The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was spectacular. Artfully choreographed by film director Danny Boyle, it was culturally rich but charmingly parochial, striking a tone of pride in the Best Of British while being quietly conciliatory about the Worst. It was honest, and it was rather beautiful.
The process had begun four years earlier, at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the staging had a different kind of vibe altogether. Like a Hollywood movie that cuts to a scene set in London and immediately shoehorns Tower Bridge into shot – lest the viewer should be unsure of where they've landed – it was an altogether clumsier affair.
After Zhang Yimou's spectacular sign-off on behalf on the host nation (fireworks, drummers, more fireworks), the official From London, 'With a Whole Lotta Love' handover section began. There was a double-decker bus that somehow transformed itself into a privet hedge. Famous London landmarks like The London Eye and Tower Bridge (see?!) made an appearance. Boris Johnson was there, looking like a teddy bear whose stuffing was beginning to leak. David Beckham kicked some footballs. And Jimmy Page played Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love.
"That really was a highlight," Page told Classic Rock. "It was like passing on a relay baton to the next people hosting the Olympics, which was London. People were saying: 'Oh, you shouldn’t do that.' And I thought: 'Oh, yes I should.'"
Page was told not to do the show by those with concerns about China's human rights record and its policies towards Tibet. Indeed, unsubstantiated rumours at the time suggested that a reformed Led Zeppelin were asked to perform at the ceremony, but the idea was shelved when Robert Plant raised just such objections.
In the event, soul singer Leona Lewis was brought in to sing Plant's parts, but declined to perform the song’s original ‘I’m gonna give you every inch of my love’ line, and dropped its third verse (which includes the infamous, ‘Shake for me, girl, I wanna be your backdoor man’).
"Those athletes work so hard on getting to the Olympics, focus all their efforts on giving their prime performance on that one day, and I can relate to that," said Page. "So to be able to do that for the London Olympics would be really great. When they said they wanted the whole full-length version of Whole Lotta Love, I said: 'Really? No edits?' 'No, really, the full version.' So I said: 'Now you’re talking.' Then when they said Leona Lewis would be singing, I thought: 'This is gonna be really interesting.'
It was interesting, albeit in the way that musical intrusion at a sporting event often is: it was designed for those sitting at home rather than those in the stadium, a visual feast rather than a sonic supper. Page pursed his lips and chopped out that familiar riff, dancers contorted themselves into avant-garde shapes, and Lewis whizzed up and down on a hydraulic platform. It was tremendous, if you like that sort of thing, and Page evidently did.
"Boy oh boy, she was really phenomenal," he said. "Her vocal was great. I had a great time, and it had the largest audience of anything I’ve ever done."
Jimmy Page has barely played to an audience of any size in the years since. But we'll always have Beijing.