The Afterlife Of Zeppelin
Because the story of Led Zeppelin came to such a sudden and bleak end that terrible morning in September 1980 when it became clear that drummer John Bonham could not be roused, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the story for guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones was far from over. They may not have been in Led Zeppelin anymore but that didn’t mean they would stop making music – or not for long, anyway.
Robert Plant was the first to make a comeback, with the release of his first solo album, Pictures At Eleven, in June 1982. His last recording for Zeppelin’s own label, Swan Song, Pictures was a transitional work that found the singer sticking fairly close to the sound he was still best-known for. While in ex-Steve Gibbons Band guitarist Robbie Blunt, Plant had found someone he felt comfortable writing with other than Jimmy Page. Inevitably, though, the best tracks were the most Zep-like. Burning Down One Side featured Phil Collins on drums, in his somewhat too obvious attempt to fill Bonzo’s shoes, while Like I’ve Never Been Gone, the best of the two ballads, is full of self-referentiality; as is the commendable but rather too Kashmir-like Slow Dancer and the epic Zep-esque set-closer Mystery Title. That said, as an album co-written, sung and produced by Plant at a time when 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.
Since then, Plant has made steadily more bold attempts to step out from beneath the giant shadow Zeppelin left him standing in when they split. The results have often been varied – from the sublime in albums like Now And Zen in 1988, which also featured Page guesting on a couple of tracks, or, more recently, his excellent, Grammy-nominated 2005 album, Mighty Rearranger, featuring his acclaimed new backing band, Strange Sensation; to the faintly ridiculous, playing in small West Country pubs when he could have been headlining arenas, refusing for years to perform any Zeppelin songs at all on his solo tours – but the journey has never been less than enthralling. As Robert would later cheerily tell me: "I’m very proud of what we did in Led Zeppelin, of course I am. But I’m fortunate now in that in my own career I don’t have to make music with one eye on the charts. I want as many people as possible to listen to what I do, of course. But the most important thing is the music itself. As long as that’s alive, I’m alive.” As a solo artist, Plant continues to make surprising and original choices. Not least, his just-released collaboration with the brilliant Alison Krauss: the T Bone Burnett-produced album Raising Sand, on which he duets with the award-winning bluegrass singer on a number of brilliantly left-field songs written by artists as diverse as the Everly brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Gene Clark and many others. Of course, being the singer and frontman, the course Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin career took suggested itself all too easily. The same could not be said for either John Paul Jones or Jimmy Page. Not that that held them back for long.
The traditional ‘quiet man’ bass player, while Jones may not have shared the personal charisma of the other Zeppelin members, he certainly didn’t lack the talent. Which is why, when the group folded, his subsequent career took on a much broader, more complex musical sweep. Never any question of joining another group – as he put it, "Who could I have joined that was as good as Led Zeppelin?” – at first Jones simply retreated to the Sussex farmhouse he had owned since 1977, spending time with his wife and daughters, "cooling out and just taking stock.” Bonham’s death, he told me, had left him "with a sense of anger as much as loss. It was just such a waste. Especially as it looked as though we had finally gotten all the bad times behind us.”
When he did finally emerge from his shell, however, his various credits as musician, producer, arranger and songwriter began cropping up all over the place, as he began to collaborate in various guises with artists as diverse as R.E.M., Heart, Ben E. King, La Fura dels Baus, Brian Eno, Karl Sabino and the Butthole Surfers. He also appeared on several sessions and videos for Paul McCartney, who had invited him to help out on the soundtrack of his semi-autobiographical musical film Give My Regards To Broad Street.
Perhaps Jones’ most memorable moments in the 80s, however, involved the off-the-wall soundtrack album he made for director Michael Winner’s 1986 film Scream For Help, which also featured Page on two tracks. He followed that two years later with the more conventional – and much more successful – production of Children, the third, and still best, album from Sisters Of Mercy offshoot
Goth-outfit, The Mission, from which came the band’s biggest hit, Tower Of Strength. "We couldn’t believe our luck, getting John as our producer,” recalled Mission main-man Wayne Hussey. "We kept muttering under our breath, ‘Look out, Led Zeppelin guy! Led Zeppelin guy!’” In 1990, Jones also produced an album for his eldest daughter, the singer Jacinda Jones.
Although he was always available for the various "one-off” Zeppelin reunions throughout this period – Live Aid in 1985, the 40th Atlantic Records anniversary in ’88, even the impromptu jam at Jason Bonham’s wedding party in 1990 – Jones was "very hurt” to be overlooked for the Page and Plant reformation in the mid-90s. "I read that Robert said they’d lost my phone number,” he sniffed disdainfully.
In retrospect, however, it could be argued that it was Jones who was making the greater musical contribution at that point. In 1994, he recorded – and received co-billing – on the excellent Diamanda Galás album, The Sporting Life, where his multi-instrumental prowess on tracks like Devil’s Rodeo added lustre to the poet-diva’s songs of lust and decay, later also joining her for a well-received world tour. Playing with the feisty songstress was "the most fun I’d had since Zeppelin.”
He recalled how when, at a concert in Chicago, somebody had shouted out "The song remains the same!” Gallas had shouted back, "No, it doesn’t, mother*****!”
He also set up his own recording studio which he dubbed the Sunday School, and where he recorded his first solo album, Zooma, released in 1999. An instrumental tour-de-force, on tracks like Tidal and the thunderous title track itself, Jones created tumultuous pieces full of avalanching rhythms and eerie, sonic soundscapes, using a battery of four-, ten- and twelve-string basses. Other tracks, like Bass ‘N’ Drums (inspired by his daughter Jacinda introducing him to drum’n’bass, the club sound of the mid-90s), showed both his sense of humour and his willingness to explore new musical territory. While The Smile Of Your Shadow demonstrated he had not lost his ability for conjuring up suitably dry-iced atmospherics, either.
Two years later he was back with the follow-up, the just as adventurous but even more accessible The Thunderthief, on which he played practically everything except the drums. It also, somewhat remarkably, included his debut as a vocalist on the witty, punk-derived Angry Angry and the more traditional-sounding folk ditty, Freedom Song. Mostly though, it was the driving rhythms of tracks like Down The River To Pray that impressed. He also put together his own touring band and gave concerts based on his solo work. No Zeppelin songs, though, "except one or two occasionally, for a laugh.” In 2004, he also toured as part of the group Mutual Admiration Society, along with Glen Phillips (previously best-known as singer of Toad The Wet Sprocket) and various members of the band Nickelcreek.
These days, Jones seems to have gone back to his habit of simply turning up on other people’s albums, most recently on the 2005 Foo Fighters’ album In Your Honor, where he played on two tracks (mandolin on Another Round and piano on Miracle, both included on the ‘acoustic disc’). Foos frontman Dave Grohl later described working with John as the "second greatest thing to happen to me in my life.”
He has also made a belated return to production: not least, on such titanic latter-day recordings as The Datsuns’ "old school heavy rock” album Outta Sight, Outta Mind in 2004 and, a year later, on Uncle Earl’s critically-acclaimed, neo-country collection, She Waits For Night. He has also completed more soundtrack work, including the theme tune to The Secret Adventures Of Tom Thumb. And, unlike Plant, who has always dismissed the idea, Jones has always made it clear he kept the door ajar for a Zeppelin reunion of some sort. As he once told me, "There’s definitely the feeling of unfinished business about the band. We had hoped to do to the 80s what we did to the 70s. I still very much regret that we never got that chance.”
All that said, Jimmy Page was the one who really suffered most from the loss of Led Zeppelin. As he told me not long afterwards, "There was a point after [Bonham died] where I hadn’t touched a guitar for ages and I just… It just related everything, you know, to what had happened, the tragedy that had happened. But I called up my road manager one day and said, ‘Look, get the Les Paul out of storage’. He went to get it and the case was empty! When he came back and said the guitar was missing, I said, ‘That’s it, forget it, I’m finished’.”
Fortunately, as we now know, Jimmy did eventually retrieve his lost guitar. His first post-Zeppelin project had been recording the soundtrack album for the director Michael Winner’s Death Wish II movie. He had also taken part in the 1082 ARMS charity concerts at the behest of his old mucker, Eric Clapton. But it wasn’t until he teamed-up with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers – who he had reconnected with on the US-leg of the ARMS tour – that Page really began to discover a musical life for himself beyond Zeppelin. With Rodgers also "still recovering” from the loss of his own superstar outfit, "He was one of the few people that could probably relate to what I was going through,” said Page. Or as Rodgers told me recently, "It was clear Jimmy was still hurting from what had happened with Zeppelin. Getting him back working again was the best thing anyone could do for him.”
The result: The Firm, a four-piece (also featuring ex-Uriah Heep drummer Chris Slade and former Roy Harper bassist Tony Franklin) that critics moaned was neither fish nor fowl, musically, but that Page says "saved” him. "I was shattered at the time.” The Firm would allow him and Rodgers to simply "get out and play and just really enjoy ourselves.” However, both men refused to perform any material from their former bands, relying solely on the much smoother, funk-tinged sound of the new outfit, although the closing track on their self-titled debut album in 1984, Midnight Moonlight, was actually an unreleased Zeppelin number originally titled The Swan Song. A second Firm album, Mean Business, was issued in 1986, and The Firm became a huge concert attraction in the US.
By 1988, however, the band had dissolved ("It was never meant to last more than two albums,” Jimmy told me) and Page was ready to release his first – and so far only – solo album, Outrider. Featuring Jason Bonham on remarkably familiar sounding drums and an array of different guest vocalists – including, on The Only One, Robert Plant, who also wrote the lyrics – Outrider was a commendable collection which also afforded Page the opportunity to tour as a solo artist for the first time, the highlight of the show being an instrumental version of Stairway To Heaven "which the audience sings for me.” The plan after that had been to release a second solo album, but Page’s new American label, Geffen, had other ideas, suggesting he team-up with label-mate David Coverdale in the short-lived but hugely successful Coverdale/Page. Ironically, Coverdale’s band Whitesnake had found fame in America with unashamedly Zeppelin-esque numbers like the 1987 hit single Still Of The Night. Certainly the eponymously titled album they produced together, in 1993, was the closest thing to Zeppelin that Page had produced since the break-up, a fact reflected in its Top 10 status in both Britain and America.
A follow-up Coverdale/Page album was planned but then something unexpected happened. Robert suddenly got in touch with Jimmy and suggested a little get-together. Officially, the spark had been an invitation from MTV to participate in their then popular Unplugged series. It was no secret by then, however, that Page would have been happy to go for the full-on Zeppelin reformation. But Plant was still against the idea, arguing shrewdly that the pair could enjoy all the kudos of being back together without any of the nagging problems of using the Zeppelin name by not adding John Paul Jones to the line-up. "If we’d done that,” Plant insisted, "it would be roll out the barrel time.” However, Jones was not the only one who noted with interest, posters for the subsequent Page/Plant tour which boasted: ‘The Evolution Of Led Zeppelin’. "I felt that was a bit too close for comfort,” Jones remarked. He was also hurt by the title given to the subsequent Page/Plant album, No Quarter, taken from one of his own Zeppelin songs. "It was a great shame,” he said, "particularly after all we’d been through together.”
Page, too, found himself nonplussed by Plant’s decision not to sing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ again. "Robert’s probably got a perfectly adequate and eloquent reason for all of that,” Jimmy told me, "but… I don’t know. All I do know is that when we were in Japan [with Page/Plant] we were on a TV talk show and we did a bit of it then, which was unusual. We just did a little bit of it, the opening part of it…” Despite the fact that the resulting 1994 televised concert, and subsequent No Quarter album, was built almost entirely on the Zeppelin back catalogue, the judicious addition of an 11-piece Egyptian ensemble, plus four brand new numbers, partly recorded in Marrakech, successfully obscured the fact that this was a virtual Zeppelin reformation in all but name. Out on tour, however, where audiences had clearly come to hear the classics, the illusion was harder to maintain, even though Plant was now refusing to sing Stairway To Heaven – bemoaning the fact that "I was so much younger when I wrote those lyrics.”
Like The Firm, there would be a second Page/Plant album, Walking Into Clarksdale, but by then the writing was on the wall, with Plant now wanting to resume his solo career. The pairing finally ended at the start of 1999, when Plant changed his mind at the last minute about an Australian tour, because, he told me, "I didn’t know how many more English Springs I would see and I didn’t want to miss one.”
Page turned instead to The Black Crowes, who he successfully toured America later that year with a set built solidly around the Zep back-catalogue. The resulting album, Live At The Greek, released initially via the internet, was not only a bigger hit than Walking Into Clarksdale it was also a much more enjoyable album. "I jumped for joy when they told me how many it was selling,” Page told me.
The odd collaboration aside – very odd, in the case of the 1998 performance ("I sent it down the phone line”) on Puff Daddy’s rap version of Kashmir – mainly, Page has spent his post-Zeppelin career concentrating on keeping the flame alive, from producing the excellent 4CD Remasters box-set in 1990 to personally overseeing the groundbreaking twin-release of the superlative six-hour DVD collection and double-live CD, How The West Was Won in 2003. Even the Zeppelin story would have new, unexpected chapters added to it as the years slipped by. The first – the posthumous release in 1982 of the odds-and-sods Coda album – was originally meant to have closed the book. Instead, it only added to the curiosity. As Page told me, "Originally, I had actually wanted to do a live album, too. Picking tracks from different eras. But we could never get everybody to agree on what should be on there and so it never came together.” Or rather it did – but not for another 23 years, until the eventual release of the live DVD and album. Neither of which would have been conceivable back in the early 1980s. Instead, the 80s would be a particularly cruel time for bands like Zeppelin. With long hair about as fashionable as flared trousers, and drum machines suddenly taking the place of bearded, bad-tempered drummers, it didn’t really become clear how much Zeppelin was missed until July 1985, when the three surviving members took to the stage in Philadelphia for their part in the Live Aid extravaganza.
While their playing that day was unarguably sloppy, the sight and sound of the 90,000 crowd reacting with uncontrolled hysteria was something none of us who were there will ever forget. Even the band admitted they were shocked by the force of the reaction. So much so, they were even prepared to countenance what had previously been considered unthinkable: a full-on Led Zeppelin reformation, with former Chic drummer Tony Thompson onboard. Rehearsals took place down in Bath – away from the prying eyes of the London media – just a few months later.
But it all came to nought. "The first day was all right,” Jones later recalled. "I had all sorts of ideas for it.” But when Thompson was involved in a serious car accident, Plant took it as an omen. "It just fell apart from then,” said Jones.
Three years later, however, they were back to play again. This time with Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums. The occasion: the televised 40th anniversary party for the band’s label, Atlantic Records. But instead of being the "dream ticket,” Page told me, "It became like my worst nightmare.” The problem, he said, was that the band’s scheduled performance was delayed by several hours, "by which time I’d peaked and I just… lost it. People saw that and just assumed I couldn’t play anymore.”
It wasn’t true, of course, and by 1990, with the new 4CD Remasters box-set to promote, Page, Plant and Jones were back sitting around a table together discussing the possibility of another temporary Zeppelin reunion, with Faith No More's Mike Patton now in the frame. But again, the plan started to unravel almost as soon as it was decided upon.
The closest we’ve come to a full-on Zeppelin reunion since was with Page/Plant. That is, until recently, and the decision to reform for a one-off show at London’s O2 arena in memory of Ahmet Ertegun in 2007.
Who knows what the future may hold for the greatest band of all time?
Written by Mick Wall