Led Zeppelin’s reunion at Live Aid was a car crash, and after the show, Jimmy Page pointed the blame directly on the shoulders of the deputising drummer Phil Collins.
The show was the first time that the band took to the stage following John Bonham’s unfortunate passing five years earlier in 1980. Sir Bob Geldof successfully convinced the surviving members to reunite in aid of the special cause, but, ultimately, it was a decision they’d later regret, and it remains a small stain on an otherwise impeccable legacy.
Rather than perform in their native England, the band elected to take to the stage at the Philadelphia leg of the groundbreaking event. However, their disappointing set was marred with a comedy of errors. Fortunately, the performance was only 20 minutes long, but their brief catastrophic showing still lives long in the memory.
Even though they’d already recruited Tony Thompson to play the drums, for some strange reason, Led Zeppelin also decided to ask Phil Collins to be their second percussionist. This decision was even more peculiar because Collins had no time to rehearse with the band. He played Wembley Stadium earlier that day with Sting before travelling on Concorde to America in order to pull double duty.
Initially, Collins believed he’d just be playing with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page because he had previously contributed to some of the singer’s solo material. However, the drummer later discovered it would be a full-blown Led Zeppelin reunion that he would be intruding on.
After performing with Sting in England, Collins made his way over the Atlantic, but his few hours on the plane was simply not enough time to prepare him for playing with Zeppelin. “I didn’t rehearse when I got there, but I listened to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on Concorde,” he later said. “I arrived and went to the caravans, and Robert said: ‘Jimmy Page is belligerent.’ Page says: ‘We’ve been rehearsing!’ And I said: ‘I saw your first gig in London, I know the stuff!’ He says: ‘Alright, how does it go, then?’
“So I sort of… [mimes the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ drum part], and Page says: ‘No, it doesn’t! It doesn’t go like that!’ So I had a word with [co-drummer] Tony Thompson – ’cause I’ve played as two drummers a lot and it can be a train wreck – and I say: ‘Let’s stay out of each other’s way and play simple.'”
Page’s brutal remarks before the show were mild compared to what he said after their set had finished. Everyone in the stadium, plus the millions watching at home, knew that it had been a disaster, and Collins became the easy target.
What the guitarist told MTV after the show has stuck with Collins to this day, who remembered: “Then Page says: ‘One drummer was halfway across the Atlantic and didn’t know the stuff.’ And I got pissed off. Maybe I didn’t know it as well as he’d like me to have done, but… I became the flagship, and it looked like I was showing off”.
Collins would never have accepted Robert Plant’s proposal to join him on-stage in Philadelphia with the luxury of hindsight. While the blame should have been shared equally between everybody involved in the reunion, that’s not how it turned out, and Collins received the brunt of the criticism. The drummer’s lack of rehearsal time, combined with his seemingly unnecessary presence and Page’s scathing comments, threw him in the centre of the firing line.
See clips of the performance, below.