Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have been pop stars for decades, but last spring, when they set up to play alongside the street musicians at J’ma El F’na, the central market and nerve center of Marrakech, Morocco, they were strangers in a strange land.
Unlike the other players, they weren’t performing for tips. Instead, they were recording a track for a new album, “No Quarter,” which will be released Tuesday, and generating exotic footage for their recently aired MTV special, “Unledded” (the show will air again on Monday).
“It was really quite simple,” explains Plant of the logistics involved in playing such an unusual venue. “What you do is buy enough policemen to carve you up some space between the Sudanese drummers, the fortunetellers and the snake charmers.”
Page and Plant understand the meaning of muscle. As the frontmen of Led Zeppelin, one of the most popular and influential rock bands in history, they became famous in an era when performers didn’t express guilt over the perks and powers of stardom--they took them for granted.
Founded in 1969 by veteran London session stars Page (fresh from his stint with the Yardbirds) and John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin ruled in a pop world that predated MTV, but it’s no surprise that the reunion of singer Plant and guitarist Page took into account the video channel’s role as cultural gatekeeper.
Last month’s “Jimmy Page/ Robert Plant (Unledded)” turned out to be the highest rated of all “MTV Unplugged” shows, and though the resulting album does not bear the “Unplugged” logo, MTV will receive royalties from the sales of “No Quarter.” That’s the way business is done in 1994.
Rumors of a Led Zeppelin reunion have persisted for the past dozen years, cresting when the band regrouped to perform at 1985’s Live Aid and at Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary concert in 1988. This project began jelling when Plant was approached to do MTV’s “Unplugged” as a solo artist, and the two sensed an opportunity to begin a second chapter--and to tap into one of the biggest potential paydays in popular music.
But don’t call this a Led Zeppelin reunion.
“The whole medium of four guys standing there being sincere is obsolete,” Plant says. “Sure, I’ve been touring for years in a format not unlike that, but I didn’t have to fulfill any responsibility to history. We’d be expected to do that.”
Page and Plant are sitting in a conference room at the Manhattan offices of Atlantic Records, where an assistant has lit candles and sticks of “Bright Blessings” incense before the interview.
Plant, wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a painting of Jesus Christ, is the more loquacious of the pair, quick to answer a question while Page nods in agreement.
When Page, dressed more formally in a black sport coat, lights a cigarette, Plant grips a stick of incense to camouflage the smoke. Jazzed by their renewed partnership, both men appear to be still getting re-accustomed to each other’s company.
Their renewal began late last year when Plant got together with Page to talk over MTV’s “Unplugged” offer.
“For me to try to take the glory of Zep by myself would have been ridiculous,” says Plant, “so I wondered, how could we do it together? We concluded that the only way we could do it would be to take what we did in the past, which has been talked about enough that it’s rather cheesy, and take it to somewhere that people might not expect. In that way, the project would show people where we were going to be at if we were going to be careerists.”
Instinctively, the duo knew they wouldn’t adhere to the standard “Unplugged” format. In the end, they filmed and recorded acoustic folk and blues tunes in scenic locales in Wales, and traveled to Marrakech to rehearse and perform with a quartet of gnaoui musicians, whose music is the rough Moroccan equivalent of early-American spirituals and work songs.
Finally, for two nights on a London sound stage, they were joined by a six-piece band built around Plant’s most recent rhythm section, an ensemble of 12 Egyptian musicians and 29 string players. To inspire new songs, Page and Plant jammed to tapes of African drum patterns sent by a musical acquaintance from Paris. (Three new songs appear on “No Quarter” and nine more are already written.)
Part of the power of Led Zeppelin was that such a big sound could come from such a small band. Now, on “No Quarter,” Plant and Page are recasting the songs of a quartet with virtually dozens of players.
Led Zeppelin broke up in 1981 after the death of drummer John Bonham. But throughout the ‘70s, the group (Jones played bass and keyboards) was the last word in hard rock.
Though widely credited as the primary architects of heavy metal, Zeppelin’s nine studio albums actually reflected a wide set of influences that included blues, folk, reggae, funk and Arabic music.
In the late ‘70s, punk rockers ridiculed Zeppelin for what was seen as the bloated excess of their riffy songs and superstar lifestyles. Today, the alternative rock bands that are reaping the sales that punks were denied owe as much to Led Zeppelin as the Sex Pistols.
And the band remains Page’s pride and joy. It’s almost touching to hear him say that he never read any good reviews about the group until the 1990 release of the boxed set titled simply “Led Zeppelin.” In retrospect, the bad reviews might be explained by the fact that their lyrics, often a critic’s primary focus, were the least of the group’s virtues.
Zeppelin was about sound: the vast arsenal of guitar tones that Page would lay atop the rolling thunder of Bonham’s drums, the supportive spark of Jones’ bass and keyboards and the cocky squeal of Plant’s voice as he muscled his way into the mix.
Page is now 50 years old, and while both he and Plant have maintained the rock-star hair of their youth, it surely must have crossed their minds that they couldn’t wait forever to build upon the clout of a band that’s sold in the neighborhood of 90 million albums.
While Page and Plant promote “No Quarter,” John Paul Jones, their old bass player and arranger, is on the road with avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas (the tour hits the Wadsworth Theater on Dec. 4). Jones was not invited to join the semi-reunion--he learned of it in the press, which didn’t really surprise him, as he had to insist on being included in Zeppelin’s Live Aid appearance.
“I do miss the private plane,” says Jones in a separate interview. “But then again, this might be more real. Fortunately, I was the least recognizable face in Led Zeppelin, whereas Robert and Jimmy could scarcely leave the hotel. Me, I liked to walk through the city and imbibe the vibe. If you don’t do that, you end up on another planet--if you’re not careful.”
In their heyday, Led Zeppelin certainly did play by a different set of rules. Plenty has been written about the wild groupie scene and heavy-handed security that surrounded the group on tour. The late promoter Bill Graham devoted a whole chapter in his 1992 memoirs to Zeppelin. For Graham, the band and its entourage embodied the worst side of rock ‘n’ roll--the arrogance bred of big-money superstardom.
That was a long time ago, of course, and these days, when Plant, 46, looks at footage from Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film, “The Song Remains the Same,” he asks himself, “Was I really that silly?”
Which is one way of saying that while both Plant and Page remain tremendously proud of Led Zeppelin--and bemused at the profound effect the band has had on countless other groups--they like to see their common past as merely the starting point for a different future.
Soon, they plan to record a studio album of new material and to take a band on the road early next year that will include both rock and Egyptian musicians. In any event, Page and Plant agree that the songs will not remain the same.
Explains Plant, “The fact that all our misgivings and the time that had gone by were so easily moved aside in the union of writing made our new collaboration easy, if not simple. It made us think that we could be open to what might come next, when we don’t have to work over our old material, but when we can do something that’s brand new.”