Has Robert Plant gone soft?
A lot of die-hard Led Zeppelin fans seem to think so. They say he's not screeching and rocking with abandon as he did during his 12 years as Zeppelin's lead singer.
When Zeppelin was the atomic bomb of rock 'n' roll (a Zeppelin concert was supposedly like one long explosion), high-voltage Plant was its primary source of power, even more so than guitarist Jimmy Page. At his best, Plant sang with unparalleled fury. He expended so much energy in concert that it often seemed as if he wouldn't make it to the next song.
But his detractors swear he's not the power Plant of old. Zeppelin--formed by Plant, Page, keyboards player John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham in 1968--disbanded in 1980 after the death of Bonham, whom they considered irreplaceable. Since then Plant has been primarily a solo artist, recording three albums--"Pictures at Eleven" (1982), "The Principle of Moments" (1983) and the just-released "Shaken 'n' Stirred." His current tour includes two local dates--June 17 at the Forum, June 18 at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
Plant's solo career took a slight detour last year when he recorded the mini-LP, "The Honeydrippers, Volume One," featuring pop-styled remakes of R&B classics. He was working with a group of rock veterans that included Page and Jeff Beck. On "Sea of Love," with his soft vocals swathed in strings, he sounds so middle-of-the-road that one critic labeled him the new Perry Como.
In defense of "Sea of Love," Plant claims that "that song was good for me. It broke through to all the radio stations that wouldn't normally play a Robert Plant record. My music usually isn't accessible--it wouldn't suit my personality to do very accessible music, like the kind Phil Collins does. I'll never be a real pop star, but that doesn't bother me."
None of these bad raps ruffle this droll, glib Englishman. Expressing concern about the complaints of disgruntled music fans seems beneath him. Unlike other rock singers, who tend to be scruffy, working-class types, Plant is comparable to one of those witty, snooty characters in a Noel Coward play.
His solo efforts really are much tamer. It may be that Plant, who'll be 37 in August, has merely calmed down with age. Now he simply prefers exploring the subtleties and intricacies of rock 'n' roll to sledgehammer rock.
He insisted that he doesn't miss being part of that rowdy outfit, preferring the freedom of a solo career. "I like solo touring better than touring with Zeppelin," he said. "There are burdens, but they're different. One is that I have to make decisions--but I only have to consider how I feel about it. In a band, everybody gets a vote. I like it much better this way."
When Zeppelin ended, Plant wasn't sure what he was going to do. At first he wasn't interested in a solo career. His first major move was forming the Honeydrippers in 1981 in England, to play old blues songs in clubs. That experience was partly for fun and partly to conquer some self-doubts.
After Zeppelin, Plant could easily work in front of a stadium crowd but he wasn't so sure about playing a club under the intense scrutiny of just a few hundred fans.
"I wanted to see if I had the conviction and the courage to sing in small places," he said. "I wasn't sure what I wanted--I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a singer or work in Bob's Big Boy. Playing clubs is very difficult; I know--I started in clubs. But I had lost touch with doing things on a smaller scale and I wasn't sure I could do it. I wasn't very secure then.
"Being in Zeppelin was like living in a goldfish bowl. Things were done on such a grand scale. The band was a perpetual-motion machine that didn't allow me to stop and consider the values of the whole thing. My values were kind of in chaos for a while. That experience was a distortion of reality. My perspective on reality and hard work was out of line."
Working in the Honeydrippers proved to Plant that he could successfully sing blues and rock 'n' roll oldies in clubs but, after a while, that wasn't enough.
"I just made up my mind one day that I couldn't sing Eddie Cochran songs forever," he said. "It was time for me to go back and start writing again. I had a lot of feelings and emotions I had to release somehow. Writing music is the way I release all that."
He prefers not to write alone. "I don't trust myself," he explained. "I like to bounce ideas off other people." In Zeppelin he wrote with Jimmy Page; as a solo artist, he had to find new collaborators.
"Writing without Jimmy was strange at first," Plant recalled. "It was startling to sit down and bare one's soul to somebody else--it took a while to get used to that."
After those first two solo albums, he squeezed in a Honeydrippers album. "It was time for release from writing two albums," he explained. "We were just having fun, we weren't thinking about tours or commercial success or anything like that. The success of the Honeydrippers surprised us."
Will there be Volume Two of the Honeydrippers? "Of course," he replied. "I'd like to get it out by Christmas, but I don't think that's possible."
Plant's show, featuring a horn section and a group of backup female singers, includes Honeydrippers material but none from Zeppelin.
"I avoid singing the old band songs," he said. "It's part of my past. I don't have to rely on it, the audiences aren't screaming for those old band songs."
Plant is kidding himself if he thinks fans don't want to hear him sing Zeppelin classics like "Stairway to Heaven." In concerts, according to reliable sources, they are definitely yelling to him to sing those songs. He just chooses not to listen.