So how do you start your first high profile gig in over 22 years? Easy – at the very beginning with the first song from the first side of your first album. Good Times Bad Times was one of the greatest career openings in rock history and here it is in all its crimson glory. From the opening seconds of that distinctive guitar, cowbell and drum intro Led Zeppelin blast off. They rarely hit terra firma again for the rest of this blistering two-hour set recorded at London’s 02 arena in December 2007 in commemoration of Ahmet Ertegun, their mentor and head of Atlantic Records.
Like most Led Zep shows, there are myriad bootlegs of this one-off reunion doing the rounds but with sound mixed by Metallica's front of house engineer Big Mick, this is the definitive record of a special night. They keep it basic. The DVD comes with no arty distractions and the sound is crisp, clean and most importantly, LOUD. There are no clichéd backstage scenes and interviews, no props, no inflatable penises, giant cannons, or ruddy big claws. Director Dick Carruthers, who’s made films with Oasis, The Killers, Take That and er, Michael Buble, knew that people wanted to gaze in wonder at the spectacle of Plant, Page and Jones reunited.
And the three surviving members are having a rock monster’s ball out front. Jimmy Page, now a silver fox at 68 (68!), begins the set looking predatory and mean and all in black; half way through, his hair is matted to his forehead and his shirt plastered to his body as the sheer momentum and guitar heroism leaves him unbound. Plant (64) still manages to scream down the halls of Valhalla with only a few faltering notes on the slower songs and Jones (66) bobs and weaves like an elegant sprite picking out those beautiful ornate bass notes.
Phil Collins flipped across the Atlantic on Concord for Led Zep’s disastrous Live Aid set in 1985 (to be fair a lot of people were bedevilled by sound problems at Live Aid) and Chic’s Tony Thompson also filled John Bonham’s drum stool but there could only be one person stepping up for this show - 46-year-old Jason Bonham, son of Bonzo. He appeared with his late dad in Zep’s slightly cringe-inducing concert film The Song Remains the Same in 1975 but here he is back taking up the reins again and never has the cliché a chip off the block made more sense. He underpins everything here with the same, dry, spare, thudding and then thunderous sound of his old man. Of all heavy rock bands, Led Zep was always about the bottom, and the rhythm section is superb as Plant and Page spit and writhe over it.
They are always combusting. There is swagger, there is fire and there is ferocity but there is also a stately grandeur that comes with age and the chance to process the madness that was their seventies heyday. Previously circumspect about those days, Plant is fully engaged with the concert and that's very much reflected in the set list. It was always going to be a crowd pleaser. They were never going to play Bonzo’s Montreaux now were they?
There are some songs that had to be here – Rock and Roll, Ramble On, Black Dog, Kashmir, Whole Lotta Love, a roughhousing Nobody’s Fault but Mine and an incendiary finale of Rock and Roll that will have your scalp tingling and your feet expanding. And yes, they even play that old chestnut about the forests echoing with laughter. Led Zep blaze through their most famous song unfettered and at the end Plant shouts gleefully “Ahmet! We did it!” acknowledging the band’s ultimate albatross in the room. It is a touching and funny moment.
Perhaps an unfair compassion, after all it was a different world and they were different people back then, but Celebration Day was always going to be superior in every way to The Song Remains the Same. That was the big rock show in excelsis and included now very dated fantasy sequences of hard man manager Peter Grant playing a hit man (chortle) and Plant floating around his Welsh farm with his family. Let’s face it, Christopher Guest and co must have been looking at it very closely and picturing those dolmans and dwarves. Nearly 40 years later and Led Zep's new concert film is tight, sinewy and bullshit free. It is about the music and it is about celebration.
One of the best descriptions I ever read of Led Zeppelin was that there were “a somnolent wake for the battered pleasures of the first psychedelic era.” That was written in 1980, the year they broke up. At the press conference to announce the release of Celebration Day, Plant said “the lyrics of those old, old songs are the words of a young man.” Sure they’re from an era when sixties dreaming gave away to seventies dread but you’ll rarely get to see “rock dinosaurs” play with this kind of passion and skill.
20 million people applied for tickets to this show. 16,000 got to go. Somewhere above them all Ahmet Ertegun is still smiling proudly.