People seem amazed when I tell them that I saw Led Zeppelin at the Sydney Showground in 1972, when the four rock deities descended from the sky to perform for us and then returned to Asgard (or maybe London).
Could it ever have truly happened? The Led Zeppelin hagiography has enlarged to almost mythic proportions as the years have gone by, but in 1972 they were another hard rock band – albeit one of the globe’s biggest and most innovative.
Upon the death of their astonishing drummer, John Bonham, in September 1980, Led Zeppelin split and went their separate ways. It seemed the only thing to do: without Bonham’s thunder and lightning, it was not and never would be the same. The remaining members – the leonine Robert Plant, the savant John Paul Jones and the truly visionary Jimmy Page – individually produced music over the years, much of it very very good. But none of it ever matched the vast scope – from Middle America hoe-downs to Middle Earth musings to towering Middle East anthems, all with lashings of the Blues – that Led Zeppelin could conjure.
And despite their prolific and unmatched recorded output – each new album pushed the boundaries of rock into new lands – it was live that Led Zeppelin could work magic. The improvisational jazz/blues ethos behind their music, coupled with an almost preternatural chemistry, produced hours of astonishing musical trip-outs, pulling audiences along in their sparkling wake.
On 10 December 2007, the band came together for a one-off show at London’s O2 Arena as part of a tribute concert to Ahmet Ertegun, founder with his brother Neshui of Atlantic Records and the man who signed Led Zeppelin to the label in 1968. It was the first time the band – now with, touchingly, John Bonham’s son Jason in the drum seat – had played together for 27 years, bar brief appearances at 1985’s Live Aid and Atlantic Record’s 40th Anniversary in 1988.
Twenty million fans had bid for the reunion tickets with only around 20,000 witnessing the show. The rest of us had to make do with YouTube clips and bootlegs. On October 17 this year, the film of the concert – named Celebration Day after the Led Zeppelin III track – was released worldwide with cinemas screening it across Australia for one day only.
And from the opening two-beat salvo of “Good Times, Bad Times” – cleverly the first song of the concert and the first song of their 1969 debut album – it was plain fans of rock were in for a treat. Virtually devoid of special effects, sweeping audience shots or heavy production, the film put us front and centre, Dick Carruther’s direction never diverting from the sheer power and animal grace of the band.
The sound was loud and clear and pretty much at chest-thumping gig volume level. As it should be – listening to Led Zep at polite volume would be as wrong as listening to Erik Satie’s French piano miniatures through a Marshall stack. The enormous dynamism of modern cinema sound systems, having to replicate shattering glass, tinkling rain or a train wreck, is perfect for the huge wall of sound that rock puts out. These cinema concert experiences are quite something.
All the Zep classics were there – “Dazed and Confused”, “Black Dog”, a never previously played live “For Your Life”, a shimmeringly beautiful “No Quarter”. Jason Bonham seemed a little in awe and restrained for the first few pieces, but by the heavily funky “Trampled Underfoot” he seemed to attack the drum kit with the same joyously unbridled ferocity of his late father.
Joy was all around: that same ferocious joy went through every tune. Jimmy Page says, “Our DNA is in these songs” and the enjoyment and love leapt from the screen. Indeed, the versions of “The Song Remains The Same”, “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Kashmir” were the best live recordings I have ever heard. “Kashmir” especially was entirely transporting, with Robert Plant conjuring minarets and desert winds before a swirling Arabic sun, one of many astounding, yet never distracting, visuals that played behind the band.
A double encore of “Whole Lotta Love” – showing that intense improvisational aspect of the band – and “Rock and Roll” (“Been a long time since I rock and rolled…”) and then it was over. There was sadness that it was over for ever now, but the joy at the magic we had witnessed outshone that by far.
There will never be another band like this. I am thankful that there ever was.