When a bleary Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonhamformed a sweaty scrum, soaked up the adulation of 22,000 fanatics, and left London’s O2 Arena stage after 130 minutes on December 10, 2007, the logo still remained.
Colossal. Stark white on black. Towering over mortals from 50 countries, some who had paid thousands for a $250 ticket (20 million applied for the official lottery). That vaguely mystical script, combining two appropriately named, late-19th-century fonts — Quaint Gothic and Virile — so familiar from jean-jacket patches, tube tops, bumper stickers, and rock’s very firmament. The message: Led Zeppelin, more than any other band in popular music history, will awe you, bewitch you, overpower you, humble you, and leave you pennilessly grateful for the ravaging. Even at three-fourths strength, after a two-decades-plus break.
And yes, the wizardly white-haired Jimmy Page, who sculpted a gnarled, keening scree out of his 1958 Gibson Les Paul, is 64 bleeding years old. I jadedly thought I’d experienced this sort of overwhelming sonic spectacle before. The Butthole Surfers’ nakedly fiery, smoke-choked, freak-punk convulsions in the ’80s. The Chemical Brothers’ ecstatic, beat-bludgeoning rave sorties in the ’90s. Radiohead’s rumbling, hypnotic quaver in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park pre-9/11, with the World Trade Center towers looming across the Hudson River. But none of the above have sold more than 300 million albums worldwide or trademarked hard rock and/or heavy metal by elevating every single instrument to a riff fountainhead and, as a result, provided the soundtrack for three generations of teenagers to experience life’s hormonal, sacramental, and morally dubious extremes. That can’t help but add an extra tingle.
You know that bit from the trashy biker movie The Wild Angels that Primal Scream sampled on Screamadelica? When the delirious dude testifies: “We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do! And we want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time! And that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a party!” That’s Zeppelin. With the blustery, searing blues squall of their first two albums, they deflowered the bewildered children of ’60s idealism; and with the volatile baller barrage of their infamous arena tours, they monetized and strip-mined ’70s hedonism and violence, inspiring the punk backlash, the hair-metal backlash, the grunge backlash, the rap-rock backlash, and the White Stripes backlash, as well as foreshadowing rap’s most outrageously priapic forays into world domination.
The phrase “Do What Thou Wilt” is written on the runoff groove of the original vinyl pressing of 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV (a reference to occultist Aleister Crowley). And thanks to Zep, that’s been our definition of rock’n’roll ever since.
But armchair history aside, what about the music? Can a band’s songs, which are not just thematically, but rhythmically, based on the transcendent, childlike desire to push shit too far, genuinely resonate when played by men old enough to be some of their current fans’ grandfathers? Were the three surviving original members, who hadn’t played a full set together in 27 years, just the Stooges with fuck-you money?
The opening of the O2 show — billed as a tribute to Atlantic Records’ cofounder Ahmet Ertegun — offered a jittery, feedback-plagued answer. While drummer Jason Bonham, subbing for his father (whose 1980 death caused the group’s demise), skillfully navigated Bonzo’s historic cowbell tics, bass-drum stutters, triplets, and tom-tom madness on “Good Times Bad Times,” he did it with the brute precision of a WWE wrestler slamming your head into a turnbuckle. (Dad’s deceptively nuanced breakbeats were sacrificed all night for a steadying whack.) Robert Plant was hesitant, perhaps understandably, since at 59, he’s no longer willing or able to play the role of “cock as holy fool,” as the writer Erik Davis once put it. But over the next half hour, Zeppelinsettled in. And though virtually every song was played in a lower key to accommodate Plant’s more mature voice, the band called to mind the old WWII quote about a sleeping giant being awakened with a “terrible resolve.”
“Ramble On” transformed into a bluesy crawl, as John Paul Jones’ distorted bass locked into Page’s electric guitar crunch, before abruptly ending with a jackknife jolt. “Black Dog” was a thick riff barrage, as if the Jesus Lizard had just discovered a vast new spectrum of dynamics. Plant finally wailed like he wasn’t checking his Rolex, and when Bonham leapt off his seat and landed the final cymbal crash, Page beamed. “In My Time of Dying” was all about Page’s sneering slide figure, which stumbled, jerked, and snaked before imploding in a heap. By downtuning and playing more deliberately, the band gave the songs a doomier edge, reminiscent of the countless progeny who’ve taken their sound in a more, um, severe direction.
Plant introduced the eternally odd funk jam “Trample Under Foot,” with a shout to Robert Johnson’s racy “Terraplane Blues,” and as the versatile Jones busted out a Stevie Wonder clavinet groove and Page sent bent squeals in reply, Zeppelin found their playful, visceral pocket. Joking that they first heard “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” (a knockoff of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”) in a Mississippi church in 1932, Plant grabbed a harmonica and plunged into Page’s mine shaft of haunted metallic grind. By the time the guitarist hit the dirgey “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” he was drooling onto his shirt and scowling like a scurvy pirate.
Instead of chanting terrace anthems or lobbing M-80s (like the good old days), the crowd stood dumbly transfixed, stunned that these geezers were actually resummoning Zep’s universe of magic and dread. “Dazed and Confused” was a loose marvel, as they rolled instinctively with Page’s wah-wahing, violin-bowing, speed-shredding antics. “Stairway to Heaven” ascended with matter-of-fact, if inelegant, majesty as Page pulled out the double-neck to conduct the 12-string Fanfare for the Common Stoner. Then “Kashmir” clinched it, stolid riffs tugging along (Jones on keyboards and bass), then artfully lurching through variations on the same relentless “Middle Eastern” theme, like The Sheltering Sky‘s desert death march. At one point, Plant positioned himself firmly and unleashed a piercing, minaret-worthy cry, as if to briefly nod to the past.
Despite the rapacious reunion-tour furor, Led Zeppelin no longer herald boundless, threatening possibilities. Music has been endlessly plundered. Classic “rock stars” are goofy curios. At a time when we all want everything our way now, the iPod has become the commodity fetish that the album was in the ’70s. But what mysteries does it hold? Where is Steve Jobs’ Zoso? We now can control music, recast and personalize it. But for one night, we were reminded of how it feels the other way around. How it feels to be engulfed by a volatile, outrageous presence. To be entranced by a masterfully twisted spell. That command once made Zeppelin seem oppressive, almost demonic. Now it makes them ineffable.
THE SET LIST
1. Good Times Bad Times
2. Ramble On
3. Black Dog
4. In My Time of Dying
5. For Your Life
6. Trampled Under Foot
7. Nobody’s Fault but Mine
8. No Quarter
9. Since I’ve Been Loving You
10. Dazed and Confused
11. Stairway to Heaven
12. The Song Remains the Same
13. Misty Mountain Hop
15. Whole Lotta Love
16. Rock and Roll