High Times Greats: Robert Plant

Robert Plant discusses his music and his past in a 1991 interview.
High Times Greats: Robert Plant
Robert Plant, leader of the Midlands Flower People, protests marijuana laws outside a court. The photograph was taken in 1967, one year before Led Zeppelin formed. (Syndication International)

In a story for the April, 1991 issue of High Times, writer Carlton Fuerte asked whether Robert Plant’s solo career was successful enough to keep Led Zeppelin from ever flying again. In honor of Plant’s 72nd birthday on August 20, we’re republishing the story below.

Articulate and well-versed in the subtle hypocrisies which make the music biz one of the sleaziest enterprises known to mankind (along with the oil industry and professional boxing), Robert Plant is as much a (not-so) elder statesman of rock as he is a bona fide modern music legend. Robert’s latest and best solo effort, 1990’s Manic Nirvana (Es Paranza/ Atlantic), marks the singer’s return to the focused and believable vein that he mastered years ago, during his collective metallic reign with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and the late John Bonham.

For years, there’s been speculation about a Zep reunion (reportedly featuring Bonzo’s son, Jason Bonham, behind the skins), but don’t ask Plant about it—he’ll deny everything. For years, Plant has been the sole holdout, resisting what is most young rock fans’ wet-dream concert, sticking to his righteous belief that a Led reunion sans Bonzo would make a mockery of that once-sacred musical institution. And while the rock press makes its seemingly-monthly Zep reunion forecasts (apparently, many top stage and lighting companies were contacted recently for price quotes on this alleged tour), Plant will to the end disavow any knowledge of the subject—even if these shows do take place. Not that Manic Nirvana was such a massive success (the album was considered a financial disappointment, as was the consequent tour), but Plant hardly needs the money. If the show does indeed go on, he won’t be doing it to cover back mortgage payments.

His stoic yet cordial manner is a pleasant departure from the typical rock dinosaur egomania displayed by many of his (usually less-successful) contemporaries. Poised, relaxed and remarkably down-to-earth, he’s a true role model, not only for his music, but for his life in general.

Plant discusses the evolution of Manic Nirvana: “Well, the album’s called that because my manager calls me “Manic Nirvana,” but I think it’s just fast bliss. This whole music thing, it’s just quickly-executed bliss; you do it, and then it’s all gone. My music now is in-your-face, fast, and it’s really happy-but it’s twisted happy.”

“If you look at my music over the years, I’ve always wanted to swing from one extreme to another, whether it was ‘Gallow’s Pole,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘Black Dog,’ or ‘Battle of Evermore.’ From way back until now, there’s always been this encourageable atmosphere to go a little more radically left and right. There were no boundaries of what was acceptable to work on.”

“Even today, there’s nothing sacrosanct here. If somebody in the band writes a song, and it’s all theirs, that’s fine. It’s not like I’ve gotta be involved in everything, because I love singing other people’s songs. I’ll sing anything.”

“During the writing of this album, we started some real experimentation. We were trying to see how many different permutations could take place in our collective songwriting talents, and what happened is what we’ve got here on the latest album, Manic Nirvana.”

One of the most successful names in rock, Plant could’ve easily cashed in on the Zep formula, rehashing old ideas, and playing into the hands of zealous fans. “Success breeds many, many things in the successful person,” he offers. “And the most obvious thing I ever see or experience is people’s desire to maintain success by repetition. You know, they get some kinda idea that works, and they try to hold onto that for ever and ever. In that case, you might as well be an accountant or a banker or something. It’s better to prune trees or work in the forest or work for the Peace Corps., than to keep repeating yourself on a really established thread of success. I’ve seen a lot of that, and I still see a lot of it, and I don’t like it. I see a lot of people from my time, contemporary musicians who’ve become very successful. They still maintain efficiency—it’s something to listen to—but it’s like drudgery, dragging it all out again. I just want to make stuff that’s vital, that I can hold my head up and be proud of.”

“I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve stuck to my guns, and done things my own way. I feel that I’m still a contemporary musician, if you know what I mean—l’m not a retro act, and that’s a real accomplishment in this business. Most people my age are playing the oldies clubs—hopefully, I’ll continue to avoid that problem. To this point, I think that I have.”

Plant has remained a vital musical force because of his keen attention to artistic growth. After Bonzo’s tragically avoidable death and the posthumous release of Coda, Plant put together the Honeydrippers (a project that actually first took form after Zep’s final breakup, which was prior to Bonham’s passing). This band was a major musical departure from Zeppelin, performing modern renditions of lesser-known ’50s blues-rock “standards.” Misunderstood by many Zep fans at the time—albeit a significant success otherwise—the imagination and experimentation of that project would set the standard for future innovation by the golden-blonde rock icon. He’s continued on by making his fans expect the unexpected—what else could an artist want from his career?

“I’d agree with that,” Plant offers. “When Led Zeppelin broke up, by that point I’d wanted to try to do something a little bit off-the-cuff and out of the ordinary. I think we did take a lot of people by surprise with that whole experiment—which is what it was—and it broke a lot of new ground as far as that’s concerned. It was a radical departure from what I was doing with Jimmy, John Paul and John. That’s a period of my career that I’m very happy with, and it did set the standard for what I’d be trying on my future solo records. It was pretty slick, pretty cool, and in retrospect, ahead of its time. I think we took a lot of people by surprise with the Honeydrippers, and I think it made a lot of critics stand up and admit that I was no talentless figurehead, and that I did have something to offer Zeppelin fans, and fans of rock music in general. And because of that, the path was paved for people to accept me for what I am—a musician with an intense appreciation of the history of rock, from a cultural perspective.”

Plant doesn’t only understand rock’s rich pageantry of talents and unique characters—he understands his place in the realm of that history. Not one to blow his own horn, Plant is very cognizant of his influence on the burgeoning modern heavy-metal movement. Indeed, it’s questionable that there’d even be this resurgence if it weren’t for Zep’s signature sound and style.

“I’m very well aware of that, obviously,” Robert offers, “and like anything, there’s both positive and negative aspects to what’s going on. Many people were taken in by what we did in Led Zeppelin, and it’s quite obvious in many of the new bands. But the fact that a young band is influenced by us is not bad, and in fact, is downright natural. I’d be lying if I told you that l—or anyone else in Led Zeppelin—wasn’t influenced by old blues players, and that style of music. Every musician learns their craft from other players; that’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the only way it really should be.”

“If there’s a problem, it’s when a new band just blatantly copies a formula. Not only is that rather pathetic at times, but I don’t know how some of these people can sleep at night, knowing that they’re just making a living off of someone else’s groundwork. Part of being involved in music is the challenge of creating something new and unique with your influences. I mean, you can be the Cult, living off of the riffs and songwriting style of someone like us—or you can be like Faith No More, who combine their varied influences to create a smashing new sound. I’d opt for the latter, to say the least.”

I asked Plant if he was also referring to Whitesnake’s David Coverdale, who’s made a lucrative career out of mimicking Plant-isms, right down to the pants and groans, pelvic thrusts and golden locks. “David who?,” scoffs the originator. “No, I’ve made a lot of comments on this situation in the past, being how this guy claims to be my good friend and contemporary, when I don’t know him, and barely knew of him back in the ’70s. [When Coverdale replaced Ian Gillan in a later formation of Deep Purple.—Ed.] The only thing I know is, I was doing this well before he was. Plus, I don’t think it would be as bad if, like I said before, he added something new to the whole formula. But when I hear and see him in the videos or whatever, I see him doing Robert Plant, and that’s pretty sad. At least that’s what I think about it. And it’s not like he can write it off for being a young, stupid kid. He’s been out there for quite awhile, and he really has no excuse for his actions.”

Plant’s musical growth can be traced record by record, both in the context of Led Zeppelin and the solo recordings. This growth is especially evident in the focal development evidenced by his two most recent albums, the heralded Now and Zen, and the aforementioned Manic Nirvana. “Now and Zen was supposed to be this real breakthrough album for me, and it was acclaimed for being artistically valid, which was great for me. But at the same time, I knew deep down that I was playing it really safe. It was a very polite album—at least that’s the way I look at it—and it didn’t really take many chances, as far as I was concerned. I was afraid to offend anyone, and in retrospect I feel that was very wrong of me to do. That’s why this time around I dropped all those pretentions and just said, ‘Take it or leave it,’ or at least I said that in my own subtle musical way. As someone who took part in an important musical occasion years ago with Led Zeppelin, it’s often hard for me to get my point across without people misunderstanding my intentions, musically and otherwise.”

“I think Now and Zen was a really good record, but I think it showed a cowardly side of me in places. I took a few different, soft options on that album, and I think this past record reverses those decisions. It’s very demonstrative and has a good sense of humor about it in places. But at the same time, it’s saying, this is how it ought to be for me. I’ve made a lot of growth and change throughout my career, and I think it took a while for me to truly find myself, in purely musical terms. Sure, people knew of Robert Plant from my past work, and sure, people were receptive to me coming out and playing passionate music, but I think it took me a long time—all the way until this album, in terms of my solo work—to get my music to a point where I think I’m being properly represented and completely comfortable; not as Robert Plant the man—that issue was luckily settled some time ago—but as a solo artist with a moderate degree of success on my own. I’ve survived a long time now, and I count my blessings because of that fact. I’m here, and thanks to where I’m at on Manic Nirvana. I won’t be going anywhere in the near future. I couldn’t be happier, as far as that’s concerned.”

Plant’s “manic” discussion is all well and good, but High Times readers are probably more interested in some revealing Zep stories, right? While Robert isn’t too excited about relating old Led-en tales, he will expound on his stellar past in the context of his solo music. Plant discusses his performances on the early Zeppelin albums, and how those efforts compare to his solo work. “Well, looking back on the first Zeppelin album in particular,” he relates, “if I’d been more relaxed and less intimidated, it would’ve been that much better for me. I would’ve sung the same songs with the same phrasing, but my performances weren’t that great. The records were super—they’re all good, there ain’t a bad record—but looking back, you get very analytical, and that relates to the mood that you’re in or the conditions that you work under, and I was very intimidated back then. I didn’t know if I really belonged back then—that first record especially feels like that for my contribution. But, as a collection of songs, and the way they’re played, it’s all great.”

“The whole thing about Led Zeppelin,” Plant continues, “and the thing about Jimmy or myself—is to keep stretching it. John Paul too, he’s composing quite remarkable music in England, albeit in a different field. Collectively, the band was all about opening it up, trying to shock ourselves to see just exactly what we could do.”

I asked Plant what he thought Zeppelin’s finest hour on vinyl was. “That’s a hard one, but Houses of the Holy was a very inspired time. I think the material is very much to the point, very focused and strong. I think The Crunge’ was great; ‘Rain Song’ was really good. There was a lot of imagination on that record. I prefer it much more than the fourth album (Zoso). I think it’s much more varied, and it has a flippance which showed up later again on In Through The Out Door, with stuff like ‘Hot Dog’ and ‘Candy Store Rock’ on Presence—which was a total thing of me trying to be Elvis or something. Just like on ‘Hurting Kind’ on the new album.”

“That was a very successful time for us. And being in Jamaica, we were going for the ultimate drum sound. There was a track by Dee Dee Warwick called ‘Foolish Fool’ on the Phillips label, which was a minor black hit in Detroit around that time. We tried to get the drums to sound the same as they did on her record. She was Dionne Warwick’s sister; hopefully still is.”

“It was a great record, I’m very proud of that effort. It was a great time. And it was quite smug in the fact that we’d done ‘Houses of the Holy’ as a song, but we put it on Physical Graffiti. It was all our usual tweedy English schoolboy tricks.”

Plant’s wilder days are behind him, having mellowed with age like any self-respecting rock artist. While he claims the infamous stories recounted in the so-called Zep bible, Hammer of the Gods, are over-exaggerated (“The book doesn’t tell about all the times I went to bed early to get some sleep and rest my voice,” he’s recently been quoted as saying), there was a time many years ago when the famed singer made headlines for a pot bust. While most Zep historians tend to overlook this item, High Times showed a photo of said occasion to Robert, and asked him about it.

“Wow, you really did research,” he offers in a shocked and surprised tone. “But that was a long time ago. All I’ll say about that situation is it was a difficult time for my family and myself—especially my parents. Also, it’s a damn shame that, in the ’90s, this is still an issue.”

Fans and critics alike laud Zep as one of the most important rock bands of all time. Robert Plant explains how he would like his old band to be remembered: “I’d like to maintain the dignity of the group. I’m very proud that people are so enchanted by it. I think the way it is now, is that whatever people loved about it before is not going to be spoiled. And I think that Led Zeppelin was bold and brave and chaotic and honest—in a very loose framework, it was honest—and it took risks and chances which are no longer possible if you start a band from scratch today.”

“Musically, it captured all the elements of the kind of wondrous music that we’d all been exposed to. What we did was, we were able to translate and kick on. It’s like we were a filter for all the good things, we filtered it, and begged, borrowed and stole, and we made something that was particularly original, by which a lot of other music has been measured.”

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