Date: Thu, 3 Nov 1994 15:25:49 -0500
From: "Mark S. Nyhus"
Subject: New York Times
For the benefit of those who did not have access to the article:
Copyright 1994 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 30, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 2; Page 30; Column 1; Arts & Leisure Desk
HEADLINE: POP MUSIC;
Getting the Led Out of Led Zeppelin
BYLINE: By NEIL STRAUSS
IN THE 1970's, LED ZEPPELIN almost single-handedly gave rock-and-roll not a
bad name, but a worse name. It added "heavy" to the lexicon of adjectives used
to describe rock music, developed a reputation for wild, destructive hotel
parties, raked in larger percentages of profits than any band before it and
turned an uncompromisingly long song, the eight-minute "Stairway to Heaven,"
into the most popular tune on radio.
Fourteen years after the quartet broke up, as a result of the alcohol-related
death of John Bonham, its drummer, Led Zeppelin's music remains a backdrop to
the high school years of teen-agers everywhere. The group's classic guitar riffs
have been hammered indelibly not just into the music of many rap and rock bands
but the consciousness of anybody who has ever been near a sound system in the
last three decades.
This year, Led Zeppelin's guitarist, Jimmy Page, and singer, Robert Plant,
reunited for their first long-term project since 1980. The two performed new
arrangements of a dozen Led Zeppelin songs and a handful of new pieces in
Morocco, Wales and London for an MTV "Unplugged" special called "No Quarter:
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page Unledded." The special, which had its premiere last
week and will be rebroadcast on Monday, Nov. 7, was MTV's highest-rated
"Unplugged" episode ever. An album of music recorded for "Unplugged," not all of
which made the broadcast, will be released the next day by Atlantic Records. In
February, after a decade of rumors and requests, the pair plans to follow in the
footsteps of other temporarily disbanded groups like Pink Floyd and the Eagles
and embark on what's bound to be a highly lucrative world tour.
"Some great blob called public opinion kept demanding that me and Jimmy do
something together again," Mr. Plant said, lighting a stick of White Light
Pentekel incense in his Manhattan hotel room and beginning the first in-depth
interview he had done with Mr. Page since 1980. "So the only thing we had to
consider was, can we do it again? Once we found out we could, certain things in
me were born again."
Only Mr. Plant's creased face displays his age. At 47, he can get away with
wearing the same crown of long, cascading golden curls and the same type of
leather pants that he wore decades ago. Mr. Page, at 50 and dressed in all black
to match his billowing hair, smiled impishly and continued Mr. Plant's thought:
"It's not a question of us going back. It's a question of coming together and
going forward and doing something which maybe people can relate to down the line
and plagiarize from us again."
From its inception in 1968, Led Zeppelin was a smug, cocky and undeniably
talented band, and it still shows in Mr. Plant and Mr. Page's demeanor. They
enjoy being rock superstars and exercising all the privileges that come with the
title. Among the duties of the publicists for their record label during their
short stay in New York was to wear Mr. Page's new shoes to break them in and to
shop for hip new records for him. "We want to stay in touch with the
underground," Mr. Page said, "but we don't have time to go to record stores."
MR. PLANT ALSO WANTED underground records, but said he didn't trust the taste
of his record label, Atlantic. "These record labels are useless," Mr. Plant
complained. "If I want to have technicolor sex in an underground club, they
won't know where to take me."
Mr. Plant and Mr. Page sometimes seem like overgrown children. Over the
course of a two-hour interview, Mr. Plant continually teased Mr. Page, Mr. Page
tried to outjest Mr. Plant, and both engaged in sexual boasting, referred to
things only they understood, and snickered at each other's comments like two
best friends in the back row of a school classroom. "Working with Robert and
Jimmy was like getting a divorced couple back together," said Alex Coletti, the
"Unplugged" producer. "It was a fragile, very tentative thing at first. The
slightest upset could have ruined it."
But after they became immersed in the project, Mr. Plant and Mr. Page renewed
their bond. In fact, the pair, who said they had written enough new songs
together for a second album, talked as if they had no intention of returning to
their spotty solo careers. "Who knows what will happen?" Mr. Plant exclaimed,
adding a sardonic comment about two light-metal bands of the 1980's. "We could
end up bashing it out like Heart until the very end, or we could be like Motley
Crue and suddenly come out with knee-high boots and stick our tongues out and
think we're somebody else."
This is not the first time Mr. Plant and Mr. Page's musical paths have
crossed since the demise of Led Zeppelin. The two occasionally appeared on each
other's solo albums and played together at two one-shot reunion concerts -- Live
Aid in 1985 and an Atlantic Records party in 1988. As recently as last year,
when asked the inevitable question -- whether the group would reunite for a
bigger project -- Mr. Plant responded, "It's a closed door, teen-age music."
Though Mr. Plant and Mr. Page did not want to talk about the genesis of
"Unledded," Mr. Coletti explained: "Originally, we were just going to do an
'Unplugged' with Robert, and we hoped that he would agree to get Jimmy to do a
few songs. But then his manager took the initiative, got these guys together and
made it happen."
Within a short time, the special began to deviate from its original plan,
which was to stick Mr. Plant in front of a hand-picked audience in a Queens
studio with an acoustic band and several guests. "When Robert's people were
presenting the idea over the phone, I knew it was going to be a lot of money,"
Mr. Coletti said. "They said, 'Robert wants to go to Morocco because he wrote
"Kashmir" there. Robert wants to go to Wales because he wrote "Down by the
Seaside" there.' I said, 'Did Robert write anything in Queens?' "
In Marrakesh, Morocco, Mr. Plant and Mr. Page fulfilled a longtime dream by
performing with Gnawa trance musicians, descendants of Sudanese slaves. "Every
November," Mr. Plant said, "the people we played with -- Ibrahim and his mates
-- go to people's houses and clear them of the jinn -- everything that's bad in
the place. But Ibrahim also makes tapes that you can buy for 15 dirhams in the
market. So that's quite a useful gig he's got. It's a bit like Tori Amos. She
makes you feel good, and she sells a few records."
Though several executives at MTV wanted Mr. Plant and Mr. Page to perform
"Stairway to Heaven," the pair decided not to give any more exposure to that
overfamiliar work. "I think we're in a disposable world and 'Stairway to Heaven'
is one of the things that hasn't quite been thrown away yet," Mr. Plant said. "I
think radio stations should be asked not to play it for 10 years, just to leave
it alone for a bit so we can tell whether it's any good or not."
Another problem arose during the taping when Mr. Plant and Mr. Page insisted
on using prerecorded drumming and an electric guitar. They got their way. "We
wanted to show people how to really re-dress the music," Mr. Plant said.
As a result, the 90-minute broadcast is classic Zeppelin bombast. The duo
takes its old songs and makes them bigger. "Nobody's Fault but Mine" is
performed on top of a Welsh slate mine; "Kashmir" is supplemented by 35
musicians, including an English and an Egyptian string orchestra. During "The
Battle of Evermore," Mr. Page uses a triple-necked guitar that he can hardly get
his arms around, and Najma Akhtar, an Indian vocalist whom Mr. Plant is dating,
sings the choruses as ethnic instruments rattle and hum in the background.
In fact, the only thing missing from "Unledded" is John Paul Jones, Led
Zeppelin's bassist and keyboardist. Mr. Jones, who is currently touring Europe
in a trio with the avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas and the former Attractions
drummer Pete Thomas, said in a telephone conversation that he was never asked to
take part in the broadcast. "I read about it in the papers," he said. "And then
I called a friend just to say, 'Oh, by the way, did you see the latest rumor?'
And he replied, 'Didn't they tell you?' I went, 'Oh, great.' Maybe I might have
joined them, and maybe I wouldn't. But I think it was a bit discourteous of them
not to say anything at all." In response, Mr. Plant and Mr. Page said that
"Unledded" wasn't technically a Led Zeppelin reunion and that they wanted to
keep the collaboration simple.
"One slightly naughty thing I was thinking as I was watching the MTV thing,"
Mr. Jones said, "is how many people it took to replace me, and how few people
it's taken me to replace them."
Led Zeppelin did not break up because of animosity between band members. It
broke up because the survivors didn't believe that they could be Led Zeppelin
without Mr. Bonham. "Maybe 1980 was already a bit late to stop," Mr. Plant said.
"Maybe we should have stopped before."
Mr. Page interrupted: "But anyway, we couldn't have carried on without John.
We had been working as such an integral, combined unit for so long that to get
somebody in to learn those areas of improvisation just wouldn't have been honest
to any of us, and certainly not to his name."
That's where the Who went wrong, Mr. Plant added, referring to that band's
decision to keep performing after its original drummer, Keith Moon, died in
1978. "And they went wrong with a hell of a thump, because they got a drummer
who was so inanimate."
Mr. Plant seems reluctant to accept that he is himself an aging rocker and
fading sex symbol. Asked if middle age has dampened his well-documented
enthusiasm for the physical pleasures, Mr. Plant responded, "I think I could
actually live the way I'm living now without sex." He paused, realized what he
was saying and added, "For about another half an hour."
But middle age has taken its toll on Mr. Plant. In a rare moment of
seriousness, he confessed: "I think I'm prone to panic. I've become obsessively
Virgo. I like to comprehend more or less everything around me -- apart from the
creation of my music. It's an obsessive character trait that's getting worse. I
don't switch the light on and off 15 times before I leave the room yet, but
something's going wrong."
Mr. Page chortled while Mr. Plant spoke. There seemed to be an undercurrent
of rivalry between them. After all, before Led Zeppelin, it was Mr. Page, a
former member of the Yardbirds and a much-sought-after session guitarist, who
was the star; after Led Zeppelin, it was Mr. Plant who had the more productive
Where Mr. Page shrugged off certain questions with the comment "I'm a
musician, not a pundit," Mr. Plant seemed content to be the expert, especially
when the conversation turned to obscure subjects like barbaric Norse tribes and
ancient Welsh triads. Where Mr. Page seemed proud of his work with Led Zeppelin,
Mr. Plant dismissed it.
"I can't take my whole persona as a singer back then very seriously," Mr.
Plant said. "It's not some great work of beauty and love to be a rock-and-roll
singer. So I got a few moves from Elvis and one or two from Sonny Boy Williamson
and Howlin' Wolf and threw them together. It's so painfully obvious where it
came from. It was a tired move in the first place, really. So for this film,
I've changed my shapes, and it's a good job too, because they'd look a bit
MOST OF THE TECHNIQUES Mr. Plant has added to his repertory, like singing in
quarter tones and twirling, come from Arabic traditions, he said. Working on
"Unledded" has only increased his belief that taking his and Led Zeppelin's
music to a new level means combining it with ethnic cultures.
"When we started rehearsing with the Egyptian orchestra, I could feel that
Plant and Page were starting a little journey again," he said. "And that's how
our music always was. It was some kind of journey which -- in the end -- fell
into the clutches of the corporate promotional thingy."
Next time, Mr. Plant said, he hoped to collaborate with the Jbala musicians
of northwest Morocco: "The other day I spoke to one of the chaps who helped us
out in Morocco, and he said: 'Robert, I've found these guys that really want to
work with you. They're the Jbala. Those are the people that can put you into
such a state that you can cut yourself with Moroccan daggers and be covered in
blood and feel nothing, and at the end of the song, the blood's gone.'
"I don't know if it's quite the same as Teardrop Explodes," Mr. Plant
continued, referring to one of his favorite bands. "But at least it gives us
something to do in the future, even if it only means that we end up learning to
do First Aid very quickly."
Mr. Page snorted. "I can see the headline now: 'Former Led Zeppelin Members
Disemboweled in Moroccan Trance Incident.' "