Led Zeppelin: Stairway to purgatory

Led Zeppelin have decided to reform. It's a terrible idea, says the band's historian, Nigel Williamson
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The Independent Culture

The morning after Led Zeppelin received their Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys in Los Angeles in 2005, I sat drinking tea with Robert Plant in the kitchen of Real World's studios in Box, Wiltshire. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had attended the ceremony but Plant had decided to stay at home in order to rehearse with his current band, Strange Sensation.

Needless to say, his former colleagues weren't pleased by his failure to turn up and Page had publicly vented his displeasure. "I see Jimmy had a bit of a go at me for not being there," Plant told me. "But what can you do? What I'm doing now is more important to me. This veneration of one period of one's life is pointless. It's great to look back and smile. But middle-aged self congratulation is very dangerous."

Yet following recent reunions by The Police, Genesis, Crowded House, Spice Girls and Take That, it was announced this week that Plant, Page and Jones, together with Jason Bonham, son of the group's late drummer, John Bonham, will reunite for the first time since 1988, when they played a half-hour set at a 40th birthday celebration for Atlantic Records at Madison Square Garden in New York.

On that occasion Plant forgot the words of "Kashmir", Page lost his way in the middle of the guitar solo on "Heartbreaker" and the pair had an almighty row over whether they should play "Stairway To Heaven" (Plant didn't want to sing it and Page was adamant that the world expected it). In the end, they did play it but Plant subsequently denounced the gig as "foul" and Page admitted it was "one big disappointment".

Their only other reunion since the band's break-up following Bonham's death in 1980, when they played Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985, was similarly disappointing.

Indeed, their performance was so poor that when Live Aid eventually came out in DVD format some 20 years later, Led Zeppelin refused to allow their contribution to be included in the package. Plant subsequently described their performance as "a fucking atrocity" and likened it to Frank Sinatra singing "My Way".

Forgive me, then, if I don't join the general euphoria that has greeted the announcement that the band they called The Hammer of the Gods are to tread the boards once more at the O2 Arena in east London in November. But don't get me wrong. I'm as much of a Led Zeppelin fan as the next man. I first saw them play at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1970 when I was a 16-year-old hippie with hair halfway down my back in a schoolboy imitation of Plant's leonine mane and which I shook with wild and woolly abandon when they played "Whole Lotta Love".

I bought all their albums as soon as they came out, was at their "comeback" concert at Knebworth in 1979 and I mourned Bonham's death and the band's consequent demise in 1980. But, to be completely frank, that's where Led Zeppelin should be left.

Recently, I spent six months writing The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin, a labour of love that gave me the excuse to listen repeatedly to all of the old records again and to spend happy hours watching footage of them in their pomp as the greatest rock'*'roll band in the world on the Led Zeppelin DVD. It brought back some wonderful memories and, as Plant told me, "it's good to look back and smile". But you can't turn back the clock and put those memories back up on stage as if the last 27 years never happened.

When Page and Plant last got back together in the Nineties, they at least had something new to say. First on the MTV Unledded project, they reinvented favourites from the band's classic repertoire in startling new fashion with the addition of an Egyptian ensemble and the London Metropolitan Orchestra.

Jones was miffed not to be told about the recording, let alone invited to join them, but Plant, in particular, was desperate for it to be seen as a new project and not a reincarnation of Led Zeppelin.

Again without Jones, Page and Plant followed in 1997 with Walking into Clarksdale, an album of entirely new material, which they toured for a year. The record was widely regarded as a disappointment and a pale reflection of former glories, but at least they were trying. This time there is no new material and no pretence that getting back together is anything more than a blatantly sentimental exercise in cheap nostalgia.

So, given that their only two previous reunions have been disasters, why are they doing it? The attraction for Page is obvious. With only one solo album to his name (1988's Outrider) and a series of failed attempts to find a Zeppelin substitute in lacklustre collaborations with Paul Rodgers, David Coverdale and the Black Crowes, his post-Zeppelin career has never taken off.

In recent years, he has been more than content to live on his Zeppelin laurels, remastering the old albums, compiling DVDs and dusting down old tapes for live albums such as Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions and How the West Was Won. He's delighted every time Led Zeppelin are given some new award or honour and invariably turns up in person, beaming with pride and pleasure. The last time I interviewed him, in 2005, I asked whether he ever got frustrated that the world was only interested in his role in a band that broke up when he was only 36 years old. He seemed baffled by the question. "Not at all, because if you look at it from my point of view it was a great life in Zeppelin," he responded. I then asked if he planned to make a new record.

"What I need to be doing is making a new musical statement," he admitted. "Now's the time to do something that makes people say, 'I didn't think you'd do that but I can really see why you've done it.' We'll see what we come up with. I'm not retired yet if that's what you're thinking."

Two years on there's still no sign of a "new musical statement". There's just a Led Zeppelin reunion. And as for John Paul Jones, having been excluded from Page and Plant's joint ventures in the Nineties, he's probably just glad that his old colleagues could still remember his phone number.

The real surprise is Plant. Of all of the surviving Zeppelin members, he is the one who has remained a creative force. Next month he releases Raising Sand, a quite wonderful new album recorded in Nashville with the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss which has already been described by Uncut editor Allan Jones as "may be the best thing he's done in nigh on 30 years". Sadly, in the brouhaha surrounding the reunion, the record will probably sink without trace.

That said, of course I hope to be there on 26 November and I won't even moan about the £125 ticket price because, after all, it is for a charitable cause. But thank heavens it is a one-off and that the hotel managers of the world can rest easy that it's not a year-long global tour.

Nigel Williamson's 'Rough Guide To Led Zeppelin' is published by Penguin/Rough Guides at £9.99