Robert Plant, on tour in Australia at the moment – Blues Fest this weekend, Sydney last week (READ MY REVIEW OF THAT SHOW HERE) - is only doing a handful of Led Zeppelin songs in his set. And as that review suggests, there’s nothing wrong with that, no matter how many dadjeans-wearing demands are made at the shows.
It’s not always been the case, though it’s fair to say Plant has a lot more on his plate than rehashing his glory days. His complicated relationship with that part of his history is partially explored here as Wind Back Wednesday jets back to 2003 for a look back to 1972. Double retro-vision!
I WAS A GOLDEN GOD – ASK ME HOW
There's the swagger in Robert Plant's voice; that wail-meets-guttural sound he took from the blues and refashioned for a skinny blond kid who was never going to stay long in going-nowhere-fast Birmingham bands. It may sound half-comic now (and always did, to be honest), but it became the template for an entire genre of singers wordlessly asking for loving, for pleasure, for something nameless but surely libidinous.
Then when you see him on stage, that swagger has transmogrified into a strut, a preen and a shamelessly cocky, highly sexual animal who knows what he's got and knows that it's wanted. It's there in the hair - long and curly, like some central casting idea of modern Apollo. It's there in the clothes - open shirts and pants so tight you knew not only that he dressed to the left but often was happy to be there.
And, finally, the band, probably the most powerful trio of musicians assembled. There were louder bands and faster bands, but none that could be that heavy and still have finesse, none that were prepared to be as soft as this one often was. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham as Led Zeppelin pretty much define '70s rock, for better and worse.
If Led Zeppelin have ever meant anything to you, three hours of previously unheard live performances from 1972 on a triple CD (titled How the West Was Won) and another five hours of different and mostly unseen live performances on DVD that cover their whole career, offer the kind of excessive consumption with which Zeppelin made their name.
And after diving into this feast, you have to admit that as well as thrilling music, some outstanding playing (often improvised) and not a few over-the-top moments (an 18-minute drum solo, for God's sake!), there was a bit of sex about. Ask Robert Plant's companion.
"My girlfriend said to me the other day as she was watching Immigrant Song from that Australian show [on the DVD], she turned to me and, due to my senior years, she looked at me with almost an old-fashioned look and said, 'Christ, I wouldn't want to be left alone in a room with that group's music'."
Plant laughs. He turns 55 in August and he's feeling cheerful, ebullient even. The preparations for the worldwide release of the triple album and double DVD have had, at the very least, an educative effect on him.
"You can imagine that for me, I'm almost in the same position as you," Plant says. "When you're right in the middle of the adventure you don't really, can't really, see it from the outside. Whenever anyone's spoken to me over the years about what it is or what it was, I don't really have an overview. I just was right in the middle of it all, doing my best to keep my head above the water."
There's a pause. "And also riding very happily on a few clouds."
The CD material was easily accessible, taken from concerts recorded two days apart in Los Angeles and Long Beach in June 1972. But the footage on the DVD required more effort, and money. Some of it was in the band's hands. There was the material recorded in 1973 at Madison Square Garden, only some of which ended up in flawed 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same. But others came in response to an offer Page made to fans/bootleggers to buy good-quality material such as the missing bits of a 1970 Albert Hall concert.
The DVD's final segment is the band's comeback concert at Knebworth before more than 200,000 fans in 1979, less than a year before drummer Bonham died, effectively ending the band.
Even more than for the music, this footage is remarkable for the end of the show, where we can see the faces of the band, particularly Plant's. There's pleasure, relief and something else that you can't quite identify, but clearly marks an emotional response from a band not given to overt emotion.
"It was four years since our previous gig in England," explains Plant. "I had lost my boy in the middle of '77 [in July his son, Karac, died suddenly while Plant was on tour in the US] and I had a car wreck shortly after the previous gig in the UK in '75. The volume of tickets was such that I didn't think anyone was worth that. I really didn't think we could uphold and qualify the faith that had been put in us by 220,000 people who had shown up.
“That's not the way to go into something like that, but it would have been smug of me to think that we deserved that kind of attention, having no proof or evidence of anything except a history. And that goes not just for Knebworth but my approach to this project, too.
"The look on my face is just like absolute relief that it worked, and threads and tendrils and shudders of fear that were chasing through me like electric currents. Because the thing about Led Zeppelin was that it wasn't a four-minute tune with a couple of choruses and a solo. There were a lot of times when were flying by the seats of our pants, and I guess in '79 we didn't know where that was going to take us."
When you see a reissue or historic collection such as this, the word "respect" often comes up from band members. As in, we deserve some. Is that what this means for Plant?
"Nup. Nup. Of course not," he says firmly. "As far as being accepted or respected, I don't give a f---. That is what it was. It was an amazing place to be and that was the best I could do. The energy and performance and just the actual delivery, the execution of our songs, the songs we wrote and put across, we were no slouches. And it was just fantastic to be in that.
"I don't care anymore. I did some good stuff, I did some bad stuff, but by and large, to see that again now, yeah, I'm proud of it."