I love Led Zeppelin as much as your average rock obsessive. I once stayed awake through a midnight-movie showing of The Song Remains the Same and didn’t even ask for my money back. I’ve yelped along with the intro to “Immigrant Song” and played double-neck air-guitar to “Achilles Last Stand.” In short, I’ve got the hammer of the gods in my toolbox.
Nonetheless, I find myself astounded at the Led-ication of Kenneth Donnell, a 25-year-old resident of Glasgow, Scotland, who plunked down $168,000 for a pair of tickets to Led Zep’s December 10 reunion show in London.
Donnell’s extreme case points out that there are now two generations of Zep worshipers too young to have ever seen the legendary band onstage. Many of these people first heard the group’s music on CD, and no classic-rock warhorse made the transition to the digital era more successfully than Led Zep. While many of their early contemporaries (Jefferson Airplane, anyone?) sound puny and anemic on CD, Led Zeppelin packs a sonic punch that can be credited both to Jimmy Page’s production skills and John Bonham’s thunder-footed, feral rampages across his drumkit. With Led Zep, you never have to make mental excuses for the recording technology of their era. You don’t have to imagine how big the drums might have sounded if they’d been better recorded or mixed higher. You just bask in the onslaught and allow yourself to be trampled underfoot.
But what relation does this reunion band — with Page now a snow-haired sexagenarian and Robert Plant more grizzled hobbit than flower-power sex god — have with the Led Zeppelin that filled arenas in 1973? By all accounts, the guitar riffs and the vocal wails are intact, but a band is more than a series of chord changes, solos, and drumbeats. It’s about an interaction with an audience. The original Zep audience craved musical change just as much as the band, but the crowd that turned up in London last week paid outrageous sums to see a recapitulation of past glories, a time-tunnel journey back to the houses of the holy.
You sense that even Plant recognizes this. The man who owes his very career to Page has spent much of the last 25 years coyly deflecting all talk about about Zep reunions, while Page plays the diplomatic gentleman and pretends not to be humbled and frustrated. For one night, at least, Plant gave Page his old identity back. But Plant knows that he can spend 2008 touring with Alison Krauss, if he wants to. Page has no such option. Can it really be Led Zeppelin if Robert Plant, and not Jimmy Page, has all the power?