It’s all about that great once upon a time when there were changes to made and music actually was a catalyst for a lot of beautiful change. That’s why sad old hippies still keep their hair long. Because we were part of something that meant something more than just ego and income.
In last night’s documentary, Robert Plant: By Myself, Plant discussed his musical journey from Stourbridge grammar school boy, via the British blues boom, superstardom with Led Zeppelin in the 70s, to the recent Band of Joy album. Interviewed by Mark Radcliffe, he came across as a genial and thoughtful guy, who throughout his career has been receptive to a wide variety of musical influences, beginning with blues and rock’n’roll:
I was a little grammar schoolboy and I could hear this kind of calling through the airwaves. I could hear this voice transmuting into something different to the spoken word and way different to Dickie Valentine and the British crooners who were just about to get their P45s.
I left home at 16 and I started my real education musically, moving from group to group, furthering my knowledge of the blues and of other music which had weight and was worth listening to. The black music that we listened to was sexy and alluring, it had great driving beats and rhythms which we couldn’t even get near. I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at the time – I was just mesmerised.
Plant spoke of how, with drummer and best mate John Bonham, his musical explorations took him further – into Dylan, folk-rock and psychedelia:
At that period in time, the great change was coming…you go from Gene Vincent and that precocious, sexually-charged rock’n’roll into the whole social commentary that was developing. The first two, three, Dylan albums – that was a whole different way of telling a story.
Plant and Bonham formed the Band of Joy, merging blues with psychedelic sounds. Though the band met with no commercial success, word quickly spread about the young man with the powerful voice, leading to one of those meetings that have transformed music history (John and Paul at Woolton fete, Keith and Mick on Dartford station platform): when Jimmy Page saw the band perform at a teacher training college gig in Wolverhampton.
The interview was mainly focussed on Plant’s work since Led Zeppelin. He had this to say about the ‘rock god’ cliché attached to those years in routine media surveys:
The estimation of …people about any one person is always generally a million miles from where it’s really at. If I have a surge in creativity and it sticks to the wall for a while – which is what’s been happening recently – points of reference to the media are so clichéd , it’s frightening. You cannot judge anyone’s work by just going to the spikes … ’cause my spikes are bits no-one ever even thinks about. My spikes are getting off the plane in 1972 and driving into the Atlas mountains with a tape machine, exploring Berber singers in the field, walking through farmers’ markets in the middle of nowhere with the rattle of drums in the corner. Those were the moments that were so far away from ‘rock god’ but they were spectacular.
In the most moving section of the interview, Plant spoke of the dark years of the late 1970s. In 1977, Plant lost his eldest son, Karac, to an unidentified viral infection when he was just five. Three years later, drummer John Bonham also died, aged 32:
I’d already lost my beautiful boy…you have to decide what to do. I applied to become a teacher in the Rudolph Steiner education system and I was accepted to go to teacher-training college – this was 1978 – and I was really quite keen to just walk. John had been incredibly supportive to me, so to lose John…that was the end of any naivety.
In 2002, with his newly-formed band Strange Sensation, Plant released a widely acclaimed collection of mostly blues and folk remakes, Dreamland. Five years later, after a further album with Strange Sensation, he had moved on again – recording and performing with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. Their duet album, Raising Sand, was a huge success, critically and commercially, including material from R&B, blues, folk, and country songwriters including Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Doc Watson, Little Milton and The Everly Brothers. This is their performance of ‘Killing The Blues’ on Later With Jools Holland:
In 2005 with members of Strange Sensation he journeyed to Mali to play at the Festival in the Desert, the most remote music festival in the world:
We went on a plane that was full of crackpots and extremists..we landed somewhere in southern Morocco and then made our way with a small team from Blue Peter who were doing a programme on education in Mali. They had a little tiny plane they had got from some Christian zealots who ferried people around Africa for a sum of money. We followed the river all the way up – it was desert, desert, desert…one patch of green. And the patch of green was where Ali Farka Toure had taken his income he made from the album with Ry Cooder and sunk artesian wells in the desert and created a garden of avocados and salads and tomatoes – his contribution back to his people. We landed and made our way up to the Festival – 60 miles north of Timbuktu by no roads, nothing at all, just guys driving by the occasional tree that they remembered.
One of the songs that Plant performed at the Festival in the Desert was ‘Win My Train Fare Home’. Here he performs it at Glastonbury, I think:
Real World have recently posted this great video of Robert Plant in blues mode at 2009 WOMAD in Abu Dhabi performing Fixin’ To Die with Justin Adams (guitarist in Strange Sensation) and Juldeh Camara:
Looking back over his career, Plant mused on the way both he and the music has changed:
When I was a kid I thought that Robert Johnson had got the whole world sewn up with his lyrics – sexual innuendo and stuff like that – ‘cos it was hoot, funny and very clever. But to actually make those work much later in life I think you either have to be prepared to go into character or…shelve it.
My grandfather was a musician – my great-grandfather was a musician. They formed really important Black Country brass bands, which had posh names but were usually known as the Dudley drinking band …it goes on and on and on. The only difference was they were playing Souza marches and no ‘squeeze my lemon’ involved. The only thing they had to change was their tunics as their portage increased. We have to change our mind enough to make it worthwhile.
Following the documentary, BBC2 screened the Electric Proms performance by Plant’s latest ensemble, Band Of Joy, that features singer Patty Griffin, singer-guitarist Buddy Miller, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Darrell Scott, bassist-vocalist Byron House, and drummer-percussionist-vocalist Marco Giovino. The encore, with the London Oriana Choir joining the Band on stage, was superb. They performed a gospel medley – ‘Twelve Gates To The City’ – and the Bahamian gospel song, ‘I Bid You Goodnight’, that Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band incorporated into ‘A Very Cellular Song’ back in 1968.
The joy of Robert Plant revealed in these shows is his unceasing musical curiosity, which has taken him, inter alia, to Timbuktu, Memphis and the Appalachian mountains. The Band of Joy album is, for me, the best of 2010.
The material is gathered from a wide range: Los Lobos, Low, Richard Thompson, r & b, rockabilly, folk and gospel rarities from the 1940s 50s. But none of these covers is remotely like the original. With the band – Patty Griffin, vocals; Darrell Scott on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion and pedal steel; Byron House on bass; Marco Giovino, drums and Buddy Miller astonishing on electric guitar – Plant has transformed these songs into something completely original with stunning arrangements.
The standout track is ‘Harms Swift Way’, the last song written by Townes Van Zandt shortly before his death. Plant and the band started with a lyric that is raw and unpolished and a melody preserved on a ramshackle demo by Townes, offered by his widow. It’s one of those songs that lift the hairs on the back of your neck: an elegy to passing time and lost memories, illuminated by flashes of beautiful imagery. It sounds like something off Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Buddy Miller’s jangly guitar and ravishing vocals from Plant and Griffin.
There is a home out of harms swift way
I set myself to find
I swore to my love I would
Bring her there
Then I left my love behind
The desert was long
The mountain high
The road ran steep and winding
The promises so easily made
Unbearable, yet binding
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna count my time?
Time will go, it never stays
Memory locked in her passing
Try, oh try to cling to her
Until she becomes everlasting
The world’s still blue
My word’s still true
I feel I’m turning hollow
She does as she please
If ever she leaves
I’ll strangle upon the sorrow
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna mark my time?
The road is past, tomorrow the sky
Between sometimes is blinding
Someday soon when I turn to cloud
I will fly on her wings somehow
Wrapped in the road and filled with above
The ground seems to fade away
Hold to the earth like a new born child
Pray she returns someday
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna mark my time?