hide captionLed Zeppelin: John Paul Jones (from left), John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Led Zeppelin: John Paul Jones (from left), John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
When Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980, it left fans of one of the most super of rock's supergroups dazed and confused. For lead singer Robert Plant, it created the challenge of going solo after being so identified as the voice of what Rolling Stone magazine recently dubbed "the heaviest band of all time."
Plant's first concert as a solo artist took place in 1982, but the singer remembers his nervousness like it was yesterday.
"In the afternoon of that day in Peoria, Ill., I was really emotional. Hopping up and down and pacing around. I mean, in those days, Led Zeppelin was legendary. It was still alive."
"I thought, maybe I should just quit now [because] nothing could be like that. But on the other hand the great challenge was, what's it going to be like?"
From 1968 through the '70s, Led Zeppelin grew from just another British blues band to ascend the throne of heavy metal. In their prime, they ruled the arenas and stadiums. No other hard-rock group was as consistently popular, as influential or as explosive.
Led Zeppelin split up in 1980, when the heartbeat of the group, drummer John Bonham suddenly died.
Retaking the Stage
When Plant kicked off his solo career that night in 1982, he had to face up to his own legacy.
"I walked onto the stage and I was absolutely drowned," he says. "I was reduced to the size of a mouse because the response from the audience was amazing."
Nine Lives is the title of a new box set that charts a 25-year musical journey, as Plant explored different sounds and remained a leading voice in rock.
At first, he relied a bit heavily on synthesizers and drum machines. But hey, it was the '80s. Other steps along the way included: Plant's brief role with The Honeydrippers, a rhythm and blues revival group; his ongoing fascination with the music of North Africa; and his 1988 reunion with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page –- which yielded a hit that creatively used familiar snippets of their best-known recordings.
"I know that [Page] was very dubious when I started sampling Led Zeppelin on 'Tall Cool One' but I said, 'Look, you know, if the Beastie Boys can do it, I guess everybody can do it...'"
A Familiar Musical Blend
In 2005, Plant released the album Mighty Rearranger, and his journey seemed to come full circle, back to that familiar blend of hard rock, folk music of the Near East and a heavy dose of the blues.
"It's big and strong and powerful. That's its relationship with Led Zeppelin. That's what my music has become, even more so now with Mighty Rearranger. One part is beckoning you towards the Sahara, while another part is taking you into San Francisco in '67."
Robert Plant, 58, is still more at home on the road, or in the studio, than he is on his Saxon country estate. He describes a recent encounter with another rock veteran –- the guitarist from Pink Floyd — at a hotel in Paris.
"I was talking to Dave Gilmour. I said, 'How long are you out for?' He said, 'Three weeks, and you?' I said, 'Well it's 128 shows in and I can't see it ending.' So, I mean, it depends on whether you actually just do a few gigs to please the record company and go back to the fortress. Or you find that your home is everything, everywhere and everyone."
Plant is a grandfather, but retirement is not in his plans.
"My two older kids have got kids of their own now, but they're all musical. I think they quite expect me to disappear into the desert for years on end and come out, you know, with a beard down to the floor going, 'Hey, you'll never guess, I found a new scale!'"
hide captionRobert Plant began his solo recording career in 1982.
One question: Why now? Why put together a box set looking back over 25 years of music-making and the nine albums that resulted (plus extra tracks, and a DVD mini-documentary)? For Robert Plant, still intrepid in his musical search, it boils down to a carpe diem kind of motivation.
"Lately, I'm spending more and more time working with non-rock musicians and leaving the mainstream — almost dissolving into another world, musically," Plant says. "So I guess I do want to get these things into some kind of perspective now more than later. I can hear the different ways that we were looking at the studio and the tools that we had to make those sounds. Some of it definitely has a time about it."
A few of the nine albums, the first four to be specific, do come across as a bit dated. Sonic details like the synthesizer washes and drum machine on "Big Log" (from the 1983 album The Principle of Moments) have not aged well. [Ed. Note: Apologies to all Phil Collins fans.] But many of the other tracks from Plant's body of work — like those in the three albums below — are well worth revisiting.
This small notion of an album — actually a 5-track EP from the waning days of vinyl — has now become a triple-dose of nostalgia: R&B standards from the '50s (hits by Ray Charles, Roy Brown, Ben E. King) interpreted by an A-list team of '70s rockers and shakers (Plant along with Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Nile Rodgers) for early '80s listeners. Historical footnote: Atlantic chief Ahmet Ertegun had been pushing Plant to do this for awhile; Plant finally agreed to the project while the two were in a Japanese peep-show joint.
Airy and acoustic with a heavy rock center, Plant calls this album "a major turning point" and it's difficult to argue. As a solo leader, his success came on a track here and there. As a holistic album effort, this one benefited from solid songwriting with social-viewpoint songs like "Network News," "The Greatest Gift" and "Great Spirit" (plus a tasteful cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter.") It also reveals Plant taking the full production reins, calling in specific artists — from the British folk world, from far overseas — to help him realize the music.
Plant adds: "Coming from Led Zeppelin, there were only four of us and there were only ever going to be four of us. So every time I have a band, I keep thinking it's forever, you know? [On Fate of Nations,] I was suddenly encouraged to bring in people for particular roles within the record and I'd never done that before. So Richard Thompson arrived, then I had a hurdy gurdy player, Nigel Eaton, and the girl [Maire Brennan] from Clannad — all coming in to color various elements of the record."
This was the out-of-the-blue(s) rock hit that in a way, was more of a return to the Zeppelin sound and style than any other Plant recording. But not quite like before.
Plant confirms the album's "relationship with Led Zeppelin" and that it explores the links between deep roots of the American South and North Africa (think how Zeppelin's most evocative, electric blues often rang with an Arabic flavor.) "There's a lot of stuff that's Mississippi-based that is African-based," Plant says. "But where this album was going is a different place, and the method and the means are quite different." A biased opinion: Plant's interweaving of disparate traditions with a rock backbeat work better here than almost anything else he — or anyone from a countless number of cross-cultural fusionists — has created.