Watching Celebration Day, the film of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 concert at the O2, was spellbinding, hugely enjoyable but also thought-provoking.
Like the rest of the audience at the recent Newcastle premiere of the DVD which comes out next month, I couldn’t help thinking of what might have been had Zeppelin not disbanded after the death of John Bonham 32 years ago.
Like Pink Floyd at Live 8 two years earlier, a band who hadn’t played together for so long were utterly magnificent. Tight, proficient and magical.
Floyd’s performance at Hyde Park prompted concerted calls for Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who sadly, is no longer with us, to reform on a more permanent basis with one last album and one final tour.
It never happened of course and never will and it’s the same with Zeppelin.
The fact that we’d waited over three decades to see Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones on stage together with Bonham’s son Jason, obviously made that November night in London Docklands a very special occasion.
And it’s stating the obvious to say that had they continued as a working band in the interim years, it wouldn’t have been quite the same.
But what if Zeppelin had carried on following the death of Bonham senior?
Just supposing they’d played so well at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985 (they didn’t _ and it wasn’t guest drummer Phil Collins fault either!!) that they’d decided to give it another go.
Would Zeppelin be as popular now or would familiarity have bred contempt?
Music critics now universally declared Zeppelin one of the greatest bands of all time and if there was a bad review of that O2 gig or the Celebration Day DVD, I haven’t seen it.
But the critics weren’t always so kind in their assessments.
It’s worth recalling that when the band announced in December 1980 that they would not be carrying on without Bonham, there was a feeling in some quarters that they were already on the decline and this was a natural ending.
Zeppelin probably peaked with the release of Physical Grafitti in 1975, Its successor Presence wasn’t quite so good while In Through The Out Door was slated by many.
That final studio album, incidentally, was the only one not featured in the set-list at the O2, suggesting that the band members too don’t regard its material as favourably as its predecessors.
For what it’s worth, I’d have included In The Evening and the beautiful All Of My Love (Plant’s tribute to his late son Karac) which I regard as two of the finest tracks they ever regarded.
In Through the Out Door offers a clue to the musical direction Zeppelin would have taken had they continued.
At the time, Page’s creative juices had dried up due to his heroine addiction and Jones’s stamp, notably the liberal use of keyboards, was more prominent than on previous albums.
Would Zeppelin have embraced the synthesizer world of the mid-80s? Quite possibly though had he lived, Bonham would have hated the trend towards drum machines.
It would be over-simplistic to listen to Plant’s solo work and conclude that was the sound of Zeppelin had they lived on though clearly, there are several tracks on his albums throughout the 80s and 90s which would not sound out of place on Houses of The Holy, Presence or the last two albums.
The same could be said regarding Jimmy Page’s two albums with Paul Rodgers, aka the ill-fated The Firm and his rather excellent 90s collaboration with Whitesnake’s David Coverdale _ an album Plant mocked and detested.
Page and Plant did reunite to record Walking Into Clarksdale, perhaps the nearest we’ve ever come to a Zeppelin album since 1980 and also No Quarter a musical adaptation of their earlier works with a distinctive Arabic flavour.
Jones was particularly cheesed off to be ignored for those projects and who can blame him. If Celebration Day tells us anything, it is that he is as integral a member of Zeppelin as his two more high profile colleagues.
The footage also confirms the importance of a Bonham on the drum kit. As Plant has subsequently said, Jason, if not a clone of his father, carries that indefinable DNA which allows Zeppelin to be greater than the sum of its parts.
So what would Zeppelin have been like between 1980 and 2007?
Perhaps long-serving bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and Rush provide hints. In the case of the first two, while they remain huge live attractions, they’ve barely composed a decent song since their 60s/70s heydays.
Rush’s quality control dipped too in the 90s though their last two albums Snakes and Arrows and even more so Clockwork Angles rank with their very best.
It’s fair to assume that Zeppelin would have remained one of the biggest bands in the world but probably would never have bettered the material they wrote between 1968 and 1980.
Yet what greater tribute can be paid to them than to say that Celebration Day is quite possibly the best live footage ever recorded of Led Zeppelin.