"Stairway to Heaven" Almost Derailed Led Zeppelin's 1988 Reunion

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1988
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Paul Natkin/WireImage

On May 14, 1988, Atlantic Records celebrated their 40th anniversary with a concert extravaganza which - although it obviously couldn’t play host to every act that called the label home over the course of those four decades - did an outstanding job of pulling together some of their biggest names, culminating with the first performance of Led Zeppelin since their ramshackle appearance at Live Aid.

READ MORE: August 1979: Led Zeppelin Releases "In Through the Out Door"
 
Before we discuss Zeppelin’s performance specifically, it’s worth offering some details about the show as a whole, which took place at Madison Square Garden and went on for nearly 13 hours. Genesis, Foreigner, Yes, Average White Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Wilson Pickett, the Bee Gees, Roberta Flack and Ben E. King were just some of the people who performed. It’s mind-blowing, quite frankly, and it’s not hyperbole to say that we’ll never see a lineup like that again.

Now, about that Led Zeppelin reunion...First and foremost, it was better than the one that viewers watched during Live Aid, a performance so sketchy - at least by the band’s usual standards - that they denied the request to use the footage in the official Live Aid box set. On the other hand, it was also one that was full of some tense moments leading up to the band’s concert-closing set.

For one thing, Robert Plant would’ve preferred to use his drummer, Chris Blackwell, for the show, but Jimmy Page argued that John Bonham’s son Jason should be behind the kit to at least maintain the Bonham bloodline, and Plant relented. Also, Plant had zero interest in performing “Stairway to Heaven” at all, let alone as the final song of the night.

READ MORE: April 1977: Led Zeppelin Breaks Word Record for Indoor Concert Attendance in Detroit

In Chris Salewicz’s biography of Jimmy Page, the guitarist detailed the events that led up to the show. “[Robert] came together with Jason, Jonesy and me in New York, where we were rehearsing, and started singing ‘Over the Hills and Far Away,’” Page said. “And it sounded really brilliant, actually. Then we rehearsed ‘Stairway‘ and that sounded great, too. Then the day before the show he called me up that evening and said, 'I’m not going to sing it.' I said, 'What are you talking about? You’re not gonna sing ‘Stairway’? But that’s exactly the one thing that everybody expects to hear us do!' He said, 'I don’t wanna do that!”’

But he did it anyway.

“In the end he said, ‘Well, I’ll do it,'” Page told Rolling Stone in 2015. “‘But I’ll never do it again!’ I thought, ‘God, what is this really all about? Where is the spirit of why we’re supposed to be here? I don’t need this.'”

The happy ending, of course, is that Led Zeppelin eventually did play together again, and when they did their O2 show in 2007, they did indeed perform “Stairway to Heaven” one last time. But we’re betting that Plant didn’t enjoy it then, either.

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