From Q magazine
BACK IN the Spring of 1968, things aren’t looking too rosy for 19-year-old singer Robert Plant. His promising group The Band Of Joy have just knocked it on the head, and now he fronts the frankly less than awesome Hobbstweedle.
“I had nowhere to live,” Robert recalls of those scuffling days in the blueswailing business, “and the keyboards player’s dad had a pub in Wolverhampton with a spare room. The pub was right over the road from Noddy Holder’s father’s window cleaning business, and Noddy used to be our roadie. We used to go to gigs with Noddy Holder’s dad’s buckets crashing around on top of the van! And that,” he divulges with an audible sigh of relief, “is when I met Pagey…”
Accompanied by his fellow ex-Yardbird, Chris Dreja, Jimmy Page had made the trek to the teachers’ training college in Birmingham where Hobbstweedle were gigging that night. They had plans afoot for a New Yardbirds, and the screaming ‘Tweedle had been recommended by Terry Reid as being the man they were after. Pagey was impressed, and invited the impoverished Plant down to his plush Thameside resident in Pangbourne for further investigation: “And I had to do this very thing which we’re doing now – we played records and talked about them to see how we were placed.”
These records included Muddy Waters’s ‘You Shook Me’, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ by Joan Baez – “we both liked her”, and Fairport Convention with Judy Dyble – “‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’ was a great song” – ‘She Said Yeah’ by Larry Williams, and ‘Justine’ by Don & Dewey. Suffice to say, Robert Plant’s taste in records placed him very well – and thus lifted off Led Zeppelin….
Twenty two years later, Robert Plant sits cross-legged in the music room of his London pied-a-terre, an elegant yet somehow funky Victorian terrace house tucked in a quiet square just a minute’s cycle ride from Regent’s Park. His rural retreats in Worcestershire and Wales are where he keeps most of his albums – but no matter, for he is surrounded by scads of that soon-to-be museum piece, the good old jukebox-compatible single. The man who first threatened to give us every inch of his love over two decades ago still prefers to get his own kicks in seven-inch lengths, a passion which first stirred at the age of six with the recently deceased Nabob of Sob.
“I remember Johnny Ray. His voice and Presley’s had a similarity – and in fact Presley was influenced by him and did his song ‘Such A Night’ on his Elvis Is Back album. Ray’s masculine whimper was remarkable, really. When you were holding your dad’s hand and looking up at all the men around on the street, nobody was making that noise.”
This was the era of Sunday Night At The London Palladium on TV, where Robert, by now 10, saw Buddy Holly And The Crickets. Buddy’s Fender Statocaster made a particular impression: “Nobody had really seen one in Britain. It was an incredible symbol of what I hadn’t got my hands on yet. But I was still only 10 and hadn’t bought a record yet, though I used to do Elvis impersonations behind the curtains in my living room, especially the ballad ‘Love Me’ from Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 1.” Next came the teen rebellion of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’, and then – hurrah! – Robert’s first slice of the American rock ‘n’ roll dream….
“At Christmas 1960 I was given my first Dansette Conquest Auto Major, in red and cream – I’ve still got it and used it until Led Zeppelin II so I didn’t hear the stereo effect on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ for about six months!” he fondly recalls. “When I opened it up, on the turntable was ‘Dreamin’’ by Johnny Burnette, with ‘Cincinatti Fireball’ on the B-side, something I’ve always wanted to record. And then I got my first record token and went out and bought ‘Shop Around’ by The Miracles. On the B-side was ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’, a remarkable ballad. Smokey’s wife was in the band, and I’ve got the Hi! We’re The Miracles album on Tamla where they’re all holding letters up on the cover. Smokey has the most remarkable voice. I love the wail and the whimper, and in my own white boy way I sing like that – the adamance and the pleading, the miserable, moaning, weakboy stamping his authority on the next line. It’s a style that’s vanished now.”
Back then singles cost 6/9d and LPs were 32 shillings – “except for the Golden Guinea records, which were 21 shilling Pye releases” – so young record buyers spent their pocket money discriminatingly. And, of course, they all tuned into Radio Luxembourg, checking out the Stateside sounds of Chris Kenner, ‘Sacred’ by The Castells, ‘Once In A While’ by The Chimes, “late doo-wop Italian stuff.”
Then came such British obscurities as Michael Cox’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’.
“There was a faction at school which around ’63 moved towards the clipped, English style of Joe Meek’s productions on his RGM label, like ‘Can’t You Hear My Heart’ by Danny Rivers,” Robert remembers. “Meek became a hero of mine, especially for the guitar sound played by Big Jim Sullivan. It would be unfair to say the Americans had it all at the time. The songs were pretty weedy but the sound was churning confusion. Joe Meek would make the guitarist put his amp in the cupboard and stuff – that was how we used to do it with Zep.”
The sounds of ’62 and thereabouts still exercise a powerful nostalgic pull for Robert.
“I did a radio show quite by accident – a collectors’ programme on Friday nights on BBC Radio Shropshire,” he chuckles. “I ws driving up to Manchester, and tuned in, hearing them get into the finer side of British instrumentals. The DJ said anyone looking for particular records should call in, so I pulled up and rang, asking for ‘Caravan Of Lonely Men’ by The Lafayettes, released on RCA in 1963. I got back in the car, and on the radio the DJ said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s true but we’ve had this chap who says he’s Robert Plant and he’s after this Lafyettes track produced by Hugo and Luigi.’ Within five minutes a chap called Norman from Bradford called up to say he had it. I rang up, sent him a fiver and got it. Great! I was a Ted for about a week and a half until I found Drinamyl and pills.”
Robert Plant also found the blues, whose first distant booming in the clubs of London and the Home Counties began to reach the Midlands. His first exposure came via the package tours that came to the Wolverhampton Gaumont, where his hip young uncle and aunt would take the just teen Robert: “In 1963 I saw a bill that had The Rattles, Mickie Most And The Most Men, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers and The Rolling Stones. Now that’s an evening; all that for 7/6d – 371/2p! Diddley was superb. I was sweating with excitement! Although the Stones were great, they were really crap in comparison with Diddley – all his rhythms were so sexual, just oozing, even in a 20-minute spot.
“One of my favourite records is Bo Diddley’s ‘Say Man’, on the back of an instrumental called ‘The Clock Strikes 12’, which had electric violin. I bought it in a department store record sale. ‘Say Man’ was a conversation between two guys about how ugly their women were, set to a Latin American beat. Also bought in a department store sales was ‘I Love You’ by The Volumes, ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ by Patti Labelle and The Blue Belles, and probably the last great doo-wop song. ‘My True Story’ by The Jive Five on Beltone. That’s another one I’ve got to do.”
Like Bo, Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander and Ben E. King were milestones on the road to deep blues. That fateful first blues LP was Muddy Waters Live At Newport 1960: “’I’ve Got My Mojo Working’ was a walking testament of why I lived. Then I got The Blues Volume 1 which came out on Pye International; it was a sampler with Buddy Guy Jimmy Witherspoon, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Little Walter – once you’ve got that, everything else was of little consequence. It wasn’t hip to like the Stones because you’d got the American thing – EPs were coming out like Chuck & Bo and This is Chuck Berry – the real thing. The Howlin’ Wolf EP Smokestack Lightning was available everywhere, and you kept finding more and more stuff – Earl Hooker, Charley Patton…”
Robert became a regular at The Diskery in Brimingham, delving deep into the seam that ran from the Delta to Chicago. “I got a series of French RCA EPs with Jazz Gillum, the original Sonny Boy Williamson with sleevenotes by Alexis Korner. I worked with Alexis Korner just pre-Zep. I used to sleep at his place in Queensway. Goodnight, Robert, he’d say; you’ll have to sleep on the couch tonight – oh, by the way, it is the same couch that Muddy used to sleep on when he stayed here. And I don’t know if we’ve changed the toilet bowl since Buddy Guy was here…This was fabulous – I’m only from Wolverhampton, you know!
“The Wynonie Harris–type jump blues I thought was slush, but quite like now: when I started listening to Roy Milton and Roy Brown, I thought yeah! – I really like this after all. That’s where The Honeydrippers came from” Robert recalls the origins of his bestselling 1984 covers LP. “Blues gave me my first band titles – my first band was The Black Snake Moan, after Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the second was The Crawling King Snakes after a brilliant John Lee Hooker track.”
By ’66, Robert fronted his first pro band, Listen: “Very sound orientated,” he recalls, “but the following year The Band Of Joy was West Coast and blues based. You can’t really do ‘Pouring Water (On A Drowning Man)’ by James Carr – you could never get anywhere near it. At least West Coast was white, an extension of the garage punk stuff on the East Coast, which had come from The Animals and The Yardbirds. I could relate to it, and in fact The Band Of Joy could play better than a lot of the groups we were listening to. But essence of Moby Grape was something we hadn’t got. The first Moby Grape album, The Fugs, Buffalo Springfield., Love’s single ‘My Little Red Book’, and ‘She Has Funny Cars’ by Jefferson Airplane – fantastic! And also American garage punk – Count Five,? and The Mysterians, ‘Liar, Liar’ by the The Castaways…
AT 41 I’ve still got my music. I’m as earnest now as I ever was,” Robert Plant brings us up to date. He sure ain’t kidding, as lapping his ankles are treasures ranging from Otis Rush, Snooks Eaglin and Aaron Neville to Big Black, Robyn Hitchcock, Glen Branca (“I like discordancy”). The Band Of Holy Joy (“Ha!”)m and Sinead O’Connor – ‘She captivates me, wins my heart, wins my whole being!” he raves. It’s a record collection added to during Zep’s US tours, when he’d comb the ten-cent bins on days off, and extending from the early reggae cuts of Delroy Wilson to the Berber music of Raissa Rkya Dansirya and Fairuz.
But Robert Plant remains at heart a rocker. A signed album by Gene Vincent is one of his “pride and joys” and he has collected the complete vinyl of Ral Donner, who “for half a minute challenged Presley.” At rock’n’roll nights at the Camden Working Men’s Club, where the purists tease him for looking like a girl, he thrills to the utterly demented likes of ‘Scream!’ by Ralph Neilsen and the Chancellors, and Hasil Adkins’ ‘She Said’: “During quiet times with Zep I used to record with chums,” Robert chortles. “Every Christmas this chap from my village pub would get pissed and sing doo-wop carols in the bar – so well, in fact, that we rented a studio in Worcester and cut ‘Three Months To Kill’ by Heulyn Duvall on Challenge and ‘Buzz Buzz A Diddly’ by Freddy Cannon, for Bird’s Nest Records. Melvyn Giganticus and The Turd Burglars was the name of our group, because he had a huge penis – bigger, I think, than Paul Young’s!”
Apropos burglary, Robert cites the unlikely influence of ‘Tomorrow’s Clown’ by Marty Wilde: John Lennon, he says, lifted its string part for ‘How Do You Sleep’, while Robert himself has taken its first line, “In the evening….” Led Zeppelin enthusiasts may well be more familiar with an obscure Fontana EP called Treasures of North American Negro Music. It includes two Blind Willie Johnson tunes; ‘Dark Is The Night, Cold Is The Grave’ (“Basically it’s the entire theme for Paris, Texas by Ry Cooder”) – and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. Led Zep’s version on the LP Presence, funnily enough, is credited to Page/Plant.
“Oh look!” Robert brandishes a boxed copy of Glen Campbell’s 1961 hitlet turn ‘Around Look At Me’ on the Crest label. “It’s got ‘Rob’ written on it – I was familiar with myself even then!”
Robert Plant’s Personal Favourites
The Phantom: ‘Love Me’ (Dot)
“Because he was on Dot, he was presumed to be pat Boone’s brother, but because he wore a mask like The Lone Ranger nobody could tell. (His real name is said to be Marty Lott.) It’s a perfect piece of recording – you can’t understand a word and you don’t care!”
Faith No More: Introduce Yourself (London)
“Their first album. It’s like, I, ME, listen to this! and if you don’t like it, fuck off!!! You can’t spend all your life whimpering away about the ex-wife. The vocal attitude – the hard, heavy garage rap – I like very much.”
Tom Verlaine: ‘Five Miles of You’ on LP Cover (Virgin)
“This album is a real favourite; I play it a lot and it’s really scratched. I like albums – much better than CDs.
Ray Charles: ‘What’d I Say’ on LP The Right Time (Atlantic)
“It was very popular, it was covered like crazy. It helped a lot of English musicians develop a real attitude, to get their musical personalities sharpened up.”
The Incredible String Band: ‘Swift As The Wind’ on LP The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (Elektra)
“Some of the greatest times I’ve had was at a String Band show, just being carried away by the whole experience.”
Howlin’ Wolf: ‘Going Down Slow’ on LP Chess Masters(Chess)
“Because of the guitar outro by Hubert Sumlin. Listen to Hubert, I tell my guitarist Doug Boyle; listen to that finer tremolo on the end of that track.”
This Mortal Coil: ‘Song to The Siren’ on LP It’ll End In Tears (4AD)
“I like the Tim Buckley original too but I’ll go with this version. It’s so rewarding to hear it on US college radio.”
Robert Johnson: ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ on LP KIng of The Delta Blues Singers Volumes 1 and 2 (CBS)
“Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg…’ On tour in Memphis, I rented a car and drove down to Mississippi, to Fryers Point, as in the song. Very strange place, very African, very other-wordly. Sleepy, woodsmoke fires, big trees all around, burnt-out motels, deserted gas stations…”
The Cure: ‘Lullaby’ on LP Disintegration (Fiction)
“I love Robert Smith’s beckoning you into his vulnerability. It’s an interesting little world, like H.G. Wells’s History Of Mr Polly.”
Elvis Presley: ‘A Big Hunk O’Love’ on LP The All Time Greatest Hits (RCA)
“The RCA stuff was very precise, very produced, yet wild enough at times. ‘Don’t be a stingy little mommal You’re about to starve me half to death/ Now you can spare a kiss or two/ and still have plenty left.’ Oh Morrissey, let’s have some more of that!”
…AND FAVOURITE ‘SELF-PENNED CLASSIC’
Led Zeppelin: ‘Kashmir’ on LP Physical Graffiti (Swan Song)
“It’s so right – there’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin.”