"It’s almost as if I had fallen into a Led Zeppelin movie or something, it didn’t even feel real," the rocker tells EW.

By Leah Greenblatt
May 20, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Ross Halfin

Concert venues may be dark and touring off the books indefinitely, but it's still the season of movie blockbusters and music festivals — at least in spirit, which is why we're looking back on classic moments in entertainment as part of EW's Retro Summer. 

This year marks a quarter-century for Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana juggernaut Foo Fighters, and though quarantine may have derailed much of the band's planned months-long celebration of that anniversary, the voluble frontman has more than enough tales to tell in the meantime — both on his new(ish) Instagram account and over the phone with EW, where he discussed a peak moment of his personal and professional life: an unforgettable collaboration with his childhood idols on one of the world's largest stages. Here, the story of his own (mildly hungover) stairway to heaven. 

DAVE GROHL (as told to EW):

"It all started at the Live Earth benefit that we played in, I think, 2006 or 2007. It was in multiple cities around the world, but we were invited to play at the London gig, which was at Wembley Stadium, and the list of performers was bananas. It was Madonna and the Beastie Boys and Genesis and Metallica and the Pussycat Dolls; there were so many artists. And we just assumed that we would be at the bottom of the bill because I imagined like at most festivals that the lineup was based on popularity. But when we arrived and saw the schedule it had us going on after everyone and just before Madonna.

It turned out that a lot of those bands had other festivals they had to get to that night — the summer festival season in Europe is crazy, so every weekend is a different country and every country has a different festival. But anyway, I was terrified. And I remember before going on, my manager John Silva pulled me aside and said, 'I just need for you to do one thing for me. I just need for you to be better than Metallica.' [Laughs] I said, 'That’s not going to happen.'

But we decided since we only had 20 minutes onstage that we would do what Queen did at Live Aid, which was basically play five of our most recognizable songs that everyone could sing along to, and as we walked onstage the sun was just going down so the lights had just started coming up and we basically did an abbreviated version of a greatest-hits set — so it was 'My Hero,' and it was 'Everlong,' and it was, oh f---, I don’t know, 'Learn to Fly'? Just the big singles.

And in the middle of the set I jokingly announced to the audience that we would be back to play Wembley multiple nights. I was kidding! Because at that point we had never even headlined a stadium. So about a year later when my manager asked if we wanted to [do it], of course we had to pull out all the stops. So we designed this stage in the round — I mean literally drew a picture of the stage on a f---in' napkin, it’s so Spinal Tap but it’s true, it was just a crude drawing that ended up becoming the blueprint of that show.

And then someone asked us if we wanted to have some special guests. So being a Led Zeppelin freak — you know, I’ve got Led Zeppelin tattoos — I thought 'Well, we’ve gotta call John Paul Jones.' We had wound up performing 'The Pretender' with him that year at the Grammys and we made friends so I figured, this is the most momentous occasion of my entire life, why not call the band that changed it all for me?

So I got on the phone with Jimmy Page and he basically said 'Well what do you want to do?' And I was terrified to answer. I felt like I was in a waking dream. but I had to say something, so I said 'How about “Rock and Roll”?' so he said 'Yeah, what else?' I said 'How about “Ramble On”?' he said, 'Great, see you at rehearsals.' I mean it was that easy, I couldn’t believe it.

You know it’s kind of a blur to be honest, I know it’s on f---in' Palladia or whatever, but I remember the rehearsals the day before when we were soundchecking at the stadium. I was so nervous, and hungover actually [laughs] , and when they showed up I couldn’t believe that finally the moment I had been waiting for — to sit on a drum stool, look to my left and see Jimmy Page, look to my right and see John Paul Jones — was actually happening. Just being eight feet away from Jimmy Page as he played this classic song and shredded these classic leads is just so hard to explain. It’s almost as if I had fallen into a Led Zeppelin movie or something, it didn’t even feel real.

Their importance to me is hard to explain because I didn’t take lessons, I don’t understand conventional theory, I can’t read music. But listening to those albums taught me so much. It kind of taught me how to learn, so in a way I almost saw them as more than human — which of course they’re not. They’re wonderful generous people that walk the earth as we do, but to me they just meant so much more that I almost didn’t want to impose any sort of personal relationship on them. Although years later I ended up playing in a band with John Paul Jones and Josh Homme for a while called Them Crooked Vultures, which was amazing because then I did become close friends with John.

But every once in a while I’ll see a clip of that Wembley show, and I’ll remember how I felt running up to that stage. Having 60 or 70,000 people singing 'Everlong,' it was magical. I’m looking out at my mother, my wife, my daughter, my whole family, just thinking 'This wasn’t supposed to happen, this band was never supposed to do this. And I’m so grateful for all the other things in my life, but I’d hate to feel like this was just another show.' It wasn’t, and it never will be for me. There are some things in life that stay with you forever, and yeah, that was one."

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