IT is the night of the Led Zeppelin reunion, and the whole rocking world is divided between those with tickets and those without. Nowhere is this separation more awful than at the high-tech turnstiles of London’s O2 Arena, formerly the Millenium Dome.
Luck and money have decided who goes through to the concert. There are fewer than 20,000 seats inside, but an estimated 25 million people registered to pay the initial £125 asking price, with winners decided at random in an on-line ballot. After that, only the highest bidders could buy their way in through eBay, although the record was apparently set at a Children In Need charity auction by young Glasgow businessman Kenneth Donnell, who paid £83,000 for two VIP passes, despite not being born when Led Zeppelin disbanded almost 30 years ago.
But a small minority of the disappointed masses have decided to be here regardless, on the off-chance of seeing, hearing, or feeling something of their greatness.
“People like me are like the roots of this band,” says Dominic Murray, a budding musician in multi-coloured jeans who has arrived alone from Liverpool, empty-handed except for a six-pack of Worthington’s Bitter. “White boys, listening to the blues and vibing off them.” I go along with this, swallowing my distaste for his (mis)use of the word “vibe” as a verb, if only as a gesture of solidarity in the vast and highly chilly entrance hall of the O2 complex.
“I haven’t seen many real fans around here,” says Murray of the well-dressed couples walking past us to take their seats. “Just a lot of rich people with credit cards. Robert Johnson probably couldn’t get in tonight.” Murray is referring to the 1930s bluesman who supposedly met Satan at a Mississippi crossroads and exchanged his soul for unearthly guitar skills, then died suspiciously soon afterwards.
Later, inside the auditorium itself, ageing frontman Robert Plant will reportedly mention by name the original black masters from whom Led Zeppelin stole most of their best ideas, paying particular tribute to Robert Johnson, whose Terraplane Blues is still audible in their own classic song Trampled Underfoot.
But the 100 or so souls hanging around on the wrong side of the security gates will not catch a single word or note of this. Not even Murray, who begins the evening in belief that he may yet sneak “in through the out door”, to borrow the title of Led Zeppelin’s last and least studio album. “I’ve already scoped it out,” he says. “Over there by Door C, you can actually see a way in to the seats.” Failing that, he is also “sussing out which security guard looks the weakest.”
He is not the only one here to believe some solution may yet present itself, nor to underestimate the tightness of the 02 operation. We will all end the night with the no-ticket blues. But earlier today, it did not seem unreasonable to expect some kind of miracle. On the train down from Glasgow, I listened non-stop to Led Zeppelin II and Physical Graffiti, while re-reading the old and oft-quoted reviews. In 1973, a Boston critic described the sound at one of the band’s live shows as “resonating into the Palaeolithic pith of your brain … the cry of the dinosaur summoning out that primitive quickening in the face of monstrosity”.
In 1975, the author William S Burroughs wrote that Led Zeppelin’s performances, with their heavy dependence on “volume, repetiton, and drums”, bore resemblance to Moroccan trance music “which is magical in origin and purpose”. “For such magic to succeed,” explained Burroughs, “it must tap the sources of magical energy, and this can be dangerous.”
By the time I reach North Greenwich on the Jubilee Line, and emerge from the underground to see the dome looking like a mothership – with its crown of yellow metal antennae and circuits of glowing blue striplights – I have almost convinced myself that some real or metaphorical portal will open.
Even if that doesn’t happen, then surely this much-derided structure of steel and tensioned fabric cannot possibly withstand the music of three terrible gods (plus the son of a fourth god on drums, as Jason Bonham channels the unquiet spirit of his legendary father John, or “Bonzo”, whose premature drink-related death brought an end to Led Zeppelin in 1980)?
Robert Plant, now 59, Jimmy Page, 63, and John Paul Jones, 62, have said little to their fans since announcing in September that they would perform together again for one time only, in honour of another “friend and sidekick”, Ahmet Ertegun – co-founder of Atlantic Records, who died a year ago – with the profits going to Ertegun’s Education Fund, a charity that provides scholarships for musicians.
Plant has, however, suggested that this is an opportunity “to go out there and say, look, we’re not immortal. This is it, do you really want it?” Disconcerting talk from a man who has previously, but perhaps tellingly, compared himself to King Arthur and Achilles. Some have adjusted their expectations accordingly. On the concourse I meet John, a student from Bristol University who says he has come here on “a sort of pilgrimage”, but reasons that, even if he had a ticket, he could not ask for more than “a bunch of old guys playing songs I really like.”
Personally, I expect nothing less than Ragnarok on the Thames, and I’m still half-hoping to be killed by the shockwave when Jimmy Page plugs in his guitar. There are others around who seem to feel the same way, but not as many as I would have thought.
AS of 8.07pm, less than an hour before Led Zeppelin are due on stage, the entrance hall is so cold I can’t feel my fingers, let alone a sense of occasion. The only real action is at the concession stand, where all the T-shirts have just sold out, despite costing £20 each. An angry American is shouting at the sales staff: “Sell me the one you’re saving for yourself.”
The last three have in fact been sold to a big Canadian named Darcy Howat, who is hoping to use them as currency. Howat has a plan, and comes across as an expert. “The only touts I’ve seen around were all undercover cops,” he says. “They’re easy to spot because they’re all radioed up, working a three-man system. But there’s a few people out there with tickets, and they’re holding out until the last second. Pretty soon they’re going to panic, and maybe sell them at face value. I got £100 left in my pocket, plus these T-shirts, so maybe I can trade up.” (Later, far too late, Howat sends me a text message to say “no luck”.)
At 9pm, Led Zeppelin begin to play, although there is no way to confirm this from the outside. It seems that even the strongest guitar riffs and drum fills of all time cannot penetrate this space. When I ask a passing floor manager why not, he goes into technical detail about “treatment and isolation” specifications so advanced that even the chair-backs have been designed to direct sound inward. “If you walked into the middle of that room and clapped your hands, you’d get no reverb, and no spill.”
Dispirited I retreat to the bar, which is called The Bar, with a like-minded Sicillian named Daniele Contina, who talks about music in imperfect but impassioned English. “I wanted to feel the energy,” he says. “I thought thousands of people would be here chilling out and listening to Led Zeppelin. But it’s pretty awful, you know? I think it’s because of eBay. So many people buying and selling tickets, just to make money. They don’t understand anything about the concept or the perfection of a band. I’m 33. I grew up with Led Zeppelin. I came here in hope. For the love of music. In the freezing cold.”
The bar is mostly empty, and charges £5.50 for a beer, but it does at least play Zeppelin songs, and the closest we get to the atmosphere we came for is when two middle-aged men start wailing, shaking, oscillating to When The Levee Breaks. They introduce themselves as Peter Hanford and Steve Croxie, lifelong fans who took a diversion on their way to support Liverpool FC in Marseille, thinking that they might be able to, in Croxie’s words, “bunk in”. “We’ve been round the back with ladders,” says Hanford. “No chance.”
When Nobody’s Fault But Mine comes over the speakers, Hanford excuses himself to sing along and execute a few modest air-guitar windmills. A lone voice from the other side of the bar shouts: “Yeah! Sing it, brother!” And then the gig is finished, and the ticket-holders come out, many of them whooping. Emily Williams and Brooke Harland from Brighton tell me it was “blinding and deafening”. Earl Barrett from Chicago says he “came 7000 miles and it was worth it.”
Peter Cowan from the Isle of Man says “I waited my whole life and they were even better than I thought they were going to be”. I would like to believe that every positive response to this show has been conditioned by the investment of at least £125 in it. But there is no mistaking the facial expressions of human beings who have just heard the cry of the dinosaur. Leaving on the crowded Docklands Light Railway, a Texan who can’t stop smiling or talking asks me where I was sitting in relation to Led Zeppelin. “Toward the back,” I tell him, which is not quite a lie. “That doesn’t matter,” he says. “We were there, man.”
In my head, though, I am composing the No Ticket Blues: “Well with no ticket in my hand I went to London anyway/And I went down to the river to the place the band would play/I hoped to meet the Devil, and that he might get me in/But I stood out in the cold all night, and I didn’t hear a thing.”