Life In A Lighter Zeppelin
Robert Plant Interview, Dec. 1983
By J.D. Considine
"You'd think with 20,000 people every night that there would have to be some people screaming for 'Stairway To Heaven' or 'Kashmir' but we haven't heard it" says Phil Collins, fidgeting happily. The scene is a small room in the backstage labyrinth of the Philadelphia Spectrum. Collins is there to play drums for Robert Plant and about 18,000 fans, with the latter waiting noisily a few yards of concrete above us. As a "permanent member, for a couple of months," Collins is happy to have the opportunity to join the former Led Zeppelin singer on his first solo tour , and as his gaze wanders about the room, past a Kapryo computer displaying several columns of tonight's statistics and a televison showing the Phillies game across the street, he talks about his surprise with how the tour has shaped up. "I haven't heard any cries for Zeppelin. The vibe hasn't been like that onstage. The guys in the front row know the words and you feel like a pioneer a bit. " Collins is right - the vibe has not been what you might
expect, particulary if you base your expectations on the reputation fostered by Plant's last stadium band. Just how different things are becomes apperent a few minutes after I finish my chat with Collins. Wandering out into the hall in hope of figuring out where my seat is. I notice the band making its way out of the dressing room to take the stage. As they file past, guitarist Robbie Blunt, whom I had interviewed earlier in the evening, smiles and says hello. Plant turns to Blunt further down the hall, and then suddenly dashes back to where I'm standing. "Oh, look sorry" he smiles, "I'm the fellow who's been keeping you waitning. But we'll have a chance to talk later tonight, eh?". Copletely taken aback, I smile and fumble my way through an "Oh, sure absolutely no problem." As he sprints back down the hall to join his bandmates, I stand feeling slightly stunned that Robert Plant, whose time I had worried ablut taking up, would go to the trouble of apologizing to someone he hadn't even met. I wander away muttering, "What a nice guy," and wondering what could have possibly started the rumors of Led Zeppelin's consummate arrogance.
But then, I should have figured that Plant's personal behavior would defy expectations, because evrything about his solo career thus far has. Instead of making the obvious move of serving up an album of insta-Zep, his solo debut, Pictures At Eleven, was both distinctive and succesful in its own rights. Even so, Plant would later confess that his greatest worry wasn't that the record wouldn't sell, but that it would sound too much like Led Zeppelin. For his second album, this year's Principle Of Movements, the Zeppelin association was even less a problem, as Plant and his band move still further away from both that signature sound and heavy rock in general.
Perhaps most surprising af all is that Plant has been able to manage his shift without alienating his audience. Pictures At Eleven debuted in the Top Ten, just one notch above The Clash, while Principle Of Movements, has done even better, fielding a hit pop single with "Big Log". Tonight's Crowd at the Spectrum is as rabid as any at a heavy rock show, even as Plant &
Company unleash a decidely un-guitar-like synth prefase to "Thru With Two Steps," slip into a Bob Marley number in the middle of "Horizontal Departure," and bring "Wreckless Love" to a climax with a jam that sounds like an unholy union of Persian classical music and Southside Chicago blues. By the end of the show, most of these kids aren't sure where they have been, but they're sure as hell eager to go back there soon.
Later after a band dinner in a spare room at Plant's hotel, he explains part of the difference in his new material as being the result of an intense concentration on melody. "I try to get it as melodic as I can on record," he says. "Sweet, if you like. At the same time, I also try to get the attack and the drive which are part of my waking and being. But it's far more scrutinizing now. Some people might say that loses a lot of the edge of the thing, but in the end, that's my whim, that's my choice, and I like to do it this way." Of course, doing it Plant's way takes some getting used to. As much as he desires control and precision in his own work, he encourages spontaneity in his bandmates. But given some of the influences he himself draws upon, that occasionally takes a bit of doing. It's typical of Plant that what he carried over from the Zep is the esoterica, rather than the cliches. While talking to Robbie Blunt, I asked where the arabic bits in is playing on "Wreckless Love" and "Slow Dancer" came from, and he confessed that, "It just popped out of somewhere. "See, Robert has got a lot of Arabic music, and he sort of sat me down and said, 'Listen to a bit of this.' This was back during the first album, and like "Slow Dancer" - obviously, there's plenty of influence in that song. "What's her name - Oum Lakoum or something? He knows more about it than me. She was very famous." Could he mean Oum Koulsoum, the famous Egyptian singer? "Right. Something like that anyway. The story goes that if anybody died in her orchestra, they were never replaced. Robert tells me her own funeral drew millions, more than the president when he died. Incredible," he says, shaking his head. "Well, I mean we had all that Indian phase in the 70's," he shrugs, "but some of that Arabic stuff, when you listen to it, is amazing, because they're using quarter tones, singing quarter tones. And Robert sort of uses that style at times." It seems that, at one time or
another, Robert Plant is likely to do most anything, which makes the question of 'What next?' quite an interesting one. When I pose it to Blunt, he is frankly amuse. "We may well do a rockabilly album, " he says, laughing. "Honestly. We might put an album out with sixteen cuts on it. Who knows? It's his idea to be...to be whatever."
MUSICIAN: It seems to be a thing among British musicians to absolutely never repeat what was on the last record; to be new and original every time out. Certainly, that was the case with Led Zeppelin, and so far that's the way your own albums have run.
PLANT: It's the only way to survive.
MUSICIAN: How so?
PLANT: With yourself. You've got to keep fresh, to change. Don't be repetitious. Forget REO Speedwagon - it doesn't count. What it comes down to is, how do you live with yourself if one album is a success, and the second album leans too heavily on the first because of the lack of ideas? This is where you put yourself on the crucifix, tie yourself on and say, "I don't want to be a parody of a parody of a parody forever. " I mean, the vocal tricks I use are mine, I enjoy them, but I try and change them all the time. So the structures of the song must continue to be challenged. That's why Led Zeppelin III was so different - it was different at the time. If Led Zeppelin III came out now, it wouldn't mean a thing. But at the time, it was an extremely logical step.
MUSICIAN: You mentioned earlier that one difference in what you're doing now is that you think things out more, plan ahead musically, in a way. The impression I got of a lot of the Zeppelin tracks, by contrast, was that they were laid down, then structured later.
PLANT: Well, they weren't done and structured afterwards - it was just that the Zeppelin stuff, vocally, was far more immediate. If the feel was good and it was a little bit out of tune, flat or sharp, it didn't matter. We'd keep it just for the feel. I ponder over the stuff now, and try and perfect it up front. I want to create more melody. I really would like to be responsible for songs which, apart from being exciting, are primarily memorable for the melodic content.
MUSICIAN: Is this move to melody why you're almost under-singing now?
PLANT: On record, I will not under-sing, I will sing the melody. I will make the lyrics clear, I will mix the vocal louder, I will let people know how I think and feel. Onstage, then, my natural dynamics come out. I'll over-sing, but I play my role. That's why people who come to the concerts now are seeing an extension of the most recent recording material, and they're getting a different character to what they expected. Because I'm not just singing the song - I'm taking it onstage and expressing it more. I pull out more of the full-stops, semi-colons, exclamations marks here. Letting people know, letting myself know, that as a performer and as a singer, this is how it goes when you're in front of a crowd.
MUSICIAN: Well, if your approach to recording keeps changing, moving towards the melody or in other directions, do you think that performing will then become the constant?
PLANT: I don't know. It's just two different idioms altogether, and on record. I don't ever want to get a remarkably live feeling. I'd want the band to jell more and more, which they're doing; some of the fades on the tracks are becoming fare more fluent. The band is enjoying playing
together, they're getting conscientious rather than carrying on in darkness, wondering whether I was trying to press them into being clones of Led Zeppelin, which is not what I'm trying to do. Now they know, their identities come through, they're proud - and it comes across in what they do, y'know? But as far as my performance on record, as I said , I want it to be very clean and structured. A problem with being-over-the-top on record is that too many people aped me in the past, and ape me now, on record. If I start joining the rank and file, who's going to know that I was the guy who had it in the first place?
MUSICIAN: How you feel about being so widely imitated?
PLANT: I was flattered originally, but now I find it a little tiresome. Guys, singers, come up and apoligize, saying, "People have likened my style to yours, but of course it's not true." Then I put the record on, and hear that they're like ninety-nine percent me. Except that they're ten years younger or fifteen years younger, and can't do it as well.
MUSICIAN: Or in some cases, they're female. Personally, I've always thought that Ann Wilson does you better than anybody.
PLANT: I know. I saw her do it during one of my periods of consternation, when I was waiting. I had just started with the Honeydrippers, and I went to see Heart. But I don't complain. Bless her, she's a woman, and I don't complain when a woman tries to do what I do. Somebody's got to take the active role and somebody's got to take the passive role from time to time. But there are a lot of these English, second-generation whatever they're-called bands, the substance of which, and the sources from which they draw their influences, are no longer Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson - they're me and Steve Mariott. And not even Steve Mariott. There's a handful of people they listen to and they don't listen to anybody else. They don't listen to Alf from Yazoo, or Oum Koulsoum, or anything like that. They just listen to what's commercially succesful, ape it, come over here, sell four million records, sell out four nights at the Spectrum, and bludgeon everybody's ears with something that has no representation of subtletly at all.
MUSICIAN: Fair enough, but I can understand how kids who are seventeen or eighteen, and who missed it the first time around would fall for this rehashed rehash.
PLANT: Absolutely, yeah. But I don't know whether it's maturity or old age or whatever you want to call it, it just lead me to think that if assaulting a crowd's ears with incessant racket with no let-up at all, and a soft passage every three numbers to represent subtlety and musical color, is what it's all about then something's gone horribly wrong.
MUSICIAN: You're undoubtedly aware that Led Zeppelin is seen by many as the godparents of heavy metal - do you think that what you do, or did then, could accurately be called "heavy metal"?
PLANT: No. Take the first album - "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," "Your Time Is Gonna Come," "How Many More Times" - that was not heavy metal. There was nothing heavy about it at all. You listen to "How Many More Times," which is really borrowed from the blues, anyway. The kind of dynamics in the middle of that, or Jimmy using the wah-wah pedal on some of the parts, or Bonzo aping him with the cymbals, or stuff like that - it was neat. Bonzo was twenty years old when he did that and it was neat. And it wasn't an insult to people's integrity and sophistication. It was ethereal in places and "Dazed And Confused," too. The musicianship was such that people could go
off on tangents and create passages that were compelling. They were skull-crashing, in a way. But it wasn't through sheer brute volume. It was the way it was played. It's a distinct difference.
MUSICIAN: I'd have to agree with you there, in fact, I've always found it funny that the heaviest Zeppelin song, "Black Dog," was also, and perhaps by no small coincidence, the one that always screwed up the garage bands, that they couldn't get.
PLANT: That's right, because you can't play it, yeah. Because it's got a beat that's count of five over a count of four, and trips and skips and stuff like that. It was our perogative and our joy to take what people thought.... We just wanted to see people try to move to it, and then miss the beat. And then still call it heavy. It was just a trick, a game, and well within our capabilities to do. And it just stopped a lot of other people from doing the same thing, from copying it.
MUSICIAN: If you look at the traditional analysis, the way the rock histories or family trees put it, Led Zeppelin was the next step from Yardbirds. If so, then wouldn't it be fair to say that what you did was the most radical departure, given the fact that the Yardbirds was never a singer's band?
PLANT: No, it was always guitar-oriented, and Keith Relf, what he was doing, really, was just filling in the role with a modicum of success. But I never looked at Led Zeppelin as a progression from anything. Maybe to me, it was a progression from the Band of Joy. I suppose Led Zeppelin became more like the Band of Joy than the Yardbirds. Mainly because Bonzo and I were coming from the Band of Joy, and we were like (snaps his fingers). It was a natural extension of our American West Coast country-blues approach. That was where I was coming from.
MUSICIAN: You started out doing mostly blues, right?
PLANT: Oh, yeah lots of rhythm & blues bands originally, and really, they kind of gave us away to... A little more self-expression set in after the first couple of years. Finding all this stuff - Bobby Park's "Watch Your Step" and all that remarkable catalog of stuff that had hardly been touched by white English musicians - when you get conversant with it, then you start having some kind of depth of feel where you can draw from one source, combine it with another feeling and develop it into a totally fresh view.
MUSICIAN: It's funny you should say that, because frankly, the thing I like best about the Led Zeppelin blues style was the way you managed to create something new and distinctive by exaggerating certain elements of the original. What sparked that?
PLANT: It was from out of nowhere, absolutey nowhere at all. I mean, it was one of those things where one minute I didn't do it at all, and then the next minute I did it and I enjoyed it. It was completely off the top of my head. I don't know how it came about. I just know that while I was doing it, I was aware of the fact that I hadn't heard it being done before. I just wanted to be a part of the band, and I knew that by just singing the song - because the band would change time signatures and do all sort of musically unlikely things - that if I wasn't careful, I would just be...perhaps some kind of grand commentator for the music. And it's exceedingly boring, when your mind is working and you're going with all the changes and you're listening to the whole thing, to just stand back and go, "I can't be a part of this; I am the singer." I would have had a very fruitless existence.
MUSICIAN: Earlier you mentioned combinations of things forging news styles; tonight, when you're doing "Wreckless Love," you got into this thing where you were singing quarter tones, sort of cross between some of the stuff I've heard in Arabic music and the way blues singers flat their notes. Not a likely combination, that.
PLANT: No but you see, I'm conversant with.... I'm one of many people who enjoys singing in the blues form. I don't know that I do it particulary well, but I don't think anyone can ever say that they do anything particulary well when it's free form - it's just the heat of the moment,
really. And my knowledge of Arabic music, although limited, is equally fanatical. Really, it just comes out of the top off my head. It just comes out exactly as you hear it. Tonight's one night and tomorrow night will be totally different. It is a nice way of melting one thing into
another, but I don't even think about where it's coming from. It just appears and afterwards I go, "Golly, did I do that?"
MUSICIAN: While we're on the subject, Robbie Blund was telling me about your playing Oum Koulsoum for him, and how he was both intrigued and bewildered. Obviously, that sort of thing has been a part of your music for a while - "Kashmir," "In The Evening," "Slow Dancer," "Wreckless Love." Where did your interest spring from?
PLANT: Well, first of all Jimmy and I went to Morocco in about 1975, with a view to spend three months there with tape machines, going into the Atlas mountains and recording Berber tribesmen. Like Jacques Cousteau might go and take pictures of fish, we went into the mountains of Morocco to try and record their equivalent of The Rite Of Spring or whatever it was.
MUSICIAN: You mean the Joujouka musicians?
PLANT: No, it was further south than the Joujoukas. A different sort of civilization and people. What happened was, we couldn't get the equipment into the country, because of their import/export/customs situation. But what I did was, I had my ear to the short-wave radio nonstop, and I just picked up the atmosphere that Oum Koulsoum was evoking. It was...
remarkable, because you could listen to her records and even thought you didn't understand a blinkin' word, you were immediately transfixed with her power and versatility. Phenomenal. And that was it. Every time I went back there after that, I was just going and stretching out more and more, listening to the radio more and more, taping stuff, crying to it. Even thought I couldn't understand a word of it. But then I go to Japan, and people there like "Burning Down One Side" and "Slow Dancer." In fact, Bulgarian music, too, is another interesting form because
it's Eastern European, and it's straddled between the West and it's nearest neighbors, which I suppose would be Turkey and places like that. Their ability for quarter-tone singing, and also the fact that they sing in first and second, rather than first and thirds in their harmonies, is
unbelievable. You listen to some of the songs... There's a record on Nonesuch called something to do with the folk music of Bulgaria [Music of Bulgaria, Nonesuch H-72011] by the Bulgarian Folk Musician Ensemble, which sound like a very crusty sort of title. If you're able to get it, or this is printed and people don't want to listen to Def Leppard for one night it's great!
It's a real eye-opener. How haunting it is...I got in touch with a Bulgarian ethnic group in London and subscribed to have lesson, to try and learn how to get their intonations. What happened was, instead of that, I went to play soccer in the village soccer team! (laughs) I took the easy way out. But I think I'm much too old to catch it now. It's one of those sort of
things where if you don't sing like Robin Williamson when you're nineteen, you're never going to sing like Robin Williamson. Nonetheless, these things left great impressions on me, in the subconscious rather than any definite attempt to copy. And that's the best way, really, because then you get all sort of things coming out.
MUSICIAN: To much schooling can stifle a musician.
PLANT: Absolutely. I've seen Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappeli, two violinist of great stature, play together. They played free-form, 12-bar swing-jazz type thing, and Menuhin openly conceded that he was by far second-best. Because if you're schooled, your ability to express yourself is that much more limited. Whereas if it's coming off the top off your head, and everything you've ever heard in a cafe, bar or Southside Chicago blues club bubbles up, anything can happen. That is proabably my principle, if you'd like. Anything can happen. Some nights, I don't even sing at all.
MUSICIAN: That might disappoint the crowd.
PLANT: Well, I do my best. But if I've got it in me, if I rally am in the mood, to coin a phrase, then I like to please myself.
MUSICIAN: Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions about some specific Led Zeppelin tracks?
PLANT: Yeah, you can do that. I mean we've obviously been talking about Led Zeppelin. (mock sarcasm) It's breakin' me up.
MUSICIAN: Well, one thing I've always wondered is - how long did it take to mix "Whole Lotta Love"?
PLANT: (Laughs) I can't tell you. It was done in New York. It probably took about an afternoon.
MUSICIAN: Where did all that stuff in the middle come from?
PLANT: The free-form section? Well, it's not free form really. It came from, if memory serves, it came just from just having a perfect summetry of musicianship, where we could just go off on a tangent, just go off here, there and everywhere, and come back together again. Jimmy had just
discovered the theremin, that sort of "whoop-whoop-whoop," and it just sort of got into the groove, if you can use that term in 1983. And it worked perfectly. But that was the way we played. That was how we felt we expressed ourselves best, with all the emphasis, and then having the abstraction in the middle of it. It broke it up in order to turn people's heads.
MUSICIAN: An off-beat favourite of mine was "The Crunge." What a funny track!
PLANT: Oh, yeah, yeah. That's all about a model in an English newspaper, actually. She was a preety cheek.
MUSICIAN: What a great James Brown parody, thought.
PLANT: Yeah, even the vocal, the strained vocal. My vocal was shot when I sang it. And as you say, it is a complete imitation; light-hearted but clever in some respects, especially with the bass and drums. You take your hat off to people, and it's not always Roy Harper.
MUSICIAN: One final question: Given all that has it has come to mean, especially here in America, how do you feel now when you hear "Stairway To Heaven" on the radio?
PLANT: Still flattered; a little confused, because it was written with the best of intentions, and nobody ever expects anything like that. Anthems are things you don't even dream of - they just come along. I've always been proud of the song - but I can't really relate to it all now.
MUSICIAN: It's that removed from you?
PLANT: Yeah. Because without those guys, and without the possibillity of ever having to do it again, I would prefer to listen to "Kashmir." "Kashmir" was far more, to me, what it was all about. Or "Trampled Underfoot," or "Achilles Last Stand" - things that haven't become threadbare yet.
MUSICIAN: By the way, I take it theres no thruth to the backwards-masking charges?
PLANT: (Looks annoyed) I find that it's sort of an American pastime. There is what they call the in America the College Circuit, where people can lecture on Clearasil, AIDS, homosexuality and the like and get paid $5,000 a night. Somebody decided that poor, defenseless band like Styx and E.L.O., who are indefensible anyway, and masters of No Comment like Led Zeppelin would be good, easy meat for a university tour. I think it just goes to show how sad the world is, that people actually allow themselves to become audiences to other people with nothing better to do.
To me it's very sad, because "Stairway To Heaven" was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music. It's
really sad. the first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn't actually believe, I couldn't take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that's the way they need to do
it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.