Dernière mise à jour : November 03 2003 21:59:55

Stairway to Snowdonia: Rapping with Robert Plant

Barney Hoskyns, Rock's Backpages, October 2003

© Barney Hoskyns, 2003


For Robert Plant, life after Led Zeppelin has been anything but predictable. Resisting attempts to coast on the Zep legend, Percy has trodden his own singular path through techno-rock, retro-folk and worldbeat eclecticism. Barney Hoskyns travelled to Wales to discuss jump-blues, Haight-Ashbury, Afro-Celts, and the singer's forthcoming two-CD anthology, '66 to Timbuktu.

RBP: How do you remember 'You'd Better Run', your first recording session in 1966?

Coming out of that studio at the end of that session, I've never ever been so relieved in my life. It was like, "Christ, I did it."

It's funny to think you were in the UK Top 50 in November 1966. How would you characterise your pop aspirations at that time?

Well, mainstream pop had always been out of the question, probably since the first time I heard Blind Lemon Jefferson or whatever it was at school: there was only one way to go, and it was to chase that blue note. But at that time there was a very healthy alternative scene in Britain, even while Dylan and the Airplane were making their points - it was much more of a kind of blue-eyed soul thing. Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, Winwood. Coming from the same area as me, Winwood was probably the most eloquent and stylish and tasteful of all of us.

When you sang 'You'd Better Run', how in tune were you with what was happening in America, specifically California?

Not very in tune at all. I didn't know about Moby Grape or Country Joe and the Fish at that point. I was absolutely aware of Spider John Koerner, Eric Andersen, Dylan, the coffeehouse culture, but I don't think there was any access here to what was happening in San Francisco. I was talking to Dylan a couple of years ago in La Coruña, and we were talking about that whole deal with Eric Von Schmidt and Bob Hite and John Fahey and the other people who brought the awareness of that coffeehouse culture onto a bigger platform. So there was all that, and always the blues, but I didn't know what Jerry Garcia was gonna do next.

What prompted you to put together '66 to Timbuktu?

I found that the more I got drawn into the Led Zeppelin projects, the more I unearthed all kinds of one-off things I'd done - collaborations and Various Artists albums. Because the whole chemistry of the Led Zep longevity - if eleven to twelve years is a long time - was the fact that it was constantly flying from pillar to post. So as I dug further into the tape stores, I found demos that I'd never used - probably another fifty or sixty pieces of music that are phenomenal moments of absolute insanity. Stuff that I could do that was so far away from the rock and roll star persona. I was spinning all over the place. Working with a guy from a punk band in New York one week and then doing something a little more tasty for an Arthur Alexander tribute a year later. But the album is not the Last Testament of anything.

Was it hard trying to make a coherent whole out of the various tracks?

I went down to Taunton and spent many hours with mastering engineer John Dent trying to match different periods. Some of it was too brittle. The stuff recorded immediately post-Zep is much more professionally recorded, but still - because of the techno revolution - we were using SSL desks and it was very clicky and clattery. By going back to the original masters we got much more warmth out of the tracks.

I like the way it jumps about - how you come out of 'If I Were A Carpenter' into 'Sea Of Love' and then into 'Darkness, Darkness'.

In Zeppelin we used to spend hours, weeks, months sometimes in one room, all going 'Mmm... no... let's just close the gap between those two tracks a bit more...' All that nuancing. But with this, CD2 is a chronological thing, so I wanted to choose something from every period. And last year in America, The Honeydrippers, Vol 1 outsold Walking Into Clarksdale. It's a housewives' choice!

What might have happened if you hadn't been able to have fun - if you hadn't made a lot of money? Would it have been very different?

Oh, absolutely. But in any event the idea of, 'Well, if all else fails you can go back and do that' was never an equation.' Okay, so we'd been incredibly successful, we'd had a lot of fun, spent a lot of money, lotta limousines, half of Peru had already been inhaled. Every interview I've ever done always focuses on the most obvious and salient points of what I've done: 'Kashmir', 'In My Time Of Dying' or whatever it is. But for that very reason, there was no point in competing with it. Best to just do whatever I feel like doing. I mean, I wanna sing good, and I do sing good. In fact, with Dreamland I think I sang better and more effectively and naturally than probably I had since 'The Rain Song' or something like that.

Did you instantly know the New Yardbirds were going to be a completely different proposition to anything you'd done before?

Well, Bonzo and I were already in the freakout zone, remember, so it was quite natural for us to go into long solos and pauses and crescendos. I mean, I listen to things like 'How Many More Times' and it swings and it's got all those '60s bits and pieces that could have come off a Nuggets album. For Jimmy it was an extension of what he did, and for us it was an extension of what we did. John Paul got a place so way down in that pocket that Bonzo just fell into it. Even at Knebworth [in 1980], on 'Achilles' Last Stand', those two guys were unbelievable. So my limitations are what they are. However, I slid into Zeppelin absolutely perfectly. And I'd only written one song prior to meeting Jimmy - the Band Of Joy's 'Dagger Lane'. Actually it's quite good, though it's not on this compilation.

Did you not want to be a songwriter at that point?

No. I was just doing it. Everything was almost like a happening, just taking ideas and extending them. And those ideas didn't come, really, from me. It was the tunesmith element, Jimmy's commercial and very colourful use of guitar chords. I hadn't heard anybody ever get themselves round something that could be very catchy, but do it in a very strong and forceful fashion. So from writing nothing to co-writing 'Commercial Breakdown' was quite a move.

Jumping forward to the post-Zep, early-'80s era of CD1, how did Phil Collins come to play on your first solo outing?

It came about because we were both on the same label. He had had some dealings with Atlantic's Phil Carson and had said to him that if I was doing anything he would love to hold out. And he came down to Rockfield and played on some of the tracks. As a contributor, both live on the first solo tour and in the studio, Phil was tireless. And he was really very, very concerned that it should be right. Considering that it was just a project that he was just visiting, he was a real contributor. I was very moved by him. He gave me a lot of energy.

I think John Martyn said the same thing about Glorious Fool.

Yeah, that's right. Phil was a big fan of John's. In fact, for a while I was almost gonna join up with Phil's management, Hit and Run. But I couldn't hack it.

How do you recall the session at Sam C. Phillips International in Memphis when you and Phil worked with legendary guitarist Roland Janes?

Well, it wasn't until halfway through the session that I realised who he was. And he was absolutely bemused when I suggested that we put the drums in a corridor and mike both ends of the corridor to give the song a bit more oomph. It was faultless, effortless, and at the end the big deal for me was that he signed the track sheet. I should really have put that on the cover.

I remember seeing you at the Nordoff-Robbins gig at Knebworth in 1990. You blew all those old tarts in their Versace suits off the stage.

That was when Jimmy came on and we did 'Wearin' and Tearin''. I love that song. Page and I wrote that because we were so pissed off at the whole punk thing saying, 'What do those rich bastards know?' First of all, we knew that we didn't have that much dough. And secondly we knew more about the psychotic side of Hasil Adkins than they did.

How did you get into the smoother, more urbane sound of jump blues and '40s R&B - the kind you celebrated on the Honeydrippers album - after being a dyed-in-the-wool country blues man?

It probably took thirty years of my life before I even had time for Wynonie Harris or Roy Brown or even Big Joe Turner. In fact, especially Joe Turner. Because I thought the productions were all a bit smooth, and I thought the brass parts - the Kansas City hangover - were just a little bit hackneyed. But then I started hearing people like Jeff Beck playing it, and it started to have a bit more of a life for me. My love had always been for that kind of 'Devil Got My Woman' thing - those dark, accidental heroes, you know? The way to start the day is to listen to Son House, I think - no guidance, no nothing at all. People talk about Charley Patton having shaped and patterned the beginning of the big, dark country blues, but you hear Son House and you think, Wow, the intonations and the way the voice drops, and it's just like being in Mali. Whereas the jump era was much more attuned to middle-class uptempo rocking. And poor old Tommy McLennan and people like that - had Robert Johnson (right) survived he wouldn't have got a look in. They might not have got a look in anyway if it hadn't been for Bob Hite and John Fahey and people like that persevering and getting people to learn to play that stuff again. Cos they'd put their guitars away and said, 'OK, now I'm a janitor'.

There's always been white romanticisation of country blues, with the Robert Johnson legends and so on, and always correspondingly less receptiveness to horn sections and zoot suits - the sound of black affluence and self-celebration. It's a bit like bling-bling R&B now. Or even like garage.

Jump blues was all about good times, and that was somewhere that Clapton was heading - or Jimmy. It was the one riff that we forgot about. And the Bukka White stuff is other-worldly. I remember when we did 'Fixin' To Die' on Dreamland, it's the way that the chord shifts and the way the guy uses the percussion and body of the guitar, and the way that he's right in there on his own. There's no need for anything else.

You said in 1985 that you were "dogged by the remains of the last 18 years". Have you shaken that off now?

I think my position in the game is so radically different to the way it was then, or how I thought it ought to be. What was a priority then has gone, it's completely passed. There's no point in competing with my past, because the seminal moments of my career are almost linked to the seminal moments of the listener. At the time when I started, the journalists were older than me, and then ten years later they were my age, and then ten years after that they were a bit younger than me. And in the end, the carousel spins and the questions often go back to the same spot because you've got to make a story. But for me, that spot's gone. I mean, I'd love to work with Jimmy and John Paul, but I don't see how we could give it anything constructive without falling back into the sort of general melée of everybody's expectations. And I'm very, very happy where I am musically. I don't see Zeppelin as any sort of stigma or impediment for my future, but it would be good to see what could happen. But that means that you re-invoke that tired old harness.

I think that's right, and I think you command a great deal of respect for your integrity.

Well, I have a good life, you know? There's an attentive audience, and I must have reached that stage where the old guard has almost given up and there's a great new crowd there that gives you far more energy and response when you're playing.

In 1990 you said that Now and Zen had been too much of a compromise - that you'd allowed yourself to be steered in a more commercial or mainstream direction.

Well, that was the first time for about five or six years that we'd had success. With things like Shaken 'n' Stirred, people scratched their heads. MTV did a special called "The Return of the Tall Cool One"! I mean, it was a compromise at the time, but then again I look at it now with all its techno splendour. More organically-oriented singers might have said, "I would never have done that". But I did and at the time I was thrilled with it.

With Manic Nirvana, you obviously felt more positive about unleashing some sort of primal energy. It's great that CD1 opens with the mighty 'Tie-Die On The Highway'.

It's a fuck-off track. It's trying to put that positive thing - the old 'Stairway To Heaven' syndrome - back in the pot, with Wavy Gravy blaring away over the top of the track. Joe McDonald contacted me and said he'd represented Wavy Gravy for some time and could I give an explanation as to why Wavy Gravy was all over that record? And I said, "Because it really is a mark of homage for that time." Breakfast in bed for 400,000 was a great line.

Bringing things up to the present day, working with people like Afro-Celt Sound System must be fun.

Yeah, it is, and it's great that they came to me, and I think that's because we were all pals anyway. But yeah, it's good, and who can tell. I mean, I thought that I should quit a while back - sometimes I quit once a week! - but I like what I do and I don't have any hang-ups about it anymore. There's nobody to compete with. I mean, I really wish that, say, Mick Jagger might have actually pursued a little more of what he potentially could do for himself. 'Cos his contribution to 'Sympathy For The Devil' or 'Street Fighting Man' was very, very strong. And just because people don't rush out and embrace his work doesn't mean to say that he's got to be just in the Stones. He could grow more if he wanted to, and he wouldn't make a record if he didn't want to. So he must have been absolutely... well, destroyed by the response he got to that last album. Now, did he get that because he leaves himself open with the media to be castigated? Probably. But I mean, Johnny Cash didn't always have the greatest social prerequisites, but people gave him the benefit of the doubt so many times.

© Barney Hoskyns, 2003