Originally published in Spin Magazine
By Chuck Klosterman
Few will argue that Led Zeppelin didn’t invent heavy metal. One who will, however, is Robert Plant, the golden god who became the archetype for every metal throat who followed. And it’s not just that Plant dismisses the entire genre because it rips him off; he thinks metal bands suck because they don’t rip him off enough. It’s been more than twenty years since John Bonham’s death ended Zeppelin’s epic reign, but Plant’s unrepentance has not waned.
The 53-year-old Brit is touring and has released a solo album, Dreamland, juxtaposing vintage blues and folk with modern trippiness. He remains willing to criticize just about every hard rock band that’s ever existed, and he even took a shot at the very idea of Spin celebrating a musical idiom he clearly hates.
“After you finish this issue about the fucking absurdity of boys trying to be more than what they should be-Conan the Warrior goes on tour, or whatever-come see my new show,” he said at the conclusion of our interview. “Just come along, because it’s such a trip. And when you decide to do an issue about psychedelia, I’ll sit in rocking chair and tell you stories about Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.”
Even though most people consider Led Zeppelin to be the creators of heavy metal, you’ve always insisted that Zeppelin weren’t a metal band. So in your mind, what is “heavy metal” and why doesn’t it include Led Zeppelin?
You’ve made a mistake there; you cannot classify anything, anywhere. Classification is a killer. Otherwise, we’re all stuck. It means Mother Love Bone or Linkin Park or Creed will never do anything other than what they’ve already done. Led Zeppelin did lots of different things–working in North Africa, writing songs like “Friends” and “Four Sticks” and “Kashmir”. I can’t imagine “Kashmir” being considered a heavy metal piece. I don’t think “Stairway to Heaven” was very heavy metal. But we were bombastic. We took no prisoners. We took great delight in playing with bands who has the attitude and ego that was so prevalent in America at the time. Everyone was a self-proclaimed star, which was dumbfounding to me. So to turn up the intensity and be truly bombastic-that’s when we just out-heavied everybody.
But why is it, despite Led Zeppelin being so musically diverse, that most of the bands Zeppelin influenced only picked up on one thing the band did, which was to play loud and heavy? I mean, did you like any of the bands that did that?
Well, I think that some of the Seattle bands glorified in a kind of music John Bonham always called “Deep Sabbath”, which was a conglomerate of English, sketchy, blues-based thud. It was inane and had no mystery to it at all. I know from my escapades with guys from Seattle, and from working with Steve Albini, that this Sabbath style of music-that almost clumsy, plodding, slog metal-just never really sprang out of the speakers or moved into any acoustic area. It was just an aping of the Led Zep thing.
Well then, you must find it ironic that most people who love your band today also tend to love Black Sabbath.
No, no. I don’t agree. I’ve been playing festivals in Europe for the past year, and I find those audiences want the sensitivity, too. But maybe it’s because I’ve been playing to a lot of Latin people. I played the Isle of Wight Festival last week, and one the songs I did was “Going to California,” because it’s kind of my bag. Now, whether you would call “Going to California” heavy metal, I don’t know; it might be a bit embarrassing at times lyrically, but it did sum up a period of my life when I was 22. And the audience was going absolutely apeshit, and these were punk guys with Mohican haircuts. So I think you’re wrong.
Maybe so. But it seems that whenever people talk about the dawn of heavy metal, the logic usually goes like this: Black Sabbath created a certain kind of sound that was replicated by British acts and later nu-metal bands, and Led Zeppelin sort of invented the sound and image for groups like Guns N Roses and Aerosmith. Do you disagree with that?
Well, I think the guitarist in Aerosmith makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Jimmy Page, and that’s inherent in a lot of their tracks. Aerosmith are basically a pop group. They write pop songs, and they’re aiming for the charts and Top 40 television. And when you think of the treachery of hard rock-when you think of bands like Bon Jovi, and when you think of…um…what were some of the other hair bands from that era?
Motley Crue? Ratt?
Yeah, yeah. Those bands were hanging on to some real big pop melodies and dressing them up as something aggressive and boyish and testosterone-ridden, but it was still “Livin’ on a Prayer”, you know? And that’s not a great place to be coming from.
It isn’t? Why not?
Well, it’s is if it’s a career move and you want to do “Bridge Over Troubled Water” when you’re 60.
Do you think a lot of those bands were ultimately influenced more by Zep’s debauched depiction in the book Hammer of the Gods: the Led Zeppelin Saga than by what’s actually on your records? It seems like they copied your espoused lifestyle more than your actual songs.
Who knows? I mean, is it all a career move? Getting fucked up is quite easy if you have more than thirty dollars. It was interesting to watch all of that, because I never read the book. But I don’t think anyone could have lived through all that stuff that (former Zeppelin tour manager) Richard Cole blubbered out to the guy who wrote it (author Stephen Davis).
I have a hard time believing that you’ve never read Hammer of the Gods. Weren’t you curious?
The guy who wrote that book knew nothing about the band. I think he’d hung around us once. He got all his information from a guy who had a heroin problem who happened to be associated with us. The only thing I read was the “After Zeppelin” part, because I was eager to get on with the music and stop living in a dream state.
Does it bother you that, in the eyes of a lot of people, the only reason John Paul Jones was not asked to participate in your 1994 reunion with Jimmy Page was financial? And that you and Page simply didn’t want to split the revenue three ways?
[Chuckles] It’s like this: Led Zeppelin was a very strange, four-quadrant marriage. And when the marriage dissolved, when John passed away, I really didn’t think I’d work with any of those guys again. When we were kids, Bonham and I were the toughest guys around. Nobody wanted to be around us, because we believed in ourselves so much and we were really unbearable. So when he passed, I really didn’t want to stay with the southern guys-the two guys from London. I thought enough was enough, and I’d lost the one guy I’d been close to since I was 15. But when MTV asked me to do the Unplugged thing, I thought, “I can’t take all the credit for this. I can’t do the Zeppelin stuff and sit there with a broad grin on my face,” So I asked Jimmy if it was possible for us to start writing again, without it becoming some sad Zeppelin reunion. And there was really no room for anybody else. There was no physical room or emotional room or creative room.
But couldn’t you have toured with Page, Jones, and Bonham’s son Jason on drums?
But what the fuck for? John Bonham’s kid isn’t as good as John Bonham. Look, I know you’re a journalist, so I’ll go along with this question. I don’t make my living by making a living. My time is so important that I can’t compromise my taste-or my idea of what’s right-simply to match someone else’s view of what’s a good, calculated move. And can you imagine what a lumbering monster that tour would have been? It would have been quite sluttish to come back firing like a bunch of hard rockers. The important thing was that Page and I decided to write again.
How often do you talk to Jimmy Page for non-business purposes?
We’re going to a tennis match on Tuesday.
Really? Who’s playing?
Fuck if I know! I just made that up. [Laughs]
I realize this probably seems ridiculous to you, but there is a whole class of people who listen to classic rock radio and wonder if you guys are actually friends.
There’ definitely a warmth between us, and a patience. We’re like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The reality is that Page is a very clever, talented guy who has a particular slant on music, and I was always his sidekick who had a different slant on music.
Earlier in this interview, you said that a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would have been a “lumbering monster.” But what about bands who are even older than you? Do you think the Rolling Stones are still able to maintain a sense of conviction at this point in their career?
No. But I think they’ve gone somewhere else, and I really can’t be critical. Because if they have a good time and play well, it’s a communion. And it’s somewhere for people to go who remember when that stuff was shit-hot. This kind of thing happens every year. And guess what? You [as a journalist] get a salary, and I get a lot of dough if I sell a lot of records. It’s called entertainment.
As the man who heard them all, what is the coolest, heaviest, most “metal” Jimmy Page guitar riff?
Hmmm. [Pauses] That’s a very good question. I guess it’s got to be “Whole Lotta Love,” doesn’t it? And there’s another song that isn’t heavy but that I love because the guitar is fucking amazing-”For You Life” off Presence.And then there’s the beginning of “The Wanton Song” and “Immigrant Song”. I suppose “Immigrant Song” might have it over “Whole Lotta Love”, but the thing about “Whole Lotta Love” is that it’s quite a sexy track.
Actually, that reminds me of something: On “Whole Lotta Love” you say you’re going to give some girl “every inch” of your love. But you’re British. Why don’t you use the metric system?
That would change the whole tone of the thing! I suppose today it would have to be. “I’ll give you several centimeters of bliss.” But people of my generation know nothing about the metric system. I’m fortunate to say I still use inches-or at least that’s what my girlfriend says, and she’s 29.
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