How We Met: Robert Plant and David Bates

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The Independent Culture
David Bates, 40, was a roadie and worked as a DJ before becoming head of A&R at Phonogram Records in 1985. He signed up Tears for Fears and Wet Wet Wet, and last year persuaded Robert Plant to join the label. Robert Plant, 44, once studied chartered accountancy, made his first single at 19, and was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin from 1968 until 1980. Since then he has quashed rumours about Led Zeppelin reforming and pursued a solo career; his new album, 'Fate of Nations', is out in May. Plant lives in London and Worcestershire. He is divorced and has three children.

DAVID BATES: I know a lot of famous people. It's just what I do - meet famous people. And there're very few who make me nervous. Meeting Dylan was very nerve-racking. Meeting my first-ever Beatle when I was very young was nerve-racking. And so was meeting Robert Plant last year.

It wasn't the first time we'd met. In 1969 I left home under dark clouds to become a beatnik. I knew Lee Jackson who was the bass player with the Nice and he said this band called the New Yardbirds, aka Led Zeppelin, needed someone to hump gear from the Bath Festival to London. I said hello to Robert then in the car park. He was just about to jump into his red Escort. Mr Page was jumping into a green Bentley with his manager. I had to get into the Ford transit van.

The next time I talked to him was backstage at the Royal Albert Hall's 'Pop Proms' later that week, but he was far too busy chatting up young ladies in red crushed velvet gowns to pay much attention. I suppose we might still have been friends, but they went off to America and made lots of money and became very famous. I ran out of money and went home with my tail between my legs.

I only worked for them for a week, but I remained a massive fan - they were always one of my all-time favourite bands. And then, years later, when I was head of A&R at Phonogram, Lara, my secretary, whose parents were Robert's best friends, said 'Robert wants to see you'. The next thing I knew he was in my office, eating some dodgy tuna sandwich and sending Lara out to get Tabasco.

The weird thing is that he was, and is, a hero. So it was a bit difficult when we had to do business. He made it quite clear in that meeting that, one: he'd never had an A&R man in his life; two: he'd never had a producer other than working with Jimmy Page; three: he'd never done a demo in his life; four: he doesn't make singles. And all those things go against the grain of being with me. But he's a softie really and once we got on to pop trivia, I'd earned his trust. When it comes to music and records he's just like a little kid. If I had a fiver for every time he said ' 'Black Cat Singing on the Roof Tonight', B-side of what song?' I'd be a rich man. I'd also be pretty rich if I had a quid every time we get him to do something he doesn't like and he says 'But we never did this in Zep.'

He has two moods. One is the Viking mode which is 6ft 2, hair all flowing, breaking down doors. The other mode is so charming and so seductive and so nice he could charm the knickers off anybody. Both modes I've come to know very well.

He's on the phone now all the time, about how things are going, how badly Wolves are doing, a record he's heard. Almost from the start I was going through a divorce and he was a support and someone to cheer me up when things were knocking me down. And he tells me his problems, and phew, wow, has he gone through some traumas. His life is more complicated, more interesting shall we say, than anyone else I know.

During Zeppelin I saw them hundreds of times and it cost me a fortune. I said to him recently: the first time I saw you it cost six and eightpence at Sheffield University; the second time it cost 12 and sixpence at Bath and the last time I saw you was at Knebworth and it was a multitude of pounds. And now I have Robert Plant sitting in my office singing his head off for absolutely free.

ROBERT PLANT: In the whole of Led Zep's lifespan, we seldom saw anybody from the record company. We didn't allow anybody in the sessions. We were kings. We said, 'This is what we do and if you don't like it we'll go somewhere else'. We made our own music - and we weren't going to do anything else. But now I've met Batesy Boy that's all changed. Now I'm a blithering oaf hanging on to the coatsleeves of commerciality.

He says he used to be my roadie. But I meet people everywhere - usually in Camden on a Sunday - who tell me that. Mad Scotsmen come up to me with curdle coming from their mouths and say they were with us on the 1972 tour of Iceland (great tour that incidentally). And maybe they're telling the truth: I met so many people I lost the fingerprints on my right hand for ages.

The first time I really met Batesy was just over a year ago. I was desperately trying to think of a way to wipe out the entire staff of my former record company when I started hearing mumblings from the region del Bates, with terms like 'why doesn't he play to his strengths' and so on. All these supplications were coming over with the frenzy of a spaceman who'd been up there for at least a year too long, but at least the man, for a record company guy, had got a little bit of focus. When I asked everybody else what I should do they'd point at the lines in my face and shout 'Get the tuck'.

We met at his office, a clinical affair overlooking the Thames, and my first thought was that he was taller than he ought to be - guys with so much of a reputation and so much bluster you usually expect to be small and diminutive, but this guy was tall, skinny and was using somebody else's eyeballs at the time because I think he'd worn his last pair out. He was full of enthusiasm - he has this unfathomable energy and when you think he only really eats Italian breaded sticks I don't know how he does it. He said 'You're doing it all wrong. Stop trying to be the Jesus and Mary Chain and get back to your roots and be Robert Plant.' Well I took this as an immediate insult - I wanted to be the Cocteau Twins for one thing - but I was interested to hear what he would suggest. I had the idea then that most record company stoolies thought that because I was a singer who made the majority of my reputation in a period of bare-chested cock rock that I might be expected to follow the same path a lot of those guys go down, carrying a dead horse around with you as a kind of haunting effigy of the past. But for the first time in this human volcano I found someone who understood that I didn't want to be a husky coquette, that I like to change, swing styles, to entertain myself. He's one of those charismatic men behind the scenes who contribute to entertainment. You used to get a lot more of them in America in the 1950s. He made me a tape of this great music and he got me - at least on taste terms. Not that I let him know that at the time: if you smile at these people they take it for being a contractual agreement.

I think we're linked, me and Bates, by some kind of umbilical strain of obsessive musical 'wunderlust'. We've both got really vivid record collections, and can hoot about the most obscure pieces of music; we're like some sort of little society of knowalls. Most of the time, we just rant at each other - on the telephone or face to face with about three inches to separate our noses.

There are some Batesisms you have to watch out for. He's always indisputably correct. I spend a lot of my time nursing him into finding out he's wrong, he has to be told he's wrong in the most seductive and devious manner. I think his eating habits could be improved too - his use of cutlery is questionable and he won't eat the hot stuff; he says he has a weak stomach. He also claims, pretentiously, to know a good wine from a bad one. I thought a wine was only something you heard from a woman on a Sunday night as you were leaving for the train.

There have been people I've warmed to over the years but, as the situation I'm in is so fleeting and transient, I've always known it's going to be over kind of real quick. It's quite a blessing finding a new friend at such a time in my life.-

(Photograph omitted)

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