Plant turns 73 years old today. In the collective consciousness Plant is eternally in his twenties, that glorious rock and roll slim-hipped hippy pixie, with the blues running through his psychedelic soaked veins. From 1970 to 1975 Led Zepplin were arguably the biggest band on the planet. The combination of Page’s heavy guitar and maestro licks, the tight drumming of Bonham, forming a battery of sound and rhythm with the bass of John Paul Jones, and the mythic rock God, Pan himself, Robert Plant, leading all the hippies into the darker days of the 1970s, the innocence of the hippy scene in the rear view mirror, like some Pied Piper of the flower children. What Roger Daltrey lacked in weight and authenticity, Plant had in abundance. Roger Daltrey has his place in the rock pantheon, but he is a poser, a pretender to the throne compared to the vocal power and raw masculine sexuality of Robert Plant. Plant is the real deal, the natural evolution of the hippy child, the dark twist to the acid trip, the power of a man who held the electricity of the moment in his hands and sung it to the lands of the ice and wind and snow.
Led Zeppelin started out as a white boy blues band with a heavy edge – so heavy they were leaden, though lifted on the wings of the energy of the band. They didn’t preach the blues, they bludgeoned it half to death and birthed it again as a more muscular, energy driven animal. Where Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was a delicate tonal creature, Plant’s Led Zeppelin of that first album (the helpfully named Led Zeppelin I) was pure rock and roll muscle. In the first Led Zeppelin album Plant was testing out what he could do with a microphone and the blues, finding his feet, laying the foundations for a cohesive body of work, the skeleton for future exploits which pushed the boundaries further and blossomed into a psychedelic driven exploration of the underbelly of the dream.
The zenith of Led Zeppelin performances, the 1970s time capsule that is The Song Remains The Same (1976), depicts Plant as the mythical pagan hero from ancient times. The Elysian Fields of the pastoral heaven of the early scenes, the paternal Plant with his wife and children living their quiet domestic lives in the fields and hills of a Celtic wonderland whose hedgerows ‘bustled’ in Stairway to Heaven, to the all-conquering Thor-like being holding court on stage, to the druidic mythos of Plant the great hero adventurer, out of time, out of place, dressed in skins and linens, holding a staff, looking out over an epic landscape, providing framework for the nordic/celtic inspired lyrics the band was so fond of when they weren’t rewriting the blues. The Odesysus-like sailboats, the sunsets and the wild desolate isolation. The sword is in the rolling stone, his Gwenievere is in the castle. Plant the all-conquering hero with his trusty band of merry men, and the perfect guitar of the (joint with Hendrix) best musician to grace popular music. Page is the underpinnings to the Holy House of Led Zeppelin.
The movie is a beautiful mess. It doesn’t know what it wants to be: starts off with a mob scene of machine guns and fantasy werewolf-like creatures, a hidden world inhabited by the band that runs on classic cars, cutely painted vans, children playing naked and innocent in the streams, idyllic and benign. The heaven that needs no stairway, the perfect days of summer that never end. Rocking horses are playing upon, fairystories told, and until reality gets in the way in the form of an invitation to play a tour in the United States, everything is perfectly happy. This kind of bliss is always under attack, always under strain. This strain, this tension is where the genius of Led Zeppelin comes from: the pull of the mythical and ancient, the currents that run through the guitars and the amps and the microphones, the powerplant of the rhythm that comes from somewhere deeper and older than even those stories mined for rock and roll gold.
In the performance of Dazed and Confuzed, Page using a horse hair bow on his guitar, wielding it like a sword or a divining rod, conducting electricity, summoning that sound, getting that shrill slick judder to transmit through the ether, through the airwaves, into the ears and the minds of the assembled vultures, the cut scene, an inexpert yet heartfelt reconstruction of a particularly rough acid trip where Page climbs up a mountain only to be greeted by himself as a Death-Hermit, holding out a hand, an open door to the fabled and much vaunted ‘ego death’ of the ultimate acid trip. The music jolting, 1000 volts of inspiration, Page seeing himself return backwards through time and forwards past death, his staff/bow sending out a multitude of colors and lights.
This is where Plant shows his class – he knows what he has in Page as a partner in rebellion and sound, and offers accompaniment to Page’s genius. The vocal ability, the range, the sound the ability to convey feeling: Plant is unsurpassable. He vocalizes what we all are feeling: that eternal yowlp of pain and longing and desire for knowledge and power and relief.
Limos and police convoys, the trappings of fame and fortune, stadiums and irritations of unofficial concessions selling ripped off posters of the band disturb the perfect creative bubble of the Led Zep rural haven. Crowds gathering to see the shining rock God, sound and fury scattering vibes good and bad, distortion and reverb, tricks both vocal and string based, into the lions den of Madison Square Gardens and the New York scuzz and dirt in a clash of mythological, the heroes of fables, painting a rainbow against the grey concrete reality of the metropolis. The grandiose, not merely posturing, instead positioning Led Zeppelin as the extraordinary forward attack party against the realms of the grey and mundane.
Dove wings imprint themselves on the celluloid while the fusion of blues and genius creates a new chapter of rock and roll history. Oh to exist within the kingdom of Page and Plant! Plant’s sex-god altar ego given full rein, his paternalistic haven in the UK pushed behind a curtain of noise and rebellious intent. The scenes with his son and daughter all the more poignant for the devastating loss of his son, Karac in 1977, from a stomach virus, precipitating the end of the Led Zeppelin journey.
Throughout the film, Plant occasionally gives a small smile of contentment as he overlooks his kingdom of sound. He knows the band is kicking, he knows the audience is digging it all, and he knows the power of his voice and words. Kundalini rising. As Whole Lotta Love closes out the party, that riff thrusting the furious intent and masculine energy from the stomach and the vocal chords, the fingers through the amps and speakers, the deep underwater soaring of Page’s guitar and the orgasmic yelping of Plant, the band melding in a perfect fusion of intent and ability, it becomes clear that what was captured was more than the great whale song of the mythic heroes in full flame, but the zeitgeist of a time that will never come again. A time poised between the innocence of the Summer of Love and the poisoned bloom of the ’70s fulfillment of the promise of Altamont: that the hippy dream was doomed to fail, and the heroes could not forge a better future not even with the strings of Page and the desperate power and longing of Plant.
Happy Birthday, Robert. I hope Odysseus is still dreaming.
Was fortunate enough to see the mighty Zep 3 times. I remember Plant’s voice filling an entire sports arena. One of my favorite bands.
You are so lucky to have seen them live! I never made it to see The Zep. What is your favorite Zep song?
It’s a tie between Stairway to Heaven and In My Time of Dying.
California Song and Tangerine for me. I love a good In My Time of Dying cover.