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Now and Zen Turns 24


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February 29, 1988 – Robert Plant: Now and Zen is released.


# Allmusic 4/5

# Rolling Stone (see original review below)

Now and Zen is an album by Robert Plant, released on this date in 1988 under the label Es Paranza. The album made the top 10 in both the U.S. and the UK, reaching #6 in the former, and #10 in the latter. The album was certified triple platinum by the RIAA on September 7, 2001. "Walking Towards Paradise" was originally a bonus track available only on CD versions of the album. Rhino Entertainment released a remastered edition of the album, with bonus tracks, on 3 April 2007.

With a new band and a new perspective on his music, Plant returned in late 1987 with more of the sound that had previously defined him in Led Zeppelin. Although Plant continued to utilise computerized audio technology in a similar fashion to his previous solo albums, for this album Plant integrated the blues that had all but been abandoned on his most recent album Shaken 'n' Stirred (1985). A prominent guitar sound and an exotic feel to the recordings also marked another change in direction for the artist, who now added Middle Eastern tones in songs like "Heaven Knows". This is a direction that he would eventually follow in the 1990s with Page and Plant.

The tracks "Heaven Knows" and "Tall Cool One" featured Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. (On the liner notes, Page's participation on the songs was noted with a Zoso symbol.) In response to the Beastie Boys' unauthorised sampling of some Led Zeppelin songs on their 1986 album Licensed to Ill, Plant also used samples from Led Zeppelin songs ("Whole Lotta Love", "The Ocean", "Black Dog", and "Custard Pie") on "Tall Cool One", additionally singing words from "When the Levee Breaks".

Plant performed "Ship of Fools", "Tall Cool One" and "Heaven Knows" at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert in 1988. "Ship of Fools" was also featured on the final two-hour episode of Miami Vice titled "Freefall". It is the musical accompaniment to Crockett and Tubbs return to Miami via motor yacht after rescuing General Bourbon (a thinly veiled Manuel Noriega-type character) from the fictional Central American nation of Costa Morada.

In an interview he gave to Uncut magazine in 2005, Plant commented that "by the time Now and Zen came out in '89, it looked like I was big again. It was a Top 10 album on both sides of the Atlantic. But if I listen to it now, I can hear that a lot of the songs got lost in the technology of the time."


~ Kurt Loder (March 10, 1988)

This record is some kind of stylistic event: a seamless pop fusion of hard guitar rock, gorgeous computerization and sharp, startling songcraft. Now and Zen, Robert Plant's fourth solo album, is so rich in conceptual invention that you barely notice that Plant sings better on it — with more tone, control and rhythmic acuity — than he has in the seven years since Led Zeppelin imploded. Better, in some ways, than ever.

The punning title is apt. The nine tracks on Now and Zen don't simply sound contemporary; they point to new ways to transmute roots-rock verities of swing and harmony amid the technological conventions of late-Eighties pop. At the same time the songs show Plant humanizing and enlivening the cool synthetic sound of such Euro-synth units as Kraftwerk and D.A.F. In addition, there is a certain pop-Zen aspect to such songs as "The Way I Feel," in which Plant sings, "The future rides beside me/Tomorrow in his hand/The stranger turns to greet me/Take me by the hand" — one of the wittier lyrical loops since Lou Reed walked hand in hand with himself through the vinyl grooves of Loaded.

Plant does have some major help on Now and Zen. It's a tribute to his taste that after listening to the demo of "Heaven Knows" (now the album's first single), he hired its creators, the song-writing-production team of Phil Johnstone and Dave Barrett. Johnstone and Barrett are young, hungry and gifted, and Johnstone, in particular, is invaluable — as co-writer (with Plant, on most of the tracks), coproducer (with Plant and Tim Palmer), computer programmer (with Barrett, who also helped engineer the LP) and keyboardist. There's a freshness and excitement to the sound of this album that's rare today — that harks back, in fact, to the sonic audacity of Zeppelin's sainted predecessors, the Yardbirds. Even Jimmy Page, who is a guest guitarist on two of the tracks, flourishes in this hot new context.

Now and Zen lifts off with a synthesized whoosh and remains airborne throughout. "Heaven Knows," the lead track, is graced with a soaring, up-above-the-clouds solo by Page — but there the Zeppelin connection ends. With its clamorous hammer-and-anvil percussion and its jaded take on the new mating game ("Nothing will show as we're shedding our clothes"), this is exactly the kind of electromantic fusion that Bryan Ferry has sought in vain for years.

The protagonist of "Heaven Knows" is distanced to the point of disconnection. Plant's own persona, however, especially in the songs he had a hand in writing, is engagingly humane. He gently deflates his old Zep sex-stallion image (in "Dance on My Own" — a metaphor for masturbation — and in the spectacular "Tall Cool One," which contains the curious come-on "With my one hand loose I aim to satisfy"). Instead he offers himself as is: a rocker turning forty, with deep roots in the music's past but a lively interest in its present — and future — as well.

This is a stance that allows for both historical resonance and up-to-the-minute instrumental crunch. "Tall Cool One," for instance, takes its title from a 1959 Wailers instrumental, its motivating stomp from a 1962 Routers hit and its underpinning riff from the Yardbirds' own cover of the Elvis-era bopcat classic "The Train Kept A-Rollin'." Yet, with its expertly deployed monster electronics, the song might easily be mistaken for an anthem from Kraftwerk's computer land. "Tall Cool One" is a walloping rockabilly track that cleverly avoids all retro pretensions. (It also further bends history with another Page guitar solo, as well as computer-sampled snatches of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Black Dog," among other Zeppelin oldies.)

Even more complexly affecting is "White, Clean and Neat," an extraordinary evocation of teen life in the mid-Fifties, when the arrival of rock & roll divided families and whole generations. The singer recalls the white-bread pop music that his parents loved — the songs of Pat Boone and Johnnie Ray that rock would soon displace — and his own youthful-rocker's contempt for that music's emotional fraudulence. (As a smarmy announcer imparts background gossip about the singer-starlet Debbie Reynolds and her then husband, Eddie Fisher — "They're married to stay!" — Plant sings, "Beneath her skirts, between clean white sheets/It's such a long way from the streets.") But his youthful intolerance has clearly been tempered by the years, and his reminiscence takes on a bittersweet tone that says more about what was won and lost in that time than many a more windy critique.

It is exhilarating to discover such lyrical substance in music already so technically arresting. Plant's young band performs with ferocious expertise (particularly amid the breathtaking roll-and-tumble rhythms of "Helen of Troy" and on the Jeff Beck-like "Billy's Revenge"). But the central revelation here is Plant himself, whose taste and intelligence appear to have informed every stage in the making of this record. It would be unfair to call him a headbanger with brains — the lamented Zeps were much more than riff-mongering metalists. But with Now and Zen, Robert Plant does prove himself a hard rocker with a whole lotta heart.


"Heaven Knows" (Barratt, Johnstone) – 4:06

"Dance on My Own" (Crash, Johnstone, Plant) – 4:30

"Tall Cool One" (Johnstone, Plant) – 4:40

"The Way I Feel" (Boyle, Johnstone, Plant) – 5:40

"Helen of Troy" (Johnstone, Plant) – 5:06

"Billy's Revenge" (Johnstone, Plant) – 3:34

"Ship of Fools" (Johnstone, Plant) – 5:01

"Why" (Crash, Plant) – 4:14

"White, Clean and Neat" (Johnstone, Plant) – 5:28

"Walking Towards Paradise" (Williams) – 4:40

2007 remaster bonus tracks

"Billy's Revenge" (live) – 6:00

"Ship of Fools" (live) – 10:35

"Tall Cool One" (live) – 5:07

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24! Boy, it seems almost like the day before yesterday to me.

I dig it out every now and zen for a listen, covered at most with a minimal level of dust. Great album.

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Although it was a vast improvement on the truly abysmal Shaken & Stirred, I didn't like this album much when it came out, and I still don't.

Happy birthday though, whatever.

I vastly prefer "Shaken'n stirred" to "Now and zen". SNS almost veered into King Crimson territory. I loved that album when it came out and listened to it constantly.

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I liked the album at lot when it was first issued and some of the songs on it still stands up rather well today. It is hard to believe it's been 24 years..............lordy.

When Zepplin called it quits, who at that time would ever have thought Plant would be the one who wouldn't be afraid to take chances, to hang out on the edge artistically. I sure as hell didn't think he'd be the one to, but I'm glad he did.

You go Percy!

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Nice article. Now And Zen was when Plant as a solo artist finally registered on my youthful radar. When the video of Heaven Knows was shown on TV, I remember being quite impressed, thinking, "wow, so that's the singer from Zeppelin." The song was in similar territory to Kashmir, at least to my then teenage ears. I even bought the album on vinyl. I remember enjoying it at the time, all the songs and both sides of the vinyl. It's been overstated about how dated the production is, even though it's true. Damned tinny thin 80s sounds.

Nonetheless, Now And Zen really was a moment of connecting the murky, mysterious and near-faceless past of Zeppelin to late 1980s rock. For young(er) music fans in the 1980s, before the Remasters project occurred, Zeppelin was a very mysterious entity compared to all those 80s hair bands. Eagerly looking at their fascinating album covers while hearing this magical music that seemed unearthly at time. That has been overstated too, and I know which perspective I prefer.

With all the official and bootleg footage available on demand nowadays, it's easy to visualize the band, but remember, for many of us over a certain age, there was a time when Zeppelin still had a complete mystique. And so, when Now And Zen came out, it was like having a small glimpse into what that kind of mystique felt like, as JPJ said during his Zooma tour, when dinosaurs walked the earth! So, Happy Birthday N&Z!

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