Sunday, December 17, 2006

Never heard of them

On this day in 1987, Robert Plant sang any Led Zeppelin song in concert for the first time, outside a reunion setting, since the band's breakup in 1980. This historic occasion was also Plant's first concert in about a year; he was debuting a new lineup of musicians billed as the Band of Joy (a nod to Plant's longest-running pre-Zeppelin band, which had originally been around from January 1967 to May 1968).

That night's set, taking place at Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone, England, opened boldly with a rendition of Zep's "In the Evening." Also played was "Money (That's What I Want)," a Motown collaboration by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford that also appeared in the Beatles' songbook. As the evening wore on, the band settled into Zep numbers "Trampled Underfoot" and "Misty Mountain Hop." The show ended with Plant's favorite Christmas song, "Santa Claus is Back in Town," which was written by hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for Elvis Presley.

Aside from the one-off reunion at Live Aid, Plant's performing career between 1981 and that first night in 1987 did not include any of the songs he had created along with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. In fact, Plant's entire look had changed in the early part of the decade, from the length of his hair to his conservative wardrobe. Now, instead, the hair was again beginning to flow, along with the Zeppelin music. What accounted for this reversal in direction?

Plant once said in an interview that he was finally accepting that the past was always going to be with him: "I was turned on to what I'd done in the past by people saying, `That stuff was great.' And as soon as my eyes were opened again, Zeppelin was everywhere. Everybody was saying, 'It's all over the place,' and all this time I was going, 'Well, I've never heard of them.'"

Perhaps some of that inspiration came from the youthful musicians in Plant's new band: main songwriter Phil Johnstone on keyboards, Doug Boyle on guitar, and Chris Blackwell on drums. (They were joined by bassist Phil Scragg in the studio before Charlie Jones replaced him on the road.)

Blackwell revealed to this newsletter in 2002 how the lineup's first run-through of a Zeppelin song with Plant came to be. "Zeppelin songs are so good to play, and we were such big fans of all that," said Blackwell. "We would play stuff in rehearsal when [Robert] wasn't there. One time he walked in on us playing 'Immigrant Song' and joined in, and off we went!"

As far as deciding which Led Zeppelin songs would be played on tour, Blackwell said, "I think we all made suggestions based on our understanding of what the songs were, and how we felt they would fit into the set. Obviously, 'Stairway to Heaven' was taboo ..."

At another concert on Dec. 30, 1987, the band brought a similar set of cover songs to the Stourbridge Town Hall, where Plant welcomed special guest drummer Andy Taylor of Duran Duran to the stage. Added to the set were interpretations of perennial favorites "Gambler's Blues" by B.B. King and "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, as well as a take on another Led Zeppelin song, the title of which matches my closing words at the end of today's newsletter (stay tuned).

The portions excerpted above from Peter Grant's 1993 interview are taken from Led Zeppelin: The Tight But Loose Files: Celebration II, by Dave Lewis, with a foreword by John Paul Jones. Published in 2003, this book makes a great stocking stuffer and is available for purchase here.

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