Jason Bonham was only a member of Led Zeppelin once, filling in for his father, the late drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham, at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert last year. But even a single day's tenure is membership enough for some Zep fans. Bonham said earlier this year that whenever he tours with his own band, he's faced with kids "on stage yelling 'Get the Led Out' . . .
"What a following!"
Having grown up around the band, the young drummer ought to be used to Zep-mania in all its manifestations. Although Led Zeppelin broke up shortly after the death of John Bonham in 1980, its popularity continues unabated.
"I think they're probably bigger now," chuckled Bonham. "If they brought an album out now, I think it would be bigger than the last one they did."
Considering that almost 12 years have passed since Led Zeppelin last went into a recording studio, it's unlikely that there will ever be a new album as such.
Today, however, Atlantic Records releases the next best thing: "Led Zeppelin" (Atlantic 82144). A boxed, 54-song anthology, it is a Zep-maniac's fantasy, featuring superior sound (digitally-remastered by Zep guitarist Jimmy Page), elaborate liner notes (including essays by former Rolling Stone reporter Cameron Crowe, blues scholar Robert Palmer and MTV's Kurt Loder), and almost five hours of prime Led Zeppelin.
Despite a fairly stiff price -- $69.98 is the suggested retail price for the four-CD set, and $54.98 for cassette or LP -- most industry observers say the set is a guaranteed hit.
"There's no question," said Thom Duffy, talent editor at Billboard magazine. "The Led Zeppelin collection is expected to be one of the biggest-selling packages of the Christmas season."
Obviously, assembling the set was a great marketing move, but that isn't really what prompted Jimmy Page to go back and remaster these recordings. Instead, as he explained from London, what motivated him was that "the CDs that came out were a great disappointment to me, personally.
"I didn't have anything to do with the mastering of them, and some of them were good, and other ones fell flat on how they ought to have sounded. I really wanted to have a crack at improving the overall sound spectrum of everything."
One thing Page didn't do was pull a lot of previously unreleased material out of the vaults. In fact, the only songs included on "Led Zeppelin" that weren't on the band's albums are "Hey Hey What Can I Do," a song which had heretofore been available only as the B-side to "Immigrant Song," and two recordings from a 1969 BBC radio broadcast, "White Summer/Black Mountain Slide," which features a lengthy, virtuosic Page guitar solo, and Robert Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues."
Page would have included other rarities, except there weren't any. "The only things that were left over, and had complete vocals, all came out on 'Coda,' " he said. "Which was a posthumous album, obviously; John was gone then.
"But that was really in light of the fact that there were so many bootlegs -- I mean, to what there are now, it was like a drop in the ocean, wasn't it? -- and people were so keen to hear all these different performances, it was agreed that we'd put out everything left that was studio material."
Even without new material, though, a Led Zeppelin set would be a potent draw for many rock fans, if only because of the intense loyalty the band's music has inspired. "Led Zeppelin continues to have a hold on the imagination of rock fans, young and old," said Duffy. "There's clearly an audience that has been waiting for this."
No wonder; as far as rock radio is concerned, Led Zeppelin never went away. "Stairway to Heaven," though it was never released as a single and therefore never made the Top 40, is the most-requested song in history. Other Zep hits -- "Whole Lotta Love," "Black Dog," "Kashmir," "Immigrant Song" -- remain staples for many stations.
Needless to say, such ongoing popularity has sparked endless speculation over whether the band would reassemble for a Who-style comeback tour. So far, Led Zeppelin has only performed twice since John Bonham's death, first at Live-Aid, with drummers Phil Collins and Tony Thompson, and then at the Atlantic 40th Anniversary show, with Jason Bonham.
Robert Plant, Zeppelin's singer, has repeatedly dismissed reunion rumors. "That will never happen," he said in Cleveland recently, "because Bonzo's not around." Even so, he appreciates that the Led Zeppelin myth continues to endure.
"Well," he said, "it hasn't ended for anybody, really. I mean, Bing Crosby hasn't ended, either, you know? Elvis certainly hasn't. But the great thing about it is that I can be consumed by Zep, and my contribution to it, through any of my mood changes. Which means that it was good, because there's plenty to choose from, of all sorts of variances."