By Brian Ives
Thirty-five years ago tonight, Led Zeppelin played their final gig in Eissporthalle in Berlin, Germany, effectively ending one of the most celebrated careers in popular music history. Not that the band knew it at the time: it was the last show on a European tour promoting 1979’s In Through the Out Door, and they were scheduled to hit North America in the fall.
Tragically, drummer John Bonham died of alcohol poisoning on Sept. 25, and that tour was canceled.
Another legendary British quartet, the Who, had recently endured the death of their drummer, Keith Moon; they decided to continue on, with former Small Faces/Faces member Kenney Jones in his place. But that was not the path that Led Zeppelin were going to march down: on Dec., 4, 1980, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones announced to the world that they would split up, via a press release that read:
“We wish it to be known, that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” – LED ZEPPELIN
Within two years, Robert Plant kicked off his solo career with his debut album Pictures at Eleven; he still records prolifically and tours frequently today.
Jimmy Page has seemed rudderless at times, post-Zeppelin. At one point, he was rehearsing with then-former Yes members Chris Squire and Alan White for a proposed band, XYZ, but the tapes from those sessions have never been released and the project was soon abandoned (the late Chris Squire told me a bit about those sessions in a 2013 interview). In 1982, he scored the film Death Wish II, and in 1985 debuted a new band, the Firm, which also featured former Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers. That band only lasted two albums (Rodgers recently said that while Page has attended Rodgers’ solo shows in recent years, he has declined the invitation to get on stage and jam), and in 1988, he released his sole solo album, Outrider, and went on a solo tour.
Page and Plant worked together for a while in the ’90s, touring and releasing one album of new material, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale. But since 2000, Page has mostly been the curator of Zeppelin’s legacy, only going on one tour, using the Black Crowes as his band and playing sets mostly consisting of Zeppelin material.
John Paul Jones, meanwhile, has enjoyed an adventurous and prolific post-Zeppelin life, most of which has kept him out of the spotlight (which he seems to prefer, anyway). In 1985, he scored the mostly-forgotten film Scream for Help and for years, mostly worked in the studio with a variety of artists including Paul McCartney, the Butthole Surfers, R.E.M., Heart, Ben E. King and Cinderella. In 1994, as Page and Plant were revisiting Zeppelin’s glory on their reunion tour, Jones collaborated with avant-garde artist Diamanda Galas on a duo album, The Sporting Life. In 2000, he released Zooma, his first of two solo albums. In 2009, he was involved in his highest profile post-Zeppelin project, Them Crooked Vultures, which also featured Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (Grohl once told me that Jones said to him, “Now I’ve been in two great bands”).
What would an ’80s Zeppelin have sounded like? Well, the last tour saw them recognizing that the times were changing thanks to punk rock and new wave, and they eliminated the extensive drum solos, guitar solos from their sets (watch a video with excerpts from their final show in the video above). And In Through the Out Door saw Page’s influence waning (likely due his struggles with heroin addiction) and Plant and Jones having increasingly dominant roles; in fact, the album’s classic ballad, “All Of My Love,” was written by Plant and Jones, without Page. The duo also co-wrote “South Bound Suarez”; those were the only two original songs on Zeppelin’s eight studio albums that Page did not have a writing credit for.
So for a good hint of what Zep may have sounded like in the MTV decade, listen to Plant’s first two solo albums, the aforementioned Pictures at Eleven and the followup, 1983’s The Principle of Moments. Both albums saw Plant with a clear vision—he seemed to honor his former band’s sound, but also recognized it was a new era. Those albums were successful as well: they were each certified Platinum, and exposed Plant to MTV’s younger audience via videos like “Burning Down One Side” “Big Log” and “In the Mood.”
What would those songs have sounded like with Page, Jones and Bonham’s contributions? And would they have held up to the rest of the Zeppelin catalog? Those are questions open to anyone and everyone’s imagination and opinions. As it stands, Zeppelin, like the Beatles, left behind a finite catalog that was classic to beginning to end, with few (if any) embarrassing missteps. And save for a few reunions, like the Fab Four, Zep has left their legacy intact, resisting huge offers to resurrect the name (the band’s one-off 2007 reunion show was a charity event).
Today, Plant seems comfortable drawing from the Zeppelin catalog at his shows, but also leans heavily on his recent solo material. Page has spoken about doing another solo project now that he’s finished overseeing the remastering of Zeppelin’s catalog. And Jones seems happy assisting artists that he likes, notably Americana acts like Seasick Steve and Dave Rawlings.
Could the three of them get back together one more time? Sure, but Plant seems averse to it, and while it’s hard to imagine turing down the millions of dollars that are surely still on the table, you have to admire that he wants to leave the band’s legacy unvarnished.