Revisiting Led Zeppelin’s Final U.K. Shows With John Bonham
Following the tragic death of Robert Plant‘s son Karac in 1977, Led Zeppelin took some time away from the spotlight — and even came very close to breaking up. But they re-emerged on Aug. 4, 1979, by performing at the Knebworth Festival in Hertfordshire, directly north of London.
The group was preparing to release In Through the Out Door and decided, in typical Zeppelin style, to turn it into a big event. Led Zeppelin hadn’t performed on British soil since five dates at London’s Earls Court Arena in May 1975, and the demand for tickets was so great that a second show was added for Aug. 11.
First, they had to shake off some of the rust, playing a couple of low-key warm-up dates at the Falkoner Theateret in Copenhagen. Then, after opening sets by Fairport Convention, the New Commander Cody Band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and Todd Rundgren and Utopia, it was time for the headliners.
They opened the 19-song main set with “The Song Remains the Same,” closing with “Stairway to Heaven.” Two songs from In Through the Out Door — “Hot Dog” and “In the Evening” — were given their world premiere. A three-song encore consisted of “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Communication Breakdown.”
Reviews suggested that the band had suffered from the long layoff, with some publications noting that the rise of punk in the four years since they had last performed in England had made Led Zeppelin redundant. Still, the crowd — which the band reported as being 218,000 but estimates suggest it was half that figure — was thrilled. Plant, who was unhappy with his performance, suggested that the show’s success had more to do with the scope of the night than anything coming from the stage that night.
“Knebworth was useless,” he said in Led Zeppelin: The Concert File. “It was no good because we weren’t ready to do it, the whole thing was a management decision. It felt like I was cheating myself, because I wasn’t as relaxed as I could have been. There was so much expectation there and the least we could have done was to have been confident enough to kill. We maimed the beast for life, but we didn’t kill it. It was good, but only because everybody made it good. There was that sense of event.”
Both concerts were filmed, but the footage remained officially unreleased until 2003, when eight songs were included on the Led Zeppelin two-DVD set.
A little more than a year later, the band broke up in the wake of John Bonham’s death, so the two Knebworth shows were the last concerts the original lineup performed in their native land. However, on June 30, 1990, again at Knebworth, Jimmy Page sat in with Robert Plant for a few songs at the the Silver Clef Award Winners Concert, a globally broadcast show that also featured performances by Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Genesis and Paul McCartney.
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