Robert Plant The Mighty Rearranger
Published Sep 26, 2010What's to become of a Golden God as retirement age looms? Robert Plant's bare-chested swagger and Valhalla-storming vocals redefined the image of the rock'n'roll singer in the 1970s. But all of his sexual posturing hid a true musicologist, someone as at home in Mississippi Delta juke joints as in the streets of Marrakesh. That aspect of his personality has been something Plant has increasingly relied on in recent years, not only to keep his sound fresh, but also to maintain distance from the unending pressure to reform Led Zeppelin. Following the huge success of his 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, Plant has taken another stab at Americana with his latest album, Band Of Joy, on which he works closely with acclaimed singer/songwriter and guitarist Buddy Miller. As Plant explains, it was natural to title the album after his pre-Zeppelin combo ― also featuring drummer John Bonham ― which he says in many respects forged his musical identity. "In the Band of Joy, when I was 17, I was playing everybody else's stuff and moving it around, and it's kind of time to re-invoke that attitude and sentiment." Plant adds, "I wanted to bring my personality to other people's songs and kick the door open a little bit, or edge it open with my hips. Basically, I sing the way I sing and to attack those songs in that particular way, I can only do them Plant-like."
1948 to 1967
Robert Anthony Plant is born August 20, 1948 in West Bromwich, a town in the West Midlands region of England. At age ten he is turned on to rock'n'roll after hearing Elvis Presley, and begins imitating him out of earshot of his parents. In his early teens, Plant is caught up in the blues boom sweeping England, sparked by package tours of American stars such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Plant devours it all and by age 16 is singing in blues bands around his hometown area. One is the Crawling Kingsnakes, whose drummer is fellow teen John Bonham. Plant recognizes Bonham's uncommon ability, and they establish a close friendship. Plant's parents want him to be an accountant, but after two weeks at college, he quits to pursue a professional music career. He works for a road paving company, and in a Woolworth's department store, until 1965 when he joins a mod group called the Tennessee Teens. They change their name to Listen the following year and record a single for CBS, a cover of the Young Rascals' "You Better Run," which scrapes into the UK Top 50. The label sees more potential in Plant as a solo artist, and he records two further pop/soul singles in early 1967, "Our Song" and "Long Time Coming." When both fail to chart, Plant joins a young Midlands act called the Band of Joy, which allows him to indulge his fondness for California psychedelic groups such as Moby Grape, Love, and Spirit. John Bonham is eventually enlisted and during his six-month stint the Band of Joy builds a respectable reputation as an opening act on the UK underground circuit. They cut a four-song demo, including covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," but a record deal doesn't materialize.
With Bonham taking a gig with American folk-rocker Tim Rose, Plant sings with British blues pioneer Alexis Korner's group. Plant's only recording with Korner, "Operator," isn't heard until it turns up on an early '70s bootleg album. Meanwhile, Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page is at a crossroads. With the band on its last legs, he and manager Peter Grant need to fulfil a Scandinavian tour booked for the fall. It gives Page the chance to catch up to his former bandmate Jeff Beck, who is having success in America with his new hard-rocking group featuring Rod Stewart on vocals. Page first hires bassist John Paul Jones, who, like Page prior to the Yardbirds, is a well-known session man now looking to join a band. At the top of Page's list of potential singers is Terry Reid, who declines the offer having already committed to a solo career. Reid recommends Plant, who left a lasting impression after the Band of Joy served as Reid's opening act. Page hears Plant sing for the first time with a Buffalo Springfield cover band called Obstweedle. Suitably impressed, Page invites Plant to spend the weekend at his home on the Thames River where they discuss possible musical directions. When the subject of a drummer comes up, Plant lobbies hard for Bonham. It takes much persuasion to get Bonham to give up his job with Rose, but after their first rehearsal all four agree they have an undeniable chemistry. Although contractually billed as the New Yardbirds for the Scandinavian tour, the band soon starts appearing as Led Zeppelin, a name Page had stored away after hearing the Who's Keith Moon mention it during the session for Jeff Beck's single "Beck's Bolero" on which Page, Moon and John Paul Jones all played. The early Zep set is primarily ideas carried over from the Yardbirds, such as "Dazed And Confused" (which Page had stolen from New York folk singer Jake Holmes), but new songs quickly emerge. In October, the band lay down an album's worth of material over two weeks of sessions that Page produces and pays for himself. He and Peter Grant shop the tapes in New York, and while the Yardbirds' former label, Epic Records, is eager to sign the band, they ultimately strike a deal with Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun, who wisely hears Led Zeppelin's potential within the new album-oriented FM radio market. Ertegun gives Page unprecedented creative control, from album artwork to the choice of whether or not to release singles. On November 9, Plant marries his long-time girlfriend Maureen Wilson, who had given birth to their first child, Carmen Jane, two weeks earlier. On Christmas Day, Led Zeppelin depart England for their first North American tour opening for Atlantic signees Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly.
Led Zeppelin is released in North America on January 12 to generally scathing reviews. Most critics compare it unfavorably to the Jeff Beck Group's recent debut, Truth, with Plant's sexually charged histrionics taking the most flak. However, audiences immediately embrace the band's powerful live show, and during a two-night stand at New York's Fillmore East, Iron Butterfly refuses to go on after them. Led Zeppelin's reputation among groupies is also solidified on the first tour; many tales of debauchery soon spread, the most famous being the "red snapper" incident at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle involving a woman being assaulted with a fish caught outside their hotel window. The first album gets a much warmer reception in England when it is released in March, and it eventually hits the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. The band returns to North America in April as a headlining act and spends the rest of the year on tour. Any free time is used to record the second album, which Page meticulously assembles with the help of Jimi Hendrix's engineer Eddie Kramer. Led Zeppelin II's release in October is heralded by the opening track, "Whole Lotta Love." Its unforgettable riff sets a new standard for hard rock, even though Plant's lyrics and performance borrow liberally from Muddy Waters' "You Need Love," as well as the Small Faces' 1966 cover version. The track's popularity on FM stations prompts Atlantic to issue an edited single for AM radio against the band's wishes, which nonetheless proves to be an equally huge seller. While the band's instrumental prowess remains II's main focus, Plant begins to assert himself, especially on "The Lemon Song," where he utilizes the lascivious country blues lyric, "Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg" to great effect. His fascination with The Lord Of The Rings is also first heard on "Ramble On," and his folk-rock side is revealed on "Thank You," written for his wife. The album displaces the Beatles' Abbey Road at the top of Billboard's chart, and by November it is certified gold in America.
After more European and North American touring into the spring, Plant and Page retreat to a cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur (Welsh for "golden breast") where Plant had spent time as a child. It's the first chance the pair has to do serious songwriting, and the bucolic surroundings inspire a wealth of acoustic-based ideas. Conversely, the band writes the hard-driving "Immigrant Song" ― featuring Plant's newly discovered Viking wail ― during its first and only trip to Iceland in May. Still, Led Zeppelin's experimentation on III goes over most critics' heads, and the group is lambasted again, this time for going soft. But with the album shipping one million copies, Led Zeppelin assumes the Beatles' position as the world's biggest band. At year's end, Zep begins recording its next album at an English manor house called Headley Grange. One night while sitting by the fireplace, Plant composes lyrics to a lengthy, multi-layered piece Page and Jones are working on. "Stairway to Heaven" will dominate all of their lives from then on.
1971 to 1972
Led Zeppelin previews much of the new material live, building anticipation for the fourth album's eventual appearance in November 1971. Although commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, it has no official title, a major reason for its delayed release. The only references to the band are four symbols, each representing a member. Page says at the time that it is all a reaction to the unfair critical drubbing the previous album received. Yet, IV is widely hailed as the band's masterpiece, with "Stairway to Heaven" earning massive airplay in spite of its eight-minute length. The album's mystical imagery heightens the band's mystique, now well established through their reluctance to appear in the media ― an American preacher even contends that "Stairway to Heaven" contains subliminal Satan-worshiping messages that can be heard when the song is played backwards. The only opportunity to see Zep is in concert, and without an opening act, shows regularly last three hours. Following an Australian tour in early 1972, Plant and Page take a side trip to India where they conduct a session with local musicians. These tracks are not released, but they will prove crucial in terms of the next stage of Led Zeppelin's evolution. The band continues to tour throughout North America, Japan and the UK for the remainder of the year, although Plant is with his wife when she gives birth to their second child, a son named Karac.
1973 to 1975
Houses of the Holy is released in spring 1973 after lengthy delays over its controversial cover art depicting nude children. While musically a letdown after the triumph of its predecessor, the album does arrive in time to capitalize on the band's biggest American tour to that point. In fact, one of the first shows at Tampa Stadium in Florida breaks the single-act attendance record held by the Beatles since their 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Seeking to finally document their live show, the members agree to have the tour's final three concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden recorded and filmed. Unfortunately, Plant's voice is in rough shape by then, while Page is still recovering from a broken finger suffered at the tour's outset. Instead of shelving the project, over the coming year each member shoots a "fantasy sequence" in an attempt to salvage the film. Plant's shows him as an Arthurian knight coming to rescue a damsel in distress. Coincidently, at this time Led Zeppelin provides a substantial amount of money to help Monty Python complete its film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While its own film remains in limbo, Zep turns its attention to its next album, Physical Graffiti, set to be the first release on its own Swan Song label. After recording several lengthy new tracks, including the Indian-tinged "Kashmir," the band decides to expand it into a double album by gathering many unreleased songs dating back to the first Bron-Yr-Aur sessions. Released in February 1975, just as the band embarks on its next North American tour, the album is a massive seller, and puts the rest of the Zep catalogue back on the Billboard album chart. With new British tax laws threatening to take a large chunk of the band's income, each member is forced to move out of the country immediately following five shows at London's Earls Court arena. Plant and Page visit North Africa in search of new musical inspiration, but following this trip all plans are set aside when Plant and his family are involved in a serious car accident on the Greek island of Rhodes. Plant suffers a broken ankle and is unable to walk unaided for several months. Prevented from recuperating at home in England due to the tax laws, he eventually lands in Malibu, California where the rest of the band join him to work on new material.
1976 to 1977
The surprisingly straightforward Presence is laid down during a brief, marathon session in Munich and does little to further the band's critical standing. Most cite the guitar-heavy arrangements as Page re-asserting his authority, although both "Achilles Last Stand" and "Tea For One" clearly illuminate Plant's state of mind in the wake of the car accident. In October 1976, the Led Zeppelin film, The Song Remains The Same, premieres, and the band is featured on the cover of People. Critics savage the film, along with its accompanying double album soundtrack, and even the members themselves seem eager to put it behind them. Manager Peter Grant calls it "the most expensive home movie ever made." Nevertheless, fans flock to see it and its overall visual style becomes a blueprint that countless new bands, such as Van Halen and Heart, begin to follow. Inevitably, it will greatly inspire This Is Spinal Tap as well. Zep's next American tour begins in April 1977, with Page in the grip of heroin addiction. Despite setting new attendance records, the performances are wildly unpredictable and beyond excessive ― solo excursions for Page, Jones and Bonham comprise nearly half of the show. The Mafia-like vibe surrounding the band reaches its nadir before a concert in Oakland when Bonham, Grant, and a bodyguard are arrested and charged with assaulting a member of promoter Bill Graham's crew. Upon arriving at the next stop, New Orleans, Plant receives word that his son Karac has died from a respiratory virus. The rest of the tour is cancelled and Plant seriously contemplates leaving the band.
1978 to 1980
In spring 1978, John Bonham convinces Plant to rejoin the others and start working on a new album. Throughout the summer Plant sits in with local bands to get back into form, and by the fall, Zep is rehearsing in London. They accept an invitation to record at ABBA's Stockholm studio, and In Through The Out Door is completed before Christmas. Jones dominates the sound; the songwriting and the album as a whole are a mixed bag of new approaches. An obvious standout is the ballad "All My Love," on which Plant laments his son's death. The healing is completed when a new son, Logan, is born in January 1979. Although the album has yet to be released, Zep plays two massive outdoor shows in England in August. The hype surrounding the events polarizes hard rock die-hards and the punk/new wave contingent that has made Zep a primary target for several years. When In Through The Out Door is finally heard, it does suggest the band wants to shed its "dinosaur" image, and they go a step further on their summer 1980 European tour by playing tighter sets and updating their look. On September 24, the first day of rehearsal for the U.S. leg, John Bonham arrives having consumed copious amounts of vodka. He continues to drink heavily later at a party at Page's mansion, and is put to bed by his assistant. The next morning, Jones and a roadie find Bonham with no vital signs. An autopsy determines he choked on vomit while asleep. For the next two months, rumours run rampant about who might replace Bonham, but on December 4, the remaining members issue a press statement saying that Led Zeppelin no longer exists.
1981 to 1983
Plant reconnects with old friend, guitarist Robbie Blunt of British country-rockers Bronco, and the pair starts writing new material. Expectations from Zep fans are high for Plant's first solo album, Pictures at Eleven, and while it is sonically similar to In Through The Out Door ― with drummers Phil Collins and Cozy Powell admirably filling in for Bonham ― few listeners ultimately connect with it. Around the time of its 1982 release, Plant and wife Maureen divorce. Plant carries on, making the more pop-friendly The Principle of Moments in 1983. This album yields two successful singles, "In the Mood" and "Big Log," which set the stage for Plant's first solo tour. Again, Zep fans' hopes are dashed when he states at the outset that no old material will be performed. Instead, the encore each night is a cover of Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself." Meanwhile, Jimmy Page assembles Coda, a generally lacklustre collection of Zep outtakes.
1984 to 1986
Plant's fondness for sitting in with R&B bands leads to The Honeydrippers Vol. 1, a massive selling all-star EP. Its syrupy version of the New Orleans standard "Sea of Love" ― featuring a Page guitar solo ― hits the Top 5 in North America. Still, Plant's next solo album, Shaken 'n Stirred, is his most eclectic yet, and most fans are put off by its heavily processed sound. Shortly after its release, Plant, Page and Jones reunite for the first time ― with Phil Collins and Chic's Tony Thompson sharing drum duties ― at Live Aid. Their three-song set is one of the most anticipated of the day, but they are clearly not prepared for it, particularly Page, who blames his poor performance in part on Plant's insistence on having Collins participate.
1987 to 1989
Following the Shaken 'n Stirred tour, Plant spends nearly a year demoing material with a wide range of new collaborators. He eventually crosses paths with Phil Johnstone and Dave Barratt, who work under the name the Rest is History. Plant connects with one of their songs, "Heaven Knows," leading him to hire the pair to assemble a new band and co-produce his next album, Now and Zen. Johnstone, in particular, is keen to invoke some Zeppelin-esque flair to Plant's approach, especially since interest in the band has been revived through Stephen Davis's unauthorized biography Hammer of the Gods, and the Beastie Boys sampling Zep riffs on License To Ill. Plant's response is "Tall Cool One," which features not only a guest solo from Page, but a clever Zep sampling montage of its own. Johnstone even convinces Plant to include a handful of Zep songs in the new band's repertoire, bringing Plant his most attention as a solo artist to that point. Yet, persistent murmurs of a Zep reunion are further stoked in 1988 when Plant does a guest vocal on Page's solo album Outrider, and the band does another one-off set ― this time with Bonham's son Jason on drums ― at Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary celebration.
1990 to 1993
Plant's return to a more mainstream rock sound continues with 1990's Manic Nirvana, once again featuring the Johnstone-led band. Since his divorce, Plant has been with his ex-wife's sister Shirley who bears him a son, Jesse Lee, in 1991. They separate soon after, and he briefly dates Canadian singer Alannah Myles. Meanwhile, bassist Charlie Jones marries Plant's daughter Carmen. On April 20, 1992, Plant performs "Innuendo" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" with Queen at the internationally broadcast Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium. For his 1993 album Fate of Nations, Plant adds Dartmouth, NS guitarist Kevin MacMichael, who co-writes several tracks. The album offers a more organic sound through a variety of instrumentation; violinist Nigel Kennedy and hurdy gurdy player Nigel Eaton are particularly effective on the "Kashmir"-esque first single "Calling To You." It's all in sharp contrast to Page's project at the time, a collaboration with Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale that leaves most Zep fans cringing. When MTV expresses a desperate desire for a Led Zeppelin Unplugged session, Plant and Page enter into their first serious discussions about working together again.
1994 to 1998
The pair decide to use the Unplugged concept to fully explore the global influences in their past work. Prior to the concert, they film several segments for the TV special in North Africa showing them jamming with native street players, and during the show itself they are joined by an ensemble of musicians from Egypt and Morocco, as well as Indian vocalist Najima Akhtar. The core band consists of Plant's regular rhythm section: his son-in-law Charlie Jones and drummer Michael Lee, along with Cure guitarist Porl Thompson and Nigel Eaton on hurdy gurdy. John Paul Jones is conspicuously absent. He says he wasn't asked to participate, but didn't feel so bad once he saw that "they needed an orchestra to replace me." The project is awkwardly titled No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded, but it is, not surprisingly, a huge success, and they take the show around the world into 1996. Led Zeppelin is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and the surviving members, plus Jason Bonham, jam with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, as well as Neil Young, at the ceremony. Plant and Page start writing new material in 1997 and hire Steve Albini to engineer Walking Into Clarksdale, released in April 1998. The album is a return to a more basic four-piece rock band approach, with Charlie Jones and Michael Lee the only other principal players. It receives lukewarm reviews, but the ensuing world tour attracts big crowds thanks to a set heavily stacked with Zep favourites.
1999 to 2002
Plant retreats from the limelight back home in England, but soon starts doing small gigs with a loose contingent called the Priory of Brion, playing mostly covers of Plant's favourite '60s artists. One of them, Moby Grape's Skip Spence, is on his deathbed, prompting Plant to record "Little Hands" for More Oar, a tribute to Spence's classic solo album. At the same time, Plant is increasingly drawn to the North African music scene, becoming a regular participant at festivals in Mali and Tuareg. In 2001, he guests on Afro Celt Sound System's Volume 3: Further In Time, performing a duet with Welsh singer Julie Murphy. It leads to the formation of Plant's next band, the Strange Sensation, featuring Porl Thompson, Jah Wobble collaborator Justin Adams, and Portishead members John Baggott and Clive Deamer. This line-up records Plant's official return as a solo artist, Dreamland, a collection of psych/folk chestnuts given a dynamic, African-flavoured makeover. Live, the group isn't afraid to touch the Zep catalogue either, breathing new life into overlooked tracks like "Four Sticks" and "When The Levee Breaks."
2003 to 2006
The two-disc retrospective Sixty Six To Timbuktu provides a fine overview of Plant's career pre- and post-Led Zeppelin, while interest in his old band is once again sparked with the combined release of its first official DVD and the live album How The West Was Won, recorded in 1972. Yet, Plant continues exploring new avenues with Strange Sensation, now with Cast guitarist Skin Tyson in place of Porl Thompson. They release Mighty ReArranger in 2005, an all-original collection that garners generally favourable reviews for both its musical adventurousness and anti-George Bush lyrics. In June 2006, Plant performs at a New York benefit for another of his long-time musical heroes, Love founder Arthur Lee, just weeks before Lee's death from leukaemia. In November, the Nine Lives box set remasters Plant's entire solo catalogue, adding bonus tracks.
2007 to 2009
Plant meets bluegrass star Alison Krauss at a tribute concert to folk singer Lead Belly and suggests they collaborate. T-Bone Burnett gets the call to produce the Nashville sessions, and Raising Sand is released in October 2007 to overwhelming acclaim. Plant's growing skill as an interpreter of other people's songs earns the bulk of the praise, although one of the album's standout tracks is a remake of Walking Into Clarksdale's "Please Read The Letter." Shortly after Raising Sand's appearance, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun dies and plans for a tribute concert quickly take shape. Immense pressure is put on the members of Led Zeppelin to perform, and they ultimately agree to headline the charity event at London's O2 Arena on December 10. With Jason Bonham on drums, they play a near-flawless two-hour set, and talk of a reformation reaches a fever pitch. However, Plant is committed to touring with Krauss and is seen as the lone holdout preventing a Zep reunion. Raising Sand goes on to be certified platinum in both the U.S. and UK, and is named Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.
Plant returns to Nashville without Krauss and Burnett. He assembles a new group around producer/guitarist Buddy Miller, Miller's frequent singing partner Patty Griffin, and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott. Plant dubs the project Band Of Joy in tribute to his pre-Zep group that first allowed him to explore his complete range of musical interests. Among the songs covered on the album are Los Lobos' "Angel Dance," Low's "Silver Rider," and the traditional "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down." "After all the things I've done, the idea of just stepping forward with other people and letting them take the lead is an exciting prospect," Plant says. "Nothing is daunting for me ― but forever challenging. I have to be able to just get out there into the great drift of music and possibility, and hang onto great themes and ideas."