December 1, 2012 by NowhereButPop
Let me start by saying that in the 45 years of Led Zeppelin’s existence, no person has ever un-known the band. No one has ever forgotten that they were around. Tone-Loc is someone you forget existed, Fall Out Boy is a band that I constantly forget existed at one point. Led Zeppelin is timeless. As a result, they never really had to make a comeback, since they never really had to comeback from anything, or reassert themselves to anyone.
The closest they ever came to needing to make a comeback was in 1979 with the release of their eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door. Preceding the release of the album however, was their performance at the Knebworth Festival in early August. The intent of the two concerts were to reaffirm that Zep was back, like anyone even forgot, and just as good as ever after their hiatus. I suspect that it was more for the band than for the fans.
You see the party, so to speak, ended in 1976 when Robert Plant shattered his ankle in Greece. No one knew at the time but this was the beginning of the end for Led Zeppelin. With nothing to do they put out the overlooked, but underrated Presence, which was recorded in two weeks. It was also at this time that Page’s heroin addiction, and Bonham’s alcoholism began to interfere with their abilities. To compound on the combination of tragedies plaguing the last four years of the band’s existence, Robert Plant’s son died in the middle of the 1977 tour over America, leading to a cancellation of the rest of the tour. Led Zeppelin has never played a full set in America since. This was the middle of the end for the band. Plant, naturally distraught initially sought to quick the band and take up a teaching job at some college in England. In later interviews he’s said that after that he didn’t really feel like singing about fun times and giving a high octane performance in light of his son’s death.
So already before the Knebworth shows, you have half the band starting to let their addictions get the better of them, and you have a lead singer whose heart isn’t in it anymore (with good reason). But they carried on and sought to not only overcome personal issues, but also the fear that they had been forgotten or left behind. Knebworth was a test to see if the band could return to form. Like In Through the Out Door (which was released a few days after the second show), the Knebworth shows left critics wondering if this was indeed the same band who gave us “Stairway to Heaven”, “Kashmir”, and “Black Dog”. Reviewers described the band as being sluggish, tired, and worn out. After a touring absence of two years, a gap in studio albums of three years, and the general toll of the decade it appeared as though Led Zeppelin didn’t have it anymore. Musically I don’t think this was the case, or frankly ever will be, but I do think the band was lost, they just didn’t know it or didn’t want to admit it.
Although In Through the Out Door has grown on me as of late, it still doesn’t seem like a Led Zeppelin album. Much of that has to do with the difference in sound, as John Paul Jones took over much of production and incorporated a synth-heavy sound over the patented riff-rock that Page was known for. This was probably due to Page’s addiction. Listening in between the lines though, it’s clear to see that In Through the Out Door is the creation of a band that doesn’t know what they want to do or who they want to be anymore. It was the only time that Led Zeppelin ever had to make an album to prove themselves to everyone, and it made them uncomfortable. Presence, as a point of reference, is the sound of a band with nothing else to do. It’s Physical Graffiti Led Zeppelin trying to be Led Zeppelin II. In Through the Out Door is them not knowing what to do, and trying to figure it out as they go along.
This uncertainty of identity permeated through the last three years of the band’s existence. Page not liking where the band was heading with In Through the Out Door has said that if they ever had the chance to put out a follow up album, it would have gone back to hard rock and riff based songs instead of continuing the synth-based pop tunes of their final album. Coming off the lackluster reviews of Presence, growing addictions, death in the family, and criticism from all directions, the band was left in unfamiliar territories. What it comes down to, is that the Knebworth shows failed because the band didn’t realize how old they had become because of the events of the previous few years. They tried to go back to the way things were instead of going on with all that had happened to them.
Now, because of the gods of rock are kind, we got a second chance in 2007 at the O2 arena to see Led Zeppelin proper. Not only did the performance earn rave reviews, after listening to the show with the release of Celebration Day, I heard it for myself, this was the perfect send off for Led Zeppelin. They probably won’t play a full set ever again, and with the show they put on back in December of 2007, that’s perfectly fine with me. It really served as a nice coda to their career. The ultimate joygasm was hearing “For Your Life” which had never before been played live.
Despite Plant having gotten older and not being able to hit those high notes anymore, he’s still an amazing vocalist and showman. He got progressively better as the show wore on, which is an incredible feat in itself. Plant still has that natural charisma and a great voice and it really showed through during the two hour concert. His vocals on “For Your Life”, “In My Time of Dying”, and “Stairway to Heaven” proved to be especially riveting.
Jimmy Page is Jimmy Page, and will always be Jimmy Page; Jason Bonham is the next best thing to his father John Bonham and really blew me away with his drumming skills. If I had to say who the MVP of the show was though, I’d have to give it to John Paul Jones. Always the most overlooked member of the band, he really flexed his muscles here with his assertive bass playing and majestic keyboard skills. Sharing a stage with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant is no small feat, and for him to make himself known both at the show and in the live recordings is the mark of a true master of his craft.
Overall the performance was the tight and cohesive masterpiece that had eluded the band in other one off performances. In other performances (like Live-Aid) the band was in disarray over what songs to be played, internal disagreements, and the external pressure to be the Led Zeppelin that everyone was accustomed to. That’s exactly why everyone considers Knebworth to be a failure. They couldn’t play under the pressure of expectations and the speculation of scrutiny. Knebworth was the band with their backs against the wall and the toll that took on them pored over.
Learning from the mistake of playing for everyone else instead of themselves which had created unease, and a paranoid pressure, Zeppelin was able to relax and be themselves and not who they thought they should be or who they thought we wanted them to be. That Led Zeppelin, the carefree, charismatic, and larger-than-life band was the one that showed up to the O2 arena where their excited ocean of fans stood in awe of the sight of a band that for one night found themselves again. It took thirty years, but for one night, Led Zeppelin, the real Led Zeppelin was back and just as amazing as ever.
 I hold the belief that if Zeppelin reconvened to make a new studio album, it would be phenomenal, able to hold its own against the rest of their catalogue.