How John Paul Jones Compared Early Led Zeppelin Shows to the Band’s Final Gigs

When Led Zeppelin played Knebworth in 1979, the group hadn’t performed live in two years. Over that period, the band’s members had gone through its darkest days to date. After the death of Robert Plant’s five-year-old son in ’77, the Zep’s run almost ended on the spot.

But Zeppelin pulled themselves together and made In Through the Out Door. Though it probably ranks as the least of the Zep albums, the band proved it still had punch on tracks like “In the Evening” and “Fool in the Rain.” Then it came time to take the act back on the road.

At Knebworth, critics saw a shell of the band that had ruled the stage earlier that decade. “Zeppelin certainly was not the same band that had stepped onstage 10 years ago,” Lisa Robinson wrote (via Vanity Fair). “For those of us who’d seen the band at their peak, they were more than just rusty; the wit and the wonder weren’t really there.”

The view from inside the Zeppelin camp was much more optimistic. In a 2003 interview, John Paul Jones fielded a question about the change in Zep performances by Knebworth. For Jones, he couldn’t help noticing what was the same about the band on stage.

John Paul Jones felt the total commitment in Led Zeppelin from the early shows through Knebworth

Led Zeppelin in 1968
Led Zeppelin performs its 1st show in Gladsaxe, Denmark, 7 September 1968. | Jorgen Angel/Redferns

RELATED: Why Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones Had to Wear a Wig for ‘The Song Remains the Same’

Speaking with a Swedish TV interviewer in a clip available on YouTube, Jones didn’t feel like he was in a band in decline. Though they’d been through a lot together, the Zeppelin bassist and keyboard didn’t see a drop-off from the band’s explosive early days.

“For me the more interesting thing is the similarity [to the early days],” he said. “The same commitment is there on the stage. Once you walk on stage and the music starts, you tend to forget about everything else.”

Jones didn’t have a chance to think about the tragedy and the addictions of John Bonham and Jimmy Page at Knebworth. He was too busy watching his bandmates for the cues as they took off on their musical flights.

“There’s a lot of concentration on stage in a Zeppelin concert,” he said with a laugh. “You’ve got to be ready. You can’t drift off thinking about things. That was there right from the first shows to the end. You can see it at Knebworth.”

Led Zeppelin’s final U.K. show remains a remarkable document

Led Zeppelin, Knebworth, 1979
Jimmy Page plays ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at Knebworth in 1979. This was the last time Led Zeppelin appeared in England. | FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

If you watch Led Zeppelin’s set at Knebworth (it’s available on DVD), you see what Jones means. While Page looks physically weaker than he did in the mid-’70s, Zep’s founder seems to be willing himself to deliver a great performance on guitar. (For Zep fans, it’s moving to watch Page work.)

And the band soars on tracks like “Kashmir” and the Page spotlight “Achilles Last Stand.” They might not be as tight as they were in 1975, but Jones’ contribution, along with Plant’s clear vocals, really stand out in the group’s final U.K. performance. Page’s technique isn’t 100% but he’s in every bar of every song.

Jones said that never changed over the course of the band’s 12-year run. “Every concert [was] given the same commitment and the same weight,” he said in the ’03 interview. “Whether it’s in front of 20 people or 20,000. It’s always the same. […] It was always a very professional attitude on stage with Led Zeppelin.”