In a brightly lit corner of an otherwise dark and cramped set at the studios of London Weekend Television, Robert Plant settles comfortably onto the sofa where he is about his to be interviewed and glances at a monitor to his left.
In a brightly lit corner of an otherwise dark and cramped set at the studios of London Weekend Television, Robert Plant settles comfortably onto the sofa where he is about his to be interviewed and glances at a monitor to his left. A faint smile of bemused recognition spreads across his distinctive hawklike features as he watches vintage black-and-white footage of a young man, barely out of his teens, wailing into the camera like a heavy-metal Mongol, thrusting his bare chest forward, filling the screen with a golden avalanche of shoulder-length blond curls. The turn-of-the-Seventies image — bell-bottom pants, a skimpy open floral blouse, exaggerated sex-warrior stage moves — seems strange, even quaint, on the small screen. But the singer's voice and the roar of the band behind him are unmistakable.
"You need coolin'/Baby, I'm not foolin'," the young blond buck howls. "I'm gonna send ya/Back for schoolin'/Way down inside/Uh, honey, you need it/I'm gonna give you my love/I'm gonna give you my love/Wooooaaaah!"*
The band, of course, is Led Zeppelin. The song is "Whole Lotta Love." And the singer is a much younger Robert Plant, then all of twenty-one years old. As the video fades out, the TV interviewer turns to the present-day Plant with a sly grin and asks, "How does it feel to see that again, you sticking your chest out and throwing your hair back?"
Plant doesn't blink an eye. "Oh," he says with a sly grin of his own, "I still do that every night."
Back at his manager's London office later that afternoon, Plant is still grinning as he discusses his old stage image. "It looks a little camp," he says sheepishly, swigging at a bottle of Perrier water. "But it was honest, and there was nothing camp about it at the time. It was a young man, feeling his feet."
Now approaching his fortieth birthday, Plant is an older and wiser man, and still feeling his feet. With the death of drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham in 1980 and Led Zeppelin's subsequent low-key dissolution, the singer lost not only his band and his best friend but also the axis around which his musical world had spun for more than ten years — guitarist Jimmy Page. Scorned by the punks and embarrassed by cheap Zeppelin imitations, Plant spent his first three solo albums roaming the shifting terrain of Eighties rock in search of an identity that had nothing to do with lemon squeezing or "Stairway to Heaven."
He never found it. He had a couple of hits along the trail, like "Big Log," from his 1983 album The Principle of Moments. But for all of their adventuresome drive and hip future-rock angularity, Plant's solo records in general lacked the unbridled passion and risky spontaneity of Zeppelin in full flight.
Now, after seven years of Zeppelin denial, Plant has come to his senses. His new LP, Now and Zen, is the biggest leap forward of his solo career — and all it took was two steps backward to Led Zeppelin.
You can hear the old snap, crackle and pow all over "Tall Cool One," a high-tech rockabilly raver featuring ingeniously deployed computer samples of platinum Zeppelin wax like "Black Dog." "Dazed and Confused" and "Whole Lotta Love." At the end of "White, Clean and Neat." Plant slips in a brief vocal reprise of the 1970 Zep blues "Since I've Been Loving You." The album is also a Zeppelin reunion of sorts; Jimmy Page plays guitar on both "Tall Cool One" and the single "Heaven Knows." Even those Now and Zen songs lacking overt Zeppelin references, like the surging "Dance on My Own" and "The Way I Feel," pack a familiar wallop.
"I've stopped apologizing to myself for having this great period of success and financial acceptance," Plant declares. "It's tune to get on and enjoy it now. I want to have a great time instead of making all these excuses."
Plant has, in fact, been surrounded by echoes of Zeppelin for some time. Goth-rock bands like the Cult and the Mission U.K. have racked up hits with shameless but clever rewrites of "Kashmir" and "The Immigrant Song." Def Jam major-domo Rick Rubin boldly lifted the core Page riff from "The Ocean" for the Beastie Boys' "She's Crafty." But it took a demo cassette of "Heaven Knows," written and performed by an eccentric British outfit called the Rest Is History, to shake Plant out of his anti-Zeppelin mind-set.
The song itself was a knockout, a refreshing change from the derivative demos that usually arrived in his mail Plant soon found out that Phil Johnstone, who co-wrote "Heaven Knows" and played keyboards on it, was also a dyed-in-the-wool Zeppelin freak. "We immediately wrote Tall Cool One' and 'White, Clean and Neat' in the same afternoon," Plant raves. "It was bang! The guy had been a Zeppelin fan, and I suddenly remembered that, yeah, so had I." Plant and Johnstone went on to co-write seven of Now and Zen's nine tracks. Johnstone also rounded up a band of like-minded young compatriots, including guitarist Doug Boyle and drummer Chris Black-well, to heat up the songs in concert and, on record.
As part of coming to terms with his past, Plant and the band have cooked up new versions of "Misty Mountain Hop," "Trampled Underfoot," "The Wanton Song" and "In the Evening" for the Now and Zen tour.
Johnstone says Plant's reconciliation with history did not come easy. "We were working on 'White, Clean and Neat,' and I had this neat riff to go with it. He said, 'But, aw, man, that's bluesy.' And I said to him, 'But that's what you are. You're a blues singer.' He'd denied that he was a blues singer for so long."
In fact, Plant had spent his teens bellowing the blues in folk and rock clubs up in the English Midlands. By age eighteen, he'd already cut three singles for CBS in Britain, mostly Jack Jones cabaret pop dosed with cheap hippie kitsch. He was back in Midlands clubs, this time singing "White Rabbit" and Moby Grape's "Omaha," when Jimmy Page signed him to the fledgling Zeppelin. More than anything else, it was, Plant says with a smile, "just a chance to get paid by the week. I opened a bank account in June 1968 and put in thirty-five dollars."
Though Plant is far richer today, he hasn't lost his open mind and eager ear. The owner of an enviable collection of classic blues, R&B and rockabilly records, he is also constantly checking out pop's Next Big Things. Among his recent faves are Hüsker Dü, the rising Irish star Sinead O'Connor and the San Francisco funk-metal band Faith No More. He also digs Prince — for "sheer entertainment and audacity." He adds with a wink, "Prince and Page together would be great."
Plant and Page back together is enough to send most of the world's rock populace swooning. Plant returned the favor of Page's contributions to Now and Zen by singing and co-writing a song, "The Only One," on Page's forthcoming solo album. There are also plans afoot for a live Plant-Page reunion this spring at a gala celebration marking the fortieth anniversary of Atlantic Records, Zeppelin's original label.
If nothing else, the Zeppelin revival has certainly loosened Robert Plant's tongue. "If you had asked me a year ago about Led Zeppelin or my relationship with Pagey," he says, "I'd have just beat around the bush, given you the runaround." He smiles broadly. "But it feels okay to talk about it now."