It’s just a wild guess, but the Rolling Stones’ recent run of concerts are not likely to have gone unnoticed by the former members of Led Zeppelin. The Stones have been away for a while, are all around 70 years old, and are playing songs from three and four decades ago on their current tour. But with tickets going for as high as $600, they’re pulling in millions of dollars in revenue each night.
Somewhere, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are thinking: “This too could be ours.” A 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert at the O2 Arena in London with original members Page, Jones and Robert Plant, joined on drums by Jason Bonham — the son of the late John Bonham, was a success artistically and commercially. The show set a record for ticket demand, with 20 million fans wanting in, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
But the reunion proved to be a one-off, largely because Plant wanted no part of doing something more, despite tour offers ranging as high as $200m from concert promoters. Page and Jones even started working with other vocalists in Plant’s stead in hope of keeping Zeppelin afloat, but never took it beyond the rehearsal stage. Plant instead focused on touring in 2008 with country singer Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett, with whom he made a Grammy-winning album, “Raising Sand”. It didn’t sound anything like Led Zeppelin – a guiding feature behind most of Plant’s music in the three decades since Zeppelin imploded after John Bonham’s death in 1980.
It’s the era of reunions, with everyone from classic-rockers to the first generation of Lollapalooza bands pulling together one more time for the big bucks, but Plant is no bandwagon-jumper, despite the eye-popping revenue potential. Consider that the Police raked in more than $340m on a 2007-08 comeback tour, the Eagles collected $250m in 2008-11, and the Pixies have played to audiences five to ten times bigger in the last decade than when they were releasing ground-breaking albums in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This year, it’s The Replacements’ turn – or what’s left of them.
The singer has his reasons, which he has rephrased countless times over the decades. Engage Plant more deeply on the subject of what it means to play music, and he’ll tell you it’s all about discovery, new challenges. He sees a Zeppelin reunion as a nostalgia piece “fired by youth and a different kind of exuberance,” as he once said.
Part of his response suggests that it would be difficult to do anything Zep-related on his terms. Even if Plant, Page and Jones reunited to make a new album, would fans want to hear them play it in concert at the expense of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven”? And if the band was somehow persuaded to crank up the ’70s jukebox, could Plant hit those high notes and conjure the bravado of the bare-chested “golden god”?
Plant certainly has his doubts. Call it integrity, common sense or just plain old distaste for reliving the past, the singer is that rare ’70s superstar whose second act is as artistically rewarding as his first. Even when he performs Zeppelin songs these days in concert, it’s with a twist. At a recent show in Chicago, Plant and his genre-bending band, the “Sensational Space Shifters”, refashioned “Whole Lotta Love” around a droning, one-string African fiddle rather than an electric guitar. His fans – who have been trained to expect the unexpected from him – danced. The 64-year-old singer smiled devilishly and thanked the audience for indulging him in “an evening of soft rock.”
How much did Plant get paid to have all that fun? According to city records, $125,000 – a tenth of what he might have hauled in had he been performing with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Sure, Plant doesn’t need the money. But it appears he needs Led Zeppelin even less.