Led Zeppelin performed their final show with the late great John Bonham on 11th August 1979, a time when they played live at the historic Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire and, unfortunately, the show didn’t quite go as they planned.
The event would prove to be a sad way for the band to last perform on home soil with Bonham before his tragic death a year later. Bonham, who would play with the band on a European tour of smaller venues the following summer, would sadly pass away shortly after which put a stop to the band. This meant Knebworth was his final show in Britain and, on paper, it should have been a perfect night. Instead, the show proved to be just too large, a factor which marred the whole evening.
There were other reasons momentous shows at Knebworth were poignant though, the most significant being that it marked the first time that the four cornerstones of rock had played in public together in almost two years as Robert Plant mourned the death of his son who died in 1977 while the band were touring the States.
Their return to the live arena would also be the first time that the band had performed in the UK in four years. To say the show was highly anticipated would be an understatement of the highest order. This was the return of their ‘Rock Gods’ to their rightful throne.
It is alleged that the fee Led Zep commanded for their comeback shows was the largest ever paid to one single act at that time. The band wanted their return to be as grandiose as possible so, with 210,000 people in attendance, they went ahead and delivered one of the most iconic rock performances of all time.
To provide context about the scale of these evenings, it was the largest stage ever constructed with 570 toilet seats, 750 feet of urinals and noise complaints were received from over seven miles away from the venue after both shows overran. The local Sainsbury’s supermarket lost 150 trolleys and Tesco somehow inexplicably lost 75% of their stock and Lord Cobbold (owner of Knebworth House) found himself in court because of the events.
“Knebworth was useless. It was no good at all. It was no good because we weren’t ready to do it, the whole thing was a management decision,” Robert Plant once said on reflection, “It felt like I was cheating myself because I wasn’t as relaxed as I could have been. There was so much expectation there and the least we could have done was to have been confident enough to kill. We maimed the beast for life, but we didn’t kill it. It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event.”
In 2005, the vocalist would elaborate further on whether this was the right decision for the band at that moment in time. “I was racked with nerves. It was our first British gig in four years and we could have gone back to the Queen’s Head pub. We talked about doing something like that,” Plant said with a pinch of hindsight.
“But instead, we went back in such a flurry and a fluster to 210,000 people in a field and 180,000 more the next day, surrounded by Keith and Ronnie and Todd Rundgren. Nobody’s big enough to meet those expectations. But because there was some chemical charge in the air, it worked. It didn’t work for us. We played too fast and we played too slow and it was like trying to land a plane with one engine. But it was fantastic for those who were there,” the vocalist reminisced.
Perhaps Plant was just being a perfectionist. His complaints weren’t echoed by the fans who were in attendance and, quite possibly, Zeppelin did need a couple more shows to prepare for Knebworth. That said, they provided everyone in attendance with a night they would never forget.
See footage, below.