There are many days when this is the greatest job ever, and Tuesday, October 9, was one of those days as ComingSoon.net got to be in the same room with the legendary rock group Led Zeppelin, as they made a rare appearance in New York at the Museum of Modern Art to talk about their upcoming concert film Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day.
Before the press conference, roughly a hundred mostly music and a couple movie journalists piled into MOMA’s Titus Theater to watch the over two-hour concert movie documenting the band’s December 10, 2007 show at the 02 Arena, played to commemorate the life of Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun following his death. We then had a chance to attend an even rarer press conference as all three surviving members of Led Zeppelin–Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones–were joined by second generation drummer Jason Bonham (original member John’s son) to talk to press about the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray release of the concert.
For those unfamiliar with the band, they were formed in 1968 and they toured extensively throughout the 70s, their legacy captured in the classic concert film “The Song Remains the Same” and in Stephen Davis’ book “Hammer of the Gods.” The influence of Led Zeppelin is pervasive, having stretched across 40 years of hard rock and heavy metal bands with more obvious recent influences being bands like The Darkness to jam bands like Phish and even unlikely ones like the band Train, who often perform a cover of Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.”
First, we’ll talk about the film, which can be seen theatrically on October 17 in 40 territories worldwide–you can see the full list of locations on the official site–before being released in various formats on November 19. Director David Carruthers was given the task of capturing the show, which must have been a daunting task considering the imprint that the earlier The Song Remains the Same has left on music lovers and Zeppelin fans.
Opening with a news broadcast about Led Zeppelin’s show in Tampa, Florida, which at the time had the highest attendance for a concert with over 49,000 people, the band immediately kicked into “Good Times, Bad Times,” their first single, and then didn’t let up for nearly two hours with the cameras always just in the right place to catch the priceless facial expressions the guys would give each other while going through the songs.
Plant’s voice was in fine form, and Page delivered his usual cocksure performance, switching between his Les Paul and Gretch, but also bringing out all the classic mainstays like his violin bow, the double-necked guitar during “Stairway to Heaven” and even a theramin during the encore of “Whole Lotta Love.” Even though John Paul Jones is known for his prowess on the bass guitar, it’s the good portion of the set where he sits behind the keyboards where he really shows off his musical chops as he switched between clavinet, organ and electric piano. The younger Bonham proves the adage about talent being hereditary. With the cover of the first album imprinted on his bass drum, he played through each song almost perfectly, even providing back-up vocals for “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Over the two hours, they pulled out all the big hits that might be expected like “Kashmir,” “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog” and “Dazed and Confused.” Surprisingly missing from the set were “Immigrant’s Song” and “Heartbreaker,” but few would be disappointed by some of the other options, including “For Your Life” from “Presence,” a song which they had never before played live, which followed the lengthy “In My Time of Dying” from “Physical Graffiti.”
The reaction from the cynical music journalist vets in attendance was quite rapturous from shouting at the screen during certain moments, applauding between just about every song, and we even spotted a bit of air-drumming going on.
After the movie finished, we were all filed downstairs to MOMA’s larger theater where they were holding the press conference with the band, who received a standing ovation on their entrance. They all seemed to be in good spirits as Robert Plant pointed out, “There are some people in here who are not journalists.”
A lot of the early focus of the press conference fell on Jason Bonham, who grew up as a fan of his father’s band and first got a chance to play with them in 1988 when they played at a 40th Anniversary Celebration for Atlantic Records and then again in 1995 when the band were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The moderator kicked things off by asking how surreal it was to watch the movie and see himself playing with his father’s band.
“That happened on more than one occasion for me,” Bonham said. “Getting a chance to play with them again 19 years later when probably the first time we did it, it wasn’t as rehearsed as it was now, just to get to know them for six weeks, we had lots of moments where I kept saying I’m playing drums for Led Zeppelin!’ this really is something special and something I dreamed about all my life. I remember on the night there was one incident. I watched ‘Song Remains the Same’ so many times that the look that Jimmy gave John in No Quarter,’ I remember, I looked over just like Song Remains the Same.’ He gave me the same look, and it probably wasn’t for the same reason you did Dad but it was very, very special for me, honestly.”
“That was the where are we?’ look,” Page quipped to huge laughs from those in attendance.
“As I said, it was a huge honor to play and all I was concentrating on that night was I just wanted to impress my Dad’s mates, his friends,” Bonham continued.
“It was very exciting,” John Paul Jones said about playing with the younger Bonham. “It was a man taking chances, and it was a challenge of course. It was always the natural focus of our bands. We would maybe start the shows a little bit spread out but as soon as it got serious, everybody would meet by the drums. It was just as exciting as it always was.”
“At every rehearsal, Jason played his heart out. We had a really good communion on the night of the 02,” Page agreed, although he wanted to stress that the six weeks they rehearsed was on and off and now every day.
Plant reflected back on their friend Ahmet Ertegun, who was the reason they put on the show.
“When we were kids in England, actually before Jason was born, we were individually all avid music lovers and vinyl junkies and the greatest thing on the planet to be considered would be to be signed by Atlantic Records because of the integrity and the roster of Atlantic Records was phenomenal and probably unbeatable. That first album, taking that home on an Atlantic label and showing it to your friends, it didn’t really matter what happened after that, everybody hated you. As the years progresses, Ahmet became quite attached to us. I think he liked the after-show relaxations that we had, maybe even more than Jerry Wexler did. Time went on and Ahmet never really lost his energy and his love of music and the musicians he’d gotten to know even if they’d changed labels or gone some other place. When he had his accident, everything hung on him returning back to normal and that never happened. In England and also here in New York, everybody wanted to do something to recognize how much we loved the guy.” He said that originally the Rolling Stones were going to play and Eric Clapton had talked about putting Cream back together for the show, but it changed a lot until it turned into what it did.
Page talked about how they decided on which songs to play for the reunion show. “For the first time within any incarnation of Led Zeppelin, it was the first time we had the chance to do a little retrospective of the career. That’s why we arrived at the first number being Good Times, Bad Times,’ which was the first track of the first album and then let’s see what goes on from there. I think we made a pretty good choice right across the board with the time that we had. We paid good attention to it and the pacing of the set was interesting, because with no warm-up gig, we had to get it right and make sure that it was the right set and I think that it went well.”
Robert Plant also explained why they decided to play “For Your Life” live for the first time. “I think Presence’ as a collection of songs has been very important to all of us, but we didn’t get much of an opportunity – ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ maybe and ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ we visited quite a lot. It’s such a great piece of music and just talking about it the other day, it has an amazing map as a piece of music. Just like Jason, I was amazed I was there playing with Led Zeppelin and I was just saying, Now where does the vocal come in?’ I made a couple of errors, but I think that was actually my favorite part of the show to be honest because none of us could bring too much back from having played it before. It was a great experience and that is flying by the seat of the pants and these guys did such a great job on it.”
The band were asked whether they felt that there was some unfinished business after their previous reunions for Live Aid and Atlantic’s 40th Anniversary concert, which weren’t as well received.
“There was an immediate feeling of relief that we got through it and did well,” Jones admitted. “I didn’t feel much after that to be honestit was kind of numbing, but it was a really good place for a reunion.
“I think if we had an opportunity to get together again, which we had at the 02,” Page added, “Things were left a little uncomfortable after Live Aid and Atlantic 40th. We just really wanted to get it right and play to some people who maybe never heard us, but who heard about our reputation and what we were about and basically go out there, stand up and be counted.”
“I think expectations are horrific things,” Plant chimed in. “You go off and you play in North Africa or something like that, you know you’re going to have a good time and you’re going to work with people that know nothing else about it. That’s how we started in a little room with Jason’s dad all that time ago, so actually to do anything all together is such an incredible weight, because sometimes we were f*cking awful. And sometimes we were stunning. A couple of times we tried to get together in the meantime, but I think we were really propelled by Jason and his enthusiasm. He really brought the atmosphere of expectation for us, because he knows far more about us than we do. He’s got all the bootlegs and he keeps in touch with the people who made the bootlegs, so he has a very strong interest in them.”
Jason also had something to say about the 02 concert and how it compared to his earlier gigs with the band. “When we did Atlantic 40th, I probably feel I was still in my era of the world owes me a living’ state of my life and didn’t really take anything that seriously. 19 years later, I wanted to prove to everyone really, because there was a lot of doubters out there. For me, the whole run-up to the 02 was a huge amount of enjoyment and pressure all at the same time. I still had to read the internet and there were not nice comments sometimes, but for me, the way everyone played–not just me–realistically, I was playing with these guys, that was my dream, and it was just a very special night.”
While they ignored the question about whether Led Zeppelin might reunite to play the Super Bowl, they did talk about their upcoming Kennedy Center Honors they’ll be receiving in December.
“Everything that we talk about is American from our musical taste,” Page responded. “So the fact that we get this thing to go meet the most dynamic American outside America, Obama, is a great privilege, and I think our mutual love and absolutely total influence by American music, whether it’s from Mississippi or Chicago 1982, it’s great, because we are kind of American in a way but not, of course.”
“We owe such a massive debt to American music,” Page agreed. “It’s a thing that definitely seduced us all to be want to be part of the music.”
The burning question on the minds of many who saw the movie was what the band might say to someone who sees “Celebration Day” who might want to see the band in the flesh.
“Sorry,” said John Paul Jones quite bluntly. Known as “The Quiet One,” it was one of the few things he said at the press conference.
When asked the age-old question why they wouldn’t come together again after that concert went so well, Page was just as forthright.
“Look, in December, it will be five years since the 02. That’s the number of years that have passed in between, so it seems unlikely if there wasn’t a whisper or a hint that we’d get together to do something or other say two years ago or whatever. It seems pretty unlikely, don’t it?”
As a follow-up, Plant was asked if he learned anything about the band after rewatching their performance at 02, he mused, “It’s an interesting question, it’s almost transcendental. I think that night back then, we were just hanging on for dear life watching each other. Those reparations of working together, we were so happy that we were actually getting it right and clearly enjoyed it and taking it beyond what we thought was were about. There were moments in it where we just took off and pushed off into some place. The responsibility of doing that four nights a week for the rest of time is a different thing. We’re pretty good at what we do, but the tail should never wag the dog. If we’re capable of doing something in our own time, that will be what will happen. So any inane questions from people from syndicated outlets really think about what it takes to answer a question like that in one second. We know what we’ve got.”
For those who want to watch the entire press conference, shot from a single medium shot, you can watch it below, although there are a lot of obnoxious photographers who jumped in front of the shot and ruined the sound with the clicking of their shutters.
Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day hits theaters for one night only worldwide in 40 territories and in the U.S. through NCM Fathom Events on October 17 and 18. You can find out where you can catch the movie on the official Zeppelin site, and then it will be available in a number of different formats, CD and DVD combos, digital download and more on November 19.
(Photo Credit: Ivan Nikolov/ Kyle Blair/ WENN.com)