ROBERT PLANT ROBERT PLANT
From page 34 of Classic Rock Magazine February 2007
When Robert Plant and former bandmates Jezz Woodroffe and Robbie Blunt met up recently to look back at his first two post-Zeppelin solo albums, Classic Rock tagged along. Cue tales of how Plant found life after Led Zep – and musical resurrection amid the spliffs, real ale and ‘stroppy fuckers’ of Wales.
WORDS: JEFF COLLINS
C lassic Rock is at Rockfield Studios in South Wales, sitting on a large green sofa opposite Robert Plant, reading out an email from the man who played drums on the vocalist’s first two solo albums, following the demise of Led Zeppelin a quarter of a century ago. “Well,” laughs the former Led Zep frontman, “having played in Genesis, being with us had to be good fun, didn’t it?” Plant is back at these studios in Monmouth for a reunion with the band that helped him make those first post-Zeppelin albums, 1982’s Pictures At Eleven and the following year’s The Principle Of Moments . Sitting to his right in the living room at the studio’s Coach House accommodation is former Black Sabbath keyboard player Jezz Woodroffe, while guitarist Robbie Blunt hovers nearby, lost amid his own memories, on the other side of the room. Unfortunately, at the last minute, bassist Paul Martinez has been unable to make it to the studio due to a
Phil Collins was one of two drummers on those albums, the other being the late, great Cozy Powell. And the reason for Collins’s absence today is simply that he’s 3,000 miles away, in
New York, promoting Tarzan , the
Disney musical for which he did the music, that has just opened on
Broadway. But he’s sent Classic Rock an
email ahead of this reunion to read to his former colleagues: “Dear Lads. Oh, the memories. I remember it like it was 25 years ago! If you ever want to do it again, call me. I can still play drums, but I’m better on the slower songs! Wish I was there, Phil Collins. XXX” At the end, they nod and smile in unison at the memories of the long-time Genesis drummer’s contributions to Plant’s albums and the subsequent tour of America.
They all agree that Phil Collins enjoyed his time at Rockfield, even if he sometimes couldn’t take the pace. “One of my favourite memories,” says Robbie Blunt, “was watching Phil throw up in the bedroom next to mine after he’d been on a night out with us. That was amusing.” “I thought it was great when he played on the road with us,” Jezz says of Collins. “It just got better and better. And I loved that old plane we toured on; the five of us rumbling across America in this 60s prop plane.”
“Phil arrived with a different attitude,” Plant recalls. “He was so professional, whereas we were ambling around slowly, saying things like: ‘Oh yeah, this is nice.’ Phil only had four days with us, as his first solo album, Face Value , was just breaking and he had to leave to go and promote that. It meant we had to be really effective”.
Collins played on six tracks on Pictures At Eleven . Former Black Sabbath, Rainbow and Whitesnake drummer Cozy Powell’s powerful signature is on the remaining two songs.
When putting the band together, Plant’s first call was to his long-time friend Robbie Blunt, who had played guitar in Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack and the glam rock band Silverhead.
“I first met Robert in 1967 when we were both mods,” says Blunt. “He was in a band in Kidderminster, where we both lived. I also remember seeing John Bonham in a band called The Way Of Life. You had to see them, because he drummed the same way as he later did with Zep. It was incredible. I’ve known Robert that long.” The two friends hooked up briefly for Plant’s 50s-style band The Honeydrippers, in 1980, before deciding to write new material together.
Next, the pair got hold of Jezz Woodroffe. It was a convoluted route, too. Having left Black Sabbath in 1976, Jezz recorded a solo album, which was heard by a friend of Plant’s, who then recommended the singer to snap him up.
“I was based then at my dad’s music shop in Birmingham,” explains the keyboard player. “Robert came in one day and invited me to his house. Robbie was there playing some riffs in Robert’s home studio, and we forged a special understanding straight away.” After initial rehearsal sessions at the former Zep singer’s home, the three musicians decamped to Rockfield, staying at the Old Mill House – the studio’s rehearsal space.
“It was brilliant,” Jezz enthuses. “It was a massive old place. Once there, we tried to get a drummer and a bass player to complete the band. We had quite a few interesting things happen. Simon Kirke – from Free and Bad Company – came down, but that didn’t work out too well. We had some young bass players, who played a kind of Level 42 style, which also didn’t work. Then Cozy Powell finally arrived and it all clicked. What a smashing bloke he was. We became great friends.” Cozy Powell’s enthusiasm and sense of humour endeared him to the band straight away. Sadly, 15 years later, the drummer died in a car crash near Bristol. There’s a lull in the conversation as Robert, Jezz and Robbie reflect on the time they spent working with him. And it seems the drummer’s stint at Rockfield fulfilled a personal dream.
“One of the funniest things was when Cozy was
listening back to the drums on [ Pictures At Eleven ’s] Slow Dancer ,” says Jezz. “It was the first time he’d heard it back. So he pushed up every single fader of every single drum as high as they would go.
“I think that was one of Cozy’s happiest moments ever, because he’d always wanted to work with Robert. Always. And now here he was doing his spectacular, powerful drumming, and smiling from ear to ear.” “I was stood on a chair at the back of the control room, pinned against the wall by the noise,” Robbie continues. “It sounded ridiculously loud but great. We had so many good times here.” The band spent August and September 1981 in the studio. It was less than a year after the death of John Bonham, and Robert Plant was making the most of his new start – a complete break from the behemoth that was Zeppelin. He’d turned down a chance to record at Zep’s old haunt, Headley Grange, choosing instead the rural surroundings of Rockfield – a farm converted into a studio complex that had played host to the likes of Queen, Rush, Judas Priest, and Motörhead.
“Rockfield was a turning point for me, personally and professionally,” Plant says. “At the age of 32, when your career is finished, anything that came after that was a bonus. After all that wild stuff in Zeppelin, this place was an absolute dream. It was pastoral, funny and had a history. I’d lived in this goldfish bowl in Led Zeppelin. All we knew about were security blokes and shadowy figures that came in the night with bags of gear. So when it all finished it was fantastic to come here and find this whole culture around Monmouth of aspiring, failed, dismal and elated musicians – depending on what day it was. And you could be anyone of those at any given time.
“You’d go down to the Nag’s Head pub and have three pints of Wood’s and come wobbling back up here to the studios.” Plant’s eyes glaze over as the memories of many a booze-filled night in rural Wales come flooding back.
“The first place we went to was the Old Punch House,” chimes in Robbie Blunt. “The owner endeared himself to us on our first visit by asking: ‘What do you scruffy buggers want?’ There was also a place called The Beaufort. It was open all the time; they just used to close the curtains. We’d tap on the windows and they’d let us in.”
“It had a strange mix of people,” Plant adds. “You know there’s that thing in some parts of Wales: there are the town folk and then there are the hill folk. And there’s always a bit of friction between the two. Having that, plus musicians and a weird assortment of people passing through, made it something like the bar out of Star Wars . Still, I moved here and became one of
those dismal, happy, sad, failed musicians that other people cross the street to avoid.”
Robert Plant leans back in his chair as he pauses to remember the lighter moments of the band’s time together. “We can all relate some songs to one incident or another, during recording,” he says. “The song Horizontal Departure is a great example. We all went to Ibiza to get in the groove of writing The Principle Of Moments . Our bassist Paul Martinez is a lovely guy, but could come across as a stroppy fucker. He could be so off-hand that people would take it as an insult. One night he was in a club and someone he’d offended decked him. He flew through the door and hit the floor as he came out. We all rushed out into the street after him, and there he was on the kerb, which was covered in his blood. We’d watched him come straight through the door. And that inspired the song Horizontal Departure . So there were all these little innuendos, which were comical to us at the time. It’s just the same for any band, I guess.” Jezz Woodroffe puts his cup of coffee on the table in front of him as he recalls another inspiring moment: “The song Fat Lip was called that because Robert’s son, Logan, who was six at the time, used to go round telling people he was going to give them a fat lip.” Robert Plant chuckles at that recollection, before adding: “ Burning Down One Side was about a spliff. Big Log was about a spliff as well... In fact it’s all just one big spliff attack,” he announces with a flourish, clearly warming to his theme.
Pictures At Eleven was released in June 1982, with The Principle Of Moments coming along 13 months later. Both albums made the top five on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1984 the band returned to Rockfield, this time with Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, to record parts of Plant’s third solo album, Shaken ’N’ Stirred .
Plant’s solo catalogue has now been remastered and is to be reissued by Warners. The program has started with a comprehensive box set called Nine Lives which features all his solo albums, plus bonus live material and interviews.
“I was happy to take Warners up on their offer to remaster these albums,” he says. “I was quite fearful of what it might sound like, but I think it’s turned out wonderful. Some of the live versions are around eight minutes long and I thought we’d have to edit them down. But the studio staff said as they were live we should just let them run.”
As it happens, for this reunion Plant brought along a CD of the some early mixes of a handful of the live tracks included in the box set, to play to his former bandmates. Recorded at the Summit Arena in Houston on September 20, 1983, the songs include In The Mood and Thru With The Two Step from The Principle Of Moments , Like I’ve Never Been Gone from Pictures At Eleven, and a rare live version of the Bob Marley song Lively Up Yourself .
He pops the disc into a CD player, and Like I’ve Never Been Gone suddenly booms out into the room. Robert turns the volume up – although not quite to 11 – as we hear Robbie Blunt launch into the song’s second guitar solo. Plant tells everyone to listen to how well this has come out: “That guitar solo is just storming,” he beams with pride at his guitarist friend’s performance from more than 20 years ago.
Once the tracks end, Plant announces he has to leave to drive to Brecon to rehearse with his new band, The Strange Sensation.
As Plant, Robbie Blunt and Jezz Woodroffe walk outside into the courtyard, shake hands, hug and say their farewells, they reflect on what an enjoyable experience they had two and a half decades ago.
“I was immune to penicillin by the time I left,” Plant says cheekily, to the amusement of everyone. “And I didn’t get done for drinking and driving.” “I nearly did!” says Jezz.
Plant points at Robbie Blunt like he was a naughty schoolboy and laughs: “But he did!”
PICTURES AT ELEVEN
WORDS: MICK WALL Robert Plant’s first solo album, released in June 1982 – his last recording to be issued on the rapidly disintegrating Swan Song label – was a transitional work, at best; an exercise in treading water, at worst. Although in later years he would bend over backwards to unshackle himself from the legacy of his time in the world’s most extravagantly gifted – and most over-the-top – rock band, Pictures At Eleven found him never straying far from the sound he was then best known for.
In ex-Steve Gibbons Band guitarist Robbie Blunt, Plant had found someone he felt immediately comfortable writing with (check out the ‘trad’ rock guitar on album closer Mystery Title). As a result, of the eight tracks, five can safely be characterised as straightforward rockers, two as entirely irony-free ballads, and one that somewhat too selfconsciously occupies the space somewhere between that Zeppelin really did make their own. Inevitably, then, the best of the bunch are the most Zep-like. Of the rockers, Burning Down One Side features portentous drumming from Phil Collins, in his rather too obvious attempt to fill the shoes of Plant’s behemoth previous drummer, while Like I’ve Never Been Gone, the best of the two ballads, is again spoiled only by its obvious self-reference; as is the commendable but rather too Kashmir-like Slow Dancer.
The baffling Pledge Pin relies too heavily on saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft (of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Streetfame) for its appeal; Moonlight In Samosa sounds like Stairway To Heaven without the ascent. That said, if Pictures... proved anything, it was the weight of the creative role the singer had occupied in Zeppelin. Co-written, sung and produced by Plant at a time when Jimmy Page was still hiding away reclusively, licking his wounds, it was the first encouraging glimpse Zeppelin fans would have of what the post-Zep future might actually look and sound like.
THE PRINCIPLE OF MOMENTS
WORDS: MICK WALL The second Plant solo album, released in July 1983, was, like its predecessor, too keen to have its cake and eat it. That is, while the singer was clearly keen to try and step out from the gigantic, forbidding shadow of Zeppelin, he hadn’t yet figured out a way to do that and retain his commercial appeal – still an important element in his need to prove he could live without the Zep legend.
Written, produced and played by virtually the same team as Pictures..., ultimately what makes The Principle Of Moments a better album is the quality of its best material. Still somewhat too in thrall to the past – the angular Black Dog-like rhythms of Messin’ With The Mekon; the bolted-on feel of Blunt’s Kashmir-like guitar motif in Wreckless Love; the synths of Thru With The Two Step reminiscent of All Of My Love – it was too awash with attempts to find an ‘alternative’ to that sound and, as a consequence, what Plant clearly saw as ‘experimental’ then (Other Arms, In The Mood) now sounds firmly rooted in the dreary 80s.
What saves the day is Big Log. A wonderfully evocative ballad with its own Latin lilt and glossy synths that owe their inspiration to no one else, even Plant’s voice finds a new, snug fit, beyond the howls and moans of Zeppelin; soft and crooning, but in the best, most seductive way. It is no coincidence that Big Log also became Plant’s first big solo hit. Here, at last, was the breakthrough he had been seeking – and that even his most ardent fans had secretly wondered whether he was capable of. The pity is, just as he and Blunt had finally found their groove, Plant was already thinking two steps ahead, to a time when he would actually make an album with no guitars at all on it. But that needlessly career-denting cul de sac was still some way off into the future. For now, at least, he could be taken seriously for the first time as a bona fide solo artist.