LONDON – With a thunder of power chords and rock ‘n’ roll swagger, Led Zeppelin broke a silence of two decades Monday in a laser-and-smoke reunion for which more than a million fans sought to book passage.
The band that breached the barriers between rock, blues and airy mysticism and nurtured a generation on the cusp between the 1960s and 1970s emerged for a sold-out performance in front of about 20,000 concertgoers in east London.
“Out there are people from 50 countries, and there’s a sign out there that says ‘Hammer of the Gods,’ ” lead singer Robert Plant said, referring to one of the group’s most famous lyrics, which also has come to be its most enduring motto. “I can’t believe that people from 50 countries would come to see that – so late in life!” he said wryly.
“This is the 51st country!” he roared then, as the band broke into “Kashmir,” one of its signature anthems, to a backdrop of wheeling batik suns and a sweating, white-haired Jimmy Page on lead guitar.
Concertgoers from as far away as New Zealand, Japan and the United States made the trek after winning a ticket lottery that allocated a maximum of two seats per person at a price of $250 each, with painstaking care to prevent entries being sold to scalpers.
The event was organized as a tribute to the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. It also featured performances by Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, led by the former Rolling Stones bassist; Foreigner; Paul Rodgers; and Paolo Nutini.
Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s alcohol-related death in 1980 spelled the end of the band, and Monday’s performance featured Bonham’s son, Jason, now a drummer with Foreigner.
A band that already was being dismissed by critics as self-indulgent by the late 1970s and passe by the time new wave and punk strode onto the stage in the 1980s suddenly has acquired new currency, earning the covers this week of Rolling Stone in the United States and Q Magazine in the United Kingdom.
“I don’t think they were ever appreciated for the scale of band they were,” Paul Rees, editor of Q, said in an interview. “Maybe it’s a sort of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ but it’s taken people time to realize the massive influence they had on an awful lot of music.”
For many who flooded into London’s O2 Arena, it was an unapologetic trip to a well-remembered past.
“I saw them in ‘73, ‘75 and ‘77. I’m what you could call hard-core. It’s part of your soul. It’s part of everything you did in the ‘70s,” said Tina Ricardo, co-owner of Rick’s Sports Bar in San Francisco, who left her husband at home when she won the ticket lottery and came with her girlfriend.
“How many chances do you get to live something over? That’s it,” she said. “I’m starting to cry now, just thinking about it.”
Likewise for fans from Tokyo. “I saw Led Zeppelin in 1971 and ‘72. That was 35 years ago. What can I say? So exciting,” said Yoshihiro Hoshina, 53, who won tickets after entering the lottery with three e-mail addresses.
“Led Zeppelin broke five hotel rooms in Japan – that’s a bit of Japan history,” he said before the concert. “But they’re getting old. Can Robert Plant sing in that high voice? Can Jimmy Page still play so smooth?”
Answer: Pretty much. Plant, 59, had his shirt open modestly to the breastbone, a hint of the bare-abdomened swagger of yesteryear, but managed the high screeches near the end of “Stairway to Heaven” – still one of the most-played songs on American radio, and which entered the charts again last week with the release of Led Zeppelin’s catalog online.