It was the most anticipated event in recent rock history. In September, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin announced that they would reunite for a one-time-only tribute concert for Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, in the group's first headline show since it disbanded in the wake of drummer John Bonham's death in 1980. Over the intervening three months, the level of expectation and suspense had reached proportions as colossal as any of Zeppelin's bombastic rock anthems. And at 9pm on Monday evening at London's O2 arena, Jason Bonham struck the first beat of "Good Times, Bad Times," launching his father's former bandmates, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, on an electrifying two-hour-and-10-minute tour through the peaks of the band's 12-year career.
Dressed in black perhaps to lay to rest the ghosts of clumsy reunions past (members briefly regrouped for 1985's Live Aid concert and the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary) Zeppelin seemed to pull together and pull it off. Early technical issues (including a muddy struggle through the quiet bits of "Ramble On" were resolved and forgotten by the next song, "Black Dog," as the band warmed to their task and timing. The international crowd of all ages OK, predominantly balding baby boomers were in their element. Gleeful fifty-something execs with no more outward display of rock n' roll than an open collar mixed with kids in vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirts and studded belts; parents rocked out with their kids. If the crowd's attitude was akin to worship it's no surprise: the event was a pilgrimage, with fans flying in from over 50 countries around the world (although American accents predominated in the former Millennium Dome's bars and restaurants before the show).
To call the concert eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. One million people registered for a lottery to buy the 18,000 $255 tickets which subsequently became some of the most expensive ever sold on the secondary market, going for around $2,000 each. A 25-year-old man from Scotland not even born when Zeppelin split spent $170,000 for a pair in a charity auction. Ticket-holders started lining up outside the arena on Friday, sleeping outdoors in the December chill just to get a choice spot in front of the stage when the gates opened. Even ticketless fans felt compelled to do something anything Zep-related to mark the reunion. One Oxfordshire hotel ran a luxury Led Zeppelin weekend, offering guests "TV's to defenestrate" and a menu of red snapper (in tribute to the band's legendary seafood-and-groupie incident). Theaters around the U.K. including one under O2's canvas roof screened old Zeppelin concert footage, as did network television.
But in the South London arena, it was just like days of old, albeit with a few changes. Where once lighters flickered in appreciation, there was now a sea of tiny screens as the crowd held their camera-phones high. Robert Plant kept his shirt buttoned, while his pants were fitted rather than spray-on tight. His once-blond mane was graying and his craggy features lent him the appearance of a Tolkeinesque wizard; Jimmy Page's hair was flowing white instead of dark and unruly. And while thankfully his embroidered silk bell-bottomed suit didn't make an appearance, his violin bow did, for the solo on "Dazed and Confused," as the crowd, a bit old for headbanging, nodded furiously in time. And when Page pulled out his double-necked guitar, the camera-phones came out again, for it meant only one thing: "Stairway to Heaven." At that moment it was all right to indulge in the threadbare rock radio staple; live, the experience was spine-tingling. The band closed the set with a powerful version of "Kashmir"; minutes later a deafening roar greeted the encores "Whole Lotta Love" and "Rock And Roll." There were no acoustic ballads, no half-hour guitar solos, and Jason Bonham wasn't asked to emulate his father's drum-solo slogs "Moby Dick" had to make way for the hits, obviously. But the show was a triumph, and will surely fuel calls for a full tour next year (a rumor the band won't confirm).
It's sometimes easy to forget how huge Led Zeppelin in their prime really were: the group has sold over 300 million albums to date, and their last two U.K. concerts before Bonham's death, at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire in 1979, drew an estimated 400,000 people. By that point, punk was rebelling against the excesses that Zeppelin embodied and that Spinal Tap were soon to lampoon. But passion for Zeppelin's fierce rhythm and blues and accomplished musicianship endures. After all, it's been a long time since we rock and rolled. And Monday night was a triumphant reminder of that.