By Brian Ives
“There’s a lot of responsibility of having a past like that.” That’s a bit of an understatement, coming from former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant; that’s what he told CBS This Morning‘s Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell in a recent interview.
But consider another quote that’s just as telling. This one comes from his song “Tin Pan Valley,” off of his under-appreciated 2005 album, Mighty ReArranger: “My peers may flirt with cabaret/ some fake the rebel yell/ Me, I’m moving up to higher ground/ I must escape their hell.”
There’s the rub of being Robert Plant. On one hand, there’s no sense in denying that you were in one of the most successful bands of all time. Besides the obvious benefits that come with that, it’s clear that Plant loves the music Led Zeppelin made, is proud of it, and does enjoy performing some of those songs.
On the other hand, he isn’t in Led Zeppelin anymore, and doesn’t seem to want to return to his former band either. He does seem to want to continue Zeppelin’s mission — to keep exploring the possibilities of the blues, and seeing how they combine with music from other cultures and more modern sub-cultures. He’s aware that this will alienate much of his audience (and maybe some ex-bandmates), many of whom possess musical tastes that have, perhaps, been calcified for decades.
But like Neil Young and David Bowie — two artists who seem to get much more credit than Plant does for possessing a similar form of musical fearlessness — Plant doesn’t feel beholden to his audience, record label, or anyone else but his muse. Even when he strikes post-Zeppelin gold (via his radio hits in the ’80s, singing golden oldies with the Honeydrippers or rebooting himself as an Americana artist on his six-time GRAMMY winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, 2007’s Raising Sand) he never allows himself to get too comfortable.
As Plant sang in the aforementioned “Tin Pan Valley,” “I’m through the door/I’m moving right along.” He’s certainly run through the door many times in his career, so here are some of his more interesting post- (and pre-) Zeppelin destinations.
Listen – “You Better Run” (1966)
Robert Plant often cites Ray Charles as one of his biggest influences. That influence is readily apparent on this Young Rascals cover, by Plant’s pre-Zeppelin band Listen. Not only was his singing very Ray-like, but the backing singers could have passed for the Raelettes, and the horn section may well have been lifted right from The Genius of Ray Charles.
“Far Post” (1982)
Three years after Led Zeppelin’s actual swan song, 1979’s In Through the Out Door, Plant returned with his solo debut album, Pictures at Eleven. Featuring a handful of radio hits (“Burning Down One Side,” “Pledge Pin,” “Worse Than Detroit”) that fit in snugly on AOR radio alongside the Cars, Genesis, Dire Straits and the Police. They were tight songs with echoes of Zep, but it was clear that Plant was leaving the world of hard rock behind. “Far Post” actually didn’t even make the album; it was originally the b-side of “Burning Down One Side.” Like much of the album, it featured the clean but powerful drumming of Genesis’ Phil Collins.
“Tall Cool One” (1988)
By the late ’80s, rock radio and MTV were dominated by big-haired pop metal bands (aka Whitesnake, Kingdom Come, Poison, etc…) who aped Zep’s looks and moves, but lacked their soul. 1988’s Now and Zen would have been the exact, perfect time for Plant to return to a hard rock sound and reclaim his crown as the “golden god.” And when rumors began circulating that Jimmy Page was guesting on the album, and that there would be some Zep elements to at least some of the songs, “Tall Cool One” is probably not what anyone had in mind. It sampled a bunch of Zeppelin songs including “The Ocean” (which was one of the many Zep tunes that the Beastie Boys sampled on their debut Licensed to Ill two years earlier), and featured a new Page guitar solo, but was essentially a dance song. Plant’s message: “Yes, Zeppelin is part of my history. I’m not trying to re-live my history, I’m moving forward.” In this case, it worked.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – “Please Read the Letter” (1998)
As mentioned, in 1988 Jimmy Page guested on Plant’s Now and Zen; in that same year, Plant guested on Page’s solo debut, Outrider. By ’93, the Zep vibes were getting stronger: Page teamed with Whitesnake’s David Coverdale for duo album that recalled ’70s blues-rock, and Plant had shouted out to Page in “Calling to You” on his Fate of Nations album. In 1994, the foreplay paid off, and Page and Plant reunited for an MTV Unplugged, which yielded the live album No Quarter. The duo re-imagined Zep classics (something Plant would continue to do in his solo career) and wrote a few new songs. But in 1998, they released a full-on album of new material, Walking Into Clarksdale. There was never any hope that the duo would escape the shadow of their former band, but Plant was still disappointed when fans seemed less than eager to hear new material on the band’s arena tour. Upon reflection, Clarksdale did have some great songs, and happily, someone did revisit the album: producer T-Bone Burnett suggested that Plant re-record the song with Alison Krauss for Raising Sand; the song ended up winning Record of the Year at the 2008 GRAMMYS.
Afro-Celt Sound System feat. Robert Plant – “Life Begin Again” (2001)
Robert Plant rarely guests on other artists’ records, but he was clearly inspired by this collaboration from Afro-Celt Sound System’s Volume 3: Further in Time. “Life Begin Again” saw Plant wailing over a cacophony of acoustic guitars, fiddles, acoustic percussion, electronic beats, samples, and Celtic singing; you could use a similar description for his latest album, the excellent lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar.
“Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ to Die)” (2002)
Plant’s first album after ending his reunion with Jimmy Page, Dreamland represented Plant’s next phase as a solo artist. First: he became more comfortable with being a song interpreter, and didn’t worry so much about writing new songs (the album only had one original). Also, it started his years-long collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Justin Adams, a Brit who specializes in combining blues with the music of Africa, and who has produced albums for Saharan blues band Tinariwen. “Fixin’ to Die,” an adaptation of a Bukka White blues, still appears in Plant’s set lists.
“Tin Pan Valley” (2005)
The aforementioned song from 2005’s Mighty ReArranger is essentially Plant’s post-millenial mission statement. It also captures Plant’s contradictions of wanting to progress artistically – and you’ve got to give the man credit for following his muse, instead of taking the tens of millions of dollars he would surely get for a Zeppelin reunion tour. But in the same song that he essentially says he’s not banking on past glories, he features thunderous strangely-Page-like guitar work, courtesy of Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss “Gone Gone Gone” (2007)
In all of his decades of record making, Plant had rarely shared the microphone with anyone (Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore,” featuring Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny being a notable exception). So the idea to team him with bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss for Raising Sand wasn’t an obvious one but it worked on every level: besides the six GRAMMYS it won over two years, it was critically acclaimed, getting an A+ in Entertainment Weekly; Rolling Stone named it one of the best albums of the decade and even New York’s hipster-centric Village Voice gave it a positive review, calling it “deeply gratifying.” While most of the album had a somber tone, “Gone Gone Gone” saw Plant and Krauss having a blast.
“Angel Dance” (2010)
Record label: “So, Robert, we’d love for you to do another album with Alison. That last one did pretty well, you know?”
Robert Plant: “Yeah, that was fun. But, nah.”
Actually, Plant and Krauss did attempt to record a follow up to Raising Sand, but Plant felt that the sessions didn’t have the magic of the first time around, so moved on. But he kept their touring guitarist Buddy Miller (a great artist in his own right), and put together a new Band of Joy for an exploration into some of the weirder corners of Americana. The Band of Joy album featured covers of Los Lobos (“Angel Dance”), indie rockers Low (“Silver Rider,” “Monkey”) and traditional songs (“Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”). The touring band, which featured Miller and singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, was one of Plant’s very best. Miller, in fact, told Radio.com that they recorded a new album together, which is still unreleased. Because Plant, it seemed, was getting a bit too comfortable with Americana, and once again it was time to move on.
In 2012, Plant started performing with his new band the Sensational Shape Shifters, which includes many members of the Strange Sensation, his backing group on Mighty ReArranger; among them Justin Adams. The years of playing together paid off with one of Plant’s greatest solo albums, Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar. Combining acoustic and electric blues, traditional percussion and electronic beats, American, Celtic and African sounds and – yes – loud electric guitars and wailing vocals, it’s the realization of all the influences and genres that Plant had drawn from for over four decades. So sure, he could reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – or Alison Krauss, for that matter – but his latest work shows that he still has doors to go through, and, happily, there’s still lots of interesting things on the other side.