ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 30, 1993
By Steve Newton
Robert Plant is one of the best-known rock stars in the world. He’s certainly one of the best-known rock stars I’ve ever had the opportunity to chat with. So when he calls from New York and I ask him how he’s doing, the last thing I want him to say is, “Very, very pissed off.”
But he does.
“I’m very, very pissed off,” asserts the shaggy-maned rocker, “because Black Sabbath aren’t gonna re-form. Think about it. Now what do you do?”
Luckily, Plant is only kidding around. He’s not really a Black Sabbath fan. He’s just in a good mood to poke fun at one of the originators of heavy metal, a genre he’s quick to distance his old band, Led Zeppelin, from.
“We didn’t play heavy metal,” claims Plant. “We played a mixture of acoustic and very hard, guitar-oriented rock. In different parts of its metamorphosis it was as much about Celtic folk music as it was about Leadbelly—in songs like ‘Gallows Pole’, for instance. I think heavy metal came from people like Blue Cheer and Clearlight, and then it was mutilated by Deep Sabbath, as [Jimmy] Page used to call them—the archetypal lumbering rock unit.”
Plant isn’t playing heavy metal today, either. His latest release, Fate of Nations, was influenced by the American West Coast music of the late ’60s, which had inspired him even before Led Zep travelled across the seas to lay claim to North America.
“I just picked up on an attitude and intention which to me just kind of made perfect sense,” he says. “It wasn’t trying too hard; nobody tried to be hip, I don’t think. I suppose there was the affectation of style and dress, just like there is now, but I thought that the songs themselves were very sensitive and they were coming from the right place. They were talking about the world as it was then, you know. Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Kaleidoscope—so many bands were really telling it like it really was, rather than just talking about how much they loved their baby and how they wanted to pick her up in their pink Cadillac or whatever shit it was.
“And I think that there’s a sensitivity and a concern around with people like U2, R.E.M., Blind Melon, you know—people singing about stuff that’s not just the usual pop stuff, and that’s the way I feel. You know, I like to sing macho songs and all sorts of songs that are…dramatic, but I was inspired in those early days to write music that was more considerate. So I’m doing what we did in Zep, I guess—I’m trying to write music that inspires me and lets my own creative juices flow.”
Lyrically, the spirit of what Plant calls “world care” is reflected in Fate of Nations, from the cover art of a melting planet Earth to the liner info about air pollution, acid rain, and oil spills. The album’s closing track, “Network News”, takes a grim look at the aftermath of the Gulf War:
“The lion and the serpent parade out in the sun, all order, flex, and gesture/Behold the techno infidel has come, with satellite bravado and infrared texture/Beyond these days in time to come, whose fate is it to measure/Upon these sands such damage done, to spoil God’s finest treasure/Hallelujah, hallelujah, oil, oil, oil, oil.”
“Entertainment is entertainment,” says Plant, “but there’s no reason why you can’t be entertained and stimulated as well, in some kind of positive and correct direction. I think it’s gotta be done, you gotta get on with it and you also gotta sing songs that are beautiful, like ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ and ‘Memory Song’. There’s room for everything, but I think it’s kind of my responsibility to say that I’m not just a dumb cluck who wears a pair of tight jeans and sings fast songs about women’s parts.”
Although Plant may be looking at the bigger picture with his songwriting these days, his concert approach has become much more focused, as anyone lucky enough to nab tickets to his sold-out October 7 Orpheum show must know. So why play a 2,780-seat venue when he could easily pack five times as many people into the Pacific Coliseum?
“Well, I’ll tell you why. In the last year, I’ve been to see three major big concerts—Michael Jackson, U2, and so on—and I find that the actual sentiment of the show gets lost after about the first hundred feet. And I just thought that I’d made a sensitive record which I tried to make with no sort of…no bullshit, and I also wanted to do some shows so that the people everywhere in the gig can actually pick up on what I’m tryin’ to do, rather than get it telegraphed by the fortunate few at the front.”
Plant’s touring band includes longtime keyboardist Phil Johnstone, former Cult drummer Michael Lee, bassist Charlie Jones, and guitarists Frances Dunnery (from British cult faves It Bites) and Innes Siborn. Canadian-born guitarman Kevin Scott MacMichael—who played on every Fate of Nations track and cowrote three tunes—is conspicuous by his absence.
“Unfortunately, Kevin left us last week,” explains Plant. “The studio work was very successful, but the road work wasn’t quite so appropriate, really. And so we’ve gone for a more blues-based approach. Kevin has now been superseded by a guy called Innes Siborn, who is a blues guitarist who tours Europe constantly with his own blues band. He’s a young guy who plays somewhere between early Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. He’s a very, very powerful player, and it’s a very hard-hitting show. I mean, this is not for the weak.”
Plant says he’s feeling very strong himself these days, and the 46-year-old rocker is looking forward to tackling the rigours of the road once again.
“When I was a kid, before I made any records, we just did gigs. We played for three or four hours, we got really excited, and then we stopped and went mad somewhere. Then we moved to the next town in a station wagon. We played and played and played, and that’s really what it’s all about. That’s what I want to do; I don’t find it a chore. And touring is actually easier now, because there’s no drugs. No drugs, no tobacco. It’s great.”
Not even the odd beer?
“I have a few sort of flushes in my countenance still,” says Plant. “Young girls still whimper as I walk past. If they don’t, they will. Hee-hee.”