An ever-evolving creative who escaped the legacy of expectation to inspire generations, Robert Plant celebrates his Digging Deep podcast with a new limited edition 7″ singles boxset of solo material. Dan Biggane looks back with the former Led Zeppelin frontman…
Legend is a label dished liberally when describing any musician or artist of a certain vintage. However, when attributed to someone like Robert Plant, even that expression seems a little conservative. It is telling that when people consider the former Led Zeppelin frontman, who turned 71 this August, they tend to focus on what he’s doing now or next; there’s barely a moment to revel in past glories.
This here is a gentleman who has never once taken his foot off the gas or shifted down the gears to find reverse. During an incredible five-decade-long recording career every new release is greeted with genuine interest, and he has very rarely, if ever, fallen short of the mark. Plant is an artist who has remained resolutely relevant and whose work is consistently contemporary.
Even with Digging Deep, his career retrospective podcast launched earlier this year, you’re captivated by what he has to say. He talks about music with an enthusiasm and excitement that is both engaging and entertaining. Indeed, any listener to Digging Deep will concur, he has an encyclopedic knowledge and a charming disposition. And when Long Live Vinyl catches up with Plant, he talks with consideration and good humour.
I’ve written and performed a lot of tracks in my time,” he opens warmly, “and I realised that some of them have just got left behind. For the podcast, I decided to go back and pick out some songs that might’ve got lost along the way. Since 1981, I’ve enjoyed many amazing, exciting musicians. Men and women who have encouraged and enlightened, introducing me to crazy curves I could never have imagined.”
WHEN I WAS A CHILD
The world of podcasts, streaming, downloads and instant musical gratification is so far removed from that experienced by a young Plant living in a semi-rural Halesowen in the West Midlands.
“In 1959, when I was 11 years old, radio wasn’t doing us youngsters any favours,” recalls an earnest Plant. “I didn’t have a record player as a young kid, so music was something of a closed shop. Beyond showcasing big bands and the odd Perry Como number, radio offered us very little, but occasionally you’d find a rock ’n’ roll song – usually a request for members of the serving armed forces.
“My father was really into military bands and brass bands, while my mother liked light pop. However, there were some older kids in my street who had record players and a collection of 45s, they introduced me to a wide spread of black music and rock ’n’ roll. This music offered me an escape from the grind of education and in my early teenage years the songs of Dion And The Belmonts or The Cleftones spoke about heartache and the fantasy of young love. The music celebrated the wonder of being a teenager and it was a universal feeling.
“British bands started latching on to the American grooves, but there was a radical difference between Little Richard and Cliff Richard. Stourbridge Town Hall would attract musicians passing through, and going to a concert there was like stepping into wonderland. I remember seeing Gene Vincent and experiencing a feeling of menace. He represented teen rebellion and it was something I could lock into.
“I also saw The Walker Brothers and remember how you couldn’t hear a word over the hysterical screaming girls, which was a great shame because Scott was a fantastic singer and a real mood merchant. However, the frenzy of it all really had quite an effect on me. It pushed a button and captured my soul. It was around then I started to believe you could do it yourself.
“I was in my mid-teens when I started hanging out with a group called Andy Long And The Original Jurymen, a sort of beat group who played a diluted version of American standards. Andy got sick one time, so I stood in. Boy we murdered the life out of Chuck Berry, but I imagine it sounded pretty good in a small room in front of a handful of people. I started singing while living at home working on my GCEs. To think, four years before those clubs, I was only interested in filling my stamp collection!”
While fiercely proud of his Black Country roots, it’s hard to imagine that the frontman of a world-conquering group would hail from such a humble musical background. But there was more to the small West Midlands market town of Stourbridge than met the eye.
“There was a folk house in Stourbridge that became something of a mecca,” Robert explains fondly. “We’re not talking Greenwich Village here, but with the music being played came an array of interesting characters. Stourbridge College of Art attracted students from Western Europe, and with them came this exotic, bohemian element. I’d go to record parties and they would have a seriousness about them. I was exposed to all kinds of different music and literature. It was a remarkable and sensory experience.
“I’d already been fully seduced by the blues and developed a taste for Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson… So, while I always leaned towards the roots-oriented blues when singing, I also emulated the sweet expressive delivery of Gene Vincent. It was from there I developed a style that drew from both worlds and found my own voice.”
Gigging the clubs, Plant honoured his love for the blues with a variety of bands such as The New Memphis Bluesbreakers, Black Snake Moan, The Delta Blues Band, The Tennessee Teens and The Crawling King Snakes. It was with the King Snakes that Plant met and became firm friends with a drummer called John Bonham. The pair went on to play in The Band Of Joy, an experimental outfit who merged the blues with the developing West Coast psychedelic rock scene. After they failed to attract any interest from labels in London, the group disbanded and Robert headed back to Birmingham. He didn’t have to wait too long before fate, in the guise of the musician Terry Reid, prompted rock superstardom to come knocking at his door.
Following the demise of his 60s beat combo The Yardbirds, burgeoning guitar god Jimmy Page had approached Reid to fill the vocalist spot for his proposed new group. Having committed to open US tours for Cream and The Rolling Stones, Reid suggested the “wild and mad” singer of an act who he had seen as an opener at one of his shows. That support group was Band Of Joy, the singer was Robert Plant, the rest is rock ’n’ roll history.
GOOD TIMES BAD TIMES
50 years ago, Led Zeppelin, completed by bassist John Paul Jones and Plant’s old mucker John Bonham on drums, released both Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II and set about redefining rock ’n’ roll. Over the course of a 10-year period the band became one of the most successful, innovative and influential groups in music history.
Zeppelin not only broke all records; they broke every rule. Signed to Atlantic Records, the group enjoyed considerable artistic freedom and pushed boundaries to the limit. Across eight albums, Zeppelin mashed rock ’n’ roll, blues and folk with Celtic, Indian and Arabic traditions to concoct a heady brew that sounded both familiar but also otherworldly and totally new.
This mystical musical melting pot proved a cosmic trip for fans around the globe, with reported worldwide album sales now exceeding 300 million. Indeed, in May this year, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that they are the fifth highest-selling music act in the US (behind The Beatles, Garth Brooks, Elvis and Eagles) with 111.5 million units sold. At home in the UK they have had five multi-platinum, six platinum, one gold, four silver albums and notched up a remarkable eight consecutive No.1 LPs.
Sadly, the rock ’n’ roll rollercoaster derailed on the morning of 25 September 1980 when, after a day of drinking and rehearsing, John Bonham was found dead at Page’s house in Windsor. According to the coroner’s report, the drummer had the equivalent of 40 vodka shots in his system.
Rather than replace Bonham, Led Zeppelin chose to disband out of respect. In a press release, issued by Swan Song Records and signed ‘Led Zeppelin’, the band announced that they could not continue as they were. “Through chronic terrible luck I’d lost my buddy,” reflects Plant. “After we lost Bonzo, I needed to stretch out and try new things.”
CALLING TO YOU-OU-OU
Throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, Plant enjoyed success with a string of solo albums. He says: “In 1981 I had a strong starting position as a singer with a reputation. After Led Zep there was no formula and I jumped around. There’s a virility in the essence of creativity. Repetition is dull as dishwater. I went on to develop multiple identities over a number of records and I have had the freedom to do some incredibly varied things.”
Plant’s return was marked by 1982’s Pictures At Eleven and The Principle Of Moments in 1983. Both albums garnered favourable reviews and landed the singer in the UK album charts at No.2 and No.7 respectively. Popular tracks from this period included Big Log (a Top 20 hit in 1983) and In The Mood (1983), while Little By Little, from 1985’s Shaken ’n’ Stirred topped the US Mainstream Rock Chart for two weeks.
“At the time of recording most of these songs I was locked into the romance of what was contemporary,” reveals Plant. “So, they sound kinda brittle now. It was the electronic age and nobody wanted guitars, but from that same period came a lot of good stuff: Cocteau Twins, The JesusAnd Mary Chain and all that great music on 4AD.”
Plant’s new limited-edition boxset of 7″ singles includes 16 hits and rare B-sides from the albums released between 1982 and 2005. “Digging Deep collects two songs from each album,” says Plant. “There’s no formula to them and they all sound different. They are remastered versions and I’m delighted to see them released as 45s. I just love the aesthetic and sound of vinyl. The digital age is a fucker and has neutered expression in recording. There’s a radical difference and, sadly, it’s difficult to get back from digital.”
Following the release of Shaken ’n’ Stirred, guitar-based music enjoyed something of a resurgence. The heavy influence of Led Zeppelin had filtered through the generations and was reflected greatly in both the wam-bam-thank-you-glam of LA’s hair metal scene and the rising Seattle sound that was labelled grunge. Now And Zen (1988), Manic Nirvana (1990) and the hugely successful Fate Of Nations (1993) all seem to reflect this reignited interest and possess a sound more akin to that which had previously defined Plant in Led Zeppelin. It was time for Page to come knocking again.
“At the end of the Fate Of Nations run, Jimmy came to visit me in Boston and the idea of working with him on Unledded was very exciting. It proved to be a very emotive project. We returned to Marrakech, where we had written Kashmir some 20 years earlier, and we got to work with some incredible musicians, like Hassan El Arfaoui.
“We went on to do Walking Into Clarksdale and what we did was very good. We enjoyed success with Most High, but I don’t think it had legs. Yes, it was ‘Page and Plant’, but it as a real stretch without the other members of Led Zep and we couldn’t get from underneath the weight of that legend.”The new millennium has proved a fruitful time for Plant.
After years of reunion rumours, Led Zeppelin, with John Bonham’s son Jason filling in on drums, performed a full two-hour set on 10 December 2007 at the Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert. Plant has since concentrated on numerous projects including Priory of Brion, the Strange Sensation, Alison Krauss, The Band Of Joy and, since 2012, the Sensational Space Shifters.
He has also continually bothered the UK Album Chart Top 10 with a number of critically acclaimed albums including Band Of Joy (2010), Lullaby And The Ceaseless Roar (2014) and the marvellous Carry Fire (2017).
“Thankfully, people now see me very differently and I can work with the likes of Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle and Nathaniel Rateliff. I enjoy playing with my peers. The pressure of the grandiose belongs to a different era and what I do now can be so much more intimate. I can visit old songs, but I deal with the present and the future, not so much the past. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction in what I’m doing and I’m more than content with that.”