Saturday, November 10, 2007

The tune will come to you

On this day in 1994, Robert Plant sang "Stairway to Heaven" for only the third time over the past 13 years. With the song's two coauthors seated next to each other, they performed an intimate -- albeit brief -- version of Led Zeppelin's most recognized song.

During Plant's last crack at it six years earlier, the singer couldn't conjure up every word of the song. This time, filmed for a Japanese program called The News Station, he was able to remember all the words he attempted -- although he didn't try every verse. Jimmy Page played a hurried arrangement on an acoustic guitar. Together, the pair crammed the first four verses of the song into exactly three minutes.

Page expertly played the song including licks he had developed in the Led Zeppelin days. Plant's voice was noticeably more mellow than it used to be, and it cracked on the word "echo" and during some ad libs between verses. After the line, "It makes me wonder," he glanced over at Page as if he'd had enough of the song. Plant widened his eyes to signal that they should end it, and Page acknowledged his request with a nod. He followed as Plant skipped to the concluding line, "And she's buying the stairway to heaven."

While Page was still producing the final chord, Plant topped it off with a sung, "Oh yeah." Plant looked and sounded somewhat comfortable at that moment, but maybe it was just a feeling of relief that it was over. He bent over after the song's conclusion to hide his face behind his mane of golden hair, and those gathered in the small TV Asahi studio applauded.

Where was Jonesy?

Half a world away on the same day, their former bandmate, John Paul Jones, was at Irving Plaza in New York, beginning a North American tour playing bass for operatic singer Diamanda Galas. They were touring in support of their album together, called The Sporting Life, released in September, and a single, "Do You Take This Man?" Jones was given equal billing to Galas on these efforts. In October, they had played a few shows in Germany and England. Along the course of the tour, Jones caught a glimpse of Page and Plant's Unledded broadcast on MTV. He'd heard the others were back together only when his accountant mentioned it.

In an interview with Dave Lewis on Nov. 12, 2002, Jones recalled that his concerts with Galas had been full of call-and-response moments like those between Plant and the rest of Led Zeppelin. "I thought what we were doing with Diamanda was exceptional," said Jones. "In a way, it was an extension of what Zeppelin did -- all that call and response stuff."

But Led Zeppelin covers were nowhere to be found during his shows with Galas. Jones recalled that during their concert at Chicago's Vic Theatre on Nov. 17, 1994, an audience member shouted, "The Song Remains the Same!" This prompted Galas to shout back, "No it doesn't, motherf---er!"

Thankfully, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin were able to bury the hatchet several years ago. While they made some public appearances together over the last few years, they succeeded in keeping a June 2007 rehearsal secret. Each of them now reports it is great to be playing together once again, whether or not their collaboration is only for one concert and that's it.

The historical perspective

To date, Page and Plant's one-off performance of "Stairway to Heaven" 13 years ago today marks the only time since 1980 that Plant performed the song outside of a Led Zeppelin reunion. Jones hasn't played it anytime without both of his former Led Zeppelin bandmates.

Page, unlike his partners, was not particularly one to reserve the song for rare, special occasions. Instrumental adaptations of the tune were showstoppers during Page's onstage performances in 1983 and 1988. The last time he had played "Stairway to Heaven" was at a May 1991 jam in Reno with David Coverdale and members of Poison.

Following the one-off performance of "Stairway to Heaven" in 1994 with Plant, the guitarist hasn't repeated the song in full. Surely, he has had the opportunity to perform it in the intervening years, particularly in the musical settings that involved the other members of Led Zeppelin. However, he has resisted any temptation.

It was only in 1987 that Plant decided some Zep songs could become fair game for his solo concerts -- but never "Stairway." He did comment to the press around 1988, however, that while he wouldn't perform that song as a solo artist, "I could do it, I suppose, with Page now and again."

The three could have chosen to perform it in January 1995 when Led Zeppelin was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Instead, they opted for the less likely numbers "Bring It On Home" and "When the Levee Breaks."

Over the course of Page and Plant's five years of collaboration in the 1990s, whenever their set lists included "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," which shares the key of A minor, Page was sure to tease the audience by closing the song with the opening notes of "Stairway" and letting them hang there.

Why this once though?

It's unclear exactly why Plant would have been keen on performing it with Page this one time in 1994 if not at any other time.

Perhaps there was an idea that performing the song would somehow increase sales of No Quarter, his album collaborating with Page, which was being released worldwide the same week.

Maybe it helped that the song was originally released on Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album during exactly the same week 23 years earlier.

One story says somebody in the Japanese studio had asked to hear the most requested song of all time, to which Plant agreed just as the cameras were beginning to roll.

Bring it on back

On Dec. 10, if "Stairway to Heaven" is included in the reunited Led Zeppelin's London concert set list, it will be the first time in 19 years that Page, Plant and Jones -- with Jason Bonham on drums -- played it at a reunion.

Will it happen? I believe so.

A wise lyricist once scribed, "If you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last."

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