I was flustered during this 16-minute interview with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (pictured here with Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov, as referenced below) in March 1998 on the eve of the release of the new Page-Plant album Walking Into Clarksdale.
Clarksdale was the follow-up to the reunited Led Zeppelin duo’s No Quarter album from 1994, which itself came on the heels of their MTV Unledded performance earlier that year. I don’t remember much about the Page-Plant era, although I did see two of their shows. One was at the old Irvine Meadows amphitheater, the same day OJ Simpson was acquitted, so the mood was grim. At least I had King Buzzo from the Melvins and his wife sitting in my row.
As planned, a label representative patched me through to Robert in New York. But then Jimmy got on the phone too. That was unplanned. I had prepared questions for Robert, not for Jimmy, and some were about Jimmy. I had to think fast, and probably didn’t do it well. Additionally, Jimmy said he was in London. As I was getting my head around that, he admitted he was joking and was in New York as well. Then Robert said at some point that he could see “my partner’s” feet dangling off the bed in the other room. And it took me a few beats to realize that he was referring to Jimmy and that they were in a hotel suite. And then our three-way was brought to a premature (merciful?) end and I had a ton of unasked questions. Oh well. Anyway, here’s the freshly transcribed interview from all those years ago. For the record.
YOU’VE ALREADY DONE SOME TOURING WITH THE NEW RECORD, HAVEN’T YOU?
ROBERT: Yeah, we played Zagreb. We’ve played in Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia (pictured at left). And then we went to the heavy heights of San Remo in Italy to do the San Remo Festival, and then we ended up in Turkey.
WHAT WAS THE REACTION LIKE TO THE NEW STUFF?
ROBERT: It was fantastic. “Most High” and “Burning Up” and “Walking into Clarksdale,” they’re very strong songs. So you put them in between some of the Zep stuff, and if you hadn’t heard any of it before, if you were just arriving from Mars, I think it’s good competition, really.
ROBERT, YOU SAID THAT BEFORE YOU GOT TOGETHER WITH JIMMY FOR THE UNLEDDED SPECIAL THAT YOU HARDLY KNEW THE GUY. FOUR YEARS ON, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED?
ROBERT: I said actually “five years ago I hardly knew him.” But a year later we got back together again, chatted, talked, did what you know we did. Really I think we’ve both changed quite a bit from 1979, 1980, in every respect. Our lifestyles and maybe some of our attitudes have changed. We’ve grown together now. It’s really good fun. It’s good clean touring, and a lot of laughs. Also, to have the chance to go to places like Sofia and have the president of Bulgaria rush to the gig, there’s all these strange anomalies which one would never have expected way back in ’79 when we didn’t really know where the dressing-room door was half the time. We’re really enjoying ourselves and we do know each other now.
SO NOW YOU KNOW EACH OTHER’S FOIBLES, WHICH MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN A PROBLEM 20 YEARS AGO?
ROBERT: We didn’t really spend a great deal of time together way back. We used to do what we did and run away, go home or whatever it was. Now we’re working together consistently, constantly, I think we’re just enjoying our personality quirks. I know that I can be quite ridiculously overpowering and idiotic at times, and I know when I’m going off the rails because I see a wry smile on my partner’s face! He shrugs his shoulders, raises his hands like a Jewish shopkeeper and says, “Who else could work with a bloke like this!”
JIMMY: We’re getting along really well, both musically and socially. As far as the past goes, it is the past. But w’re very proud of the past creatively, y’know? There’s nothing wrong with that.
I WAS ALWAYS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT PAGE-PLANT WAS A ONE-OFF PROJECT. WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY THAT THIS IS NOW A CAREER FOR YOU?
ROBERT: Oh yeah. I think we knew it wasn’t a one-off when, before we did the filming, before we went out to Morocco and stuff like that, we’d already started writing new material. We included two songs — unaccompanied, if you like, except for a pair of North African drum loops on the Unledded project — and we’d also worked with Michael Lee (drums) and Charlie Jones (bass) prior to filming No Quarter, and we wrote “When the World Was Young,” which is the second track on Walking into Clarksdale. So we knew that we could do it, and the thing was it felt better doing this than anything that I’ve done before. I’ve made a lot of fuss about not wanting Led Zeppelin to be the only thing I would ever do, or ever be associated with. But I had my time of going out and doing different things, and working with Jimmy now is a different thing. So we have got a new career. Obviously, we’ve got an illustrious old career and we’ve got a very bright new one too.
JIMMY: I think the Unledded shows how we got back together, and the new album shows why we got back together.
AND YOUR RESPECTIVE SOLO CAREERS ARE ON HOLD NOW?
HOW DO YOU WORK TOGETHER ON A SONGWRITING BASIS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN TWO DECADES
ROBERT: We worked with a drum loop to begin with, because we didn’t want anybody else in the room! Except the tape machine. We wanted to see whether or not we could tell the truth, musically, and we did instantly, with “Yallah” and “Wonderful One.” The whole process of writing is exactly the same as any other band anywhere else, or any other pair of musicians. You just pick up your instruments and fiddle around. Michael Lee and Charlie Jones are there with us. And we just kick off — find a key, get a mood, talk about a certain approach to things and within a minute-and-a-half we’re off. There’s so much stuff that we’ve got in our heads. There’s so many more adventures I think that we’ve got. With Walking into Clarksdale, there’s such a variety of stuff, different moods and stuff that it’s really just like carrying on, really, after, I suppose, Presence or something like that.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE AND CONTRAST THIS RECORD WITH NO QUARTER?
JIMMY: After having toured with No Quarter, which was really good because Michael Lee and Charlie knew Robert well because they’d been working with him for quite a while, but they got to know me on the last tour — but within the confines of having the orchestras and all the rest of it. It was really good on this project — and this is what we wanted to do — was to have the freedom of going back basically to a four-piece. Yeah.
LOOKING BACK, HOW DO YOU RATE NO QUARTER?
ROBERT: I think it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in a way, or beyond mine. Until the September or the October (1993) before we began the work, I’d never even considered the opportunity to take songs like “Four Sticks”and “Kashmir” and “The Rain Song” and really revisit them with a fresh look. And also, although they were old songs that we’d recorded and written way back, we could revisit them with some dignity and put some different light into them. We were in a club in Turkey 10 days ago, in Istanbul, and “Kashmir” (the No Quarter version) came on the huge sound system in the club, full-belt, so you couldn’t speak. It was so loud. I got goose bumps. I couldn’t believe how full of energy it was. Hearing the fade at the end after Wael the Egyptian violinist was finished and we went into some tangential musical/vocal call-and-answer thing, it was really — the very, very last bit of the song — I thought, “Wow! Listen to that. That’s like on-the-spot, never been done before exciting stuff.” I think it was really happening.
JIMMY: The thing about No Quarter was that that was done after one day’s full dress rehearsal so to speak. We’d rehearsed all the separate entities, but we hadn’t put them all together till the day before we recorded, so that was really great. But once we got it out on the road for a week, a month, a year, it was really, really happening. Plus we were able to present textures of sound and notes to people that they wouldn’t have heard before. That was really a triumph.
IT WAS GREAT FOR THOSE OF US WHO NEVER SAW LED ZEPPELIN TO GET AN IDEA OF WHAT WE MISSED OUT ON
ROBERT: But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like Led Zep. It was like something that we could never have dreamed of really. In a way, in our time, having been associated with those songs in their original form for so many years, it allowed me to come to terms with that sort of history and stuff, to remove the psychosis. It was really basically the cure that I was looking for.
I UNDERSTAND YOU APPROACHED JOHN PAUL JONES THIS TIME, BUT HE TURNED YOU DOWN?
ROBERT: Next question!
SO, JUST TO GIVE ME A QUOTE ON THIS, BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO ASK, HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM GONE SOUTH?
ROBERT: No, no. Who’s going to ask you? You’re not going to go around the street corner saying, “I’ve just been been talking to Page and Plant, and by the way…” Nobody’s going to ask you a thing.
JIMMY: The thing is that we’ve joined back together again, and that’s what’s important.
ROBERT: Yeah. Dealing with the past and dealing with personalities and stuff like that, you just move along. You enjoy yourself and do your very best to do your best in the easiest and, I suppose, most pleasing way. And that’s exactly what we’re doing now.
WHAT WERE YOUR INSPIRATIONS AND MOTIVATIONS GOING INTO THE STUDIO?
ROBERT: Getting it done quick, because we think we knew what we were doing. There’s no point in hanging about and trying to do the “Madonna & Child,” really. We knew what we were doing and we wanted to do it as swiftly as we could so we could capture the performance, which is basically what we’ve done. We’ve tried to capture a mood and a kind of weightiness about the whole thing which if we’d finessed it too much we might have lost.
DID YOU HAVE THE SONGS WRITTEN BEFORE YOU WENT IN?
ROBERT: To a degree. We did finesse them in the studio. I didn’t really have all the lyrics done. I probably had about 60 percent of the lyrics. Some songs were one-take as well … “Burning Up,” “When the World Was Young.”
JIMMY: “Songs of Freedom.”
ROBERT: “Songs of Freedom.” So I really had to grapple with lyrics, quick and fast. Some came easy, some took a while.
I SEE YOU REPEAT THE LINE “WHEN I WAS BORN I WAS RUNNING” IN TWO SONGS
ROBERT: No, I don’t. No, no. It’s only in the one. It’s Only in “Walking Into Clarksdale.
I THOUGHT IT WAS ALSO IN ANOTHER SONG. LET ME SEE, “HOUSE OF LOVE”
ROBERT: Oh yeah! “When I was born I was running.” It’s an ad-lib bit, yeah. I wanted to tie the two together in some kind of mystical way which even I don’t understand!
JIMMY: It’s part of the cosmic plan.
THERE ARE ALSO CONSTANT REFERENCES TO DANCING, STARS, DREAMING. THERE’S A LOT OF BURNING GOING ON
ROBERT: Burning is passion, and we’re both very passionate about the way we will spend the time that we have left. So we have to use it.
IT’S KINDA FATALISTIC!
ROBERT: Not really, no. It’s realistic, but not fatalistic. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do with as much zest and vigor that we possibly can.
JIMMY: Last question, please.
I UNDERSTAND THAT ATLANTIC WAS POSSIBLY A BIT DISAPPOINTED WITH SALES OF NO QUARTER. DID YOU WANT TO MAKE THIS ONE A BIT MORE COMMERCIAL THAN THE FIRST ONE?
ROBERT: It wasn’t the first one. Every one’s the first one. We don’t look at it like that. I think we’ve had a very, very good run, and I think that the record sales are neither here nor there really.
JIMMY: As far as us actually giving a representation of the No Quarter project, shall we say, at the time that we did it, by touring, it was voted the best tour of the year. So as far as I’m concerned that’s what’s happening.
DID YOU MAKE ANY MONEY ON THE TOUR?
ROBERT: I don’t know about making money. I think that we’ll find out when we can find our manager!
JIMMY: We made a lot of new friends though.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 1998, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING