Led Zeppelin is the greatest band in the history of rock and roll. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, U2, Nirvana, The Ramones, Fleetwood Mac, The Who… these are just some of the groups whose glory wilts before the herculean power and divine energy of Zeppelin. Of the few concrete opinions I’d be willing to stake my entire critical career upon, this is the firmest. In just 12 years, and across eight albums, Zeppelin perfected the very formula of rock itself, blowing it out to its sonic limits through heavy guitar riffage, monstrous drum patterns, inventive bass-lines, and the signature banshee wail of their golden-throated vocalist.
At the forefront of that almighty group of course is Robert Plant, a shaggy-haired idol who just so happens to be the greatest singer in the history of rock and roll. Between glass-shattering screams, tender, blues-y crooning, elaborate vocal scatting, and a distinct, ethereal view of the world, Plant has spent the last 50 years, both in and out of Zeppelin, creating some of the most astounding and earth-shaking music the world has ever known.
I first discovered Plant’s supernova-force vocal abilities when I was 14 years old. Every weekend I was tasked with mowing my Uncle’s gigantic backyard. For whatever reason, amid his stale collection of ‘80s and ‘90s pop-country albums, he owned a single, double-CD copy of Led Zeppelin’s 1976 live album The Song Remains The Same. My curiosity was piqued by the ominous, black cover, so I threw the first disc into my blue Walkman and was instantly transported through both time and space to universes I never even knew existed. From that day on, Zeppelin and Plant became the lens through which I viewed and judged nearly every form of music.
To his enormous credit, Plant has refused to rest on his impressive laurels following the demise of Zeppelin in 1980 after the death of that group’s drummer, and one of his dearest friends on the planet, John Bonham. Under constant pressure and speculation about the fate of a renewed union with his one-time mates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, he has put together one of the more compelling second acts out there, with a collection of solo albums that seems to only increase in quality with each passing year.
His latest is Carry Fire, an incredible musical document, inspired by a return to his native home in and around the UK. As I noted in my review of that record, it’s an eclectic project, packed with immense emotional heft, and canny observations about the world as it exists in this moment. I recently had the chance to speak to Robert Plant about his new album, some of his more cherished Led Zeppelin memories, and what the future holds in store.
Let’s talk about your new album, Carry Fire. What were you trying to get out on this record?
I’m just telling the story of my life and everything I can see that goes on around me. It’s a journal, really, more than anything, I think. Like not exactly a travelogue. Some of them have been in the past. Some of those albums back, way back. This is a little glimpse of what’s happening in my world and what’s happening in the sort of stratosphere in the air that we all breathe, really.
It’s funny that you mention that word “travelogue” because listening through your discography as a whole, there is this overwhelming sense of place that varies between so many different projects.
Well, you know, I never joined the Merchant Navy. And I never really was a Viking. I never was any of those things, but in my own way I’m excited by the journey probably sometimes more than by the destination. If there’s a corner to go around then you will see quite often something that you didn’t expect. That’s what’s been going on for me since I was about 23 years old.
How do you catalog or record your different journeys?
First of all, I’m not serious about anything in particular. I don’t take this as being an earnest and devoted role that I play for the benefit of anybody, including myself. I just move through time, and if I see stuff that interests me that is anecdotal or ridiculous or upside down. You know, human beings make a lot less sense than dogs half the time.
You recently moved back to the UK after living in America for a little while. Could you describe the charms of the Welsh countryside to an American who’s never set foot there before?
It’s just got a different pulse. It’s got something going on in the atmosphere that runs through the trees and the hills and the woodlands and the old pathways that have been long forgotten. Being a stranger is not something that I’ve been used to because I’ve traveled, but I’ve always gone back to those sort of magical areas, which I think, for me, I read them, I feel them. So when I came back from Texas… I came back periodically to check out my friends and see my family, but I was always making a go of it. I was a new statesman for a while, and then I felt I kind of a drawing, a calling. The Welsh call it Hiraeth.
Yeah, you’re gonna have to spell that one out for me.
Well, I think it’s something like H-I-R-A-E-T-H, or something like that. It means basically a longing and a calling. That’s what a lot of songs are about all the way around the planet. That’s what a lot of poems are about. You know people go out into the big world, and then one way or another quite often they’re drawn back again.
Can you describe some of your first memories of visiting America?
If you think about it I was 20 years old when I first came to America. John Bonham and myself, the two of us were just kids. So, everything that we saw was obviously bigger and more shiny and more sort of arresting than what we left behind in the UK, even though we’d come out of the Swinging ’60s and the Beatles and the Stones and stuff like that. Out there in society in the UK, it didn’t have the tempo and the confidence, really, that I experienced when I got to America.
I experienced a lot of social unrest in the United States. People my age and older, a bit older than me at that time, were making their feelings known about the considered corruption and dominance of questionable government. There was stuff in the air in America, there was an electricity that you could not avoid. Of course, we could all relate to that. Those people there could see it, and it was a huge movement. It’s been personified by musicians and poets and writers and people who wrote screenplays. For a long time, or for a while, from the early mid-’70s on through, it had a lot of cause and effect in US politics.
In what ways has the country changed in the decades that you’ve kind of come back and left and come back again?
Interesting thing in those days was that there had to be a deal between the American musicians union and the British one, where there had to be an exchange of artists. So, if Perry Como or Tony Bennet went to England, then it would be right that some British artist would be kind of vaulted across the ocean. Those sort of things were going on then. It was quite antiquarian and kind of cute, really.
A sort of cultural exchange.
Yeah. It’s not the first one that we’d been on. We were once invited by the government of Iceland to become cultural, I suppose, ambassadors for the British people. You can imagine what that must have been like.
You’ve obviously been at the forefront of some amazing concerts in your time, what makes for a compelling live show?
It depends on what era you’re in and where you’re at in your own time as to whether or not it’s frenetic and wild. You’ve got to take into account drama, passion, performance, energy of the audience, exchange of energy between the artist and the audience. The whole deal of that, buying a ticket, especially these days with the criminal activities of ticket sales, when you finally get to your seat or your stand, wherever you are wherever you’re doing it, ballroom or club, or even Giant Stadium, there’s a certain amount of anticipation there.
Are there any memorable gigs that stick out in your head that are just special to you, that you performed in your life?
Yeah, of course I’ve got f*cking hundreds of them. I think first events, the first period of any project are probably the most exciting. No matter how much that project grows in stature, no matter what happens, the beginning of that stuff is where the excitement is, because you’ve got the smell of fear, you’ve got anticipation, and also… Like in the beginning of Zeppelin or in the beginning of my solo career, or the beginning of working with Alison Krauss, or whatever it might be, nobody really knows which way things are going. I think that’s the most amazing thing of all, because you’re just out there in the great ocean of entertainers. Just pitching it, you know, just doing it. Mostly doing it, I have to say, for one’s self. I do it for myself more than I do it for an audience. So, you know, that’s how it is.
It does really feel like you are following a certain muse, especially in this latter portion of your career. You seem like an artist who’s willing to burn it down and try something different.
If anybody’s got just one half cup of warm gift, you don’t want to milk it until it goes cold and stale. You’ve just got to keep twisting. You’ve got to spin the wheel and see where everything’s going. That was the way it was with Led Zeppelin. We were always changing tack, changing approach, spinning the wheel, seeing where it would end up, and then just following it for a while. I don’t think there’s one album in the Zeppelin catalog nor in my own that really follows any kind of considered, premeditated pathway. We just got to get up there, up in the clouds and spin it, you know?
The arc of your career bends toward change. The first album doesn’t sound the same as Led Zeppelin III doesn’t sound the same as Now And Zen doesn’t sound the same as Carry Fire.
No, it shouldn’t either. ‘Cause if it does, you know… I used to be pretty good at laying the blacktop on the street, and I made a really good job of that. It was quite fascinating. I’m a bit… maybe I’m OCD a little bit, but I used to love laying streets and roadways and things like that, and that’s quite interesting. But repetition just for the sake of it, just for comfort and safety and for the Yankee dollar is not real. No musician should be raised into that as being a kind of career. This ain’t a career it’s a gift.
Speaking of laying blacktop, you and John Bonham in particular, had strong working-class backgrounds. Did you ever imagine you’d reach the kind of heights you did in your career?
Well, no, because everything was swelling everywhere. When we got to the Kinetic Playground in Chicago, working for Aaron Russo back in ’69, that was probably as big a place as you were gonna play, really. Some towns had like civic centers. Maybe you got to LA, and there was Long Beach Auditorium or Santa Monica Civic, but there weren’t big places. The Beatles had played Shea Stadium. That was considered to be like, “How do you do that? How the f*ck can you actually go to a sports arena and play?” So, things grew and grew and grew. And lots more artists came out from under stones and under the rocks, and the demand for everything got greater and greater. So, in the end there was a kind of journey that everybody was making.
Speaking of iconic venues and shows, I was recently interviewing Gary Clark, Jr. backstage at The Forum in LA. We were just walking around, and we saw the name Led Zeppelin on the walls backstage so many different times. Do you have any particular memories about that building and some of the shows you played there. Among your fans, they’re easily the most celebrated.
Yeah, there was lots of really fantastic shows there that we played. I think my favorite one was “Bonzo’s Birthday.” There’s a great bootleg that you can get. I think it’s called Bonzo’s Birthday Party. We were playing at The Forum, the crowd was going nuts, and suddenly there’s an entire drum kit, drum set, gets put alongside Bonzo’s drum set. And it was [The Who’s] Keith Moon. So we had two crazy drummers, not one.
Yeah, it was really very, very funny. Lots of partying afterward with George Harrison and all those people. It was just… it was frivolous, and we were maybe 24 years old.
You know, I’ve always wondered, what were you up to in those moments offstage while Bonzo was playing “Moby Dick” for like 30 or 40 minutes at a time?
I’m not gonna tell you [Laughs].
Have you ever heard the Listen To This Eddie bootleg?
Yeah. It’s good. It’s not my favorite, though.
I don’t know if you’ve seen other artists like Springsteen or Pearl Jam where they have this online database filled with old shows. Do you think there might exist any opportunity that Zeppelin or even your solo career you might share some of those archival releases?
Yeah, I guess there’s every possibility. You know, Springsteen hasn’t actually split up, ’cause he’s just one guy. Pearl Jam is still a band in every sense of the word. Even though Eddie Vedder does his ukulele stuff, he’s still in a very credible band, Pearl Jam, a good band. So, I guess they’ve got a way to look back and see what’s going on. But bear in mind that Led Zeppelin collapsed in 1980, so I don’t know how much stuff there is and what kind of quality it is in. It’s hard to say. I think we find stuff now and again, and there’s some stuff drifting around. Yeah.
American music obviously played a pivotal role in your upbringing. What kind of stuff has stuck with you over time? What kind of stuff do you continue to return to that still stays on your turntable?
More or less everything that got me going in the first place. From Fats through to Robert Johnson to Arthur Lee to I guess the [Jefferson] Airplane and stuff and then moving right through time to all the stuff I’ve picked up along the way. I’ve got kind of an encyclopedia of music that really means something. I’m not hooked on the big pop melodies so much.
Do you ever listen to any hip-hop?
No, not really. Although I don’t know where Eminem fits into all that stuff, but as far as him being a kind of urban raconteur, I find him stimulating, and I think he’s got a really important voice for today’s America and circumstances. I think there was a lot of that stuff starting up with the Fugees, way back.
I know that you visit North Africa quite a bit and travel a lot in general, what are some places you’ve been recently that have opened your eyes or invigorated your spirit?
Well, I went back to Morocco about two months ago. I did some promo in America last week, but before that I was in the Atlas Mountains. That song, “Achilles Last Stand” on the Zeppelin album Presence that’s all about escaping from LA. Almost slipping the leash and going back. I think it’s a funny thing, really, it seems like mountains are the things that call me. The Misty Mountains in north Wales and “The mighty arms of Atlas that hold the heavens from the earth” is the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. It’s just, you know, beautiful places.
Any time anyone says something negative about Presence “Achilles Last Stand” is the track I immediately hit play on. Is it actually true that you re-broke your leg while you were recording that song?
Yeah, well, I hit the floor. I hadn’t put my foot on the floor with full body weight for six months [After a gruesome car accident in Greece]. I slipped while I was going back into the booth to keep singing. That’s why I called it “Achilles Last Stand,” because I felt, ‘I’ve done it. I’ve broken it, and it won’t fix.’ I thought that they were gonna have to put a steel plate in there. So, it was appropriate, and especially Achilles was part of the gang with Atlas and all those other gods whizzing around: Icarus, Atlas, Achilles.
Going back to Carry Fire, it seems that there’s more of a contemporary view on the state of the world than there might have been on earlier records. Singing about walls and fences and such.
To be honest, you’ve got to admit that, I don’t think there’s anybody anywhere on the planet that doesn’t know about the madness that’s prevailing right now.
Right, of course.
It’s inconceivable. If you were to decide to settle down and you say to your woman, ‘What about having a family? Wouldn’t it be great to have a little mirror of ourselves wandering around, who’s gonna play soccer in the end and do these great things and love us?’ You’ve got to think really carefully with the way that things are right now. I guess that’s what happened in the late 1930s in Europe. There was calamity. So, yeah, we can all see where it’s at. Not where it’s at, but we can see the ridiculousness of what’s prevailing.
Earlier you referred to yourself as a “Stranger.” Someone who travels freely through the many corners of the world. Do you feel this rise in nationalism to kind of end that ability to next generations?
I have no idea. I can’t… Nobody has a clue what’s going on. So, there’s no point in me trying to suddenly become politically prophetic. I’m just a guy singing songs, you know.
Do you have any desire to write a memoir someday?
Are you kidding? I wouldn’t let anybody know about what I know. No, no, no. It’s the greatest adventure; life itself. Never mind how it lives, how it rolls. But, yeah. Share it with people? No thanks. I mean, I’ve shared it with everybody along the way, individually. Lots of people know about it, but they all know different things.
There’s something to be said for mystery, too.
Yeah. And also musicians are musicians. Nobody’s discovered penicillin. We’re just entertainers, really, and how you can make a lot out of that I don’t know. What do you do? You just say, ‘This is how it goes.’ I think the music does the job, and I’m in such good company musically. I couldn’t be anywhere better, really. When we play, I think that we have something going on that actually is the memoir.
So, I have one more question. It’s not the reunion question. I would never do that to you. I’m just curious. Do you ever hang out with Jonesy and Jimmy? Kick the sh*t and talk about old times?
Sometimes we meet up. Yeah, we have tea and cake.