By Christopher Scapelliti
In the video below, you can see a rather tentative Robert Plant making his way through Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
The clip comes from Led Zeppelin’s May 14, 1988, reunion concert at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. The remaining Led Zeppelin trio of Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones regrouped for the event—but Plant had one stipulation: he wouldn’t sing “Stairway to Heaven,” the epic song that was and is forever the group’s signature tune.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Page recalled years afterward. “You’re not going to sing ‘Stairway’? But that’s exactly the one everybody expects us to do!’ ”
Plant, for his part, was tired of being associated with the song. He’d released four solo albums and, despite reuniting with Zeppelin, was not eager to revisit some of the band’s past material. The previous time they’d played “Stairway,” at the 1985 Live Aid concert, it was a shabby performance witnessed by nearly two billion viewers. Plant was ready to close the door on it.
But under pressure, the singer finally gave in just hours before showtime.
“In the end he said, ‘Well, I’ll do it,’ ” Page recalled. “ ‘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.’ ”
In the end, Plant turned in an admirable, if tepid, performance. Overall, the night’s concert was judge favorably by the fans, and it was historically noteworthy as the first time Jason Bonham—the son of original Zeppelin drummer John Bonham—performed with the group.
As for “Stairway to Heaven,” Plant made good on his promise not to sing it again—until Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert, when it appeared in the middle of the set rather than as the encore many felt it should have been.