The first thing you notice is how close together they are. Led Zeppelin are not scattered around the huge stage of the O2 Arena in London like 100-meter-relay runners awaiting the baton, like most bands at this venue.
They are huddled within a few feet of each other in the center of the stage, and they stay that way for most of the two hours or so of Celebration Day, the new movie that captures their one-off return to playing live in December 2007.
Jimmy Page might wander off a few feet to hit a guitar pedal, John Paul Jones occasionally sets his bass down to sit at a keyboard, but Robert Plant sings from the heart of the group, just in front of the drum kit — occupied by Jason Bonham, son of Zeppelin’s drummer John, who died in 1980. For most of the film, all four of them are in frame simultaneously.
“It was like a shield wall — it was a Romano-British shield wall, and what was coming at us was the idea of failure and ridiculousness — for me,” says Robert Plant, speaking on a sunny autumn morning at his local pub in north London. “It would be precocious of me to walk to the front of the stage and take on a kind of rock singer pose at that time in my being — and that’s five years ago. I could only send it up, and I don’t want to do that.”
“It was always like that,” counters John Paul Jones, talking later that day at the Connaught Hotel in London, where he and Page are both ensconced. “You need to be that close. There’s a lot going on, a lot to concentrate on and focus on. Plus, I like to feel the wind from the bass drum.”
“This was going to be a critical show,” Jimmy Page says. “We only had one shot at it, so we needed to go out there and do it really well. There was a lot of listening to be done, a lot of communication — nods and winks — and you can see this generate through the course of the evening to the point where we’re really communicating through the music.”
Celebration Day will likely mark the world’s last chance to see Led Zeppelin communicating through the music. At a press conference the following day, they avoided questions about whether they will ever again reunite, but Plant’s ambivalence about Zeppelin’s role in his current life is evident during our conversation. He talks about how being the singer in the band is “just kind of narrating some bits and pieces which hold together some great instrumentation.”
He says fronting Led Zeppelin means being specifically a rock and roll singer — and how that’s not what he is any more; he’s a singer. He talks about how the lyrics of those old, old songs are the words of a young man — “There was nothing cerebral about what I was doing at all” — even if he knows his writing got better as the band matured.
For the rest of this story, check out the brand-new January 2013 issue of Guitar World magazine. The issue also features a roundup of the 50 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, an extra interview with Page and a complete "Black Mountain Side" acoustic guitar lesson.
Over the past 20 years, Brad Tolinski, editorial director of Guitar World, Revolver and Guitar Aficionado magazines, has interviewed Jimmy Page more than any other journalist in the world. Those interviews have led to a new book, Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page, which was published October 23. Get your copy here!