Phil Carson offers another perspective. ‘It started out that when we heard about Live Aid I was managing both The Firm and Robert, at the time. But I was out on the road with Robert, and he said: “We should do this. Let’s do it as The Honeydrippers”. I said, that’s a good idea. I’ll make a call and we’ll get it on. So I call up [Live Aid’s American promoter] Bill Graham, and he agreed it was a great idea and that we should do that. Then as soon as everyone heard Robert was doing it, the questions came: why isn’t it Jimmy doing it? So I go to Robert and I said, “Look, Jimmy did play on the Honeydrippers’ record. Why don’t we get him over?” Robert says, yeah, okay, give him a call then. So I call Jimmy and explain and say how about doing what you did at [ARMS], you know, it’s a big event. Well, he hummed and hah-ed a bit, then he said all right, I’ll do it – but as Led Zeppelin. So that idea actually came from Jimmy Page, to do it as Led Zeppelin.
‘Of course, Robert was a bit lairy about it, to say the very least. But because it was for a good cause he agreed it. And then things became very difficult, because while Bill Graham was into it, the guy directing the piece for American television, said, “Well, you know, Led Zeppelin’s over, who cares?” So here’s Bill Graham trying to explain what a coup it would be to have Zeppelin but this guy’s not having it. So originally, we were not actually going to be in the televised broadcast. This was how much respect this television director was giving them. We weren’t gonna be in the televised part. In the end Bill and I get in touch with the top brass at the TV network. Ahmet gets involved. And eventually they grudgingly agreed to do this. You’ve got to remember that Phil Collins at this particular point was at his zenith, and he did both shows. And I’m trying to tell this fucking director, I forget his name but he’s a fucking moron, this is Led Zeppelin. It is not the Phil Collins show! But what can I do? It’s a live television show; he’s got the controls. Watch it now and you’ll see there’s more Phil Collins than anyone else. In a way it’s just as well because Jimmy’s fucked-up guitar tech, who handed Jimmy the twin-neck, didn’t tune the fucking guitar! It’s not Jimmy’s fault it sounds like that! The tech just completely let him down on that day. There were other things that went on that day, tech-wise, that were not Jimmy’s fault. It was really bad. Really a bad show, for that reason.’
John Paul Jones was also left with mixed feelings but for entirely different reasons. ‘I had to barge my way into Live Aid,’ he later told Classic Rock writer Dave Ling. Only finding out about Page and Plant’s intention of playing together the week before the show, by the time he had ‘barged’ his way into the reckoning, Paul Martinez, from Plant’s solo band, had been confirmed as bassist, forcing Jones to take the only available option left open to him and play the keyboards. It was an ignominious way to make one’s return to the big time and naturally Jonesy took it badly. ‘It was Plant again, you see,’ he told Ling. ‘Basically, I had to say to them, “If it’s Zeppelin and you’re gonna be doing Zeppelin songs, hi I’m still here and I wouldn’t mind being a part of it.” Plant went, [adopts Black Country accent] “Oh, bloody ’ell!” But I elbowed my way in.’ He added: ‘It’s all about Robert and what he wants.’
In fact, Plant had been moved enough by the reaction at Live Aid to begin to consider the previously thought impossible. ‘The rush I got from that size of audience, I’d forgotten what it was like. I’d forgotten how much I missed it … I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really drunk on the whole event. The fact that they were still chanting for us fifteen minutes later and the fact that there were people crying all over the place … odd stuff. It was something far more powerful than words can convey …’ So much so that when, ten days later, Page joined him on stage again, this time at one of his solo shows at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey, jamming on the old blues classics ‘Mean Woman Blues’ and ‘Treat Her Right’, they agreed to ‘get back in touch and have a cup of tea’ when the tour was over – and this time bring Jonesy too.
Looking on from afar was Paul Rodgers – a man not known, particularly in his fiery drinking days, for suffering fools gladly, or their back-channel antics. Despite his apparent good humour on the subject when we spoke about it twenty-five years later, it was no coincidence that the working relationship between the singer and guitarist in The Firm rapidly went downhill after Live Aid – and the resultant rumours of a more committed Zeppelin reunion. Tony Franklin now admits he was also somewhat put out by this latest beyond-The-Firm development. ‘Maybe I was secretly glad that it didn’t go so well,’ he says of Zep’s calamitous Live Aid appearance. ‘I don’t know if I was or not!’ he laughs. ‘No, I didn’t think of it as being in any way a threat to The Firm, because to me we were a band and we were going to be making another album and we were going to tour. I never for one second saw it as a problem. I actually felt bad for Jimmy and the guys that it didn’t go well, because there were so much expectations.’
Nevertheless, with his contract to play in The Firm running to just two albums, with the option of a third, should Page and Rodgers wish to continue as such, he did see the possible return of Zeppelin as adding to the pressures the band was now under. ‘With touring, no matter what level you’re at, it’s hard work. We had our own plane. We’re staying in the best places. But even so, it’s extreme. People don’t realise that. It can really fray friendships and relationships. We should have just had a six-month break, because everything was back-to-back. Everything was just quick. If we’d have taken [some time] off and then come back and do something after that.’ He adds more specifically that Paul and Jimmy ‘should have had a break from each other. At the same time my understanding was that their friendship was more important than the business. Like, are we just going to keep doing this and potentially hurt our friendship, just keep grinding it out?’
The answer was no. ‘We should have taken a step back. There was magic happening. It’s a shame, it really is. We could have still been going now, in some form or another, who knows? But it wasn’t meant to be.’
Instead, the fall of The Firm led directly to what was very nearly a full-on Led Zeppelin reformation, the first of what would become several such occasions over the next twenty years. Rehearsing in Bath, away from prying eyes in London, with Tony Thompson taking Bonzo’s place, ‘The first day was all right,’ reckoned Jones. ‘I don’t know if Jimmy was quite into it, but it was good.’ However, over the course of the next two weeks, tiny cracks in the relationship between the three principal members began to fissure into caverns, Robert moaning about how long it took Jimmy – who had gotten off heroin but was now drinking heavily – to set up, and generally concerned that things were slowly sliding out of his control again. Then Thompson was involved in a minor car accident, being driven back from the pub one night, and it was seen as an omen, certainly by Plant. ‘What I recall is Robert and I getting drunk in the hotel and Robert questioning what we were doing,’ Jones told Lewis. ‘He was saying nobody wants to hear that old stuff again and I said, “Everybody is waiting for it to happen.” It just fell apart from then – I suppose it came down to Robert wanting to pursue his solo career at the expense of anything else.’ Says Lewis now: ‘I think what happened was Robert said to himself, one moment I’ve got a successful solo career, the next it’s back to car crashes and bad karma, I don’t need this.’
According to Phil Carson, though, this was just the latest episode in much bigger drama that was unfolding in Plant’s mind. ‘Robert and I parted company, as his manager, right after the second Robert Plant solo tour of America. That was the tour where we would also feature The Honeydrippers as part of the act. Robert would do his solo set then there would be about twenty minutes at the end when he would come back on and do a Honeydrippers set. It was a great show and it actually saved Robert’s arse on that tour, because The Honeydrippers’ album had sold a couple of million in America and we billed the tour in such a way it looked like it was Robert headlining with The Honeydrippers in support.’ Ticket sales for the tour had been sluggish, ‘and that kind of saved the day.’
When Carson, in the wake of Live Aid, persuaded Jimmy to come and make a guest appearance at Plant’s solo show in New Jersey, as part of The Honeydrippers segment, it was the trigger to much bigger changes in Plant’s solo career. ‘As soon as Jimmy came out on stage it was like the fucking roof came off the place! Afterwards, we all get in cars and drive back to New York. I’ve got my girlfriend with me and Robert’s got his lady with him, not his wife Maureen, but her sister Shirley – but we won’t dwell on that! Anyway we’re in the car and he’s fuming. Absolutely fuming. He’s sold out this arena and he says, “Is it always like that? You know, when Jimmy Page gets onstage?” I said no, but it’s always gonna be like that when Jimmy Page gets onstage with you. Then we had a heart-to-heart about doing Zeppelin songs and we sort of fell out. I remember the argument didn’t stop there. It carried on through this meal we had at a restaurant. It was one of those places where you’re eating out on the sidewalk someplace. I’ll never forget it, because by coincidence Robert’s band has got a table for the four of them, and between Robert Plant and them, at another table, is Nile Rodgers and his girlfriend. So as I’m having this argument about doing Zeppelin songs this fucking band – comprising great players like Robbie Blunt, but honestly, nobodies in the scheme of things – they’re going, “We’ll never do Led Zeppelin songs!” So Robert’s going, “Well, I don’t see why we should do any Led Zeppelin”. I’m going, “Robert, are you crazy? Did you not just see what happened [when Jimmy came on]? If you do a couple of Zeppelin songs it will ease your journey, and take people with you on your journey into new music”. He wasn’t having it. Anyway we agreed to part company after that night.’ He laughs. ‘Of course, then Bill Curbishley comes in to manage him – and Bill talks him into doing Led Zeppelin songs, and the rest is history.’
Curbishley, who had managed The Who through their most fractious times, including the drink-related death of their wild man drummer, Keith Moon, was in fact the perfect man to put Robert Plant’s solo career back on a forward-looking footing – not least succeeding where Phil Carson had failed, in getting the singer to at last acknowledge his time in the biggest rock band in the world, by including some Zeppelin covers in his solo act. In fact, on Plant’s very next solo album, Now And Zen, released in 1988, which Blunt pointedly did not appear on, Robert had Jimmy Page guest on two tracks, ‘Heaven Knows’ and ‘Tall Cool One’ – his presence denoted on the album sleeve by the ‘ZoSo’ symbol. Indeed, the latter track also featured no less than five sampled moments from various Zeppelin classics: ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Dazed And Confused’, ‘Black Dog’, ‘Custard Pie’ and ‘The Ocean’, as well as sing-quoting lyrics from ‘When The Levee Breaks’. Surely no coincidence then that Now And Zen became Plant’s biggest-selling solo album – which it remains to this day.