Essentially one of the most boring things that happens to me in my average boring life is putting on records put out in the Eighties by Seventies’ hard rock bands. For some reason, no Seventies’ heavy band I’m aware of at the moment really survived the epoch change in a nice way. Nobody began to rock harder; nobody continued to rock just as hard.
Instead, the classic traditional guitar-heavy energetic sound was replaced by wuffly-muffly synth-happy diluted borefests that all sounded ‘profound’ and ‘mature’, but lacked entertainment value so severely it makes me wanna cry. Fans who were following these bands all their lives and grew up with them were probably happy. But those who weren’t in the game from the start… oh man, that’s really hard to swallow, you know.
Pictures At Eleven is a classic example. It’s Robbie Plant’s first powerful statement in his solo career, and it could be worse, but man oh man could it ever be better.
First, the goodies: without Page, Plant is still able to get on. He enlists talented guitarist Robbie Blunt (no, I didn’t make it up, but maybe Plant did? Mr Plant and Mr Blunt?) who’s no speed technician like Page but who sure can play a mean riff from time to time and… whatever, any Eighties hard rock guitarist who was able not to sound in that generic Eighties way (aka ‘bi-i-i-i-i-i-ig generator’ style, as every Yes fan would tell you) deserves some acclaim.
Second, Robbie (Plant, not Blunt) is in full vocal force and not only that, he actually sounds better than on many late period Zep records seeing as how he mostly manages to avoid the endless frustrating ad libs and baby-babying.
Third, everyone and his grandmother will tell you that Plant was ‘going for a Zeppelinish sound’ on here, but I frankly don’t hear it. Oh sure, I do hear a lot of individual Zeppelinisms in the songs and yeah, most of them would probably have easily fit in on any post-Houses Zep record given the proper Page treatment.
But… I really don’t feel that Pictures At Eleven had been consciously written to satisfy the crowd’s lust for more product that looked like Zeppelin. In other words, Plant was simply following his own vision rather than going for a commercial matter of attraction. Most probably he thought that the record would sell anyway, on the strength of his name alone – and he wasn’t actually mistaken, as the album reached #2 on the British charts.
But funnily enough, the album has very little commercial potential, which is why there were no hit singles. Perhaps the closest to a ‘catchy tune’ on here, and the only song that truly ‘rocks’ in the conformist sense of the word, is the closing funk-rocker ‘Mystery Title’, with a classy riff, a good drive, a high blast of energy, and an overlong running time. Think a variation on ‘Trampled Underfoot’ or something like that.
The rest of the album is hard to describe. Despite all the advantages listed above, the album DOES suffer from Eighties’ excesses. All of the seven tracks really blend into each other, all of them overproduced, instruments and overdubs bulging out from beyond each other. There’s an atmosphere here – atmosphere similar to that of ‘Kashmir’, with Eastern influences, an overall solemn and majestic mood, all based on unnnerving mid-tempo rhythm work. But there’s one disadvantage – Plant is a minimal composer, and his pals and colleagues like Robbie Blunt are no better.
Instead of penning really memorable melodies, Robert really goes for mood and atmosphere, and this results in painful unlistenable horrors like the eight-minute ‘Slow Dancer’ which goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing beyond overstating the “look at me I’m so serious look at me I’m so Mr-Been-There-Know-It-All now” notion. It’s funny to note, by the way, that the tune borrows a lot from Rainbow showcases like ‘Stargazer’, and coincidentally, Cozy Powell plays drums on that track (the rest of the drum parts are handled by Phil Collins, strange enough).
I actually can’t disprove that notion. The album boasts surprisingly good lyrics, for instance – devoted to personal relations, for the most part, but Plant has really gone a long way from ‘Battle Of Evermore’ and even ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The mood actually works if you want it. It’s the main melodies I can’t memorize even from my deathbed, be it the slower blooze of ‘Like I Never Been Before’, the straightforward rock of ‘Worse Than Detroit’ or the artsy philosophical pattern of ‘Burning Down One Side’.
And even when there is a nice riff to underpin the song (‘Pledge Pin’), it is very often drowned out in unnecessary overdubs (‘Pledge Pin’ even has a sax solo!) and almost always lacks vocal hooks of any character. Granted, Plant has never been the hookman – Page always took that honour. But Blunt is no Page, and a couple vocal hooks could have helped, instead, I’m just having to follow Robert’s ravings in a pretty ‘dazed and confused’ way.
Still, I betcha anything this one’s a particular favourite among Robert’s fans, so what do I know?
If Robert Plant were young and hungry instead of nearly thirty-four and famous, this album might have been a real barn-burner. As it is, even though there’s nothing new going on in these grooves, the sheer formal thrill of hearing someone who knows exactly what he’s doing makes Pictures at Eleven something of an event almost in spite of its modest ambitions.
Plant’s freak-of-nature voice — the definitive heavy-metal shriek — has seldom been more sympathetically showcased, even with Led Zeppelin. You still can’t make out a lot of what he’s saying, but his vocals are distinguished by a fullness and fluidity that’s richly satisfying. The production, by Plant, is artfully simple, and the band he’s put together to back him — Robbie Blunt, the fine guitarist from the Steve Gibbons Band; bassist Paul Martinez; Jezz Woodroffe on keyboards; and Phil Collins and Cozy Powell, who share drum duties — sounds like it could kill onstage.
Blunt, in particular, deserves a steady star gig. Not only is he an ace instrumentalist in the metal tradition (check out the schizo guitar lashings on the raving “Mystery Title”), but he also cowrote, mostly with Plant, the album’s eight tracks, and so presumably was responsible for such outré touches as the dense, ensemble lines toward the end of “Worse than Detroit.”
One hopes that the Plant-Blunt collaboration will bear further fruit, because it’s a winner. “Burning down One Side,” the leadoff track, is a dead-on-target hit — a neck-wringing riff spiced with effortlessly atmospheric guitar leads — while the charming “Fat Lip,” a bluesy riff located at the other end of the emotional spectrum, could almost give laid-back a good name again.
Elsewhere, Plant trots out his trademark bellow for “Slow Dancer” and the aforementioned “Mystery Title,” and enlists the high, reedy tones of saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft (noted for his work on the Gerry Rafferty hit, “Baker Street”) for the slightly unfocused “Pledge Pin.” There are longueurs: “Moonlight in Samosa,” for instance, is sort of like “Stairway to Heaven” without the sonic liftoff, and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” (“I see the sunlight in your eyeeeeeeeeee …”) is just sort of stupid. But when the good stuff on an album cuts all the other cock-rock competition in sight, only a curmudgeon would complain.
Emerging from the ashes of Led Zeppelin as a credible solo act cannot have been easy for Robert Plant: so much to prove, so many ghosts in the closet. A year after the death of his old Black Country mucker John Bonham, 33-year-old Percy found himself at large in a musical realm where Zeppelin had become almost irrelevant. Nor was his voice much more than a shadow of the blood-curdling shriek he’d summoned in that biggest of 70s bands.
On his solo debut, smartly, he never tried to emulate the brute power or sophistication of Zeppelin. The songs, mostly written with guitarist Robbie Blunt (formerly of Bronco and Silverhead), moved pointedly beyond the blues and folk roots of 70s Zep. Recorded at Rockfield in Wales, the sound was already identifiably 80s – a kind of techno-rock in the making, with Jezz Woodroffe’s subterranean synths underpinning Blunt’s effects-tweaked session-man licks, the whole thing powered by the big drums of a visiting Phil Collins (on all tracks bar Slow Dancer and Like I’ve Never Been Gone) and Cozy Powell. Plant’s vocals had that distanced, reverby quality so popular with producers from that disowned decade.
In some ways Pictures at Eleven picked up where In Through the Out Door left off, though it’s a better record. There’s a similar variety about its songs. Opener Burning Down One Side is a Stonesy strutter with Keefish riffing and trademark toms-and-cymbals flexing from Collins. Moonlight in Samosa is a seductively Spanish-tinged mid-tempo affair with pretty link sections, draped in lavish keyboards. Nodding a little to the Asiatic might of Zeppelin’s Kashmir, near-eight-minute epic Slow Dancer is an intense and haunting fusion of Pakistan and Kidderminster. And these are all within the first four tracks.
Like late Zeppelin, Pictures at Eleven was guilty of occasional muso showiness. Pledge Pin wanted to be The Police. Worse Than Detroit wanted to be Little Feat – all slide smears and funky bass-drum pushes – but sounds like lame West Coast session rock. Driven by Collins, Mystery Title is a pale echo of Zep’s Trampled Under Foot. But Like I’ve Never Been Gone is a moving and melodically acute song of regret for lost love.
Plant minus Page – let alone minus Bonham and Jones – was never going to amount to much more than iconic status in the 80s. But Pictures at Eleven stands up surprisingly well as a statement of solo independence and intent.