Robert Plant: Still on the stairway

It's been a long time since Led Zeppelin, but Robert Plant tells James McNair that he's as uncompromising as ever
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In spring 1970, on the completion of Led Zeppelin's fifth US tour, Robert Plant retreated to Bron-Yr-Aur, a derelict 18th-century cottage near Machynlleth, Gwynedd. With him was his then wife Maureen, their 18-month-old daughter Carmen, and an Old English sheepdog named Strider. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and his then girlfriend, Charlotte Martin, were also aboard Plant's big yellow Jeep, and when the party decamped at Bron-Yr-Aur, Page and Plant wrote parts of Led Zeppelin III in front of an open-hearth fire.

In spring 1970, on the completion of Led Zeppelin's fifth US tour, Robert Plant retreated to Bron-Yr-Aur, a derelict 18th-century cottage near Machynlleth, Gwynedd. With him was his then wife Maureen, their 18-month-old daughter Carmen, and an Old English sheepdog named Strider. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and his then girlfriend, Charlotte Martin, were also aboard Plant's big yellow Jeep, and when the party decamped at Bron-Yr-Aur, Page and Plant wrote parts of Led Zeppelin III in front of an open-hearth fire.

"A few years back", says Plant today, "I had a letter from the owner of the cottage saying: 'Thanks to you, we can't have an afternoon in the garden without someone turning up to ask about 'Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp'. I think he thought I should buy him out."

The singer and I have met at The Engineer, a gastro-pub near his home in Primrose Hill, North London. He's wearing silver rings of Celtic design. Parts of Plant's new album, Mighty Rearranger, were recorded in Snowdonia "not 10 miles" from the cottage. Unlike Led Zeppelin III, however, Mighty Rearranger is anarchic, largely raucous, and shot-through with Moroccan and Malian influences. "Instead of making it some kind of Royal Festival Hall moment, we've injected some of rock'n'roll's grand past", says Plant. "It's a disrespectful mélange."

Better yet, Mighty Rearranger is a remarkable return to form - and not least thanks to Plant's backing band, The Strange Sensation. Cherry-picked for their versatility, they comprise the sometime Portishead and Reprazent drummer Clive Deamer, the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Justin Adams, the former Cast guitarist Skin Tyson, Massive Attack's keyboardist John Baggott, and a "13th Floor Elevators-inspired" bassist, Billy Fuller. Plant describes his band as a democracy and says that the music they wrote for Mighty Rearranger was "a godsend" to him. The only real disagreement, he maintains, came when Deamer thought his idea for the album's cover-art was "hippie tosh".

"I said, 'Listen, pal, that's what I believe in!', then we had this flurry and flutter like a couple of Old English game fowl. We laugh about it now, of course. The truth is that we're absolutely in the right place and committed to what we're doing, and the relationships between us are open and clean. I have, in the past, worked with people who've been happy to be there for financial reasons, but this band isn't about status or income - it's about doing it."

Mighty Rearranger looks set to garner more column inches than any of the eight solo albums Plant has already released. On the flagship single, "Shine It All Around" the erstwhile Golden God sings of his own well-being, intoning: "These are the days of my life/ bright, strong and golden."

"If I seem in a good place", he says, "that's because the opportunities that are coming my way are fantastic. It's no longer about me scrambling to get away from the shadow of a long career. Because of the way that my music is heading, I've been asked to curate the Womex world-music festival in Gateshead this year, and I'm thrilled about that. It will hopefully allow me to bring in some of those great Malian musicians that not that many people know about."

A sad backdrop to the making of Mighty Rearranger was the passing of Plant's father. While The Strange Sensation fired grooves and riffs for the album at Riverside Studios in the lee of Salisbury Hill, Bath, Plant was spending time with his father, or driving past Julian Cope's house to take restorative walks near the Avebury stone circles.

"Sometimes dad wouldn't even realise I'd been in the room with him. Then I'd come back in with a cup of tea, and he'd say 'How's business, son?' I would say 'business is amazing, dad', even although I hadn't done anything for 10 months because I'd been looking after him. After a while, I starting making little sojourns to work, and visit with the band. It was a great panacea."

Plant's father was a civil engineer, and fond of classical music. His father played trombone in a Black Country brass band. Plant says: "My father was a fine man in many respects. He never cursed; he was just this charming, charismatic guy who never touched upon anything that was iffy. I don't think 'squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg' [from Led Zeppelin's 'The Lemon Song'] would have done much for him, to be honest, and he certainly never went on about the guitar solo in 'Since I've Been Loving You'.

"He told everyone that he was frightened to death of me going into groups", my host adds, breaking eye-contact to gaze out of the window. "But then when I became successful he couldn't stop telling everyone how well I was doing. That's how these things go, isn't it?"

But Mighty Rearranger has no obvious allusions to Robert senior. Instead, Plant says, "I've been looking at my contemporaries, and I see a lot of compromise and a leaving behind of the original call-to-arms." He develops this theme on "Tin Pan Valley", singing "My peers may flirt with cabaret/ some fake the rebel yell/ me, I'm moving up higher ground/ I must escape their hell."

Elsewhere on the record, "Takamba" takes its name from a Malian word describing a camel's gait, while "Somebody's Knocking" is an undulating, Saharan lute and upright-bass-appointed tune in which Plant's vocabulary of classic blues imagery takes in black snakes, red roosters and blue moons.

We turn to Led Zeppelin's Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. When Plant opted to send a message rather than attend the ceremony, Jimmy Page opined: "It wouldn't have taken much just to pop over here and meet everybody, would it?" The guitarist seemed quite hurt.

"Jimmy was really our guiding light for a lot of the time", says Plant. "Now he implies that he has other plans, but I don't really know what position he's in.Sometimes I think I'm a bit irksome because I make a lot of fuss in a small way, but I'll defend Jimmy to the last and I love to see him. Perhaps it's just that, as the years go by, people have different ideas about how to go about things."

'Mighty Rearranger' is out on Sanctuary on 2 May

Comments