Robert Plant on the Led Zeppelin Rehearsals: The Band Has “Done It. It’s There.”
They were supposed to be rehearsing. But on November 6th and 7th — while they waited for guitarist Jimmy Page’s broken finger to heal, so they could resume preparations for their December 10th reunion concert in London — the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin all sat down with Rolling Stone in London for extensive, individual interviews about their unexpected resurrection. Page, bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant also spoke at length about their past and speculation as to their future together. It was the first time Led Zeppelin, as a band, had spoken to the magazine since the late Seventies. Drummer Jason Bonham — the son of original Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose death in 1980 broke up the band — also gave a revealing interview about his father and the emotional weight Jason carries into this reunion.
What follows are additional excerpts from the interviews with Page, Plant and Jason, on the eve of the year’s most anticipated concert, by the band that was blowing minds even before its first album was released, in early 1969. “I remember playing it for my friends before it came out and seeing their jaws drop,” Jones said, laughing, in our interview. “I had these big speakers, sat people down and said, ‘Listen to this.’ And everybody looked like, ‘Bloody hell!’
“It was so exciting — to be making exciting music,” Jones recalled. “You couldn’t say it was this or that. Our different influences and characters, the different types of music we listened to — they all overlapped. And the space inbetween — that was Led Zeppelin.” JIMMY PAGE
One that that always struck me about Led Zeppelin in concert was the empathy you had as a band when you improvised. It wasn’t just jamming but a kind of traveling in consort. Anyone could lead, and the rest would follow.
Robert could come in at any point [with a vocal idea], and by the time he got halfway through the first line, we’d know what he was going for. And we’d be there with him before he finished that line. That’s how on it all was. Of course, we had the benefit of knowing each other so well musically — and also the fact that this band continued on, year after year, tour after tour, album after album. We could take more and more chances with each other onstage. It was challenging and exciting.
I have tapes from the very first tour in early 1969, and you were doing that already.
That’s right. But that was the ethic, how it was intended to be. God forbid that it should be safe.
Were you surprised by how immediate it was? When you formed the band, Robert and John were not as experienced as you and John Paul. I hear this a lot. But John Bonham had a reputation in the Midlands. He played with Robert and other bands, and he had just come out of the Tim Rose tour. I hadn’t heard of John Bonham. His reputation hadn’t come this far down south. [Plant recommended him to Page.] But he was such a proficient drummer.
He had an empathy with what was going on, and that was inspiring to play with. But then we were all inspiring to play with at that point. And Robert had paid his dues in Birmingham bands. He had good, firm roots in the extensions out of that Yardbirds period.
How would you characterize the way Led Zeppelin rehearsed for concerts in the Seventies? How would you get ready for a tour?
We would just go in and jam. The hardest part of the Led Zeppelin set list in those days was actually taking numbers out, to put in new ones. Inevitably, we’d want to play some new numbers from the current album. But sometimes we’d only play one of them, because we didn’t want to lose the old numbers. As a result, the set kept getting longer and longer and longer. That was one of the reasons the shows were so long — we just enjoyed playing so much. If we had a rehearsal to go on the road, we’d go over some links within the set, segues between numbers — then afterward, just jamming, coming up with new things that would disappear into the ether. Of course, it was work. But it wasn’t a chore. It was something to enjoy and savor.
How much did you feel challenged in Led Zeppelin as a guitarist and songwriter? Robert and John were maturing quickly, but you were on the same runaway train.
It’s undeniable that everybody’s technique grew in that band. It blossomed. Technique is the wrong word. I don’t have technique at all. We’ll call it musical character. But it gave everybody a chance for their character to seriously grow.
I was writing things where I could hear Robert singing it. And with John Bonham’s powerhouse drumming, that was an interesting perspective — to have verses coming through, then the power chords. To me, that was instinctive, as opposed to having everything going at once. You’d have songs where the colors would be revealed as the song progresses, rather than everything — Bam! — all together, like everybody else was doing.
Is there an ultimate Zeppelin song? Everybody talks about “Stairway to Heaven.” Robert often refers to “Kashmir.” I’m not in the best position to say that. It’s what it conveys to other people — or what it ought to be. I know how music has affected me through my life. On a subjective level, the songs all have various memories for me. You couldn’t put it all into one.
What about “Achilles Last Stand” [on Presence]? You orchestrated all of those guitars in the studio, shooting up and out at different angles.
It was done in one evening, the whole of the arrangement. To be honest with you, the other guys didn’t know … “Has he gone mad? Does he know what he’s doing?” But at the end of it, the picture became clear. It was like a little vignette, every time something comes around.
Was it difficult to play the song onstage?
It was tough to play live with one guitar. Here I’m showing off: “Let’s have a real guitar army.” The it was back to one guy — like the soldier in the sentry box [laughs]. The version from Knebworth [in 1979] on the DVD [the two-disc set Led Zeppelin] is not very good. But that’s what we had. Sometimes less is more. But in that case … It certainly showcases everybody else [laughs] — vocals, drumming and John Paul Jones.
When Led Zeppelin came together to make a new record in the Seventies, how did you begin? How would you start writing a record like, say, Led Zeppelin III?
Taking Jimmy to Bron-Yr-Aur [in Wales], which I hadn’t been to for a few years, was very deliberate. [Plant’s family had often stayed at a holiday cottage there in the Fifties.] Led Zeppelin II had been done, more or less, on the fly, while we were [touring]. I think the enthusiasm and variety of Led Zeppelin II echoed that. There is a lot of guitar melody and fantastic bass parts. Bonzo was amazing. It was a really cohesive departure that none of us could have imagined, and it was done on the run.
By Led Zeppelin III, there was some definite determination. We said, “We’ve got to do something different. We’ve gotta do something where we open it up.” And let’s fact it — with Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, there was already a decent spectrum, a kaleidoscope developing.
By the time we left Bron-Yr-Aur, we had the pastoral side of it — the vulnerability of removing everything and just having an acoustic guitar and a voice blazing fire, in a very naked and exposed condition. When you’ve been moving so fast for such a long time — we had never actually tried it out like that. People would bring stuff to the table, but it would be worked on, up ’til then, in a four-piece rehearsal environment. So that was quite a breakaway. That’s only part of [III], but at least it got us off to some new place. And it was delightfully slated by the media, saying, “Well, they’ve fucked it now.” [Grins]
Was there a point when you thought you were paying too high a price for that intense period from 1968 through ’76 — an album a year, two, even three tours a year? It was as if you were forced to capitalize on your early success.
No, no, no. We were not forced to do anything.
Okay, “forced” is the wrong word.
That was never the way. It was [manager] Peter Grant saying, “I think it would be a good idea if you decided on the design for the sleeve, because you’re holding everything up.” “Oh, no, I don’t like that there. That child should be on that rock there” [a reference to the cover of 1973’s Houses of the Holy]. There was all that kind of mayhem. It wasn’t like other rock bands. Because there was so much other stuff coming in, interests and leanings. Unfortunately, when it imploded, it wasn’t imploding at the best time.
But you had the car accident in 1975. Your son Karac died in ’77, and you didn’t tour in ’78. You only did Knebworth [two outdoor shows in England] in ’79 and that last short, European tour in ’80. It was almost as if there had been a rush of activity to that point, then you found you weren’t quite as invincible as you thought.
Even though I was in a wheelchair for seven months [from the accident], I didn’t feel bad about it. I felt bad about wasting time. I hate wasting time. The whole momentum was directed by my accident. But that didn’t stop us from working on Presence, and then going to Germany to record it. It was a very, very tough time. That was probably the nearest I’d ever get to being a blues singer — not by my voice, but by how I was feeling; not being a guy in the corner like Blind Lemon Jefferson, but just being really fucked off.
Yeah, from then on, it was a stagger. But it was the forces around us. I lost my boy. I didn’t want to be in Led Zeppelin. I wanted to be with my family.
The shock of being human, not invincible.
I was human all the way through it. I was a father. I’m a grandfather now. My pals look at me and go, “You’re still going on.” But I love it. I’m still going on.
Watching you now in The Song Remains the Same — the swagger, the posing, is still a great thing to see.
But I didn’t know it was posing. It’s only now with an older head, I go, “Oh, God, did that actually work?” But of course it worked. It was as genuine as the day is long. I didn’t preen in front of a mirror. My mother said, “You shouldn’t pout, it looks stupid.” But I pouted because I wanted to be like, “Come on!” I wanted to be Steve Marriott, for fuck’s sake. But in that environment, I was way past all that. I was part of some kind of new animal that included everything you see in that film. And I can’t get embarrassed by it. At that point, in the film, I was yet to be twenty-five years old. And the group was dead when I was thirty-two. How can any of us have any critical overview about what we do? We were just on fire, rolling and tumbling — and most of the time, incredibly civil to each other.
But that image has been frozen in time. When you play again on December 10th, there will be an expectation — for you to rise up to that.
I’ve heard it in that [rehearsal] room. I’ve heard those guys playing. They’ve done it. It’s already there.
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In “The Song Remains the Same”, the scene where you play drums, with your dad on bongos, is wonderfully prophetic.
They sent me the original footage of that. I’m actually playing to Dr. John, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” [In the film, the soundtrack is John Bonham’s solo, “Moby Dick.”] My dad’s at the jukebox, and he asked me, “What do you want to play to?” There is also footage of Dad playing on my kit, doing [Ike and Tina Turner’s] “Nutbush City Limits.” He sat at my little drums. That is priceless.
People don’t think of him as an R&B drummer.
I have this collection of stuff that people give me, these outtakes. It frustrates Jimny [laughs]. And one is just the drums of “Whole Lotta Love” for a few bars. And it’s funky. It’s not rock. It’s a funk feel, and nobody ever got that. All of his favorite music was in more of a folk and funk thing. I remember he loved the Hall and Oates album, Abandoned Luncheonette, with “She’s Gone” on it. He loved that kind of vibe. I got the chance to tell Stevie Nicks at the Ahmet Ertegun memorial [in New York] that my father loved Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Now when I listen back to it, it makes me smile, because it reminds me of sitting with Dad, going to motorcross races, with my bike on the back of a Range Rover.
People think of your dad as the raging drum animal. Do you think he got a raw deal after his death, because of the way he died?
When you look at the movie, you go, “I get it.” He was the only guy who didn’t want to show a fantasy life. What Dad showed was reality. He’s on the tractor, he’s going to the pub, playing snooker. That wasn’t a fantasy scene. That was my Dad’s life — playing drums, being with his family. All the others had their little dream fantasies — John Paul as the Night Rider, Jimmy with Father Time, Robert as King Arthur. But that was just Dad. There was an element to him that people don’t know.
How different are you from your dad as a drummer?
Probably not much. You should ask this the other way around — what don’t I do that Dad did? When I get to play this music, I can pick and choose key moments that were phenomenal, from the catalog of what I have on bootlegs and live things. I have this blueprint in my head of what I want to use where. Before we knew what songs we were going to do, I had to make sure I had everything covered for every part, in every year. I have to have certain things down that I would miss if I was watching the gig.
I have a great blueprint to look at. Occasionally, I’ll do something that is in the mold, although it might not be something Dad did in that song. I might even take something that he did in Presence and put it in something off Led Zeppelin II.
One of the greatest feelings I had, after the first day [of rehearsal], was when we all went out for dinner together. We sat in a crowded restaurant — we had to share a table with another couple — and nobody knew who we were. They were telling me some great things about Dad, funny stories. And to see them laughing and interacting together, I was like, “Wow.” I didn’t feel like I was a kid looking up to them anymore. [Smiles] It was very weird.