You almost have to feel sorry for Robert Plant. Sure, the man has enjoyed an immensely successful career as a solo artist, one that's lasted more than three times as long as that of his former band, Led Zeppelin. He's aggressively pursued his ever-wandering muse across the globe, and enjoyed fruitful recording collaborations with the disparate likes of Alison Krauss (their 2007 album Raising Sand won a Grammy for Album of the Year), Nigel Kennedy, Phil Collins, Patty Griffin, Afro Celt Sound System and (of course) former Led Zep cohort Jimmy Page.
And yet, even though it's been close to 38 years since Zeppelin drummer John Bonham's death, and the subsequent end of the band, Plant still can't make a move without somebody asking, "What about a Led Zeppelin reunion tour?"
A recent Esquire interview, done in support of the excellent Carry Fire – Plant's latest album, recorded with the Sensational Space Shifters, his backing band since 2012 – found Plant once again fielding the question. When the interviewer informed the singer that his editors would kill him if he didn't ask Plant about the possibility of him "going back to do the big gig," Plant responded with a tart, "My suggestion to you is to make sure you wear the right clothes when they kill you."
Plant's quotable mixture of candid charm and barely concealed annoyance is extremely well-honed, at this point; after all, despite his considerable solo achievements, he's been answering the same question since the early Eighties. And until either he or Page leaves this mortal coil, he'll likely keep having to answer it. Here's a look back at some of his many responses so far.
1982: "There's absolutely no point."
In Plant's very first post-Zeppelin interview, conducted shortly after the release of his first solo album, 1982's Pictures at Eleven, Sounds scribe Geoff Barton asked the singer if Led Zeppelin were indeed "dead and buried." "After we lost John we issued a statement to that effect but everybody read it as being ambiguous," Plant replied. "I can't even remember the wording of it now. But no, there's absolutely no point. No point at all. There's certain people you don't do without in life, you don't keep things going for the sake of it. There's no functional purpose for keeping things going. For whose convenience? Nobody's, really.
"No one could ever have taken over John's job. Never, ever! Impossible. I listen to Zeppelin stuff now and I realize how important John was. When he drummed he was right there with either my voice or whatever Pagey was doing ... you couldn't have found anybody with the same kind of ingredient to make the band really take off like John did. For all the shit that hit the fan those many times ... we all sort of rose out of it together going, ‘We don't care – take this!' And you don't start carrying on with people who weren't a part of that. Impossible."
1984: "We go separate ways."
Shortly after the release of The Honeydrippers: Volume One, a collection of early rock & roll covers recorded with the help of Jeff Beck, Nile Rodgers, Paul Shaffer and Jimmy Page, Plant was asked during an MTV Extra interview if he was worried that Page's presence on the record would trigger talk of a Zeppelin reunion. "No, I don't think anybody is that silly," he replied. "I think it's nice to play together in that sort of happy-go-lucky, non-serious approach, you know? I mean, it would be different if we were making an album together, but this is nice; I can go and sing with him, he can come and play with me. But we go separate ways."
1985: "I like solo touring better than touring with Zeppelin."
A few weeks after the release of his third solo LP, Shaken ‘n' Stirred – and a little more than a month before Zeppelin's regrettable, Phil Collins-assisted reunion performance at Live Aid – Plant told The Los Angeles Times that he preferred the freedom of a solo career to the experience of his previous gig. "I like solo touring better than touring with Zeppelin," he said. "There are burdens, but they're different. One is that I have to make decisions – but I only have to consider how I feel about it. In a band, everybody gets a vote. I like it much better this way.
"Being in Zeppelin was like living in a goldfish bowl. Things were done on such a grand scale. The band was a perpetual-motion machine that didn't allow me to stop and consider the values of the whole thing. My values were kind of in chaos for a while. That experience was a distortion of reality. My perspective on reality and hard work was out of line."
1988: "It would be deceit to try and bring it all back."
After three solo albums based around state-of-the-art keyboard sounds, Plant returned to hard rock with 1988's Now and Zen, which would go on to be his most successful solo album, moving more than 3 million copies. But in an interview that March with Rolling Stone, Plant told David Fricke that Now and Zen was anything but a warmup for a Zeppelin reunion; he spilled the beans about the frustrating week of jam sessions that he, Page, bassist John Paul Jones and Chic drummer Tony Thompson attempted in early 1986, and discussed why he remained resistant to trading upon past glories. "However much one might want to make me Led Zeppelin, I'm not," he says. "And I've never had the power, nor would I ever attempt, to emulate or recreate that thing. And I know darn well if Jimmy and I were to travel America and Coca-Cola wanted to stuff money up our bum, it would be deceit to try and bring it all back.
"I often think I'd 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."
1990: "I don't know the guy who sang in Led Zeppelin."
A continuation of Now and Zen's sound and approach, 1990's Manic Nirvana offered proof that Plant – then in his early 40s – could still deliver the hard-rock goods. But in a June 1990 interview with Music Express, Plant made it clear that he felt no desire to (as the interviewer puts it) "saddle up the old Zep warhorse one more time." "I couldn't go on and reinvent the spirit of the huge monster that was, because I couldn't feel comfortable," he insisted. "I don't know the guy who sang in Led Zeppelin. I see some very funny pictures of him, then I see rock's vile offspring trotting behind in lurex pants and leather gloves with the fingers cut off."
1995: "There's no point in trying to pretend you're immortal and that you've returned once again to do that ultimate version of ‘Stairway to Heaven.'"
In reuniting with Page for 1994's massively successful No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded, Plant finally found a way to draw upon his Zeppelin past while also digging deeper into his personal obsessions with Egyptian, Moroccan and Western classical music. But on the eve of Led Zeppelin being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – which would involve a performance with John Paul Jones, who wasn't asked to join them for No Quarter – Plant took pains to tell Rolling Stone that his forthcoming tour with Page wouldn't be the return of Led Zeppelin. "I don't think we can bring the past back in any way as it was," he said. "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 you're immortal and that you've returned once again to do that ultimate version of ‘Stairway to Heaven.'"
2002: "John Bonham's kid isn't as good as John Bonham."
After working steadily with Page from 1994 to 1998 (and reuniting with the guitarist for the Montreaux Jazz Festival in July 2001), Plant delivered his first solo album in nine years with 2002's Dreamland, a wonderful record loaded with bluesy folk-rock covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley and Skip Spence. But questions about a Led Zeppelin reunion continued to hover, and Spin asked him why he and Page didn't tour with John Paul Jones and John Bonham's son Jason, who had filled in on drums at the band's one-off May 1988 performance at Atlantic Records' 40th-anniversary celebration concert.
"But what the fuck for?" he replied. "John Bonham's kid isn't as good as John Bonham. Look, I now you're a journalist, so I'll go along with this question. I don't make my living by making a living. My time is so important that I can't compromise my taste – or my idea of what's right – simply to match someone else's view of what's a good, calculated move. And can you imagine what a lumbering monster that tour would have been? It would have been quite sluttish to come back firing like a bunch of hard rockers. The important thing was that Page and I decided to write again."
2003: "I don't like repetition and tedium."
November 2003 saw the release of Sixty Six to Timbuktu, a two-CD compilation containing hits and other highlights from Plant's solo career, as well as demos and rarities dating back to his 1966 recording of the Young Rascals' "You Better Run." While there are no Led Zeppelin tracks in the set, the subject of a Zep reunion still reared its head during an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "An old pal of mine said, ‘Hey, Robert, why do you keep turning your back on the obvious?'" says Plant. "Because I really love music. I don't like repetition and tedium. And he said, 'But remember, glory is fleeting, obscurity is forever.' I said, 'How much longer down the line have I to go on being either of those two conditions?'"
2007: "The conveyor belt of expectation is bullshit."
Despite his previous comments about Jason Bonham, Plant agreed to reunite with Page, Jones and Bonham for a full concert of Led Zeppelin material at London's O2 arena in December 2007. The one-off performance – which would raise money for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, which pays for university scholarships in the U.K., U.S. and Turkey – sells out in no time, with a reported 1 million requests coming in for less than 20,000 available tickets. Concert promoters around the world were licking their chops in anticipation of the kind of bank that a full Led Zep reunion tour could make. But as Plant told Rolling Stone, he was already filling his calendar for 2008 – and it wasn't with Zeppelin dates. "The conveyor belt of expectation is bullshit," he said impatiently. "If people don't talk about a tour, anything is likely. The more people talk, the more pressure it puts on everybody."
2008: "It's both frustrating and ridiculous for this story to continue to rear its head ..."
In the wake of the acclaimed O2 performance, rumors about a full-blown Led Zeppelin reunion tour reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2008, to the point where Plant felt compelled to release a statement via his official website insisting that he "[had] no intention whatsoever of touring with anyone for at least the next two years." Galled by reports that he would be reuniting with Page, Jones and Bonham for a 2009 summer tour that would include stops at Bonnaroo and Coachella, Plant – then on tour with Alison Krauss to promote Raising Sand – said that "It's both frustrating and ridiculous for this story to continue to rear its head when all the musicians that surround the story are keen to get on with their individual projects and move forward. I wish Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham nothing but success with any future projects."
2010: "Everything has to move on and forward, in all relationships."
In September 2010, Plant released Band of Joy – his ninth solo album, which featured covers of songs by Low, Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt, as well as several traditional songs arranged by Plant and co-producer Buddy Miller. Now that nearly three years had passed since the O2 gig, The Telegraph asked Plant if he'd consider doing it again. "I don't think so," he sighed. "You've got to have a lot in common with the people you're working with at this time in your life. Everything has to move on and forward, in all relationships.
"I know that bands that haven't put out a record for 10 years are playing to 20,000 people a night. But that's not the achievement. The achievement is to knock yourself out. It's a very selfish thing. The tail must never wag the dog."
2011: "I've gone so far somewhere else that I almost can't relate to it ..."
In 2011, Plant sat for a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone, catching us up on everything from his recent journey to Morocco to his failed attempt at making a follow-up to Raising Sand with Alison Krauss. Of course, talk also turned to Led Zeppelin, and why he had no interest in following up the O2 performance.
"It was an amazing evening," he said. "The preparations for it were fraught and intense, but the last rehearsal was really, really good, for all that it represented and all that we were trying to capture. But I've gone so far somewhere else that I almost can't relate to it. ... It's a bit of a pain in the pisser to be honest. Who cares? I know people care, but think about it from my angle – soon, I'm going to need help crossing the street."
An October 2012 press conference at New York's Museum of Modern Art to promote the upcoming release of the film Celebration Day – which captured Led Zeppelin's 2007 O2 performance – turned awkward when assembled print journalists and radio reporters started asking Plant, Page, Jones and Jason Bonham about another reunion. When one praised the film but said, "I don't know if it's going to quench the thirst of those who wished to see you in the flesh," the band remained silent until Plant piped up with a simple "Sorry!"
"There were moments where we took off," Plant said later of the O2 show. "But the responsibility of doing that four nights a week for the rest of time is a different thing. ... If we're capable of doing something, in our own time, that will be what will happen. So any inane questions from people who are from syndicated outlets, you should just really think about what it takes to answer a question like that in one second. We know what we've got, you know."
2014: "I'm not part of a jukebox!"
While speaking to Rolling Stone to promote Led Zeppelin's new deluxe reissues, Plant lost patience when the line of questioning veered into reunion territory. "You're going back to the same old shit," he said. "A tour would have been an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that's shitty about big-time stadium rock. We were surrounded by a circus of people that would have had our souls on fire. I'm not part of a jukebox!
"Do you know why the Eagles said they'd reunite when 'hell freezes over,' but they did it anyway and keep touring?" he asked. "It's not because they were paid a fortune. It's not about the money. It's because they were bored. I'm not bored."
2018: "My time has got to be filled with joy and endeavor and humor and power and absolute self-satisfaction."
Plant's March 2018 Esquire interview made waves, but what he said remained remarkably consistent with what he has been saying since 1982 – that he's more interested in new musical vistas (like the ones he's currently exploring with the Sensational Space Shifters), and doesn't see the point in empty nostalgia.
"You don't even have to talk to me if all you want to know about is Led Zeppelin," he said. "Thirty-eight years ago John Bonham passed away, that's all I know. That's it. That's the story. You know, Led Zeppelin was an amazing, prolific fun factory for a period of time, but it was three amazing musicians and a singer living in the times. Those times. That's not going to stop me doing what I'm doing now. So that's a headline, or not a headline. It doesn't matter to me.
"If it's easy, and it's not of a great deal of consequence, OK," he continued. "But when you're in your seventies? You have to be really careful about maybe putting a bit more time into playing bingo, and enjoying the time you have left. For me, my time has got to be filled with joy and endeavor and humor and power and absolute self-satisfaction. That's not with Led Zeppelin. That's doing what I'm doing right now, with this band, on this tour."