When Led Zeppelin Reunited and Crashed and Burned at Live Aid (1985)

I’ve tend­ed to avoid reunion shows from my favorite bands of old, and I’ve missed some great per­for­mances because of it, I’m told, and also a few clunk­ers and for­get­table nos­tal­gia trips. But some­times it real­ly doesn’t mat­ter how good or bad the band is ten or twen­ty years past their prime—or that one or more of their orig­i­nal mem­bers has left their mor­tal coil or shuf­fled off into retire­ment. It’s such a thrill for fans to see their heroes that they’ll over­look, or fail to notice, seri­ous onstage prob­lems.

The crowd of thou­sands at Philly’s JFK Sta­di­um explod­ed  after “Rock and Roll,” Led Zeppelin’s open­er to their 1985 Live Aid reunion gig (above), with Phil Collins and Chic’s Tony Thomp­son dou­bling on drum duties (because it takes two great drum­mers to equal one John Bon­ham, I guess). But accord­ing to the musi­cians them­selves, the show was an absolute fail—so much so that Collins near­ly walked off­stage in the mid­dle of the 20-minute set. “It was a dis­as­ter real­ly,” he said in a 2014 inter­view, “It wasn’t my fault it was crap.”

Collins expands on the prob­lems in his can­did auto­bi­og­ra­phy:

I know the wheels are falling off from ear­ly on in the set. I can’t hear Robert clear­ly from where I’m sat, but I can hear enough to know that he’s not on top of his game. Dit­to Jim­my. I don’t remem­ber play­ing ‘Rock and Roll,’ but obvi­ous­ly I did. But I do remem­ber an awful lot of time where I can hear what Robert decries as ‘knit­ting’: fan­cy drum­ming…. you can see me mim­ing, play­ing the air, get­ting out of the way lest there be a train wreck. If I’d known it was to be a two-drum­mer band, I would have removed myself from pro­ceed­ings long before I got any­where near Philadel­phia.

As for the Zep­pelin mem­bers prop­er, Plant and Page had no fond mem­o­ries of the gig. “It was hor­ren­dous,” said Plant in 1988. “Emo­tion­al­ly, I was eat­ing every word that I had uttered. And I was hoarse. I’d done three gigs on the trot before I got to Live Aid.” Page, writes Rolling Stone, “was hand­ed a gui­tar right before walk­ing onstage that was out of tune.” “My main mem­o­ries,” he lat­er recalled, “were of total pan­ic.” Appar­ent­ly, no one thought to ask John Paul Jones about the show.

Bare­ly rehearsed (Jones arrived “vir­tu­al­ly the same day as the show”) and with fail­ing mon­i­tors ensur­ing the band could hard­ly hear them­selves, they strug­gled through “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lot­ta Love,” and “Stair­way to Heav­en.” The footage, which the band scrapped from the 2004 DVD release, doesn’t show them at their best, for sure, but it’s maybe not quite as bad as they remem­bered it either (see the full con­cert above).

In any case, Plant was so inspired that he tried to reunite the band, with Thomp­son back on drums, in secret rehearsals a few months lat­er. The attempt was “embar­rass­ing,” he’s since said. “We did about two days…. Jonesy played key­boards, I played bass. It sound­ed like David Byrne meets Hüsker Dü.” Now that is a reunion I’d pay good mon­ey to see.

22 years lat­er, at Lon­don’s O2 Are­na, the band was con­fi­dent and total­ly on top of their game once again for the Ahmet Erte­gun Trib­ute Con­cert, with Jason Bon­ham behind the kit. Prob­a­bly their last per­for­mance ever, and it’s damned good. See “Black Dog” above and buy the full con­cert film here.

The clip below lets you see more than 90 min­utes of Led Zep­pelin reunion con­certs. Beyond their Live Aid show, it includes per­for­mances at Atlantic Records’ 4oth anniver­sary (1988) and at the Rock­’n Roll Hall of Fame (1995).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Led Zeppelin’s First Record­ed Con­cert Ever (1968)

What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inim­itable Style

Led Zep­pelin Plays One of Its Ear­li­est Con­certs (Dan­ish TV, 1969)

Jim­my Page Describes the Cre­ation of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lot­ta Love”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Kim Nawell says:

    Seri­ous­ly they sound­ed good. Yes loose but so what. Had a lit­tle Hen­ricks Epe­ri­ence loos­ness feel to it. The audi­ence loved it so whats all the fuss. The most embar­ras­ing thing was Plants cloth­ing and hair doo, so 80’s crap. He seemed total­ly up him­self. Prob­a­bly just could­nt face the real­i­ty that post Led Zep his music was com­plete shit and would stay that way for the next forty years.

  • DoubleX says:

    Actu­al­ly I thought Jim­my was so high that he did­nt care being out of tune (or did­nt noticed).

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