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My big regret, by the prince of wails (RP Interview)


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As Robert Plant returns to his best form since the heyday of Led Zeppelin, he tells Neil McCormick about snubbing the Queen and the burden of having one of rock's most mimicked voices

Scanning the day's newspapers over a black coffee on a rainy London morning, Robert Plant alights on a picture of the Queen greeting Plant's former Led Zeppelin band-mate Jimmy Page.

Roaring back: Robert Plant is back on form

"I had an invitation to the Palace last night," Plant casually reveals. "I was very flattered." His remark seems sincere, and yet he chose not to attend the highly publicised royal music business get-together earlier this month, where the Queen was reported to have asked Eric Clapton if he had been playing for long.

"If you go, that is what you are going to get," says Plant. "Is it good for your family to think that you've been recognised? It's got nothing to do with skill or craft. It's just another one of those things that people do because it's represents a lifetime achievement." He watched an FA cup tie instead.

Royal invites aside, things are looking very interesting for Plant. With a superb new album to promote, he was the surprise hit of the recent South by South West festival in Texas, playing a storming set with his band the Strange Sensation, which put to shame many of the efforts of musicians a third his age.

For someone whose lifetime achievements are undeniably remarkable, he seems at ease with his past and yet completely unreliant on it.

When I put it to him that he has to take some responsibility for one of the least appealing stylistic developments in rock music - the banshee wailing of a thousand run-of-the-mill heavy metal singers - he rather surprisingly agrees. "And it is a hell of a responsibility, developing the culture of men in codpieces screaming blue murder!"

I am not suggesting, however, that Plant himself was a wailer. When he found his voice in Led Zeppelin in the late '60s it was an awe-inspiring instrument of enormous range, capable of a silken weave through pastoral folk or soaring over bone-crushing blues.

"The energy level that was there in 1968 was absolutely phenomenal. I had to develop a style that would allow me to get my foot in the door, because the music around me was so powerful and all-encompassing.

"It was very difficult to be a singer in that situation. And a lot of the time I wasn't a singer, I was a sort of mad scattergun. Zeppelin were never a middle-of-the-road band. We were really quite fearsome."

That trademark keening roar has since been kept on the back burner for much of Plant's highly eclectic solo career. There are other qualities to his singing now, as heard on his exceptionally raw, exciting and highly original new album, Mighty Rearranger, recorded with the Strange Sensation.

At 56 years old, his voice is a little leathery, moving between an intimate, oaken whisper and a surprisingly mellifluous glide. "There have been different critiques that have suggested I was no longer in possession of male organs because I stopped shattering glasses with the high voice thing," says Plant.

"I'd be a pretty sad puppy if I was still begging people to love and remember me for that. I think there's an intensity in what I am doing now that matches stuff from the other times."

These are far from being the lame excuses of a wounded veteran. There is a track on his new album, mockingly entitled Tin Pan Valley, in which Plant ruminates on musicians who "live on former glories", "flirt with cabaret" and "fake the rebel yell".

In his most threatening whisper, he sings: "I take the bottle to the baby, you take the hammer to the pearl" before roaring "LIKE THIS" and letting out a Zeppelin-level wail that sends shivers down the spine. "I can switch it on and do occasionally because it's a nice place to go," he says.

I am not sure if nice is the word I would have chosen. It is an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary song, all the more remarkable for the outspoken way in which he is savaging his own peers. In person, Plant avoids explicit criticism of the rock superstars of the '60s and '70s who have drifted towards middle-of-the-road respectability.

"There is enough inspiration in the ether to keep everything meaningful and colourful," is about as far as he will go. "Soft is not the only option when you get into your fifties."

He does, however, feel that access to interesting and challenging new music for people of his generation is limited, namechecking the few DJs (Andy Kershaw, Bob Harris) and radio stations (notably BBC Radio 3 and 6) that keep alive "the quest for something more provocative."

There is something of the old professor about Plant, constantly dropping the names of other artists into the conversation from all corners of musical topography.

"Music is more alluring to me now than ever before because I've got a broader vista. I wouldn't have found lush, beautiful stuff like Elgar and Vaughan Williams part of my listening bill in the past, never mind Stockhausen or Schoenberg. Now I am listening to music from Mali and Timbuktu, the whole global village type of music. In my little Audi, I've got Gene Vincent, Rachid Taha and Kasabian on the stereo. It is a hell of a panorama."

This huge array of influences spills out of Plant's new record, a joyous, rocking, grooving affair, with complex rhythms, bluesy singing and sharply turned lyrics. Plant insists that it is the work of a genuine band of equals. "We've grown together into this amorphous, fantastic, worldy, bang-bang zippy-di-do-dah band. I've found that thing that's been missing."

He means, of course, missing since the years when Zeppelin were firing on all cylinders. Certainly, for all his commitment and musical curiosity, Plant's solo work has rarely reached this level. The Mighty Rearranger is easily his best album since mid-period Zeppelin. More importantly, it's the most urgently contemporary album anyone of his generation has produced this century.

"If you're not careful, you can do this kind of gig and be very complacent about where you're at. I just thought it was important to remember the principles that stopped me being in the Brotherhood of Man in the '60s. I remembered what it was all about. Expression without too much compromise. I want to knock myself out."

link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml...1/bmplant31.xml

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