On May 14, 1988, Atlantic Records celebrated its 40th anniversary in monumental fashion with a full-day showcase at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The televised event, billed as It’s Only Rock And Roll, ran for nearly 13 hours and featured performances by legendary artists spanning the company’s 40-year existence, including The Rascals, Iron Butterfly, Yes, Genesis, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer), Foreigner, Paul Rodgers, Bob Geldof, Booker T. Jones, Wilson Pickett, The Coasters, The Spinners, The Blues Brothers, Roberta Flack, Bee Gees, Ben E. King, and more.
Even with hours of high-profile performances on the docket, the majority of the buzz surrounding It’s Only Rock And Roll was focused on the night’s final act—a reunion set by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. The rare performance was just the second time vocalist Robert Plant, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, and guitarist Jimmy Page shared the stage since drummer John Bonham’s alcohol-related death in September 1980.
However, the five-song set proved to be more of a headache than a triumphant return for the iconic band. The evening before the show, Plant raised red flags by proclaiming that he refused to sing the band’s ubiquitous 1971 track “Stairway to Heaven”. By 1988, Plant and the rest of the band had already achieved notable success with various post-Zeppelin solo projects. Like many artists who are best known for their early work, Plant viewed the ever-ravenous demand for “Stairway” as a burden of the past and was reluctant to give into such imposed nostalgia, especially after their last performance of the song (at Live Aid in 1985) was badly botched. It’s not hard to understand Plant’s reluctance to sing the song. Over the years, “Stairway to Heaven” being overplayed has become a cultural reference almost as widely known as the song itself:
Although Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun eventually persuaded Plant and the song was relatively well played, the roughly 30-minute set (which also included “Kashmir,” “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Misty Mountain Hop”) was plagued throughout by a poor sound mix. Page’s guitar mix was loud and shrill. Jones’ bass and keys were barely audible, and particularly missed on songs like “Kashmir” and “Stairway,” where those parts are usually featured prominently.
One notable high point was Jason Bonham, who took his late father’s place behind the drums, playing with excitement and energy in his first big show with the band. But even that satisfying storyline did little to redeem the gig, which Page later called “one big disappointment” and Plant referred to as “foul” in an interview for the 1997 book Led Zeppelin: The Concert File by Dave Lewis and Simon Pallett. This proved to be the last show the full band would play together for nearly twenty years. However, if nothing else, this disappointing performance helped set a dramatic stage for the band’s highly successful, record-setting 2007 reunion show at London’s O2 Arena, immortalized in the 2012 concert film, Celebration Day. You can watch a full video of Led Zeppelin’s performance at It’s Only Rock And Roll below:
Led Zeppelin Reunion – 5/14/88 – Madison Square Garden
…and if reading this got you in the mood to get the Led out, and you’d rather listen to a kickin’ show than one that’s “foul” and “disappointing” (their words, not mine), try this one on for size: Led Zeppelin in all their glory at Knebworth Music Festival in 1979, performing for over 100,000 screaming fans.
Led Zeppelin – Knebworth – 8/11/79 [Full Video]
[Video: Led Zeppelin Rarities]
[Originally published 5/14/17]