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Plant--The Hardy Perennial of Heavy Metal

June 12, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

Singer Robert Plant is your typical humble legend--when it comes to Led Zeppelin anyway.

You'll never catch him crowing about his old band, which split up eight years ago. Nor does Plant, now a solo performer, turn peacock when it's mentioned that he was considered one the great singers in rock history during Zeppelin's heyday.

Even a question like "What made Zeppelin so great?"--an opportunity for him to pontificate about the virtues of this revered English band--elicited only a modest response from the witty, chatty singer.

"I can't say we were innovative--that's the wrong word," said Plant, who performs Monday at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Tuesday at the Forum. "What we had was chemically very interesting. We were using an old formula. It's just the way some of the chemicals reacted together--they fizzled and popped in a different way. When we were together that's what happened. But great? I don't know about that."

Today, strangely, Zeppelin is bigger than ever. Metal-maniacs still love the band, and its music is still a blueprint for metal musicians everywhere. The band's 1971 classic, "Stairway to Heaven," is one of most popular songs in the history of rock radio.

Led Zeppelin--Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham--called it quits in 1980 after the death of the irreplaceable Bonham. But the current edition of heavy-metalmania has swept Zeppelin, the granddaddy of the genre, back into prominence.

Two recent Zeppelin reunions at benefit concerts have fueled the resurgence of interest in the band--the first at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985 and the second at the recent Atlantic Records show at Madison Square Garden, which featured Bonham's son, Jason, on drums.

All of a sudden Plant, 39, is considered hip by a new generation of fans. "These kids start fawning over me and screaming, 'A legend, a legend!' " Plant said, laughing. "I look behind me to see if they're referring to somebody else. But no, they're talking about me.

"Me a legend. . . . That's really funny."

Plant is on tour promoting his current album, "Now and Zen." He started making solo albums in 1982, with "Pictures at Eleven," followed by "The Principle of Moments" (1983) and "Shaken 'n' Stirred" (1985).

Scour any of his first three albums in search of anything Zeppelinesque and you'll come up empty. They're also low on passion--a quality Zeppelin had to spare. For most of his solo career, Plant wasn't going forward with that rag-tag rock--just away from Zeppelin.

"I was just trying to do stuff that was far removed from Zeppelin," he said. "It wasn't commercial but I wanted to be commercial--on my terms. I was on some kind of mission to make mildly obscure music, but at the same time be a success on the pop platform."

Since then, he's aborted that mission. "Now and Zen," sprinkled with Zeppelin references, has more energy than all his previous solo albums combined. Jimmy Page even plays guitar on the songs "Tall Cool One" and "Heaven Knows." Still, compared to old Zeppelin material, "Now and Zen" is mellow pop. However, it's his biggest solo album yet, selling more than a million units.

Plant has simmered down his raging vocals. "I can now sing with different texturing," he said. "On a song like 'Heaven Knows' (from the new album) I can sing in a low register, with shading. I would never have tried that with Led Zeppelin. It would have been lost."

Plant's new band, including keyboardist Phil Johnstone, bassist Charlie Jones, guitarist Doug Boyle and drummer Chris Blackwell, is rather slick and somewhat sedate but is still superior to the outfit Plant worked with on his first three albums. Personality conflicts and ego clashes forced Plant to scrap that band in 1985.

The big news about Plant's current tour is that he is finally including some old Zeppelin material in his shows. "I feel comfortable about my past now," he said. "I don't have to consciously deny it anymore. The Zeppelin material is part of the spectrum of my career. I deal with it as such. The new songs are still the main part of the show."

But he still won't sing "Stairway to Heaven" on tour.

"Definitely not," he said. "I won't go that far. I'd break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show. I wrote those lyrics and found that song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later, I don't know. It's just not for me.

"I sang it at the Atlantic Records show because I'm an old softie and it was a way of saying thank you to Atlantic because I've been with them for 20 years. But no more of 'Stairway to Heaven' for me."

Plant was just as negative when the inevitable question about a full-fledged Zeppelin reunion came up. "It's nothing I want to do now."

Right now, the closest thing to a Zeppelin reunion is the Plant-Page collaborations on the "Now and Zen" album and the rocking tune, "The Only One," which they co-wrote, and Plant sings, on the Page's solo debut album "Outrider," due out next week.

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