“There was an extraordinary amount of tension...” Inside Led Zeppelin’s final US tour

Led Zeppelin onstage in the US in 1977
(Image credit: Jeffrey Mayer/Wire Image/Getty Images)

The fact that Led Zeppelin’s mode of transport for their ’77 US tour was a refitted plane that included a bar, two bedrooms, a 30-foot couch and a Hammond organ tells you where the rock legends were at by this point: this was Led Zep at the height of superstar decadence. It’s no wonder that they had money to burn. In April that year, they’d set a new world record for the largest paid attendance at a single-artist performance when they drew 76,229 people to a concert at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, a show that grossed a massive $792,361 (also a new record). It had sold out in one day. They felt unstoppable. “I’m sure we all felt a little invincible on this tour,” Gary Carnes, head of the lighting crew, told Classic Rock’s Steven Rosen. “By being associated with Led Zeppelin, it seemed impossible not to have a sense of power. I’m sure the band felt that way, and I know everyone on the crew had a feeling of invulnerability.”

But underneath all their material pow-wow and ticket sales, the band’s 11th and final jaunt across the States was fraught with problems. First of all, they’d had to postpone some of the dates after Robert Plant caught laryngitis a few shows in. After the second performance, in Chicago, Jimmy Page had fallen ill with what Calmes called the ”rockin’ pneumonia”. Manager Peter Grant, meanwhile, was still the band’s antagonistic rock but he himself was going through a marriage break-up.

“There was an extraordinary amount of tension at the start of that 77 tour,” Calmes recounted. “It just got off to a really negative start. It was definitely much darker than any Zeppelin tour ever before that time. Zeppelin still had their moments of greatness, but some of the shows were grinding and not very inspired.”

Jimmy Page’s drinking was another issue. The guitarist was hitting it hard, and it was affecting his performances. “Quite often Robert would announce a song,” remembered Carnes, “and Jimmy would go: ‘Robert, how does that song go?’ And Robert would sort of turn around and hum it to him. And Jimmy would go: ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah, I got it, I got it.’ Or Robert would announce a song and Jimmy would go into the wrong song. The times when Jimmy couldn’t remember how a song went were very, very rare, but it did happen.”

The group all headed off in different directions after the arduous tour, but the worst was to come. Robert Plant had just arrived at his hotel in New Orleans when his wife rang to say that their son Karac was ill, soon calling again to say that he’d died. It was a tragedy that loomed over the band’s remaining years, a devastating end to a period that pushed Led Zeppelin to the brink.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.