Led Zeppelin would reunite once more 32 years ago today where they made their previous disastrous reunion at Live Aid in 1985 a distant memory and, more importantly, show the world that even without John Bonham they were still an unstoppable force of nature.
The comeback was to celebrate Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary which was a non-stop concert of epic proportions. Held at Madison Square Garden and lasting over 13 hours, Led Zep finished the show in truly magnificent style that no other act could even have attempted to follow.
Other names that featured that day included the likes of Yes, Genesis, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Keith Emerson, Foreigner, Bob Geldof, Booker T. Jones, The Spinners The Blues Brothers (featuring Dan Aykroyd and Sam Moore), Roberta Flack, Bee Gees, Ben E. King and Vanilla Fudge.
The show was broadcast live in the US through FM radio as well as HBO television with commentary for the latter being provided backstage by comedian Robert Townsend. HBO commenced its live broadcast a few hours into the event and interspersed footage of the concert that had been taped earlier by the network. In so doing, some of the artists’ sets were edited or omitted but, thankfully, Led Zeppelin’s show was broadcast in full.
The night before the show Plant and Page had a meeting about Zeppelin’s performance and came to verbal blows, the singer wanting to use his new drummer, Chris Blackwell, but Page was incessant that Jason Bonham takes over from his father on the drumset which, eventually, Plant gave in to. He also had refused to perform ‘Stairway to Heaven’ but again, following pressure from Page, he caved.
In Mick Wall’s 2008 biography of the band, When Giants Walked the Earth, Page discussed this argument that he had with the frontman, disclosing: “Well, that was awful, (Plant) came together with Jason, Jonesy and me in New York, where we were rehearsing, and started singing ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. And it sounded really brilliant, actually. Then we rehearsed ‘Stairway’ and that sounded great, too. Then the day before the show he called me up that evening and said, ‘I’m not going to sing it.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re not gonna sing ‘Stairway’? But that’s exactly the one thing that everybody expects to hear us do!’ He said, ‘I don’t wanna do that!”’
Thankfully the singer gave in and the band played a storming set where they performed ‘Kashmir’, ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and the grandiose ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
The band made sure to not make the same mistakes they made three years previously when they appeared at Live Aid—a show which flopped drastically after they failed to plan any rehearsal time and the result was nothing short of a monumental disaster. Jimmy Page disclosed years later that not only was he handed a guitar right before walking on stage but it was out of tune. That, on top of monitors that were also malfunctioning, resulted in a disastrous show.
Page revealed: “My main memories, really, were of total panic. John Paul Jones arrived virtually the same day as the show and we had about an hour’s rehearsal before we did it. And that sounds like a bit of a kamikaze stunt, really, when you think of how well everyone else was rehearsed.”
Tony Thompson and Phil Collins deputised for Bonham on drums who both hadn’t been given ample time to rehearse, one of the many grievances the band had following the set. But the blame wasn’t solely on the newly acquired members’ shoulders with Robert Plant confessing to 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 on stage, my voice was long gone.”
However, during their 1988 reunion, Led Zeppelin sounded like a completely different band. Arriving at Madison Square Garden, the band proved to the world exactly what they were missing since they disbanded following John Bonham’s death.
Check out their full set below.