Robert Plant

Stairway to heaven

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By Gary Graff  

If he wanted, Robert Plant could rest on his considerable rock 'n' roll laurels, and be assured of a whole lotta love from his fans. Plant, after all, was lead singer of the legendary Led Zeppelin, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame outfit which continues to garner radio airplay as though it were still making records.  Plant's brief spate of work with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page during the mid-1990s was equally well received. 

But Plant has never been one to take the easy road -- the stairway to heaven, if you like. His solo work has taken him in new and often challenging -- and always intriguing -- paths, embracing a variety of musical styles and testing not only his own musicality, but also the temperament of his audience. For a time he even refused to play any Led Zeppelin material.

Born in West Bromwich, England, Plant chucked his planned career as an accountant in the '60s, hooking up with bands such as Black Snake Moan, the Banned, and the Crawling King Snakes before making his first recording with a group called Listen, in 1966. He went on to work with Band of Joy, which also featured future Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, before Page asked him to join the New Yardbirds. That group eventually became Led Zeppelin, which made rock history throughout the 1970s before breaking up after Bonham's death in December of 1980.

Plant submerged his considerable grief in music, forming a band called the Honeydippers to play R&B and blues covers in and around England.  In 1982, he released Pictures at Eleven, the first of nine solo albums. Plant eventually took part in occasional Led Zeppelin reunions, singing on Page's 1988 solo album Outrider, before teaming up again with the guitarist between 1994-99. 

Since then, however, Plant has followed his own path, ultimately forming a new group, the Strange Sensation, for the covers-heavy Dreamland in 2002 and the completely fresh Mighty Rearranger in 2005.

Q: If you wanted, you could go out and sing a lot of Led Zeppelin songs and make Led Zeppelin-sounding albums and make a lot of money.  But you don't. Why is that?

Plant: I feel it's essential for me to maintain some kind of stimulation, professionally and creatively. I've had a relatively successful solo career, considering the changes that I make with each album. I just think that the merit and the original intention of the combination of Jimmy and myself and Jonesy (John Paul Jones) and Bonzo (John Bonham) was to keep pushing, to keep opening new avenues, to enjoy the excitement of discovery. And I don't think that popular music can ever stand still. It can't always be left to new musicians to print the future, and I really have experienced such a dynamic exploration of music, really, whether it takes me to Clarksdale, Miss., or Timbuktu or wherever it is. I hear stuff that makes me realize how limited I am, and how little I really know about my gift and where I can take it.  As long as I can keep on knocking myself out, then I shall continue to do that.

Q: How did you first get turned on to rock 'n' roll?

Plant: I lived in England, and the whole radio set-up, the whole exposure to music was really very muted. I didn't know what was going on. But then I heard Elvis (Presley). I was about nine or something like that, and this voice came across, amongst Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis and all of the stuff that was part of the Valium.  Elvis came straight through that, and he had the blue note. He was listening to Sleepy John Estes.  He was listening to "That's Alright Mama."  He got all this stuff -- "Mystery Train," Little Junior Parker's Blue Flames.  He opened up the door to my whole love of music.

Q: How did that go over at home?

Plant: Of course my parents were horrified because, first of all, it sounds weird and, secondly, it's from people who don't live 'round the corner. So they cut the plug off my record player. Really.

Q: Ever try to play guitar yourself?

Plant: I had one lesson. Learned to play "Dance On" by the Shadows in one lesson, and then it was all over. And I met a couple of decent guitarists on the way as well. They don't have my sort of blues finesse, but... (laughs)

Q: What clicked when you met Jimmy Page?

Plant: There was so much affinity, musically. Stylistically we were both into the same stuff, but obviously Jimmy was much further down the line. We both accessed similar songs -- "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "You Shook Me," and we talked about Otis Rush. He wasn't that keen on Moby Grape, but I kept pushing it to the front of the pile, "Listen to that voice!" That was it, really.

Q: Over the years, you've been the most resistant to a Led Zeppelin reunion.  How come?

Plant: It's not that I've been obstructive. It's just it meant what it meant when it meant it, and beyond that there was no story. And with John's passing and all that stuff, it was gone. There's no need for it. When Zep was at its best, when it was peaking, when it was happening, it was world-beating and it was a whole-hearted, big, beautiful soul. And after that there's no going back. You can't do it again. Jon Bon Jovi once said "Man, just put some chairs in the Mohave Desert. You'll fill it!"  Well, great...

Q: What was your feeling about having Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" used for Cadillac ads?

Plant: I think that's appropriate. As far as a younger generation goes, if you hear that music in as many places as possible outside of the normal home for it, then it can only be a good thing.

Q: And Dolly Parton's cover of "Stairway to Heaven?"

Plant: She's keeping it within the genre. She's a good singer. She's just trying to move it around a little. It was always a song of hope, in my eyes -- a calling, if you like. Back in 1971, I thought that Jimmy and I had done something special. The musicality of it was quite phenomenal, and I kind of pieced together this abstract lyrical content, which to me was very positive. Musicians should bring optimism and light.

Q: What makes the Strange Sensation different from other bands you've worked with?

Plant: I think it's the best place I've ever been, because we're all on this adventure together in which there are no boundaries. We don't have to worry about maintaining success. We don't even have to worry about filling a ballroom. We just play this music, and it's so hearty to have reached a point where turning around and playing to each other is almost more important than having an audience.

Q: What kind of advice would you offer to young musicians starting out now?

Plant: Stay away from a major label, really. You've got to be able to deal with people who are telling the truth. You can't be in a position where if things aren't happening for you in four weeks you're history and you're left dangling forever. I know quite a few artists of my era who are in that position now, who just can't get away. The magnates who are brought in to change the face of corporate record companies and the figures that are bandied about, the amount of crass decision making to even get the people in the position to start deciding about some poor guy's career -- it' so foul. It's disgusting.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.