Setlist History: Led Zeppelin Reunites for Atlantic Records' 40th

To celebrate its 40th birthday, on May 14, 1988, Atlantic Records rented out Madison Square Garden for the day and night and got their money's worth as they put on a 13-hour star-studded celebration that was simulcast on FM radio stations around the globe and on a fledgling cable outlet relatively new to original programming called HBO.

Founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abrahamson, the label gave the world R&B legends like Aretha, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding. In the mid '60s it branched out into rock when it signed Yes, CS&N, and the mighty Led Zeppelin.

Ahmet himself signed Zeppelin in 1968 to a multi-year deal with an advance of $200,000.

$200k in 1968 is the equivalent to $1.7 million today... for a band that had never cut a record together before.

While it's true Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham were shopping around songs that would eventually find their way on Led Zeppelin I & II, was there any guarantee "Whole Lotta Love" or "Communication Breakdown" would connect to audiences around the world? Nope.

Most of the suits at the iconic label had never even seen Zeppelin play live because they just hadn't really gigged much, even under their previous name The New Yardbirds.

Ahmet was taking a gamble.

But as we now know it paid off beautifully to the tune of somewhere between 200-300 million records through Atlantic over time. So many records the calculators broke.

"I'd like to introduce Led Zeppelin to you," Robert Plant says in this early show of the band in Denmark.

According to Phil Carson, who would soon be a VP at Atlantic, it was producer Jerry Wexler, who got Ahmet's ear and cut the artist-friendly deal with the band's manager Peter Grant.

“The deal changed the way things were done because Led Zeppelin demanded a massive measure of control," Carson told Loudersound.

"They controlled what singles would be taken from an album, they controlled the artwork. They controlled the mastering process – Jimmy Page mastered every album personally. Atlantic had absolutely no say in any of that stuff whatsoever,” he explained.

The first real Led Zeppelin reunion was in 1985 for Live Aid when they played for 22 minutes to benefit the starving peoples of Africa.

Zeppelin had been broken up since October of 1980 when Bonham, their beloved and powerful drummer drank himself to death, accidentally.

They had only played together one other time: at Philadephia's JFK stadium as a favor for Bob Geldof's enormous Live Aid concert to benefit starving people in Africa. For that show they recruited Phil Collins to play drums.

So when the label was organizing the laundry list of classic performers who had recorded on Atlantic, it was one star after another.

We're talking the Bee Gees, The Rascals, Ben E. King, Iron Butterfly, Genesis, Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, Foreigner, Paul Rodgers, Geldof, Booker T. Jones, Pickett, The Coasters, The Spinners, The Blues Brothers, Roberta Flack, and so many more.

But would it really be a true Atlantic celebration without the big boy, the mighty Zeppelin?

Ahmet himself put in the calls.

Plant was touring happily on his Non Stop Go Tour with Stevie Ray Vaughn opening. They were also on the east coast, first with a show in Rochester on the 5/11 and then they'd be in Hartford, CT on 5/15.

Not only could it be done, but could those cities be any closer to NYC? Plant agreed. but he had two demands: they use his touring drummer instead of Bonham's son, Jason. And he didn't want to play "Stairway to Heaven."

Once John Bonham died, there have been very very few Led Zeppelin "reunions." But when the man who signed you, who treated you special, and helped turn you into one of the biggest rock bands in history, asks you to play for the label, you play.

The Bonham thing was a non-starter for Page, not only was it their pal's kid, but he was good. The other was trickier.

Page was of the belief that audiences would expect them to play their most identifiable epic. But that was precisely why Plant didn't want to do it. Why be predictable and why do anything because they had to. Aren't they rock stars? The don't have to do squat.

Plant gave in.

The mix was bad. Only moments truly sparkled. And later Page later would call it “one big disappointment.” Plant once referred to it as “foul”.

But if you've never seen it before, I doubt you'd be as harsh. It's still Led Zeppelin. It's still John Paul Jones on both keyboards and bass.

And it's still Bonham's kid doing his best to impress Uncle Robert, which he finally did in earnest when it was Zep being honored years later with Heart performing "Stairway" with Jason, sporting his dads bowler hat, bashing away on the drums.

If you look closely Jason points at Plant that night at the Kennedy Center in 2012, and Plant jumps up and points back, smiling. Later the singer would be brought to tears by both the song he has such mixed feelings about and his friend's talented son.

Even after those healing tears, it was still 11 years until Plant would sing "Stairway" in public.

He tried to warn everyone. Just a month after he sang it for Ahmet and Atlantic in '88, he was on tour in Los Angeles and told the LA Times not to expect him to be going on about hedgerows et al.

“I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show," he told Dennis Hunt. "I wrote those lyrics and found that song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later, I don’t know. It’s just not for me.

“I sang it at the Atlantic Records show because I’m an old softie and it was a way of saying thank you to Atlantic because I’ve been with them for 20 years. But no more of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for me,” he said.

Is Robert Plant really listening to The Replacements' Let It Be on the far left? Let's just assume he is.

Which means there's a chance? Any time Robert Plant is on stage with a mic in front of him, yes, there is a chance.

A slim one, but for those of us who remember laughter, why stop believing?

Robert and Alison Krauss are on tour right now with dates that include Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and even Mavis Staples. Let her sing "Stairway."

Tickets are available through Robert's website for his tour with Alison.

Tickets available on Willie's website for the Outlaw Music Festival Tour with Robert, Dylan, and John Mellencamp.

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