointment, this would be the last show the band would play for nearly two decades. However, the following years set a precedent for the band’s massive comeback in 2007 at the O2 Arena in London. This triumphant show proved to be the band’s meal ticket and was put to film in 2012’s Celebration Day.
Watch Led Zeppelin’s disappointing 1988 reunion below.