It's as daunting a Rock & Roll sight as I've seen–or heard. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, supported by a taut, aggressive, young band, are blasting Led Zeppelin songs in a tiny rehearsal space above the Kings Head Pub on Fulham High Street, in London.
Plant, Page, guitarist Porl Thompson, bassist Charlie Jones and drummer Michael Lee stand poised in a close circle. Then Page rips into the electric-guitar riff of "Bring It On Home," from Led Zeppelin II, and the band is off and running, swinging through that number and then leaning into "Celebration Day." When the playing stops, it feels as if an aerial bombardment has ended.
The group is rehearsing for a yearlong world tour that is set to begin in the United States in late February in support of No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded. While Page smokes a cigarette and runs through some changes with Thompson, Plant reaches into the black bag at his feet, pulls out a bottle of hot sauce, takes a swig and chases it with water. Setting the bottle down beside his copy of V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, Plant steps up to the mike to loosen up his voice, which is a bit raw from rehearsals and from the revels of two nights before, when he and Page went to hear rhythm & blues singer Ruth Brown at the London nightclub Ronnie Scott's.
"Ooooo–ahhhh, I can't quit you, babe," Plant belts out, his keening voice soaring over the cramped room as everyone else continues about their business, not even bothering to turn. Then Page calls for another run-through of "Bring It On Home." Powered by the rhythm section, Page begins to move, lunging his upper body forward, looking at Plant, whose hands are clutching the microphone, his hips twitching in time.
At the next break, Plant turns to me–I've been standing perhaps 10 feet behind him–and asks, "Can you hear all right over there?" I wonder if he's joking; my only worry is that I might never be able to hear again. "It seems loud enough to me," I allow. "No, really, you might be able to hear the vocals better over here," he says, gesturing toward a chair directly between him and Page.
Suddenly I'm reminded of a dream I had not too long ago, in which about an hour before he was set to perform in some huge stadium, Eric Clapton asked me if I would mind filling in on bass in his band that night. When I tried to explain that I don't play bass–or any other instrument, in fact–he dismissed my hesitation and said his decision was already made. Fortunately I woke up before the show started. "I'd feel too self-conscious sitting there," I tell Plant. "Oh, don't be silly. Come over here."
Moments later, the brutal, staccato rhythm of "The Wanton Song" gets unleashed, and I feel simultaneously as if the band is playing inside my head and gleefully pummeling my body. Lee's kick drum–which he is slamming with titanic force in an obvious hommage to the late John Bonham–hits my chest with the repeated force of a brickbat. Talk about the hammer of the gods.
"Robert, he's taking notes!" Page exclaims after the tune crashes to a close. He's grinning wickedly–Page, of all people, knows how awesome the Zeppelin mystique can be when experienced this close to the flame. He's half-kidding–but only half. He had been deeply ambivalent about having a journalist come to a rehearsal.
"Relax, Jimmy," Plant says with a laugh. "He's just writing down, Jimmy's got on brown corduroy trousers.'"
Next up is a substantially reworked version of "Night Flight," with Page on a double-neck acoustic guitar and Nigel Eaton adding the otherworldly drone of his hurdy-gurdy. After that the evening's work is done.
As everyone is packing their gear, Plant is clearly too exhilarated by the music this new band is making–and by his renewed partnership with Page–to unwind. He's talking up a storm, raving over The Doo Wop Box, a four-CD set put out by Rhino last year, and waving around an Urdu dictionary. "I'm trying to learn to speak to Najma's mom," he says, referring to the mother of his current girlfriend, Najma Akhtar, the extraordinary Indian singer who appeared with Plant and Page on the MTV Unledded special and who will be performing on the tour as well.
And fittingly for the occasion, Plant begins telling road stories, recalling how he and Bonham discovered a cache of porn magazines in a celebrated folk singer's room at the Chateau Marmont, in Los Angeles, on the first Led Zeppelin tour, in late '68: "People are listening to him singing these children's songs–'This old man, he plays six, he plays...'–and he's off in his room wanking!"
Plant laughs and then drifts back to that time again. He and Bonham shared a Christmas dinner alone at the Chateau Marmont that year as Zeppelin, swept up in the irresistible momentum that would eventually make them one of the most popular bands in the world, worked relentlessly.
"Bonzo and I were straight from the provinces," he says, standing amid the piles of equipment. "We couldn't believe we were in the States. Everything was new to us–'Look, that policeman's carrying a gun!' Meanwhile, Pagey"–he gestures indulgently over his shoulder toward Page, who's across the room talking with Thompson and Jones–"was walking around like a king, the King of the Yardbirds, with all these chicks."
It's evident that in looking back to his earliest touring experiences, Plant is also looking ahead. In 1995, he and Page will be on the road together for the first time since John Bonham's death broke up the band in 1980. The heady sense of a new beginning is palpably in the air.
All new beginnings, however, have their bumpy moments, and this one is no exception. The music is one thing: On the aptly titled No Quarter album and the MTV special, Page and Plant took far more risks than they needed to–and fully succeeded.
To the surprise of everyone who feared a by-the-numbers superstar comeback, Plant and Page determinedly avoided sure-shot crowd pleasers like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Rock and Roll" while recasting more adventurous songs like "Kashmir" and "Battle of Evermore" in ways that exacted the fullest aesthetic payoff from the Egyptian, Moroccan and Western classical musicians the duo brought on as collaborators.
Critically, No Quarter was a triumph. And if it hasn't proved to be the commercial juggernaut many people expected, it has sold well more than a million copies and is certain at least to double that number once the tour gets under way and a planned Zeppelin tribute album featuring Tori Amos, Cracker and Sheryl Crow, among others, gets released in March.
As Atlantic Records president Val Azzoli says: "No Quarter is doing what it should be doing. It's a hit-driven industry, and we do not have any hits. There's no hit singles on there: Led Zeppelin never had hit singles. The kids never looked at Led Zeppelin that way. The album is selling 55,000 units a week, and it's a steady seller. I know we're going to be sitting here next November, and this record is still going to be in the charts." So much for aesthetics and sales.
Now there's the far more nebulous question of personalities. When Page, 51, and Plant, 46, first emerged in their Unledded incarnation late last year, they carried themselves like a couple who had agreed to give their marriage one more try after a grueling separation. They had sniped at each other in the press for more than a decade–Plant somewhat aggressively, Page in a more retaliatory manner.
Their intermittent one-off reunions on each other's albums and the occasional live show–most notably as Led Zeppelin at Live Aid in 1985 and at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary celebration in 1988–proved anticlimactic at best, meretricious at worst. Consequently, while doing the first round of interviews after No Quarter came out, Plant and Page were tentative in their remarks, as if one false move might unsettle the carefully negotiated detente they had achieved.
By early December the two men had drawn closer together–the daily rigors of an international promotional tour had a hand in that. But the considerable differences between them are also readily apparent. In their heyday, Led Zeppelin were notoriously antagonistic toward the media, doing very few interviews and no television appearances. But in the course of his solo career, Plant has learned at least one crucial lesson: It's impossible for someone to take the piss out of you if you're willing to do it yourself.
In conversation he'll continually poke fun at his own hippie-dippy tendencies, deflate the Zeppelin mythology, gratuitously slag off other artists and enthusiastically engage in rock-crit chat, hyping newcomers like Portishead, Jeff Buckley and Transglobal Underground.
Page, however, is still deeply suspicious of the press–years of fending off inquiries about underage girls, ripped-off bluesmen, drug abuse and Satan will do that to you, I suppose. Plant laughs off much of that stuff–while denying none of it, of course; he, too, understands the value of mystique. Page bristles or affects a bored detachment when anything remotely controversial comes up. In his responses, Plant is candid and unpredictable. Page answers as if he were trying to figure out what you really meant by the question. Plant tends to be protective, if a tad chiding, of Page, who in turn is quite content to let Plant do the lion's share of the talking under his watchful eye.
The day before the rehearsal, I interview Page and Plant together for about 90 minutes in a coffee shop next to the Kings Head Pub. When we're done I ask if it would be possible to speak with each of them separately the following day. "So you can ask me, 'What do you think of David Coverdale?'" Plant quips, referring to Page's desperately ill-conceived 1993 collaboration with Plant's most slavish imitator.
Page smirks. "Not that you would ask about that," he says.
"We're not too keen on that," Plant continues. "Now that we're back together, we don't like to be apart." (In fact, the next day Plant mock-casually slips out of one of our sessions so that I can speak alone with Page for 15 minutes. "You owe me $50," he says upon his return.) So then, what about popping in on a rehearsal? Page and Plant are not entirely sure that will be possible either.
The core band is still working up the traditional Zeppelin repertoire–the Egyptian ensemble that will also be along for the tour won't begin rehearsing until January–and in Plant's words, "We'd like to play something that you haven't heard before. If we play 'Dancing Days,' you'll be thinking, 'There's no difference between them and Pink Floyd.' " Well, I suggest to them, let's just see how it goes. Where should we meet tomorrow then?
Plant is determined to come up with an interesting site. He thinks for few seconds and then shoots a glance across the table at Page. "We could meet at that transvestite bar where you first broke the news to me," Plant says. Page looks at him uncomprehendingly. "You remember," Plant says, grinning, "where you first told me you were going to work with Coverdale." Page rolls his eyes wearily. "I really don't know what you're on about." We finally agree to meet at a studio where they are working on an expanded version of Unledded. We'll see where things go from there.
"I often think I'd just like to rehearse until I was really good with Page and then do one very quick blast through. But it would have to be some incredibly good music. And that's what I'd need to be able to go out and call it "Page and Plant." That's how it would have to be, the real new Zeppelin. And the possibility of that is years away–if at all."
You can't say the man doesn't know his own mind: That was Robert Plant speaking to Rolling Stone's David Fricke in 1988. Plant's description precisely details what would transpire six years later with No Quarter, after Plant received an invitation to appear on MTV's Unplugged as a solo artist. In considering whether to do the show, Plant was aware that he would be expected to perform some Led Zeppelin material, as he had been doing on his solo tours. He found the prospect of making those renditions part of the permanent record, in acoustic form no less, somewhat chilling. That's one reason he decided to contact Page.
"I would have been incredibly facetious if I thought I could have carried any thread of the Zeppelin history on my own shoulders outside of a live gig, there and then on the spot, doing a version of 'Living Loving Maid' that sounded like the Knickerbockers," Plant says with a laugh during the interview at the coffee shop. "And the idea of my doing a whole lot of solo stuff ... well, I knew that that's not exactly what everybody would've wanted either–however proud I am of all those songs. It was obvious that I could either say, 'Well, fuck off, I don't like MTV anyway. You don't play me as a rule because I'm too old, so why start worrying about me now?' or I could think about how to team up with the one bloke who knew where I was coming from and see if we couldn't go ahead.
"My only problem approaching Jimmy," Plant continues, "was that we'd never, ever had a conversation in 14 years about the future together. We'd been bundled into these compromising, well-meaning situations–the charity shows, stuff like that–where there was no preamble, just a conversation on the phone or a conversation between other parties. It's ridiculous how we really didn't even know each other. We knew what we knew from way back, and that was colored by the passing of time. But I don't think we knew where we were coming from now. I think now, having gone round the world together, there's not a single cobweb or cranny hole that hasn't been opened up and fucked off. That's what it takes when you've been together so seldom.
"The whole deal is that there has always been some kind of ridiculous responsibility. That's what I wanted to get rid of," says Plant. "I didn't want to be responsible for everybody's idea of what it was before. Fuck that. There's no point in trying to pretend that you're immortal and that you've returned once again to do that ultimate version of 'Stairway to Heaven.'"
Page, too, credits the concrete offer of an Unplugged gig with helping to turn around the situation between him and Plant. "The MTV thing really was a catalyst," Page says, "because it gave Robert time to think about things and to get in contact. And when we did, it really was the first time we had a chance to think about the future constructively. To kick it around, see how to do it, how not to do it. It also gave us a chance to write again, to see whether we'd still got that creative spark. And that was happening from Day One."
"Every time the idea of playing together came up in the past, I'd already got this resistance to it," says Plant. "I was always like 'Fuck Led Zeppelin. I don't want to be that guy. I don't want to have that baggage.' I was always balking; I never wanted to know."
"And unfortunately," Page adds, "the times we did come together only endorsed what you thought. As it did for me, too."
"Live Aid was such a fucking atrocity for us," says Plant, shaking his head. "It made us look like loonies. The whole idea of playing 'Stairway to Heaven' with two drummers while Duran Duran cried on the side of the stage – there was something really quite surreal about that. I thought, 'Are we supposed to be Sinatra? Is this "My Way"?'"
The warmer, more humanistic musical direction of Plant's most recent solo record, Fate of Nations (1993), also made him think that getting back to where he once belonged might not be such a bad idea.
"By the time of Fate of Nations, I knew that I wanted to carry along the lines musically that I'd stamped with that record," Plant says. "I wanted to go further into the Moroccan thing, and I wanted to bring back the drones. I'd started going to the Welsh mountains again and reading the old books about mythology and Celtic history. I'd lost all that technocynicism I'd developed where I thought [snaps his fingers], 'The way forward is with youth and vigor and immaturity and mistakes.' I missed the kind of thing that Jimmy and I had, and I didn't know how to make it work.
"The offer from MTV really was so fortuitous," Plant says, concluding. "As a medium, it is what it is, and whatever it does for us in the end is fleeting anyway. But it's given us our communication back. It's given us the patience to deal with each other properly, one to one."
Of course, the notion of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant dealing with each other "properly, one to one" leaves at least one significant question hanging: What about the other surviving member of Led Zeppelin, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones?
The reason most often cited by Page and Plant for not inviting Jones in on No Quarter is that since it wasn't a Led Zeppelin reunion, there was no particular need to. In a sense it would have introduced the very set of issues they were working so hard to avoid. Still, it seems weird that Jones–who in recent years has racked up impressive contemporary credentials working with R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers and Diamanda Galás–would have to hear about the Page-Plant reunion in the press.
Speaking by phone from England in early January, hours after Page had called him for the first time in 18 months–"All in all, it's been quite a day," Jones says–Jones still seems genuinely confused about why he wasn't at least notified about No Quarter (ironically, Jones shares a songwriting credit with Plant and Page on the title track), even if he wasn't asked to participate. "I've read what they've had to say, that they wanted to do a separate project, whatever," Jones says. "I just thought I should have been informed about it. To find out about it in the papers was a bit odd."
These veterans of Zeppelin outrage are still Englishmen, it must be remembered, so none of that unpleasantness came up in Page and Jones' phone conversation, which Jones describes with a shy chuckle as "polite."
Led Zeppelin had recently been voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Page was checking in about Jones' plans for the induction dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York, on January 12. The idea was for Plant, Page and Jones to perform, perhaps with John Bonham's son, Jason, on drums. The prospect of seeing his former band mates again–let alone playing with them–after what's gone down is "rather awkward," says Jones.
"We were never a band that socialized," Jones points out. "We wouldn't see each other after we got off the road until we'd start recording again. At the time we thought that was good for the band. But it's strange because I did see Robert not too long ago while he was on tour, and it was all very friendly. "I don't know what to think, to be honest," Jones continues. "I wonder. I saw a bit of the Unledded thing while I was on tour with Diamanda. First there was No Quarter without the piano, which I thought, 'Well, OK.' Then they went into 'Thank You,' which used to be one of my showcase tunes – I used to do an organ solo and then go into 'Thank You' – and there's a chap playing my organ parts and a chap playing my bass parts. It was strange, really, sitting there thinking, 'Well, those people are sort of being me.' Then I watched a couple more things and went, 'Ah, well, time to go out and do my show.'"
A staple of Led Zeppelin lore has been Page's reputed involvement in black magic. At one point in the '70s, Page financed an occult bookstore in London, and he was a prominent collector of memorabilia related to the noted English Satanist Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947. For a time, Page owned and lived in Crowley's allegedly haunted house in Scotland. The story goes that Jones was the only band member who refused to sign a pact with the devil that Page had engineered to secure Led Zeppelin's success. Perhaps that's also the reason he wasn't asked to be part of the Page and Plant reunion?
"That's probably what it was," Jones agrees. "I'd run out of ink or blood or something. My old dad said, 'Never sign anything without first talking to a lawyer.'"
Predictably, Jones is not an especially welcome subject with Page and Plant. Plant, who had earlier gone out of his way to praise Jones' contributions to Led Zeppelin's sound, is uncharacteristically terse when asked if he thinks Jones will agree to appear with him and Page at the Hall of Fame. "I hope so," he says. "Jonesy's on tour until December 22. We can't find him. We've put messages out to try and stop him–for a second, at least. But I think we should play."
About the Hall of Fame itself, Plant is rather more outspoken. "The whole deal is, it's the industry jacking itself off," he says bluntly. "I don't see the relevance – but I'll be there. I'll be there for extraneous reasons. If we go at all, we're going because of Bonzo, really. We'd like to take his daughter with us, who hardly ever knew her father but obviously was affected by him. But as an institution, I don't get it. It's a glorified version of the Hard Rock Cafe–though the food will be better at the museum. I mean, who cares what kind of clothes David Bowie wore? It's fakery.
"The whole thing has become limousine laden and misses the point," Plant says. "I feel uncomfortable, considering that we've only become kosher recently. It's like in the neighborhood where I live: Suddenly I'm asked to open events for the community – and I don't know when the changeover took place, because not too long ago everybody was ignoring me and thinking that I was some drug-oriented freak.
"You see the deterioration of the myth," Plant continues. "Why do we all have to end up in tuxedos? To do what? Who benefits from that? From when we were being spat at in Dearborn by white middle-class America to now, apart from being a little more chronologically gifted, I'm not sure our attitude has changed very much. What happened? Are we really Jack Jones? Is this what rock & roll has become?"
Whatever their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame might signify, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are clearly hoping that their tour will demonstrate more compellingly what rock & roll has become. The two men are justifiably proud that No Quarter ventured further into musical areas they were only beginning to explore with Led Zeppelin, and Page and Plant are certain their live shows will break down even more boundaries.
In addition to the Egyptian ensemble, vocalist Najma Akhtar and the core band rehearsing in London (which will also include keyboardist Ed Shearmur), Page and Plant will be picking up an orchestra in each city they visit. They are brimming with anticipation. For Page, it recalls the halcyon days of Led Zeppelin.
"With Led Zeppelin we were improvising every night and taking chances," Page says. "I suppose there were times when we made quite a few mistakes, but that's to be expected. The sheer fact that you're trying to fly necessitates that. Otherwise it's note-for-note perfect every night, and that's boring." "We hope to do that again now when we go on the road with the Egyptians," says Plant. "Use free-form parts as we did at the end of 'Kashmir,' when we brought in that bit of 'Black Dog' for the TV show. We can spin the music round."
"We intend to have different versions of various numbers," adds Page, "the original way, employing the hurdy-gurdy, all different types of arrangements that we can call upon any night." "The version of 'Black Dog' we have now sounds a bit like Beck," Plant says with a laugh, "but with the riff coming in occasionally so that it's not completely lost. The deal is, if we can start flying again...that was the thing about Zep. We used to be able to take off and get lost – which sometimes got a little bit over the top, didn't it?"
"It was lengthy at times," says Page. "Twenty-seven minutes of 'Dazed and Confused,' and there's only four lines of vocals," says Plant, laughing. "But what it all means is that we will be able to choose every night how we will approach stuff and, on a whim, change it. So we'll never know how it's going to turn out until we start." But what about the expectations of the ravenous Led Zeppelin audience, which has waited 15 years for a tour like this?
As much as Page and Plant have been eager to shed the burden of history, their fans are not going to be nearly as punctilious about observing the distinctions between Led Zeppelin and a Page and Plant project. Selling 90 million records worldwide in the course of your career will have that kind of blurring effect. "Well, I don't think we can bring the past back in any way as it was," says Plant firmly.
"That's why we went to such pains to do this TV and record thing the way it is–warts and all. It's us saying, 'If we're going to work together, this is how we begin.' It will probably be the last time that we'll ever record an old song. There's no real need to do that again. I think if the shows work out half as interestingly as they've developed in rehearsals, with the Egyptians especially, we can compensate for everybody's loss of Led Zep by making it exciting.
"Forget the audience–the greatest anticipation of all is ours," Plant continues. "For all but the musicians themselves, music is a temporal thing. People have got a lot of other things to do in a day than worry about us. But this is all powerful to us, all consuming. It takes up 12 or 14 hours of every day, crafting it. We think about it – joyously – all the time." "It's the excitement of what it can be,"
Plant concludes. "If we get it right, we can take our music far beyond what the film showed. We can go back to the glorious days where, when people performed, they took you someplace. I do believe we're going to go somewhere really special. So that's just joy because it's taken us so long to find a medium in which we can be comfortable without sounding like a dim effigy of what used to be. Now that we've got it, we can play with it. So if there's any anticipation, it should be along those lines: "What can they do next?'"