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Tie Dye On The Railway

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Tie Dye on the Railway

Originally Published in Kerrang Magazine

by Neil Jeffries

After over two years, ROBERT PLANT and band are back touring Europe, promoting their new LP 'Manic Nirvana'. The long wait and earlier oversights mean they're having to start afresh and do it the hard way - on buses and trains - playing to crowds, many of whom know little of Mr. Plant's legendary background. NEIL JEFFRIES is, however, plenty old enough to know better, so gets himself an interrail card and heads for Lyon where the railway station announcer explains helpfully, "The blonde mane now standing on platform nine, used to be in Led Zeppelin…"

"There are no limos here guys, the idea is you carry your bags yourself!" Robert Plant explains sardonically as his band, entourage, and even his manager Bill Curbishley, grab their cases off the bus and stride across the taxi-ranks to the entrance of Lyon railway station.

"Where's David Lee Roth now?!" deadpans Plant, as he wheels his own suitcase into the foyer, climbs the steps to the platform and then parks himself down on the case to eat the pie he's just bought from the patisserie downstairs.

The 14 of us await the arrival of the 3pm, 250mph, Train a Grande Vitesse to Paris. French travelers wander by staring at but not appearing to recognise the guy with the long curly hair. It's all so very casual, so unaffected, not to mention comical. Here is a man who, with a group called Led Zeppelin, not only made it to the room at the top but pretty much ordered the furniture there too.

Although he insists that slumming it (my words) on a train, albeit in First Class, as opposed to the Starliner jet is a purely practical method of getting around Europe - and planes are still the order of the day for the States - I am still touched by the idea that like his music, this is Plant's way of refusing to bow to anyone's expectations. He'll do it his way and like it or not, that's the only way there is.

Although he's not opposed to celebrating the legend of his past, he'll not even attempt to compete with it. "Someone said, 'This is great! The first time I booked you here - with Led Zeppelin - you sold 700 tickets."

Instead he is taking comfort from the ecstatic response the band had recently received at their first shows in Italy: "The last time Zep played there, we only lasted 20 minutes then they tear-gassed the crowd. I didn't really have time to formulate an opinion…"

Although the posters and record labels today say 'Robert Plant', he relies very heavily on four of the guys sitting on the platform around him - Doug Boyle (guitars), Chris Blackwell (drums), Charlie Jones (bass) and especially on his keyboard toting partner Phil Johnstone. Plant knows this and he's quick to admit: "Without them I don't exist. Without me they don't exist - but they can do something else. They have to sit back and go, 'F**kin' hell! Here he goes again.' They've really got a good patience factor."

Patience, flair and yes, the ability to do something else. Last night in Lyon's Le Transbordeur it was obvious that this band could do it on their own. They worked so hard to build on the Moroccan drum fanfare of opener 'Watching You' with the best of their own songs, and - yes - with some of Zep's. They cruised through a near perfectly paced set switching mood, pitch and tempo at the drop of a precisely aimed hat. And they rolled like the rising tide over an audience that initially were there just to see that guy in front but come the and were screaming their lungs out for just more of The Whole.

Very warm. Very touching. And an unlikely conclusion ot an evening that began threatening, in Robert's own words, to turn into something bearing an unnerving resemblance to Spinal Tap…

After a couple of days off, Robert had flown back to England, returning the day of the Lyon gig with Curbishley (who also handles Judas Priest and the Who) and Jayne from his office, myself and Ray Palmer…

But Palmer was directed to the wrong terminal at Heathrow and still sits there, our driver Jacques met us as planned but has since lost his car, and now we're being barged out of the way by Frenchmen with more baggage than manners while the bobs from Club Bastard pose for their 1990 drinking squad pictures.

After Jacques finally finds his motor, we head off to the hotel, clouds above us growing steadily darker, while Robert reminisces about spending sprees in Woolworths: "Do you remember the Embassy label? You could buy sound alike records for four bob when the real thing cost you 11/6."

Curbishley: "You could get Whitesnake too do you…" Plant: "…and charge two-thirds the price. Nah! Too much. What about Des O'Connor does Whitesnake? That'd be better…"

The thunderstorm breaks as we hit the Lyon rush hour, putting paid to Robert's plan to spend after the show drinking al fresco. He pivots in the backseat to explain to Jayne: "That's the thing to do here, everyone gathers in the squares and sits outside cafes watching the people go by. It's very popular in Rotherham too..."

The rain has eased off come the gigs where, as I arrive, Chris Blackwell on mandolin is leading the rest of the band through a painful version of "Dueling Banjos" form the end of 'Deliverance." Doug Boyle scurries from the dressing room to escape the din. Artwork for the next single, a bill Price remix of "Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night," is given the okay by Robert then, as show time approaches his voice is heard to bellow: "Is anyone gonna iron my gear for tonight?" All around me people wince and suddenly look incredibly busy.

The next day at the railway station, with Palmer at last in tow, ironing is not one of the subjects I figure I should talk to Robert Plant about. While I glance up the tracks, mulling over some other options, he passes me a book currently being devoured by Charlie Jones called "Deep Blues" and directs me to a passage on the legendary Howlin' Wolf - a storming piece of prose that ends with the line: "At this time, the Wolf was 55 years old."

Ever since we'd met, Robert had been teasing me about Heavy Metal. He and the rest of the band have an encyclopedic and almost intimidating knowledge of the blues that makes my ability to recite a complete Budgie discography pale in comparison. So as the sleek orange pencil-point train glides in, and Robert and I step in and settle down behind a table, HM seems a good subject to raise.

He sits with his back to the engine, "looking back at where I've been: the story of my life! Ha-ha", and we mull over the strengths of French railways, the success of last night's show before I ask him: why have you got such a downer on Heavy Metal? "I haven't. It depends on what it is." What is it you dislike then? "It's lack of consideration for the consumer. In other words, there's so much fake shit around. You know very well and I know very well that so many people take it as a career move and as a career alone to please people by doing the most obvious "thing."

But that's presupposing that the audience isn't in on the gag. "Oh sure, if they're in on the joke, then that's fine. As long as the joke is shared, then there's nothing to say. But at the same time, people like Faith No More and Prong and Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden - they are to me what is important about aggressive music. But the hollow gestures of so many…"I read your magazine last night (issue 290) - including the competition…" he stresses, fixing me with a stare while I can only smile and shrug at the memory of a jokey "Manic Nirvana" giveaway he'd apparently not found amusing. "…and I thought what does this all mean? Have I outgrown the whole idea of loud, dramatic, aggressive music meaning something really essential to my being? Something that excited me and made me lift my head up and to crane and look around to see what was going on. Are we all now joining in this great menage a trois? This huge breakfast of insanity?"

Sure it's mad, it's ridiculous sometimes, but it can be very funny as well. "But I just think, personally that the better intended like Soundgarden, like Faith No More - I think their first album is absolutely stunning. I think their first album caught, they just rode two styles and the two styles f**ked each other to such a degree it worked perfectly. More than that, it was a shock. It was great to hear. "Introduce Yourself" was one of the greatest pieces of music I'd heard in years. So to me, I like that. "As for the vapid gestures, sure it's nice to be a clown, but I don't think Ronnie James Dio is taking the piss, do you?" No, that worries me.

"Exactly! That's the thing I don't like. Where the intentions run adrift and the whole thing has no basis and no form." But you must be aware that some of the people who came to see you last night will go to see Dio next week. "Sure. they'll probably get more out of it as well because the gestures are more easily come by…"

But the thing about Kerrang! is we cover the whole spectrum from Richard Marx to Anthrax via yourself and Soundgarden. I think HM music is much broader and more interesting than you give it credit for. "But if you could include people like Tom Verlaine in it - people who play electric guitar but because they come from another area don't fit in with the trademark lettering on the front of the magazine or whatever".

"But then again, Richard Marx shouldn't be in any magazine. Just by contributing to his success, you're contributing to the demise of electric music. You may think differently…" No, no! I sheepishly admit that I used to like him, and even wore a neatly embroidered Richard Marx T-shirt, before hearing his records so often that I became too embarrassed to go out in it again…"I saw him in an Indianapolis hotel on his last tour and he's such a prick. He walked around and…I dunno, he's obviously got a problem relating to himself. I'm surprised he didn't trip over - his nose was pointing directly to the ceiling as we waddled around…"

You're being very cruel here. And it's all on tape so you know I'll print it…"I don't mind - as long as you print the bit about your Fred Perry T-shirt…" Me and my big mouth.

I change tack, try vainly to get him to reveal what made him come back from what' I'd always seen as the brink of disaster with his third solo LP, "Shaken 'N' Stirred" to the triumph of this new band and 1988's "Now and Zen…" What made you switch horses in midstream and get rid of the old band? "It was just unworkable. "Shaken 'N' Stirred" destroyed Robbie Blunt. And I don't know whether he had the capacity to keep moving around and shifting. He wasn't that elastic. And you've got to be pretty elastic and pliable to stick around me forever…"

Are you a hard taskmaster? "I'm not a taskmaster at all. I'm just a personality you can either exist with or not. I'm incredibly ambitious, my expectations are huge, but as time goes on, I'm beginning to realise that the way to make it big worldwide, I'm not going to bother doing. I've been able to regenerate energy in my own career. I had to get it happening before I could even play a Zep song. I had to do it on my own terms before I could say," he snaps his fingers, "now I'll do 'Trampled Under Foot." Once I'd cracked it and I was playing to 17,000 people, or whatever it was, playing what I'm doing now…then I could." But what made you decide that? "Success. My own success. I didn't want to ride on the back of Led Zeppelin to get a big audience, so when I'd got a big audience I brought two or three Led Zeppelin numbers back in. I didn't want to get five or six thousand extra people come waddling in just ot hear 'Battle of Evermore', I wanted them to hear "Little By Little" or some more Anti Pop."

You were beginning again, though, with 'Now And Zen…" "Yeah, and 'Now and Zen' cracked it. Opened the whole thing wide open. I was getting audiences in America that didn't know what band I was in before…" Surely not? "Really! We'd have boiler-rooms - the places where we'd put all the boilers after the gig, room with lots of conflicting cheap perfumes where we' d just go to say hello to them - just that in these conservative times - and they'd say to Charlie or Chris or whoever, 'Your singer's older than the rest of you, what did he used ot do before?' So that's not a Zep audience."

What did happen with 'Shaken 'N' Stirred' because it was dreadful, wasn't it? "It was what?" he says, leaning forward and grinning. Er…mostly dreadful (I thought I'd seen him quoted once describing it as 'disappearing up his own backside.'). But now something about his shark-like smile was telling me I was making a mistake. I had just insulted Robert Plant, face-to-face and I was feeling like a guy who'd pointed out that strange vent in the back of the emperor's new clothes…"I actually think it was mostly brilliant," he says, apparently repressing an urge to laugh - I'm told later that it's his favourite, but for now, I think I've got away with it.

"I tried to continue to change at will. I if had a really big fad on one area of music, I'd just pursue it. Therefore, when it came to 'Shaken 'N' Stirred,' I wanted to do away with the guitar in its natural form, playing lead parts just for the hell of it. So by using one of those Roland guitar synthesizers we tried to make so many solos that weren't blues-based but came out of paperback books. We were trying to make guitar solos that sounded like signature tunes from some unmade French detective movies from 1961.."

He goes on to quote me numerous examples of the trickery involved, and Robert, I swear I played it again as soon as I got home - but the best I could come up with was, 'mostly too clever." But at least it was clever enough to avoid Easy Street, AOR-ville. And even with this year's much more immediate sounding, "Manic Nirvana," he's still a long way from Richard Marx and Desmond Child: "I met him once, I know how warm his hand was when I shook it, I know what he does and it's not necessary." Nuff said. To lighter matters…

How do you see the difference between what Dread Zeppelin are doing and what, say, Kingdom Come were up to? "I don't think Dread Zeppelin can ever hope to scale the dizzy heights of mass media success. I think that they're cute and very, very, very funny. But you can't take them seriously. Kingdome Come were created by pompous videos with little Lenny The Dwarf looking as neat as poss, sounding like Led Zep. But Dread Zeppelin, have you heard their version of "Your Time Is Gonna Come?" F**kin' incredible! Why we never did it that way I'll never know - their arrangement's great! The amazing thing with Kingdom Come is that even Americans said, "we can't take this!" Zep is sacred ground and it'll be there when so much else has gone - however tired it might look today - and that's magnificent. You know in America people get radio stations to play records by phone requests, for Kingdome Come people were phoning up and saying, Take that shit off!"

"I haven't had to do anything - except try to find Lenny Wolf skulking around at one of my shows. It would have been nice to find him, have a sacrificial hanging on stage. Or done a duet, anything by Frank Ifield…" Have you seen Bonham yet? "No." That's dodgy to be around for you, isn't it? "It's very, very awkward." (Jason and guitarist Ian Hatton will be at the show in Paris tonight, but their singer Daniel MacMaster has mysteriously never introduced himself). You must be more flattered and amused than pissed off by it all though?

"I am amused. I can't be pissed off. The only thing I get pissed off about is people who claim that they have no influence, than go out and put the deposit on the sports car. I love bands who do Zeppelin tunes and say, 'This is a Zeppelin tune bla-blah." But it's the denial factor. That's as ludicrous as a masturbating vicar. Jason has been influenced by certain business people around him who've said, 'make the most of this. Your name is Bonham.' So they have done, from the band's logo…(the 'B' reworks his father's three interlocking circles symbol). I love Jason very much but maybe had he been in a different artistic environment and still been the good drummer that he is, he may have been more proud of what he's done, done something a bit more individual. I've got a kid - or two! and whether I was dead or alive I wouldn't expect him to start creating something of what I did."

The conversation rolls on as the train hurtles north. We laugh about the portions of his fantasy sequence from 'Rain Song' in 'The Song Remains The Same' now used in he introduction for 'Immigrant Song' "Yeah, isn't that funny?" You've just done it for a giggle? "Oh, sure! Sure, Olive!" he adds, aping Fred Flinstone. "That's the ultimate preposterous hard rock gesture, isn't' it? That horse - I had to have a box to stand on it. He was a 17 hand block steeplechaser, and so f**kin fast…It was filmed at a place called Dylfe in Wales. The horse wouldn't go in the water, I remember."

"Then we were doing this scene at Lake Bala in North Wales where - very environmentally conscious - we sprayed petrol or kerosene onto the lake and set fire to it at sunset, and we had the sword on the beach in silhouette. Look what we did for your magazine! We gave you a license for a lifetime, didn't we? There was me there with the sword, but thinking, if the Wolves don't score a f**kin' goal this Saturday, I'm not going again!"

What powered the boat? Cos there you were up in the front, but it didn't have a sail! "I'm pushing very hard to get the out-takes from 'The Song Remains the Same' put into film form and tied together with some soundtrack. On the out-takes you would see the captain of the boat, with his hat on, keep popping his head up. Cos he's lying down operating the tiller at the back. And I'm just standing there, like your average Black Country guy flying through the water near Aberdovey!

"But that's it! Didn't we create the ultimate rock gesture? There's Pagey crawling up his mountain, Jonesy looking for the wife, Bonzo with his car, and me with my search for truth - and the woman who vanishes at the end. Actually, that was quite neat. We couldn't use a dissolve, I wanted her to turn into china clay and disappear. Film techniques were too expensive. But it wasn't supposed to be, 'I can pull any chick in the world, man,' it was, 'That which is most beautiful and you strive hardest for should always be too far away to get.' Like this career!

"The crazy thing about it is, the sound was never mixed and it sounds so f**kin bad! There's no effect on my voice, some of it's out of tune, but it was just, 'Oh that'll do!" That was one of the most courageous things about Zep - 'F**k the mistakes…" 'Physical Graffiti' has got quite a few errors but we were just going for it."

And so after a few more smiles, a few more miles, the question: will Zep reform? He knows I had to ask but sighs and gives me short shrift. "I mean, look at the way it's covered, 'Weddings, bar mitzvahs and village fetes…'" he recites Kerrang!'s own words on the 'Zep jam' at Jason Bonham's wedding. "The real Led Zeppelin would have blown any band sky high - apart from Whitesnake. That powerhouse, that thundering entity could never reform, because there's one bloke missing." But you've played with Jason. Isn't he as close to his father as anyone could be? "Nobody is close to his father. His contribution in spirit, in personality and attitude"… Are you saying you wouldn't want to? "Yeah." Surely it would be fun, even just with the three of you? "Oh, the journalist."

He calls to his tour manager: "Rex, Kill him! Decapitate this man when we get off the train! I would never do it. It was wonderful, marvellous…and so is this. Taking me to issue is a good idea. But the magic of Zep was its sheer chance factor. Total lack of professionalism, the shit or bust phenomena that won those nights that it worked, against all odds. In the 90s, as artistic currency, that doesn't work. The audiences are different. The whole thing has tightened up. The times are different. Some of those gigs were real ordeals, everything was crazy, everything. It was as much to do with the crowd being wild as us. So now, to be dragged out to be admired by a bunch of yuppies…People tell me these guys go to the Albert Hall with their phones doing deals while the latest things is playing…" So you prefer to keep it to these one-offs. "Not even that."

The gig at Paris' Palais des Sports - Robert 's first in the city for 17 years - is even better than Lyon's. Around 4,000 people are going wild in a geometry-defying structure - and that's only for the support band: a troupe of Moroccan drummers that from the backstage sounded like the worst sound check ever.

Not so the front - or the sides, where Charlie is enraptured and Phil is so enthused he falls off in a sadly inadequate attempt to gain attention. The only hiccup apart form that returns uncannily to Robert's fateful remarks about Spinal Tap. As the band assemble for the shoehorned lineup shoot, Robert announces "we're ready" and they troop away to where Ray Palmer has his lights and camera poised. The band grin and pout, Palmer wheels out whatever cheesy old clichés he's using these days but suddenly, breathless tour manger Rex bursts in and instructs them to run. He heard the singer's "we're ready" too, and passed a message to the sound-desk that the band were on their way. Above us the intro tape rolls and the stage is deserted….

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Nice one Steve, now give your hands a rest... unless your secretary is doing your dictation.

I'd also like to know a little more about the band right after this.. the one with three guitar players. I saw a show on PBS (Public Broadcasting) in 93 I think. Only saw it once, but really liked one of the guitar players. He didn't stick around. cheers.

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I'd also like to know a little more about the band right after this.. the one with three guitar players. I saw a show on PBS (Public Broadcasting) in 93 I think. Only saw it once, but really liked one of the guitar players. He didn't stick around. cheers.

When the 1993-94 World Tour began in April 1993 the guitarists were Phil Johnstone (also on keyboards), Francis Dunnery (formerly of It Bites) and Kevin Scott MacMichael (formerly of Cutting Crew). This was the lineup you saw perform on the PBS program Center Stage, which showcased their 7/2/93 concert in Montreux, Switzerland and originally aired in North American the following month.

Innes Sibun replaced Kevin Scott MacMichael during the tour break in late August

and he, Johnstone and Dunnery finished out the tour which ran thru January 1994.

Sadly, Kevin (Nov 7, 1951 - Dec 31, 2002) died of lung cancer less than a year after being diagnosed.

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kick-ass, steve.

to read a kerrang interview of a zepper and the writer admits to liking richard marx....priceless!

robert gave some decent interviews during this period-most seemed to dictate where his career would head for the next decade.

i find him irreverent and funny, with a sincere perception of led zeppelin and it's meaning.

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