It was almost the rock equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Sadly, there had been two Silent Summers since Led Zeppelin last reverberated in any land. But the world’s premier live band—outearning even the Beatles in concert—has been haunted by violence and tragedy almost every time it hit the road.
In 1975 there were riots over ticket sales, and the group was banned in Boston. That same year a second tour had to be abandoned after lead singer-lyricist Robert Plant and his wife, Maureen, suffered a crippling auto accident in Greece. They retired to Wales for two years, which Plant describes as “forced senility.” But it was the 1977 swing that exploded like the Hindenburg. The tour seemed doomed when drummer John Bonham was arrested for—and later convicted of—battery for attacking aides of promoter Bill Graham. But the worst was yet to come: Plant’s 5-year-old son, Karac, died of a mysterious infection. While Plant mourned, Led Zeppelin canceled dates and went spiraling down a stairway of depression. “We did nothing for a year and a half,” says Plant, 32. “I tinkered on the village piano and grew so obese drinking beer that nobody knew who I was.”
So it was an emotional crowd that gathered this month on 2,000 acres of Britain’s Hertfordshire for Zeppelin’s first concert in two years (four, actually, in their native Britain). Some camped in tent cities for days before the annual Woodstock-like festival at Knebworth House; others simply rushed the fences. A helicopter spattered the sky with fireworks, and waiting fans burst into a roar that didn’t stop until the four-man phalanx of sound dropped its megaton of Led. Driven by Jimmy Page’s lightning guitar licks, they tore through standards like Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven and material from a ninth LP released just this week, In Through the Out Door.
The experience left the group, as well as the fans, euphoric—and relieved. “Because we laid off for two years, our directions are fresh,” said Plant. Bassist John Paul Jones, in the backstage enclave with wife Mo and their three daughters, joked that the new songs were “brilliant as ever. It was like the first day that we played together.” As Zep rapped, even Plant was serene. “It’s a case with me of maintaining a very good equilibrium by keeping so tied to my family,” he explained. The Plants’ new child, 7-month-old Logan Romero, stayed home with his grandparents, but daughter Carmen, 10, and Maureen were on hand.
A second concert at Knebworth a week later was also a big draw, but Plant hedged on the possibility of a U.S. tour. On the one hand, Plant points out, “the soccer season is starting,” but on the other, “America is not really that far.” Either way, the big trauma—going public again—has been overcome. “With what happened to me, I thought I might not have anything left to give,” Plant confesses. “But I found out I’ve still got it—from here to the moon.”