On December 10, 2007, Led Zeppelin played one the of the most anticipated concerts ever, at London’s O2 Arena. Reportedly there were over 20 million requests for the 16,000 tickets, and the audience came from all over the world. The band have sold over 200 million records since their debut in 1969, and that number will just continue to rise. I mention these numbers to emphasize just how big an event this performance was.
The set-list has been available since the night of the show, and there have been numerous cell-phone bootleg videos of the concert posted online as well. But none of this comes close to preparing us for just how brilliant the band were that night, as captured on the newly released DVD/CD package Celebration Day.
When Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham died of alcohol poisoning in 1980, Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), and John Paul Jones (bass) decided to call it quits rather than attempt to carry on without him. Before the O2 concert Led Zeppelin had played a few songs at both Live Aid and at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Neither performance was considered especially noteworthy though. At Live Aid, they had Phil Collins and Tony Thompson play drums, and for the Hall of Fame stint, they asked Bonham’s son Jason Bonham to sit in.
It was with Jason Bonham in the drum chair that they performed the London concert, and he did an admirable job in filling in for his father. In fact, after six weeks of rehearsals, the whole band were absolutely on fire. They performed 16 songs that night, including the encores.
The concert opens with “Good Times, Bad Times,” which just happened to be the first song on their 1969 self-titled debut. It sets the tone for the night perfectly, and also is a subtle display of the genius of the band in when it comes to structuring a set. As the set continues, one realizes that their talent for pacing remains perfectly intact.
“Good Times, Bad Times,” is followed by “Ramble On,” and “Black Dog,” before Robert Plant addresses the audience with his trademark “Good evening.” With this three-song introduction of classic Zeppelin tunes, the band and the audience have crossed over whatever initial trepidation surrounding the big night that may have existed. True to form, it is at this point that the group choose to up the ante.
The fourth song is “In My Time of Dying” from the Physical Graffiti album, and it is an awe-inspiring display of musical talent. The studio version clocked in at 11:04, and was one of the most intense tracks on that sprawling masterpiece. Thirty-two years later, Led Zeppelin’s courage of conviction regarding their music is unwavering, and the live version runs 11:01. Zep could have easily played a two-hour set with nothing but sure-fire crowd pleasers, but they chose to really stretch out, and this song is unbelievable.
Prior to Bonham’s death, there was only one officially released concert film and album, The Song Remains the Same. It was filmed in 1973 at a concert in Madison Square Garden, and released in 1976. The show came at the tail end of the tour, and their performance was good, but not great. Physical Graffiti had not been released yet, so “In My Time of Dying” is a song I had never seen them play. At the O2 Arena, their performance is a revelation. Jimmy Page’s slide work, and Plant’s vocals are simply awesome. And, as he does throughout the show, Jason Bonham hits the drums with everything he has. John Paul Jones is right there too. It is an early transcendent high-point, of which there will be many more to come.
Once again, the pacing of the show is revealed to be brilliant as the band proceed from “In My Time of Dying.” In what could be considered a set-within-the-set, they highlight the period of 1975-1976, and the two albums that marked (for some of us at least) their peak. The albums are the aforementioned Physical Graffiti, and the vastly overlooked Presence.
With the amazing guitar virtuosity Page displays during “In My Time of Dying” the crowd is rightfully stunned. Yet the band are just warming up. This night may have been nostalgic, but Led Zeppelin were out to do everything they could to make it much more than simply reliving the glory days. Apparently they had never performed “For Your Life” (from Presence) onstage before, as Plant introduces the song by saying “This is our first adventure with it in public” “For Your Life” is again dominated by Page’s guitar, and it is a smoking blues number.
For the first time in the show, John Paul Jones trades his bass for the keyboards as he launches into another Physical Graffiti classic, “Trampled Under Foot.” The band then revisit Presence for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Although I did not recognize it at the time, both of these songs have a bit of a rockabilly flavor to them, as heard through the one-of-a-kind Led Zeppelin filter.
“No Quarter” has always been a showcase for John Paul Jones, and it remains so here. I am not sure if it qualifies as a “ballad” per se, but “No Quarter,” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” do slow the pace momentarily, allowing everyone to catch their breath.
That 16-minute interlude is definitely the calm before the storm to follow. “Choosing songs from ten different albums, there are ones that had to be there,” says Robert Plant by way of introduction. The camera then turns to Jones, and as his bass intones the famous descending bass notes of “Dazed and Confused,” and the crowd are on their feet again.
If there is one track that defines the whole black magic aura which once surrounded Zeppelin, this is it. When Page pulls out his violin bow in the middle of the song, it is almost unbelievable. I really did not expect it to happen, but that was a case of underestimating their resolve to play a true Zeppelin concert. It is a wild sight, and the sounds he gets out of it are about as “satanic” as anything I have ever heard.
The one-two punch comes with the follow-up, “Stairway to Heaven.” The only thing missing here is Plant asking “does anyone remember laughter?” In the introduction to “Misty Mountain Hop,” Plant talks about how the elder Bonhams used to sing together all the time, then mentions that Jason has inherited the talent. Jason sings back-up vocals on the tune.
With no introduction necessary, the band then delve into “Kashmir.” This is another song that I had never seen them perform live, and watching them play it is fantastic. As I have mentioned, Jason Bonham does a stellar job behind the drum kit, but I think his finest moment comes during this song. The drums are such an integral part of it that John Bonham was given a songwriting credit, along with Page and Plant. Jason’s playing is as ferocious as his father’s was on the original.
As Plant said in his introduction to “Dazed and Confused,” there are certain songs that had to be a part of the set, and “Whole Lotta Love” is another. Watching Page play some kind of crazed guitar-theramin device during this is incredible. The sounds are other-worldly, as is the sheer spectacle of him weaving his arms around the magic box to create them.
“Whole Lotta Love” was the first encore, and the second and final encore of the night was “Rock and Roll.” Again, the symmetry is beautiful. “Rock and Roll” is a classic Zeppelin song which opened the concert filmed for The Song Remains the Same. It also just happens to be a great tune, and the perfect summation of what the night was about.
After seeing just how well the four of them played together, it is no surprise that there was a lot of talk about a full tour afterwards. Plant decided against it, which is too bad. I absolutely respect the group’s decision to disband after the death of Bonham, but with his son in the drum-chair, it worked incredibly well. As we know now though, a tour was just not in the cards.
The Celebration Day package contains the concert on a single DVD, which offers audio options, but no extra material. The set also includes the concert on two CDs, which feature all 16 songs, and a booklet with ruminations from all four members.
I will close by quoting some of the poignant words from Jason Bonham in his section of the booklet, “We closed the show with ‘Rock and Roll,’ and my dream was coming to an end. I felt a certain closeness to Dad…like he was there with us, and was one with me. I had fulfilled my dream – to play drums on stage with Led Zeppelin, the greatest band of all time. It was good, really good!”