At the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, a once in a lifetime collaboration occurred. Both Neil Young and Led Zeppelin were being inducted that night, and Young was invited onstage to perform with Zeppelin for an unhinged rendition of ‘When the Levee Breaks’.
The results are somewhat controversial, mostly depending on which fandom you ask about the performance. To Young’s faithful, the mercurial guitarist brought a wild and unpredictable edge to Zeppelin that forced them to push themselves and take chances. To Zep purists, Young gets too showy and muddies what was still a lean rock and roll machine. Outsiders aren’t always given the best reception when it comes to Zeppelin, and Young’s sensibilities contrasted with Jimmy Page’s in interesting, but not terribly copacetic, ways.
The performance would be immortalised on film for curious onlookers of the YouTube generation, but Young made a more immediate time capsule of the night in the song ‘Downtown’.
Featured on his album Mirror Ball, which Young recorded with Seattle grunge gods Pearl Jam, ‘Downtown’ takes some liberties by transporting the listener back to the late 1960s so that Zeppelin can be playing on stage while Jimi Hendrix is playing in the back room at the same time. The song isn’t necessarily a direct take on his jam with Zeppelin at the Rock Hall, but rather a sort of alternate world where hippies can relive the freewheeling world of the past.
Young obviously had an affinity for the song, featuring as the album’s only single and taking the album’s title from one of its lyrics. Backed by a muscular and happily aggressive Pearl Jam, Young runs ragged all over the song, unleashing a noisy solo that certainly has shades of his guitar theatrics that he pulled off that night.
Part of the problem with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance is that Page and Young don’t quite know how to play with each other. They’re both musical leaders, and Young’s lack of desire to yield to Page’s direction makes for a disjointed performance.
Still, Young had nothing but deference for Page in his biography Shakey: “I’m a hack compared to him. He can really play.”