Sunday 4 May 2008




Now he's done the LED ZEPPELIN re-union one-off at the O2 arena,
and he's getting all the critical kudos for his Alison Krauss collaboration
album 'RAISING SAND' - but when I did this interview with ROBERT PLANT
he was on a promotion schedule for a solo album called 'MANIC NIRVANA'... and I still have the promo vinyl copy...!

“Hey there Mama, said the way you move
gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove ...”
(from “Black Dog” on ‘LED ZEPPELIN 4’, and
“Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night” on ‘MANIC NIRVANA’)

In through the out door. It has to be...
London splurged with the blizzard-white light of early spring greenhoused into heatwave. And from its slow dazzle I go into the huge silent gloom of a Hotel silted with dignified ritual and polite establishment observances as calm and grandiloquent as psalms. But I go in through the out door, in ritual observance of some other cultural tradition.
Then a sound, distant at first, but growing startlingly fast. Like the planet Saturn coughing out moons of phlegm, until it roars and resonates and shakes the foundations atremble like an amplified Krakatoa at maximum throttle. And K-E-R-R-A-N-G, splattering ferns and exploding potted plants into shrapnel the jet black ‘n’ chrome-gleaming machine comes hurtling, jouncing and growling through the plush-piled corridors, down the richly carpeted stairs, and banshee-screeching into the foyer. Juddering and throbbing to a halt that rips Axminster fibre, revving down, comes the huge 10,000cc Harley Davison with quad exhausts. A Romano-Celtic Warlord sits astride its power-glide metallic sheen. He wears a python around his throat and a naked woman draped across the pillion. Her long dark hair is threaded with chrysanthemums, and there’s a daisy woven into her pubic bush. Strutted up against the shocked Reception Desk, unleaded gas-fumes dancing in contrails of dry-ice, he dismounts shaking sweat-matted ringlets of golden hair from his piercing blue eyes, brocade jacket open over glistening bare chest.
He grins, bounds up to me and pumps my hand. “Hi Andy, I’m Robert Plant…”
Except it doesn’t happen quite like that.
“Hi, Robert Plant here” says the voice flooding through the ‘phone. “I’m speaking from a little office by the side of the rehearsal place that we’re working in right now. Yeah, Devon, that’s correct.” Interviews courtesy of British Telecom are NOT ideal. “No, they’re not. Where are you? Where are ya. You’re in Wakefield…!”
Led Zeppelin - still over the hills and far away.


But this is March 1990. And Robert Plant has no time for 1970’s Heavy Metal Dinosaurs any more, he has no musical corpses or Rock Behemoths to drag around either. Heavy Plant is crossing over into the new decade, and that’s his main preoccupation now. The current band. The current album ‘MANIC NIRVANA’ (- “fast bliss”). “WE’VE GOT A BAND. A BIG POSITIVE WORKFORCE. And people have got the ticket now. The reviews have been very positive, very up. They’ve really kinda given great credence to the job we’re trying to do. They understand what’s going on. FINALLY, now, I’m allowed to get on with my own career. AND THIS MUSIC IS THAT STRONG. It’s undeniably another phase of my life. Which means I don’t have to keep on dipping back into the past all the time. And REFERENCES to the past are becoming less and less necessary…” Despite the quote from “Black Dog” on side two track two? “Yes, this band is a very positive work environment. We’d just come back from an American tour after playing to slightly under a million people, and we came back wanting to make our next statement together. It was a case of ‘let’s make this record’, and my young chums were pushing and encouraging me and saying ‘YEAH, LET’S GO, LET’S GO, C’MON’. I would have it no other way than that.”
Fact is ‘MANIC NIRVANA’ IS an album worth gloating about. It’s ten years since Plant sloughed off the stale Zep skin. And it’s been a decade of false starts and half-realised projects. His retro revivalist Honeydrippers group, a belated Top Twenty single with “Big Log” (Plant’s first ever UK chart hit - no.11 in July 1983), and a series of flawed and only occasionally impressive LP’s - ‘PICTURES AT ELEVEN’ (July 1982), ‘THE PRINCIPLE OF MOMENTS’ (July 1983) which features “Big Log” and “Messin’ With The Mekon”, ‘SHAKEN ‘N’ STIRRED’ (May 1985) featuring guest harmonies from Kirsty MacColl, and ‘NOW AND ZEN’ (February 1988). ‘MANIC NIRVANA’ easily bests them all, fusing the finest aspects of his heritage with what the ‘New Musical Express’ calls “an eagle eye fixed on the nineties”. “Yes” he concedes, “and it’s a lot of fun as well!”
Here and now, in this rehearsal suite, he introduces me around the band. Doug Boyle is his best, flashiest and most incendiary guitarist since - it has to be said, since Jimmy Page. Chris Blackwell his best, solidest, and most inventive drummer since, yeah, John Bonham. “Chris also plays guitar on the “Tie-Dye On The Highway” track. He plays drums, and he plays keyboards, he thinks he writes songs, he smiles, he plays straight. He’s a musician. An all-round musician. He’s not just a drummer, and yet he’s a great drummer. But that’s only one string to his bow.” He neglects to add that this is a band that also works together as smoothly as a finely-tuned 10,000cc Harley at maximum throttle - Plant, Boyle, Blackwell, Phil Johnstone (keyboards) and Charlie Jones (bass). A solid unit formed for ‘NOW AND ZEN’, honed in by touring, and now kicked well into its stride, making their ‘MANIC NIRVANA’ an oddly disconcerting mix of the expected and the destabilising. Like rambling through a strange, unfamiliar and fantastically haunted forest, but glancing up through the tree-tops to glimpse the same reassuringly familiar old constellations in the same starry firmament.
“Doug Boyle? How did I meet Doug Boyle? Through Chris Blackwell. Track record? He hasn’t got one really, yet. He’s played in pubs, playing jazz basically. In fact that’s what he’s doing over there now, the bastard - while I’m over here doing this. You can hear him warbling on like... I dunno, like Steve Reich’s Dad. And yes - if I sound a bit dopey at this time it’s because somebody else is here trying to recreate the Sixties about ten feet away from me...” He delivers this line to general laughter.
But the album doesn’t try to recreate the Sixties - it samples it direct from the ‘WOODSTOCK’ soundtrack (on “Tie-Dye On The Highway”, a track ‘that’s just saluting the glorious days of my adolescence’). For continuity and innovation don’t necessarily conflict. Here they co-exist. The song might remain the same, but at least this is very much today’s remix. He quotes “Black Dog”, samples from ‘WOODSTOCK’, and goes even further back - on the set’s only non-band composition. ‘The surface noise is unavoidable’ says the sleeve-notes. “Oh yeah, you mean the drum-track on “Your Ma Said You Cried”? The rhythm track is a bass-drum sampled from the original record. It was a great song done first by Kenny Dino. Doug Sheldon had the English version, on Decca (F 11416 - fact fans!). But the one we sampled from was the American version. I read in one review that it got to no.34. I thought it did a little better than that.” (He’s right - of course. Kenny Dino charted 12 April 1961 and reached no.24 on US ‘Billboard’. Doug Sheldon entered 4 January 1961 and hit no.29 in the UK ‘Record Retailer’ chart - trivia buffs!)
Are there other antique Rock ‘n’ Roll / R&B tracks you intend covering in the future? “No. Not really. I tend to write ‘em. I mean - that’s what I was saying about ‘MANIC NIRVANA’, it’s panoramic Rockabilly. That’s what IT IS. It’s just contemporised a little bit. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that. It’s basically extended Rockabilly. It is - yeah.” There’s an obvious continuity with the Honeydrippers project. “Well, I think that with things like the tracks “Nirvana” and “Hurting Kind” you’ve got a continuation of the Honeydrippers there. I see “Nirvana” having little smacks of things I was trying to do on the ‘SHAKEN ‘N’ STIRRED’ album, where you try to make a piece of music into almost a Detective theme from the Sixties. You know? A kind of ‘The Unwritten Detective Movie’. And you start getting that kind of wacky sinister edge to things. So yeah - I think “Nirvana” and “Hurting Kind” are really where the Honeydrippers should have gone...”
Conversation rambles on in this disjointed manner, until “OK Andy, I’m getting the nod. I’ve got about another two minutes, ‘cos the whole rehearsal has ground to a halt.” So - let’s dip back into the past just a little. How about some quick ‘Hammer Of The Gods’ salacious tour stories before I have to go, Robert? “I’ve got no ‘Hammer Of The Gods’ salacious tour stories.” Curt, sharp, and with obvious irritation. “And I can’t BELIEVE that anybody wants that shit. TELL THEM TO FUCK OFF...!!! ”

“Carry me back, carry me back, carry me back
Baby, to where I came from ...” 
(from “Rock ‘n’ Roll” on ‘LED ZEPPELIN 4’)

Even in an industry based on hyperbole the Led Zeppelin statistics are stunning. Between 1969 and 1982 they shift enough vinyl product to plug the hole in the ozone layer. Make enough money to bail out the Russian economy. Travel more tour-miles than the Voyager-2 space probe. And play to more people in a month than the Pope (even with U2 in the support slot) could manage in a year. They played at punishing volume, and with as much adrenaline as a riot.
In one of his final interviews John Lennon said ‘I am still a Beatles fan’. So is Robert Plant still a Led Zeppelin fan? Is he happy with his legacy? “Yes. I am. I’m very much a Led Zeppelin fan. I wouldn’t be a fan of Led Zeppelin now. But I’m a fan of what they did - ‘what they did’? ...” he corrects himself, “what we did then. It was reasonably honest. And it was certainly very inspired at times.”
Robert Anthony Plant was born 20th August 1948 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire. Is Kenny Dino the kind of music the pubescent ‘Percy’ used to listen to? “...when I was a kid? Yes, in a sense. But my taste was a bit, I don’t know... left of centre I guess. I used to listen to anything that was enticing, alluring. I liked material that made me shudder, and that kind of Wild American Pop used to really seduce me. I’ve always tried to put some of that sound into what I do. To make my music seductive, without being stupid, you know? I really used to enjoy Gene Vincent. Yeah - his early stuff. In fact I’ve always enjoyed his voice. Even up until his death he was singing beautifully, even if the material was sometimes a bit questionable. And at the moment I’m trying to collect Joe Meek stuff if I can. And er... yes, there’s other stuff, like rare Ral Donner’s material...” Perhaps Donner’s Presley sound-alike ‘You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)’ I suggest. “Well, that was his big hit. But I had to wait three years to get an even rarer Ral Donner track on the Red Bird label!”
The early ‘60’s saw Plant sucked into the burgeoning Birmingham Blues Scene, “…er, it was the Black Country, actually. Not just Birmingham.” As later, Zeppelin would draw exhaustively on roots music too, most obviously the Blues. It is the Blues that validates and gives organic inputs to what they created together. The Blues roots that make Zep more REAL. They double-headed a bill with John Lee Hooker at the ‘Roundhouse’ in 1969. And perhaps sometimes they were even too Blues rooted! After all, didn’t Willie Dixon have grounds for serving writs over his “You Need Love” (written for Muddy Waters), which forms the basis for “Whole Lotta Love”? (a situation rectified by the CD reissue of ‘LED ZEPPELIN 2’ which adds Dixon’s name to the composer-credits). But nevertheless, Blues gave Zep music some kind of solid foundation. Whereas subsequent more contemporary bands - like Guns ‘n’ Roses, Bush or Therapy, draw only on secondary sources. On sources like Led Zeppelin themselves. “Exactly. It’s lost its plop really. It’s a little neutered. It’s just a bit of a drag.”
Yet Robert Plant’s own first 45rpm single was recorded with a band called Listen. “Oh yeah... ‘You Better Run’.” His vinyl debut coming in the form of a 1966 cover of an American Young Rascals hit. “That’s right. I put it out the same week as a version by a band called the Inbetweens. And of course, later those same Inbetweens turned into Slade. We were all from the same part of the Black Country, so it was quite funny really. We probably only sold about 800 copies each.” Two solo singles followed - “Our Song” c/w “Laughing, Crying, Laughing” and “Long Time Coming” c/w “I’ve Got A Secret”, both for CBS. Both now extremely rare and collectible, people are prepared to pay incredible amounts for such obscure early sides. Are you aware of the collector’s value of your first single? “About £80 in’it? Yeah, well - I pay money for records if I really want to get something, y’know? So I can understand that.”
He left the Midlands with just his rail fare in his jeans, following up an invitation to join ‘The New Yardbirds’ for a Scandinavian tour... the band’s contractual final tour before its name-switch to Led Zeppelin. Then Zeppelin vamped the media on a learning curve. It was already a band made up of entire fanzines full of muso trivia, a 21st Century Bible of ‘60’s vinyl even before they’d played their first collective gig at Surrey University, 15th October 1968. Jimmy Page’s session pedigree is breathtaking. It’s his note-bending guitar you hear on Dave Berry’s “The Crying Game”. He plays on the Rolling Stones’ ‘THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST’. He plays on the Jet Harris & Tony Meehan no.1 “Diamonds”, the Who’s ‘MY GENERATION’ album, Kinks, Pretty Things, Them, Paul Anka, and Cliff Richard records. He first evolved his notorious violin-bowing guitar technique (used to such devastating effect in the Madison Square Gardens film during Zep’s “Dazed And Confused” sequence) while helping out on the ‘PAINTER MAN’ LP recorded by flamboyant Pop-Art band Creation. Then, as a Yardbird, he appears alongside Jeff Beck’s petulant amp-trashing sequence in Antonioni’s quintessential ‘BLOW UP’ movie. And on and on.
As more-or-less simultaneously the young John Paul Jones was acting as a Mickie Most staff producer, and sessioneer for the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Cat Stevens, Donovan’s ‘SUNSHINE SUPERMAN’ album, the controversial Downliner Sect, and on and on...
And - coming full circle, ‘MANIC NIRVANA’ was recorded at Olympia studios, where ‘LED ZEPPELIN 1’ was cut, in thirty-six hours. “Yes, that’s true. Was the ghost still there? Yeah, the ghost was still there. The ghost was there alive and well - and laughing at me. I managed to get my best vocal performance for such a long time. I think that was partly to do with the ghost of all that wildness.”
From the start Led Zeppelin cultivated class via mystique. A ruthlessly protected exclusivity. Peter Grant, their carnivorous manager, determined their policy of no British singles and no TV shots, ensuring their status as cult gods. There were no sugar-coated bullets of radio-friendly noise from the Zeps, only rhythms broad-brushed with an awesome power, guitar-breaks machined to within one-thousandth of an inch, and there - beneath the sonic machinery, the wet velvet rub of soft human sex. But image is more than just logo, and Zeppelin had the power to flesh out the myth. Album by album their music edged forward along the rim of a precipice. Their sound developing like a shiny spring uncoiling in gut-tightening curves, flashing shoot-to-kill riffs at audio health-hazard volume.
On a day-trip to Calais I once smuggled home a secret stash of a French single coupling “Communication Breakdown” c/w “Good Times, Bad Times” for massively marked-up resale to other fourth-formers, and impeccably cool personal credibility (in fact I wound up keeping it, and still have it). More recently I lurched in (through the out door) of a local HMV shop where they were playing “Good Times, Bad Times” cranked up really loud. For a millisecond it doesn’t really connect who it is, the synapses don’t close, registering only the hard sharp fast guitar grenade-fragmentation. It sounds remarkable contemporary. Until it clicked that I was listening to a record made over twenty years earlier! Plant laughs as I retell the anecdote, “I know. Makes you think dun’it? What next?”

The Beatles in pieces. The Rolling Stones quality-control plummeting. Led Zeppelin the world’s uncontested no.1 band. Metal at its densest, its heaviest, its most speed-crazed and inventive. But never just metal. The electronic techno is always there too - from the swirling theramin vortex running (vinyl) rings around the chaos in the mid-section of “Whole Lotta Love”, to “In The Light” which fades in with an insect’s hollow drone, shifts into a vivid crimson whooosh, leads into an arc of purple curves through red surrounds going scarlet with animation. Slash its veins - it bleeds ice and lava. Just as their range is wide enough to encompass traditional songs, from as early as “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” on ‘LED ZEPPELIN 1’, through “Gallows Pole” and on to the 11:08 minute “In My Time Of Dying” on ‘PHYSICAL GRAFFITI’, as well as absorbing Folk elements from the likes of Sandy Denny and Roy Harper.
Is it fair to assume that the electronic side of Zeppelin was down to Jimmy Page - coming on like a sound-sculpting audio developer from Sirius. While the acoustic whimsy is due to Plant’s influence? “No. The electronic side would be from whatever was going on at the time. And whoever you could see at the time who would encourage you into doing things in certain directions. But the acoustic side, no, I think that was everybody too. Y’know? - I mean, the more extreme of the extremes came from Pagey - sonically. Then John Paul was also there with his early use of synthesisers on things like “Celebration”. He was always one step ahead of everyone else. He had the first Yamaha G1 - even before Stevie Wonder got his ! Which Bonzo just lifted off the ground once when he was a bit drunk, it was so heavy he dropped it about three inches - and totally wrecked the thing.” Plant dissolves into tides of laughter, before resuming, “of course, he was only doing it for a bit of a joke...”
Ten albums, plus batches of after-the-event digitally remastered compilations. ‘LED ZEPPELIN’ and ‘LED ZEPPELIN 2’ (both in 1969, March and October), ‘LED ZEPPELIN 3’ (in October 1970), ‘FOUR SYMBOLS’ (November 1971) featuring “Stairway To Heaven” and guest Folkie Sandy Denny, ‘HOUSES OF THE HOLY’ (April 1973), the ‘PHYSICAL GRAFFITI’ double set (March 1975) featuring “Kashmir”, ‘PRESENCE’ (April 1976) and the ‘THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME’ soundtrack double-set (October 1976), ‘IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR’ (August 1979) - and the posthumous ‘CODA’ (November 1982). Plus six American Top 40 singles, from “Whole Lotta Love” (no.4 in 1969) to “Fool In The Rain” (no.8 in 1980). Yet unlike the evolution of comparable-status bands like the Rolling Stones or Queen, which are almost excessively documented by film-clips and promo video compilations, pretty much the only visual legacy left by Led Zeppelin is their 127-minute self-indulgent performance + fantasy sequence movie ‘THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME’ (Warner Video).
Does Robert regret the decision not to do TV or to make singles for the British market? “Naw. Not at all. I think, in a way, it’s better that the records speak for themselves. You haven’t got to see the sort of aping and glamour too much. It’s just fine the way it is. Any more of it and it would have become an industry.” In the movie there’s Peter Grant doing his Gangster chic, John Bonham drag-racing, Jimmy Page on a mystic quest to self-realisation - and Robert Plant doing the otherworldly rural Hippie idyll, riding horseback, children frisking in the stream, the full Pre-Raphaelite deal. Is that really the way the members of the band saw themselves at that point in their lives? “Well, I don’t think I saw myself as a Romano-Celtic Warlord, not really! But I do still see that the countryside was beautiful. And I did like the evocative imagery of the place in which I was living. I was there on the Welsh border surrounded by all that incredible past, all the history of conflict between the Saxons and Celts. That sort of thing. And sure, it was wishy-washy. A bit sloppy. Romantic. A pre-Mary Whitehouse ramble. But yeah, I’d do it again.”
Filmed live from a camera positioned in the second row of Madison Square Gardens the movie captures “Black Dog”, “Stairway To Heaven”, and a manic “Dazed And Confused” - with Plant roaring in his full sex-god persona, projecting the erotic stage and lyrical satyr doppleganger that’s continually attracted attacks for sexist offensiveness and shallow phallocentric posturing. Yet Feminist par excellence Germaine Greer provides as escape clause by describing him as ‘the sexiest man in the world’ (in her notorious ‘Playboy’ interview). “Good Lord...”, he’s momentarily thrown off balance. “Yes, but if I’m being levelled as sexist because of the lyrics on these records then, the thing is, none of it is developed around male dominance, or around the use of the female as being some kind of subservient being. Occasionally it can actually be fun to have people who are attractive to one’s desires. Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly was built on that. I’m no ‘Brain of Britain’ but I like to think that I’m aware of different aspects of what I like. And these things are particularly funny.”
Do you get pissed off with people making these accusations? “No. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It is what it is. Ultimately all the waffling in the world doesn’t make it any different. I like it. And it sounds good. It makes sense. It’s non-offensive. It’s only offensive to people who are looking for things to be offended by.”
The Led Zeppelin entry in the Phil Hardy / Dave Laing ‘Encyclopaedia of Rock’ (Panther) identifies the humour and spoof elements of Plant’s performance. They find him ‘a golden ringleted Adonis marvellously parodying the sexual superstar while singing in a voice of limitless power’. “Exactly” he concurs. “How serious can you be? The songs are OK. The records are made of steel, you know? And they’re made by men who are, if you like, craftsmen. And anything else that goes off is just downright repetition. To play a role every night is a bit of a joke - however, it’s much better that watching television. And I really like to do it. I like to sing. So yes, parody does come into it. And when it comes down to basics, ask anyone about anything - it’s all repetition. There’s not many times in your life when you can go ‘GOD, THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NEW, THIS NEW GESTURE OF MINE...’”.
Led Zeppelin made perhaps more original gestures than most. Their tour performances repeating those moments more often, and to more people than most. Their tours remain legendary in their scale, their cash-generating potential, their excess... but first, I’ve got to ask this...
“Why have you GOT to ask?”
Because I’m interested. He laughs indulgently. “So ask.” Plant’s long-time infatuation with Elvis Presley is evidenced by Zeppelin soundchecks and encores of “A Mess Of Blues” or “Don’t Be Cruel”. The Honeydrippers continue the obsession by revamping Presley’s retread of Ray Charles’ “I Gotta Woman”. While even now he’s contributing to the charity compilation ‘THE LAST TEMPTATION OF ELVIS’.
So is it true you met and played for Elvis at the Los Angeles ‘Forum’? “We didn’t exactly play for him. But we met him, yes” he concedes. “The circumstances were that we were both represented by the same agent. He wanted to meet us, and we met him. We were all in a circle in the middle of the room, which was full of people who’d come to fawn over him. And yes, it was a very nice experience. We talked for about an hour and a half about... EVERY SINGLE THING you could imagine. It was remarkable. He was definitely loose, and he was very lucid as well. It was great fun. We were inseparable, the five of us. He wasn’t particularly aware of whatever was that contemporary at the time, unless he was exposed to it by accident. He didn’t even know who Elton John was, which was quite funny - ‘cos neither do we ! Jimmy told Elvis that all I ever did was sing his songs at soundchecks. So that later, on the way out of the room he asked me which was my favourite song, and I said “Anyway You Want Me”, - oh no, it was “Love Me”, which is a big ballad that goes ‘te-reat me like a fool / treat me mean and cruel, / but lu-u-ove me...’. And as I left and we were walking down the corridor going ‘WHAT A NICE GUY’, he stuck his head round the door and said ‘Robert’, and he started going ‘te-reat me like a fooool’ - and so I sang back to him ‘treat me mean and cru-u-ole’. And we became the buddies that we always were. Two rampant sexists!”
Yet when Presley met the Beatles a few years previous it seems to have been a tensely formal and awkward situation. “Yeah,” dismissively. “I guess you’ve just gotta catch people right, y’know.”
So what about some more SALACIOUS tour stories now Robert? The sex ‘n’ sleaze stuff served up by Stephen Davis in his fuck ‘n’ tell book ‘HAMMER OF THE GODS’? “I’ve got no salacious tour stories. The salacious stories of the past are not what I deal in right now. Tell them to read the book if they REALLY want to!”
Then just tell me about one incident. Tell me about the 1973 John Bonham Birthday Party where you drove motorcycles down the corridors of the ‘Sunset Strip’ Hotel, and threw George Harrison into the Swimming Pool. “Well... yeah... but that’s, that wasn’t Bonzo’s Birthday Party. That was another OUTRAGEOUS time! But yes, we used to rent small motorbikes, but they were only circus bikes. And I couldn’t ride mine very well anyway because I had a python round my neck, and a naked woman on my face, and so on... and so on...”
In a decade when the critical rotweilers snarled but seldom savaged, when most bands could be bought (and judging by their subsequent product can’t have come too expensive), Led Zeppelin stood aside in their own immaculate game. No full metal jack-offs they...
But we are not here to praise the myth. We are here to build new ones...

“It’s a New World rising,
from the ashes of the old,
if we can just join hands
... that’s all it takes”
(“The Rover” on ‘PHYSICAL GRAFFITI’)

Despite all this alleged excess and posturing, Robert Plant’s demeanour in this rehearsal studio webbed with cables and instrument leads, is remarkable unaffected. He comes across relaxed, totally without pretensions, no artistic affectations, hang-ups or side. He’s matey. He’s ‘I’d love to spend more time with you because I can tell that you’re quite a historian’. He’s ‘oh, well, have a good life’. Perhaps part of that is due to the uninhibitting effects of the ‘somebody trying to recreate the Sixties about ten feet away’ from us. I can smell the sweet heady aroma from here, where I’m sat. But no, it’s there in the grooves too. His music says ‘stop patronising the public’. It says ‘no wonder rock is sinking into apathy’. It says ‘let the heads, the good times and the cameras roll’. Apathy is still a crime. Can anyone seriously justify anything other than full-on attack in 1990?
Listen to “Watching You”. Classic spiky Rock spraying World Music across the mix. It samples the Arabic chant of Siddi Makain Mushkin in much the same way that the Rolling Stones “Continental Drift” (on their ‘STEEL WHEELS’ album) incorporates the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka. “I suppose the whole writing of that track took about eight minutes. Until recently I was living near Monmouth, and I had a house with a room where we had a little mixing desk, and we could set everything up and play around the desk. And it happened like that. It was Chris (Blackwell) and Phil (Johnstone) together. It was just a case of guitar, keyboards, and a drum-loop that Chris had already developed. So, I just wanted to get some kind of vocalising that swirled right across the top of everything, rather than keeping with the strict metre of the track. And - um, it’s a bit pompous you know. It’s a bit overly grand. But I was listening to the Mission for about half-an-hour that morning. Giggling at “Tower Of Strength” (their attempt at replicating Led Zep’s “Kashmir”) and hearing that sort of mock-grandeur. So the melodic input began from that angle. And then became more focused later on. “Watching you” - yeah, it’s great, because it’s like there’s a lot of torment in the song. And I’m not a stranger to that.”
Torment. Yes. It’s not always been so UP. It must have been difficult following the demise of Led Zeppelin. The sudden crash from whizz-kids to was-kids. The going back to square one and reconstructing a career from the ground up. “Yeah, well. Basically I hate careers. I hate the idea of it being a career. I just wanna SING. It’s what goes with it to be able to do that reasonably successfully that makes it problematical. But it’s been an ‘interesting’ struggle. I’ve learned how short-tempered I am. And how impatient.”
Following the final implosion made irrevocable by John Bonham’s death (on 25th September 1980), Zeppelin fragments spun off into sometimes improbable orbits. Perhaps most bizarre of all being John Paul Jones exploits in production knob-twiddling for metal upstarts the Mission. And in particular their afore-mentioned “Tower Of Strength” - which, as already observed, blatantly reconstructs and rewrites “Kashmir” (long before Puff Daddy would sample Zep’s sublime epic original for his inclusion on the ‘GODZILLA’ movie soundtrack). “Yes. I know. Crazy in’it? I’ve said a coupla daft things when people have asked me about it. Somebody in an interview said ‘what about John Paul Jones?’. And I said ‘I think he’s a double-glazing salesman now’. Because basically YOU CAN SEE RIGHT THE WAY THROUGH THAT PIECE OF MUSIC. You have to be really a fool to buy it. Or at least a fool to buy it EMOTIONALLY. It surprised me. It’s as if I were producing sessions for a band like... um, Kingdom Come. But for what it was it wasn’t bad. It’s just that it’s a bit negative to have to take that into account. When I see it I want to like it. I really want to embrace it. And I want it to be more than just a hollow gesture. Mission played with us for quite a while in America. They supported us on the Non-Stop-Go tour in 1988. And they were good. But I was waiting for the skies to open... and they didn’t...”
Following the final Zeppelin product - ‘CODA’, a compilation of previously unissued studio out-takes from earlier albums, Jimmy Page hooked up with Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers for dodgy supergroup The Firm. And found time to score the soundtrack album for Michael Winner’s ever dodgier ‘DEATHWISH TWO’ movie. But connections remain. Page, Plant, and Jones reformed (with Phil Collins on drums) for their forgettable Philadelphia ‘Live Aid’ slot. They re-reformed (with Jason Bonham drumming) for a one-off bash celebrating Atlantic Records Fortieth Anniversary. Then Plant guests on Jimmy Page’s surprisingly lacklustre ‘OUTRIDER’ solo LP, while Page contributes to Plant’s ‘NOW AND ZEN’.
So there’s a continuing Plant / Page association? “Well, it hasn’t continued now! I don’t know about later. Then it was just the right time to develop and keep the friendship going, y’know? But this time, for this album, I was concentrating so much on the music I was doing that it just seemed inappropriate to ring him up and say ‘hey, come on, come on over and have a play’. Jimmy’s presence on this album would have created a talking point. But it probably wouldn’t have been the best way of cementing the future of the band in people’s imagination...”
Whereas the remaining Led Zeppelin connection - the drum chair vacated by John Bonham, whose relationship with Plant extends clear back to their pre-Zep Birmingham group Band of Joy, was more difficult to fill. Plant’s first solo venture - ‘PICTURES AT ELEVEN’, ran through a battery of drummers, Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, and ex-Jethro Tull Barriemore Barlow. “Yeah, drummers are usually a cranky breed. Cozy didn’t really want to get involved too much with the technology of drumming, or the technology of creating rhythm tracks. It was more like ‘I’m the drummer, and I play drums’. When really, when you’re going out to try to create moods and textures, there’s a lot more to it than just that. Particularly now, when there’s so much technology there to expand on ideas. Tracks like “Watching You” could never have even come to life at all if that was the attitude of the crew on board ! Phil Collins was as busy as ever. He’s great fun and a hellishly eager guy. Very very positive, a great encourager. But obviously he has his own career, so there could be nothing full-time about that. Barriemore Barlow - his contribution was “Reckless Love” and “Stranger Here And Over There”, which are tremendous. I think they’re two of the best solo tracks I’ve ever done. Especially “Reckless Love”. Then I also worked with Ritchie Hayward of Little Feat, he was technically excellent, but at that time everything seemed to happen at once. So when Chris Blackwell came along...”
Led Zeppelin was a democracy. Now it’s Plant’s band. He’s the leader. “Yes. That’s true. But democracy is gaining. We now have free elections here. I’m not so much the leader, as just the petulant lunatic vocalist. And from time to time - like now, I have to sit over here in the corner while somebody else takes over. But that’s good. I would have it no other way.”
And the future? “There’s a track coming out on some CD thing, called “Oompah”-brackets-“Watery Bint”, which is about a relationship with a woman. A relationship which is always very questionable because her hands are so cold, and her skin’s always wet. And basically - what it is, the guy is trying to figure out what it’s all about. And why he’s so quizzical about it. Until he realises that she - in fact, lives underwater. That she might even be descended from ‘The Lady Of The Lake’. This ridiculous song burbles along, and then suddenly - at the end, it goes into something that sounds like a cross between Cozy Cole’s ‘Big Noise From Winnetkah’ meets... goodness knows what! And it’s that sort of wacky unwritten theme music again. It’s funny. It’s a funny track - ‘oh porous love, what can I do / but drift forever in a sea of you’. That’s how it goes...”
Then, “OK, I’m getting the nod. I gotta go.” An audible hesitation hangs in the air between us, and then “...tell them to forget about ‘HAMMER OF THE GODS’. The - erm, salacious stories of the past are not what I deal in right now. Or make it up. Just put anything you like. MAKE IT UP. That’s what usually happens anyway...!!!!”


So, OK Robert.
In through the out door. It has to be...
London splurged with the blizzard-white light of early spring greenhoused into heatwave. And from its slow dazzle I go into the huge silent gloom of a Hotel silted with dignified ritual and polite establishment observances as calm and grandiloquent as psalms. But I go in through the out door, in ritual observance of some other cultural tradition.
Then a sound, distant at first...


Original version published in:-
Published in a slightly revised form in:-
(Headpress / Critical Vision - UK - December 2001)

1 comment:

60sbeatfan said...

I believe it was 'Big' Jim Sullivan who played the guitar break in Dave Berry's 'The Crying Game', though Jimmy Page DID play on a number of other Dave Berry tracks.