Zep at MOMA

When the invitation to the Led Zeppelin press conference inauspiciously arrived in my e-mail in-box, it almost seemed like a joke, or spam. The three surviving members of Led Zeppelin—Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones—and Jason Bonham, son of the band’s late drummer John, all in the same room seemed too good to be true. In fact, it was true and when my e-mail confirmation arrived with a date, a time and a place precisely detailed, I simply printed it out and began the short countdown.

The press conference and film screening took place at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, wisely on a Tuesday, when the museum is closed. The event started off with a screening of a new film entitled Celebration Day (the title taken from a song on III) recently released on Swan Song/Atlantic in nine different vinyl/CD/DVD/Blu-ray configurations. The film, masterfully directed by Dick Carruthers, a veteran of U.K. music documentaries and concert films, is beautifully photographed and captures the band at the height of its musical powers.

The film is taken from the band’s 2007 reunion tribute concert for Atlantic Records’ founder Amhet Ertegun at the O2 Arena in London. While the band briefly appeared at its Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1995, performed at the Atlantic Records anniversary concert in 1988 and at Live Aid in 1985, this is by far its best post-breakup performance.

The jaded crowd of record company honchos and New York rock radio veterans and journalists hooted, hollered and clapped as if they were seeing the band live back in the day at the Fillmore East. Carol Miller, the veteran New York rock DJ, whose new memoir Up All Night (Ecco) in many parts details her love affair with the band and time spent with Robert Plant in particular, attended the O2 show and the press conference. On her nightly show on Q 104.3, she does her “Get the Led Out” segment. After seeing the film, she said, “I liked Celebration Day more than The Song Remains the Same,” the group’s 1976 concert film. Eddie Kramer, who worked behind the boards on four of the group’s studio albums, engineered most of Jimi Hendrix’s albums and worked with the Beatles, Traffic, Derek & the Dominos and Humble Pie, has not seen the film. However, in terms of the group calling it a day, he said, “It’s about bloody time. They’ve said it all. They know what they’re doing.”

The press conference itself was both a classic rock love-fest and a contentious boxing match between the group and a few members of the press. There were also plenty of moments of levity. When asked how it felt looking at the group’s original concert film The Song Remains the Same, Plant said, “I used to be better looking than this.” He also asked, “Whatever happened to the blond chick?” On a more serious note, Plant fondly recalled his time with Ahmet Ertegun, when the band recorded for Atlantic. “Ahmet was a vinyl junkie,” Plant began. In regard to being signed to the label, he said, “It didn’t matter what happened after that because everybody hated you. Ahmet became quite attached to us. He liked the after-show relaxations that we had.”

As for the tribute concert for Ahmet, Plant indicated that initial talks for the show included a possible appearance by the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton reforming Cream. Plant recalled “wonderful times, talking (with Ahmet) about everyone from Coltrane and the Modern Jazz Quartet to Ratt and White Lion,” with Plant making a face that clearly indicated his disdain for such heavy-metal posers as the latter two groups.

The question that seemed to cause the most consternation was whether the group would head out on the road for a full-scale tour. Plant in particular tried to skirt the issue, or not even answer at all, and instead merely stared off into space with a blank look on his face. After side-stepping the question, he said vaguely, “We were thinking about all sorts of things but we couldn’t remember what they were.” It’s interesting that no one asked about whether the group would do any new recordings. Miller surmised why there are no further shows. “Jimmy Page has been on a mission for years to get Zeppelin to perform again,” she stated. As for Plant, she said, “Robert Plant doesn’t want to tour. He wants to establish himself as a musicologist and get into these art forms of music.” Kramer talked about working with Page to get the group’s sound down on tape in the studio. He recalled when he was working on the group’s second album, II, at A&R Studios in New York and mixing the album in two days over a weekend. “He’s thinking so far ahead down the road, it’s like a fantastic chess game that has all these musical pieces attached to it,” he stated. The group’s third album, III, was recorded at Mick Jagger’s home Stargroves in England, using the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording gear. Kramer remembers “sounds coming together quickly and tracking the guitars outside on the lawn.” It was there that parts of the group’s later release Physical Graffiti were also recorded.

In regard to the quality of the benefit concert experience, Plant said, “We were propelled by Jason: By his enthusiasm and his dark glasses.” He went on to poke fun at Bonham due to his extensive Led Zeppelin bootleg collection and finally said, “He knows more about us than we do!”

In recalling the concert, Plant said, “We were just hanging on for dear life. We were so happy that we were getting it right and enjoying it. There were moments where we just took off.” Perhaps addressing the continued questions about whether they would tour, Page added, “The responsibility of doing that four nights a week for the rest of time is a mistake.” Plant then added something about inane questions from syndicated outlets. While Plant appeared perhaps a bit too touchy on the issue, his frustration was understandable. Some of the attendees acted as if they were covering a “celebrity” event and had no real clue exactly who these guys really are in the history of rock. The other elephant in the room concerned whether Plant’s work with Alison Krauss and his Band of Joy projects had anything to do with derailing any full-scale touring or recording. In regard to their playing together again, Miller surprisingly said, “Whether they will play together again, I would say possibly yes. Plant is prone to change his mind a lot. “As for whether they would record again, she doubts it due to the economics of the music business today and said, “They would have to want to do it.”

When asked a question about vinyl records, Page said, “Well, it’s a matter of taste really, isn’t it? Personally, I never let go of vinyl all the way through, even when CDs came on the scene. What I would recommend to you is that you don’t listen to Led Zeppelin on MP3s.”

In recalling John Bonham, Plant spoke affectionately about Bonzo’s great singing voice. He recalled that when the group was just starting to form, Bonham said to him, “You’re not very good. Just go out there and look good.” Plant said, “And he was right.”

Kramer said of the band’s legacy that it was the “hardest hitting and heaviest rock and roll band of the past 40 years.”

Looking back on the group’s early albums, Plant said, “There were no rules back then.” Page added, “We made the album and gave it to the record company and the record company would put it out and there was no interference.”