Published on May 17th, 2006 | by The Beige Baron0
Robert Plant, frontman of the group that still outsells a great many contemporary counterparts, certainly would not disagree.
“To say goodbye to the big arenas, which I was playing with Jimmy, was a very purposeful move,” he says. “I just didn’t think there was anything left for me to project to the back of a building used for Ice Hockey in Manheim, Germany. You have to live by your own commitment to what you do, because just one single move just for the sake of it in music is the kiss of death. You’re finished… because you’re finished with yourself.”
Robert is a guy that addresses his past with absolutely no pretence. He was big, the entire rock community knows it, and he makes no attempt to play down his status. But he’s also smart enough to realise that the line between ‘living legend’ and ‘living cliché’ is a fine one, indeed.
“There’s a lot of things that I don’t know whether I can return to,” he says. “Or I don’t know whether I’ve ever really achieved anything, because you become so critical about the work you’ve done in the past that there are no laurels to rest on. There’s only what’s going to happen in the next minute, and what might happen tomorrow.”
In fact, when Robert was first putting together Strange Sensation, the band with which he created the covers album Dreamland in 2002, and now all-new album Mighty Rearranger, he was afraid his reputation would be more of an impediment than a catalyst in bringing together this unique concoction of musical flavours.
“I wanted musicians who had imagination, and style and skill. (It) wasn’t based on the old premise of ‘Robert Plant needs a rock band’. I planned to try to do something strong again, substantial, and leave playing cabaret at restaurants behind for a while [laughs].
“My sound engineer told me that Clive Deemer, the drummer from Portishead, might be approachable… So the band started forming in a strong way. I called Hanni, from Transglobal Underground, and I said ‘I’m looking for a guitarist who can play North African-style guitar.’ And he said ‘Well, you’d better call Justin Adams’. And I thought… ‘Uh-oh. He’s obviously on some eclectic record label, and doing some stuff that is quite serious. He really might be a little bit too Catholic for this.’ In fact, with the very idea of the singer from Led Zep calling him up and saying ‘Hey, man. You want to play some North African stuff?’… I can imagine him saying ‘Well, what have you got to bring to the party that’s North African, apart from “Baby, baby!” and all that sort of stuff?’
“But I called him up, and he said ‘Yeah, okay.’ He was very, very charming, and very discreet and diplomatic. And I find out that he’s into The Clash, and he’s played with Sinead O’Connor, and he’s more or less done everything.
“Shortly after, Skin from Cast came to audition. And for a guy coming from a whole different area, which I had never given much credence to, I couldn’t believe what amazing vision the guy has got as a guitar player. Sonically, the whole ethereal elements of guitar effects were phenomenal. And the way he sort of complimented and ran off Justin was superb, absolutely amazing… Billy Fuller came along, who worked in a vinyl record shop in Bristol, who had amazing knowledge of East Coast garage punk – Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Rocky Ericson, Legendary Stardust Cowboy – he had all the kind of backbone of information that you need, and he also had a fuzz bass. So he’s joined the group and he’s added a fantastic colour to the whole thing. It’s quite primeval, the bottom end of our band… and now we’ve just discovered that we can all sing, so we’ve got three-part harmonies. We’ve just got to do some Beach Boys songs now.”
I was getting more and more intimidated with the idea of taking back these little diamonds – beautiful gems and jewels – back to the countryside to study them, and to sit there with a bottle of Plymouth Gin.
The ‘North African’ style that Robert Speaks is an influence that has been holding increasing sway over his creativity for the past 30-odd years. To date, this flavour has come through the most strongly in the No Quarter project with Jimmy Page in the ‘90s. And though Robert acknowledges that he is still a blues man at his core, he also says that the stretch between the blues, and the music of Northern Africa, is not as great as some people might believe.
“You wouldn’t think it’s likely to happen that working class white boys in England could be so infatuated and so enamoured and transfixed by Black African music,” he says. “Our ‘Black African Music’, when I was twelve, thirteen onwards, was the music of the Mississippi Delta. Later on down the line, I went to Morocco in 1971, as somewhere to go. I didn’t realise… when I got there and I went into the Souk in Marrakech and I heard the music, it was like somebody hit me in the head with a hammer, and said: ‘You’ve got to look into this a bit more, because this is something that you’ve been listening to for years. It’s just coming through a different set of speakers.’
“But the language of sound, and the structure of scales, and so on, is remarkable. They’re not even distant cousins, these two music forms. Especially when you get down into the Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara, and you leave the Arab country behind… It’s just an amazing adventure. You blink, and you don’t know whether you’re listening to King Solomon Hill, or John Lee Hooker, or something that’s on a tape in a car parked next to you in the middle of Wazazad. It’s almost like you’ve been looking for the root… You never thought you needed to find the root. You thought the root was a mixture of the Tin Pan Alley of the 19th century in Memphis, Tennessee. But the Root is back there in Africa. It’s accessible to all, and it’s just beautiful. And I just can’t get enough of it.”
One thing that may surprise anyone who grew up with the image of a confident Robert strutting the stage, mimicking Jimmy Page’s guitar mannerisms with his microphone cord and singing… well, often whatever came into his head, is the fear and trepidation that racked him when it finally came time for him to play his main part in the song writing of Mighty Rearranger.
“(It’s) a manifesto… a group of statements from a guy that didn’t think he had anything to say,” he says of the vocals. “I spent so many months dreading the idea of reaching the point where we had some fantastic music which required a lyric. I was getting more and more intimidated with the idea of taking back these little diamonds – beautiful gems and jewels – back to the countryside to study them, and to sit there with a bottle of Plymouth Gin.
“The whole idea of placing ideas and theories and insinuations into a three and a half minute piece of music is a very difficult place to go, because the different times of your life you have things to say that are based of your experiences at the time. Some of them are incredibly personal, but sometimes you have a vision, or a view, or an opinion, which suddenly comes out of nowhere and fills the screen. And this entire record is about all the bits and pieces of Robert Plant that have been knocking on the back of my subconscious to come out. I got it in such huge doses. So it’s been a very cathartic, and a very strong time… and a big surprise. I was dancing in the dark, it was superb.”
In vindication of Robert’s ‘catharsis’, and his choice of musicians, Mighty Rearranger has since been the subject of rave review after rave review, hailed as a work of great contemporary relevance, and, perhaps ironically, dubbed Robert’s most ‘Zepplinesque’ solo album yet.
“Did I think that I could make an album as powerful as this?” he muses, “No. I didn’t know. I have no idea, from one project to the next, what’s there. And that’s probably one of the greatest attributes, and the greatest gifts that all of us musicians have… but to bring me here now, with Mighty Rearranger… it’s just another role, another gamble, another card that falls on the floor.
“But it is incredibly honest. It’s very grateful as well. The whole project is grateful, because we’ve actually done something that’s very substantial for ourselves… I don’t know that I’m back in a ring, slugging it out. I don’t think there’s any ‘ring’, I just think there’s great gigs, and great songs… and an audience somewhere, perhaps. But even if there isn’t an audience, it’s a spectacular masterpiece to have reached this stage in my life and be this excited about something.”
— Jesse Shrock