Led Zeppelin’s appearance at the huge charity concert has become one of the most legendarily awful performances of all time. But let’s stop blaming Phil Collins.
Live Aid, in 1985 was a great fundraiser, for rock stars if no one else. While the transatlantic sixteen-hour live show from Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia raised approximately $150 million to fight the famine in Ethiopia, arguments have raged ever since about just how much of that money reached its intended target and how much was siphoned off by the corrupt Ethiopian government to help fight the civil war that had mostly been responsible for the famine to begin with. What isn’t in doubt is just how much money the performing acts made from increased record sales after their global television exposure. They might have been performing for free, but this was hardly a great sacrifice for anyone – in fact, bands were lining up to play, especially in America. The idea of switching between the UK and the US was generally abandoned by the BBC very early on, as they preferred to have in-studio interviews and presenters being jolly important over showing uncool acts from America like Judas Priest or Santana.
Lots of people did very well out of Live Aid. Bob Geldof, who was the very definition of a faded rock star at the end of 1984, would become rich and famous. The bands who played made a lot of money and got to snort coke with their mates backstage while presenting themselves as the very epitome of virtuousness. In America, MTV and other broadcasters ran commercials during the broadcast, cutting into performances and making a tidy little profit from their alleged altruism. Charity became commercialised and poverty commodified by wealthy elites who demanded “give us the fucking money” while not, by and large, spending any of their own. And rock music became increasingly commodified and part of the mainstream entertainment industry – whatever dregs of punk rock anti-establishmentism were still lingering by 1985 died on this day.
But for one band, the Live Aid experience was nothing to be happy about. Led Zeppelin’s much-anticipated reunion has become a byword in shambolic performances, a show so terrible that the band have stomped on any efforts to officially release it ever since. It probably but an end to any thoughts of a full Led Zeppelin revival – which had been more advanced than they wanted to admit.
Led Zeppelin had not performed together since 1980 when drummer John Bonham died, and so there was a lot of anticipation for this performance, taking place in Philadelphia (the London crowd being more interested in Paul Young and Spandau Ballet). When the shows were announced, the performance was listed as simply being by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page – John Paul Jones, not for the last time, being treated as something of an afterthought by the other chaps. On drums, replacing Bonham, would be Phil Collins, who was also the centre of a publicity stunt involving him playing in London with Sting and then flying via Concorde to the US, where he would do a solo spot and then introduce the Zeppelin boys – though the words ‘Led Zeppelin’ were never used by anyone officially involved in the show. Officially, this was Plant and Page, with Jones guesting.
Since Zeppelin had broken up, Plant had carved out a solo career with a pair of instantly forgettable albums and his Honeydrippers project. Page had dabbled in projects, most notably his quickly abandoned band The Firm. In a Whistle Test interview from 1984, Page claims to have gone for eighteen months without touching a guitar, and most of his appearances had been odd guest spots and the baffling Death Wish 2 soundtrack for his neighbour Michael Winner (you can almost picture Winner, shouting over the fence until Page relented and wrote the score). More significantly, Page was just emerging from a long heroin addiction and was clearly still indulging in something or other, as the aforementioned interview with him and an equally refreshed Roy Harper shows.
At some point, John Paul Jones was brought into the fold and this became, in all but name, a Led Zeppelin reunion. But his attachment to the project seems to have been very last minute – his name is nowhere on the publicity materials – and apparently, he only arrived in Philadelphia the day of the show, at which point the band had a hasty one-hour rehearsal, without Collins. In retrospect, a little more planning might have been in order.
While Collins was a big star at the time and a drummer of some repute, for some reason he wasn’t entirely trusted to do the job (especially by Page) or even arrive in time, and Chic/Power Station member Tony Thompson was brought in as a second drummer. Not just a stand-by, but someone who would also be on stage playing alongside Collins. This proved to be a big mistake, and one that Collins has rather unfairly been blamed for, with various Zeppelins complaining that he was under-rehearsed, didn’t know the songs and was generally all over the place. In reality, the whole band was a bit of a shambles, Jones excepted.
Things start weirdly, as Page lurches onto the stage and starts bowing theatrically while Plant looks confused and starts asking about monitors. The band open up with Rock and Roll, and it’s immediately shambolic – viewers in America wouldn’t know this, as a gobshite MTV presenter manages to talk all over the start of the song, but it opens with hugely distorted drum sounds and then becomes a complete mess.
Phil Collins wrote, in his autobiography Not Dead Yet:
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. And if you can find the footage, you can see me miming, playing the air, getting out of the way lest there be a trainwreck. 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. Onstage I don’t take my eyes off Tony Thompson. I’m glued to him. I’m having to follow – he’s taking the heavy-handed lead and has opted to ignore all my advice. Putting myself in his shoes, he’s probably thinking, “This is the beginning of a new career. John Bonham isn’t around any more. They’re gonna want someone. This could be the start of a Led Zeppelin reunion. And I don’t need this English fuck in my way.”
The drumming is indeed all over the place, which you might expect from two drummers who have never even met each other, let alone played together, before this moment. But Collins is right to be annoyed at being singled out for blame here – Thompson, as the footage shows, is banging away like a man possessed, someone who has little knowledge of, and less affection for, the music. John Bonham was a powerhouse, but he also understood subtlety. There’s none of that on display here.
And it’s hardly all down to the drumming. Plant is clearly struggling from the very start. His voice is shot and cracks almost immediately. As he told Rolling Stone 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. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and by the time I got on stage, my voice was long gone.”
More to the point, you can see in his eyes the doubts about the wisdom of all this – he has always been the hold-out for a Zeppelin reunion, and this must’ve seemed a dodgy move to make just as he was establishing himself as a solo act.
Page had been handed a badly-tuned guitar as he walked on stage, with no time to sort it out, but he’s also clearly wasted – on what, we can only guess, but the fact that he doesn’t actually fall over at any point in this performance is enough to make you question the existence of gravity.
The band lurch through the tracks like a pissed-up pub band. If you ever wondered if a guitar can sound drunk, listen to the start of Whole Lotta Love. No one on stage can hear themselves, Page seems away with the fairies, Plant at some point just seems to resign himself to how awful this is and John Paul Jones stoically tries to hold it all together. Of everyone involved, he’s probably the most blameless here. I can only imagine what he made of it all.
With Stairway to Heaven, the band finally seem as though they are just about pulling it together – it’s not a vintage performance, but it’s not awful. At least, not until Thompson’s drums come up cluttering away and run roughshod over everything. By this point, Collins quite clearly isn’t even pretending to play at some points, going through the motions with a look of existential despair on his face for the whole track. There’s some other bloke on bass – that’s Paul Martinez – even though the band managed to play the song with just Jones on keyboards and bass for a decade. Perhaps Plant, whose band he’d been in, had already promised him the gig. And Page’s guitar playing just falls apart during the solo.
If I could have left that stage, I would have left, halfway through Stairway… if not earlier. But imagine the coverage of that? Walking off during The Second Coming? Who the fuck does Collins think he is? Geldof really would have had something to swear about. After what seems like an eternity, we finish. I’m thinking, ‘My God, that was awful. The sooner this is over, the better.”
Things become even more embarrassing in the MTV backstage interview where Alan Hunters says “a lot of people out there are going ‘did I really just see that?’”, which is probably very true, though not in the way he thinks. Page looks as though he is not quite sure where he is, Plant is oddly passive-aggressive – I guess he knew what he’d just been a part of – and Jones just sits in silence. It’s one of those toe-curling interviews that you’ll want to watch through your fingers as it drags painfully on.
This was a truly awful performance from a band that was legendary for its live shows. I can understand why they refused to allow the footage to appear on the Live Aid DVD, and why Page, in particular, chooses to throw Collins under the bus even now – it must be hard seeing yourself fucking up so badly, and very tempting to hold someone else responsible. The disaster of this probably saved us from what would’ve been a very ill-conceived 1980s Zeppelin revival though.
And yet… there is also something rather compelling about this performance. Rock music is increasingly slick and polished, and this is a rare example of the sort of thing that used to be a regular occurrence: the sloppy gig. There’s a strange satisfaction in seeing a band so off their heads that their show is a chaotic disaster. Maybe not if you’ve shelled out your hard-earned and the act you came to see can barely stand, but it does have an authenticity to it. It’s probably the only real moment of rock ‘n’ roll in the whole of the Live Aid show, a moment of old-school indulgence and lack of hypocrisy in that entire circus of faux sentiment from millionaires who could’ve solved the entire famine just by clubbing together and donating half their fortunes.
Led Zeppelin would redeem themselves in 2007 with their Celebration Day reunion. The Live Aid performance remains their lowest creative point, but there is a perverse pleasure to be had from watching it. The band should loosen up, own their mistakes and allow it to be released. And apologise to Phil Collins.
You can watch it all below, at least until someone has it removed.
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