to zep or not to zep

led zeppelin, circa 1971: john paul jones, john bonham, robert plant and jimmy page.

led zeppelin, circa 1971: john paul jones, john bonham, robert plant and jimmy page.

Many of us imagined a year ago that the December reunion concert by Led Zeppelin was simply a pre-cursor to an inevitable, full-blown reunion by the definitive ‘70s band’s three surviving members. The rumors became a bit more rabid when the show turned out to be a critical rave.

Singer Robert Plant essentially balked at participating in anything other than the one-off show, which he saw as proper, respectful closure for Zeppelin. Preferring instead to ttour his spring and summer behind Raising Sand, his surprise hit Americana album with Alison Krauss, cheerleading for a Zeppelin reunion fell to guitarist Jimmy Page and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones.

With Plant still sticking by his vow not to enter into a full-fledge reunion this fall, we now receive the grim news that Page and Jones are looking to tour anyway as Led Zeppelin with a replacement singer.

No, no, a thousand times no.

One of the big reasons Zeppelin’s hard rock legacy is so untarnished is that – to put it bluntly – it knew when to quit. When drummer John Bonham died in 1980, the band packed it in and let a catalogue of 10 sterling albums represent Zeppelin’s monstrous sound. Before last year’s December concert in London, the band only reteamed for underwhelming sets at Live Aid and an Atlantic Records anniversary celebration.

Do reunions belittle a mighty band’s past? Well, look at The Who. It is touring again this fall with Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey fronting the same assured rhythm section they have employed for several years. But with a formal band split that lasted for much of the ‘80s and a full 24 year gap between new albums, The Who is a shadow of its former, restless self. Townshend has simply taken out too many mortgages on his band’s past glories.

Now view the Rolling Stones, which lost two founding members but never disbanded. Today, for better or worse, it operates as a corporation and sells out gargantuan venues. More importantly, though, the Stones still play likes aces.

Plant and Page toured twice under their own names in the ‘90s and, in all honesty, sounded far better that the the full Zeppelin lineup did in its last Kentucky concert, a drunken, disheveled outing at Louisville’s Freedom Hall during the spring of 1977. But the two played their cards right. They were selective about what warhorse corners of their past to re-examine, incorporated new material and left the Led Zeppelin name off the marquee.

That only makes any extended Led Zeppelin reunion seem all the more unfathomable. Even if Plant was game, the credibility stakes would have been enormous. After all, audiences don’t just want Led Zeppelin. They want the wicked abandon Zeppelin brought to arenas 35 years ago. That’s a physical impossibility. So to put Zeppelin back on the road with another singer is uncool beyond words. It’s like the Stones without Mick Jagger. But there is money to be had – tons of it, obviously – in any kind of living nostalgia that an established rock franchise can summon.

In short, if Page wants to tour with Jones, fine. Just please don’t let him do it under the Zeppelin name.

Want to experience Led Zeppelin? Then crank up its self-titled debut album. The mix of Plant’s banshee vocals and Page’s blue-hued guitar fuzz scared the living you-know-what out of parents worldwide at the dawn of the ‘70s.

But make that legacy dance onstage in 2008 in the form of a grossly incomplete reunion and you will likely wind up with a living image of the first Zeppelin album’s cover photo – that of the Hindenburg exploding and crashing, ever so spectacularly, to the ground.

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