The Song Remains: Robert Plant Looks Back on Led Zeppelin's Legacy | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. Stay tuned for more interviews from Bacon's Archive coming soon.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Paul McCartney and Jeff Beck, as well as conversations with Leo Fender's longtime partner George Fullerton, Fender visionary Dan Smith, and Gibson's Ted McCarty.

I interviewed Robert Plant in his manager's kitchen in London at the start of 1988, just before the release of his fourth solo album, Now And Zen. The ghost of Led Zeppelin was never far away, and it became clear that Robert was changing his views on the way his past might exist alongside his current musical leanings. We started by chatting about live shows.

Robert, you're starting some British dates for your new solo album, Now And Zen. How's it going?

Robert Plant - Now And Zen

We go on stage, and we're like a bunch of mechanical men right now, all sort of knowing every cue off by heart and waiting for it to relax. It's like rehearsals with people there, still. We've got to knock that out of us, I suppose.

How long does that take, in your experience?

Well, after all the years with Zeppelin, to start again was quite traumatic. And to get the whole thing in perspective, we didn't actually tour after my first solo album [Pictures At Eleven]. I made a second one [The Principle Of Moments] and then we toured. And it took quite a while, a good three or four weeks before the whole thing settled down and new personality was added to it. Because there's so much riding on it. And everybody wants to please.

We had a meeting yesterday, all the band [Doug Boyle, guitar; Phil Johnstone, keys; Phil Scragg, bass; Chris Blackwell, drums], and we were discussing how the whole eagerness to please is almost overpowering the actual finished effort. We're trying to please each other and look at the crowd, too. And all they want is fucking "Stairway To Heaven" half the time.

Would you give that to them?

[Shakes head.] But I think I've got out of the stage, maybe just in time, of denying my past and any knowledge of it. You know, I co-wrote 80-odd songs in Led Zeppelin, and I'm quite prepared to sing a few now. [Later in '88, Plant's live set will include Zep songs such as "In The Evening," "Black Country Woman," "Trampled Under Foot," "Misty Mountain Hop," and "Custard Pie."]

I had to distance myself so many times from the bloody thing, just to allow myself some identity. And I got neurotic about it, far more than anybody else was really bothered. Well, until you get off the plane when you go over the water. But it was a big heavy thing to try and divorce yourself from, something that was enormous—and something that seems to have a continual lifespan now, a regeneration, for all the reasons it was good in the first place.

I can't put it behind me, so I was trying to say to myself, "Well, pretend you never heard it." And I wouldn't play the record for a year. Then my daughter would come in with her psychobilly bass player boyfriend, and he'd say, "'ere, you know on that song you did 'Black Dog,' you went wrong, why did you leave it on the record?"

"I went, wrong? You little runt. Come here." I got the record, blew the dust off it, and started playing it, started counting out what a 5/4 bar would be in the middle of a 4/4 tune. Then I started going, Hmm, I wonder what that drum intro's like on "When The Levee Breaks"?

Robert Plant

Was it wrong, by the way?

No, of course it wasn't wrong—it could never ever have been wrong. The outtakes I'm sure would be good fun to listen to [laughs], just trying to get it right. But now he's got the hang of it and now he's gone from playing psychobilly and being a Guana Batz fan to watching The Cult. So I guess the next thing is he'll be buying Led Zeppelin records.

I imagine more people have bought Led Zeppelin records in the last couple of years [speaking in 1988] than in, say, the last four years.

Oh yeah. Odd, isn't it?

Is it?

It's neat for me to say it's odd. I know it's not odd. It was never odd. It was just that it was time for it to have a rest for a while, while the Sex Pistols did what they had to do, and what they had to was quite valid, you know. A new broom kind of sweeps clean, and when you've got XTC doing the work, as well, and the Buzzcocks and people, that's good. And beside that, we had to get some of that ponderous self-importance out the way.

From a musician's point of view, maybe the punk thing wasn't quite what it seemed.

No, but you don't have to look at it with just a musician's hat on, or holding the hat rack for the musicians. You have to think about what its effects would be ultimately, and it means that the next time Led Zeppelin should exist, even if it's just the ghost of Led Zeppelin on this record here and there, then that would be revitalized and modified from the effects of these other guys.

Otherwise we'd have been doing Umm Kulthum melodies now, all the time, with an Egyptian orchestra. Because that would have been the only thing. It would have got more and more pompous and perhaps a little more remote. The punk thing was essential. It was time for a change.

You have Jimmy Page playing guitar on a couple of tracks on Now And Zen. Is that another indication you're more relaxed about your past?

Well, to get Jimmy to come in and play on something, I mean, maybe we should work together quite a lot, soon, perhaps. I don't know. [Earlier in the '80s they had been together briefly in The Honeydrippers. They would unite as Page & Plant about six years after this interview, in 1994. With Jason Bonham on drums, Led Zeppelin played at an Atlantic 40th anniversary bash later in '88, and in 2007 performed at an Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert.]

But to get Jimmy to come into my world, rather than me go into his, and to bring his bits and pieces, it's quite traumatic in a way. Because we were so close at one time, absolutely musically inseparable. And now we're miles apart, to ask him to step in and join me. I really like Jimmy's work on "Heaven Knows" on this album, I think it's great. That's so slinky, so much sex in that.

Robert Plant - "Heaven Knows"

Was it easy to work together again?

Er, yeah, it was great. He's got so much latent power, and he hasn't really done a lot for a while, although he's been working continuously on his record. I've done a song with him on that. It's not out yet, it's called "The Only One." [It appeared on Page's Outrider album released later in 1988.] A bit tongue in cheek, god forbid. He hadn't worked a great deal with other people a lot, he tends to work very separately, whereas I tend to drag people off the street and try and see if they can do something. But it was great, excellent—the evidence is there.

Can you think of some of Jimmy's guitar from Zeppelin that you particularly like?

[Long pause.] The slide work on "In My Time of Dying," which goes on and on [laughs], but it's great ramshackle blues slide. Straight off the top. I remember the shock I had with one of my favorite bands, Let's Active, with Mitch Easter. There's a track on Big Plans For Everybody [1986] with slide guitar, and it's exactly the same as "In My Time of Dying" [laughs]. I couldn't believe it! I went what! Not another one. I thought it was only that Rick Rubin who did these things.

Led Zeppelin - "In My Time of Dying"

When you hear Zeppelin tracks like "In My Time of Dying," do you recall images of the sessions?

Oh, no. I can remember where it was, that was all. And I can remember we were all present and correct, and very healthy. With Zeppelin, we moved around a lot. We used mobiles: everything was done with Ronnie Lane's mobile or with the Stones mobile, generally.

I remember a story about the first album costing, I think, 1,700 quid. Any truth in that?

Probably less than that, because it took 36 hours to make—that's record and mix. I did nine weeks and six days this time! And I worked and worked and worked and worked with this record. And there's a lot of spirit on the record, because I knew that with all that I wanted to do it could take months. The further time goes on and the more options that you have, the crazier the whole thing gets. And the whole thing becomes less and less relative to the live show.

Ronnie Lane's mobile studio

That's why maybe things like "Billy's Revenge" are really good, because it's souped-up rockabilly, really. But 36 hours is about right for making a record [laughs]. I wish I could make a single in 36 hours, let alone an album.

You could go on forever. I have friends who record in America, Yes being the prime example, and they took nearly two years, or just over two years. So what you end up with is something that you never even imagined in the beginning. And I think the idea for me is to go in and try and create something that I think I know what I want to do. Maybe a few nuances that are interesting, and obviously the discretion to create an interesting and exciting sound, with sex involved, sleaze involved. But god knows how many tea breaks you've got to have and god knows how many different states of mind you must get into after a two-year period of time, just viewing one piece of music. It must be awful.

Really, once you've got a drum sound, it shouldn't take more than two or three takes to do something. And if it takes any longer than that, there's problems. I'll tend to say, OK, this isn't working, let's just try something else. People go what? Because most people just plod on until there's nothing left. No, no, you can't do that. If you're working to a click track, which you have to do really—I feel that, anyway—but listening to some of the Zeppelin stuff, or some of the stuff around that's classic, it speeded up like mad. At the end it's like, well, what song is this?

Now, I find the time spent trying to get it right, generally, is trying to get the feel right. I haven't gone out to craft the ultimate pop single, but I've got a sound that I like, and I persevered within the realms of that, making it tough enough to bite you. It's not going to lie down and be passive, particularly.

Do you have much patience?

No [laughs], I've got terrible patience. I had a little tiny bit, and that bit's terrible. And when that's gone, Plant's cynicism—born and raised out of Peter Grant, and backstage at Knebworth, Ronnie Wood & The New Barbarians—starts coming up, and then things aren't very pleasant. So I can actually lose people quickly by becoming very impatient.

Led Zeppelin, live at Knebworth 1979 - "Achilles Last Stand"

What do you get impatient about? Is it that things aren't the way you want?

No, it's just things take too long. You make an album in 36 hours, and then you make several albums over the years, where there've been certain moments where big lights suddenly came on above, and somebody up there said you're gonna do this and it's gonna be unbelievable. Like "Trampled Under Foot" or something like that, you do it in ten minutes, and that's it, put it away, that's fine, don't touch it, the vocal's a bit rough, but leave it. The guitar's out there? Fuck it, just put it away. That's good, that'll do.

It was a great start, that first Zeppelin album, and being signed to Atlantic was a coup.

Yeah, in 1968 we signed with Ahmet Ertegun. And I started making records two years before that, actually, CBS. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a romantic, or quite a bit of a romantic, and I remember Ahmet used to tell tales—in fact I'm seeing him tonight—of when they started Atlantic and how they used to record in a hotel room in New York. He used a receptionist at the hotel to pretend she was a secretary of Atlantic Records! And when they pressed things up, they'd go out and sell them out the back of [Ahmet's brother, fellow producer and Atlantic executive] Nesuhi's car. It's amazing that Ahmet, for all his breeding and upbringing and whatever it is, moved into that world with Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and all those luminaries at that time.

Ahmet's stories—he told me he went out into the studio during the making of "Charlie Brown" with The Coasters, and he crept his way across the floor on tiptoes, because it was actually in the middle of the take, and he whistled the first three notes of the sax solo. And the guy just played them, and off he went, in the middle of "Charlie Brown." It's tales like these that tell you about the time when the record company was everything.

Led Zeppelin, 1968

And today we have sampling, which has a lot of record companies rattled. There are some Zeppelin samples on "Tall Cool One" on your new solo album [speaking in 1988]. Why did you do that?

I just didn't think the samples that had been used on other people's records had been EQ'd properly. So I figured if you get the CD and you actually do EQ them—and stick them in an AMS [digital delay unit] and just tune them up a bit, or down a bit, to give them even more sharpness, or more effect and intensity—then if I can't do it, I'm fucked if I know anybody who can.

So yeah, we have the vocal thing, the "hey hey mama"s, where I'm singing it in 1968 and singing it now alongside. I remember the irony of singing along with myself as a junior nubile, and I like sending the whole thing up. However, it does work very well. And it inspired me to start thinking about doing Zeppelin stuff on stage, which got me through that kind of sanctimonious "don't touch the tabernacle" crap. It's not out the window.

What were those samples that weren't EQ'd properly?

Oh, the Beastie Boys especially. I thought the bit of "The Ocean" on "She's Crafty" could have been a bit more sparkly. But you know, you're leaving it in the hands of amateurs, really, so that's what you get. It wasn't supposed to be high tech. At the time, it sounded good, when it came out, but times have gone by, and whoever is stamping the new current issues of that record are not taking into account that it could be just jacked up a bit on the EQ, that there could be a bit more top on Led Zeppelin records now.

With transfers on to CD especially, some thought could go into it, because a lot of people who buy those things really want to get into them properly. When we take a master to cut nowadays, we'll run a graphic through it again, just to make sure it's OK, maybe tweak it here and there. But the old Zeppelin stuff comes out, it'll be like George Formby in quality in a few years time. Because who knows what happened to the original masters? I don't know.

You're not consulted when CDs of that stuff come out?

I didn't have anything to do with it. Then again, I didn't have anything to do with any Zeppelin stuff at all for a long time, really from when Bonzo died. When Coda was discussed, I really had—I don't know, I'd just kind of had enough of the whole thing. If you start playing for something other than just kudos and money, then that should be part of the motive all the way through. And when Bonzo died, it's the only reason to start staying actively involved with Led Zeppelin.

Stating the obvious, I guess, but Bonzo was just so important to that band.

Yeah. I can often listen to some Zeppelin stuff and go, well, I thought I would be bored with this by now. "Kashmir," say, or "Song Remains The Same." It's the drummer that makes it. Because Bonzo didn't start flailing around like a demented octopus, like everybody else was doing at the time. I think he and Page were real close on the riffs and what he didn't play. It's what he didn't play that made him the drummer that everybody now talks about, rather than what he did. And I think there was the toughness of Jimmy's riffs and the muso quality of Jonesy's bass playing, which kind of knitted the two things together. But those two were the archetypal crunch merchants.

Led Zeppelin, live in 1975 - "Song Remains the Same"

Do you have a favorite bit of drumming from Zeppelin?

There's a track called "The Crunge" on Houses Of The Holy, like a 5/4 James Brown funk thing.

Wouldn't James have sacked his band [laughs] if they played in 5/4?

If it was his idea he wouldn't.

Why do you like "The Crunge"?

Because it's so neat. What Bonzo's doing is great, and the bass drum. Without even having to think it out, he used to come across such—his work was so overly adequate, so extreme, and yet so understated. There were so many different elements of what he was doing. So a fill would only be there if it was necessary, but when it came, well…

There was a refreshing economy about his playing.

Yes. And he was fun live, because he'd go into a fill that was absolutely impossible, you could see he was going right up a gumtree. You could hear him behind you going, "Ohhhh, ooooooh," and he'd go into some peculiar timing, come out of it, and if he missed one it was hilarious, we'd all fall down. Sometimes I'd stop and say, "Sorry ladies and gentlemen, we ought to really start this again, because the drummer can't play!" And he'd go, "But I was trying something really important!" Great, serious stuff. And a lot of jokes.

I suppose the keyboard area has changed most since you were in Zeppelin.

Yazoo, bands around that time, the early Depeche Mode stuff, early New Order, that was all very interesting because of the naked keyboard, and I really liked it—it was like workshop stuff. I remember a Human League record that came out with no vocals, one of those kind of dance mixes [Love And Dancing, released by The Human League as The League Unlimited Orchestra, 1982], and I really got into all that. I thought, wait a minute, one minute it's like "Meet Me in the Bottom" by Howlin' Wolf, and the next minute I'm listening to these keyboard things. That's perfectly OK—it's just absolutely and totally diametrically opposite in feel and intention.

The Wolf was growling about wanting to get some sugar from his sugar mama, and New Order were discussing the merits of a bus shelter in Manchester and a manager who does interviews in the bathtub.

In Zeppelin, Jonesy played keyboards because he wanted to play his bass pedals, a lot of the time, because he's flash and he'd played them in church. The bed of sincerity that the strings used to give you on a Jupiter-8, or whatever it was, was like some kind of ad for Durex, you know? With two heads together walking into the setting sun and a Jupiter-8 playing "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen." The keyboard is often used for that kind of emotional padding.

It's hard to know where it will go, technologically. At any point, you always think: how can they possibly improve on this?

Technologically, quite. It's just the mind behind the parts that I'm bothered about. I really like the sound of a Mellotron, and there's a Mellotron sample or two on Now And Zen—where it sounds a bit cakey, a bit sort of stodgy, that's a Mellotron sample. Sampling a Mellotron and playing it with a Prophet, or whatever it is, is an odd turnaround.

Look at Prince, the stuff that he uses. My Casio CZ-101 is a Rolls Royce compared to some of the stuff he must use. But he's so to the point. He really is probably the most important figure to have come out of the music, without having been affected too much at all by the mogul, for the last 20 years, I reckon.

I like things where you can't always tell what's going on.

Yeah, that's right: the EQ-ing's all a bit odd, the varispeeds are flowing all over the place. And he's having a great time! He's on a mission from god. I think it's great. And he has a great preoccupation with sex, which, in a very American way, he doesn't stop going on about. But it's the way he delivers it. Stunning, you know?

It works, but it works for many more of the right reasons than some of the things that are selling by the bucketload. And instead of waiting the statutory 10 or 15 years to latch on to Hendrix and Jim Morrison and James Brown, Prince has just got on with it straight away, instead of waiting the usual time and pretending he never knew about it.

Do you have a fave bit of Zeppelin keyboard on record?

I think the Mellotron on "Kashmir" is rather good. Also the Mellotron on "Rain Song" was great, because that was totally out of tune. And the appearance of a synthesizer on Led Zeppelin III at the beginning of "Celebration Day."

What was it?

Oh, I don't know, it was one of them things where you stuck pins into something until you got a noise out of it.

An EMS VCS3?

Yeah, we all sat round while Jonesy fiddled away, rather like some demented magician, with a Page 3 model banging on the studio door trying to get in to give relief where required.

Enough to put you off, really.

Well, enough to make you stop recording. But we continued after that, and the career blossomed. Yeah, that synthesizer was the first time that anybody had gone, "'ere, listen to this." That was funny. And let me see—the churchy bits on things like "Your Time Is Gonna Come" are so obviously period pieces. Cute.

Led Zeppelin - "Your Time Is Gonna Come"

How about Zeppelin bass, a favorite there?

"Song Remains The Same" was nice—I think John excelled himself. He was a great technician from a school of studied bass. It wasn't a John Entwistle type of thing, and I'm sure it still isn't. I like the more long meandering things, because he tended to diversify quite a bit. If a track was deep and meaningless and went on for 10 minutes then, fortunately, you'd get a bit of imagination.

There was another track on an album called Presence, "Achilles Last Stand," and I quite like that. Similar to "Song Remains The Same" in tempo, but again with some of Bonzo's fills on that, which were really stunning. Not the Bernard Purdie ones that go right the way around from the snare drums, verdldldldop! The pair of them working together on things like that, it was incredible to be on stage with them doing that.

I was preening around, making sure that whatever was happening was happening, almost like some kind of grand majorette, while this rhythm section was powering like fury behind. And it wasn't aimless, it wasn't the kind of Deep Purple, Motörhead type of "1, 2, 3, 4 and last to the end's a baby." There was a groove that they got into, the pair of them together. They used to get cynical of each other if one of them raced a bit, and whatever, so that was great, you know? But the slower, more ponderous stuff didn't really come through bass-wise with Zeppelin.

Robert Plant

Why was that?

Because of the style of the times. With a blues, you can only do so much, a blues in that idiom. "You Shook Me" or something like that. "Since I've Been Loving You" had those passing chords. But you can't get too jazzy, you can't technical about the whole thing, otherwise you lose the edge that we had.

Recording your vocals on this solo record [speaking in 1988], is there such a thing as a standard setup now?

Well, I'd like to try and get a few different ones. But I tend to hang on to stereo AMS with a 60 millisecond delay one side, 45 millisecond the other. I don't think I can sing without them. The naked voice I'm not particularly very keen on. I remember when somebody invented that way of using a Revox [tape recorder] to make ADT [automatic double tracking] way back.

Somebody at a studio found that, used it, and Slade nicked it. And you could never ever get one made up. I did finally get a Revox made up where you could bring the heads together, and we used to take it on the road. I used to think, I've got an effect! After hearing years of wah-wah pedals and fuzz boxes, I've got one now, and I really like it.

Can you name a Zeppelin vocal fave?

I don't know. I suppose "The Ocean" was great. Because it was on one of those daft riffs, one of those silly time thingbobs. Jonesy submitted a vocal for it, which I actually looked at before I came down to do this interview. It's still on a little spool by the side of my couch in my music room, and it's got Jonesy's version of "Out On The Tiles," which is what we used to call it originally.

There's so many different ways of working a vocal across that kind of riff. And maybe "Immigrant Song" I quite like. "The Rain Song" was—well, it's fodder for sarcasm now. Because, surely, you can't look at all this too seriously. But looking at it now as some sweet little thing, which it was in its directness and its sincerity—it was a nice little vocal. But it's very hard to sing it as the springtime of my loving at 39 in my manager's kitchen.

Led Zeppelin - "The Rain Song"

Go on, give it a go.

Ah, I could do that—with the right effect.

Any particular effect I can get you [laughs]?

I've still got this thing about Gene Vincent—his version of "Woman Love" being one of the most important moments in my life when I first heard it. And I like that kind of slapback echo. So there's always that, I think it's about 125th of a second delay, or whatever it is. I just like that rock 'n' roll thing.

There's an intention and importance, an arousal, on those early rock vocal sounds. You had the crooner up the corner singing his heart out, and you've got the really good singers like Mario Lanza and all those kind of guys. And then suddenly, round the corner, you've got this effect on the vocal that made everything stop, where you had to listen to this thing. Bill Haley didn't have it, because his vocal was dry as a bone and he had no sex. But the more you listen to rock 'n' roll and early rockabilly, there's some incredible echo effects.

They were promising you something that actually wasn't for real, you know? The very idea of putting an effect on the voice, in this dream wonderland, this promise of safe love and no tears, whatever it is [laughs]. That's what it all started from. Fuck the technology. That was what it was. The alternative.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His latest book is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.


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