Rock’n’roll is barely two decades old, but its historians have already determined its Dark Ages: during the decline of the Beatles’ civilization but before the enlightenment of Los Angeles and Nashville had taken firm hold. That was the Heavy Metal Age, roughly 1969-71, when one group, Great Britain’s Led Zeppelin, emerged as the genre’s unrivaled sovereign.
Heavy metal is the music that most closely commits artistic child abuse, aimed, as it is, at a constituency presumably under 18. Led Zep’s pulverizing force has made it a sound to get cauliflower ears by and, as such, is preferably experienced in a semiconscious state. Yet, unintimidated by critics, rock fans all over the world scuffed up 24 million Zep albums (the group outsells the Rolling Stones’ LPs in the U.S. by about two to one). It has also grossed some $15 million in concerts in the U.S., along the way breaking tour records of the Beatles themselves. Now there’s another LP and a film of old concert footage-cum-fantasy sequences, both titled The Song Remains the Same. Though heavy metal has faded as an art form, Led Zeppelin continues to pillage and plunder the land, as ever the most puissant rock group on earth.
The double LP, the group’s first-ever live (not counting poor-quality bootlegs), has become their eighth platinum release (out of eight), and the film is now filling some 80 theaters across the U.S. It is little more than the group’s home movie monument to itself, full of violent nightmares and narcissism, but it will gross another $3 million by Christmas.
Once again the reviewers cocked a snoot at the scent of success. The New York Times, which assigned a movie reviewer to the case, simply dismissed The Song as too loud, which to Zep fans is like saying Gone with the Wind has too many colors. The biweekly rock journal Rolling Stone, pursuing its critical feud with the group, called the film “a tribute to their rapaciousness and inconsideration.” It is true that the Zep has a reputation for laying waste to hotels and ladies on tour, but that could largely be a canard floated by Zep haters and wallflowered groupies.
In their defense (to the extent that they care), the fearsome foursome deploys singer-lyricist Robert Plant, their most lucid and amiable liaison to the rest of the world. (The other members of the group are John Bonham, drummer; John Paul Jones, bassist-keyboardist, and Jimmy Page, guitarist-composer and maestro.) At least a closet intellectual and monogamist, Plant, 28, is the idol of fans more likely to wonder about Kiss than Kierkegaard and who can hardly pick out his poetic images from the aural assault. Actually, says Plant, it’s the band’s stately restraint—most evident during Page’s sparkling acoustic tracks—that has sustained its supremacy over imitators like Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. “We ebb and flow to soothe, then explode as we do in Stairway to Heaven. We have always stood alone in that regard, and critics have always missed the intricacies of our music. They have allowed our name to be linked,” he sniffs, “with that horrendous boring period of music—heavy metal. I hate the term.”
Plant, nevertheless, can live with it. A witty man with a dependably effervescent spirit, he is probably the one rock star who numbers on his list of heroes not only faves like Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf but also William the Conqueror. In fact, Plant is a Medieval Freak—”I can find my way from 500 A.D. through to 1066 pretty well as an amateur historian,” he says. Robert resides in Wales, steeped, he says dreamily, “in the language, the smells, the wisps of mists from Welsh history swirling around me. In those old days,” he adds, “to march 80 miles to protect your heritage, you really had to have it together. Tribes would come,” he muses, “striking quickly, stamp their authority on their enemies, then vanish with no trace at all.”
Of course, when Plant goes off to battle, it’s usually in a leased jet or limo. As for the roistering, brawling Zeppelin legend, Robert maintains, “I was a voyeur, watching it all happen.” And in this mellower time, he says, “To rock isn’t necessarily to cavort. I still like to get carried away—but passively.”
When he retreats home, it’s to his Eurasian wife of eight years, Maureen, 28, daughter Carmen, 8, and son Karac, 5. “We call him Baby Austin,” Dad reports, “after that Bionic Man. He knows no fear, has no anticipation of danger. I envy him.” The Plants live in an 800-year-old stone house on 290 rolling acres. “Plunk,” Robert exults, “on the side of a conical Welsh mountain tucked away like in the fold of a good skirt—where we should all be. No, no, no. I didn’t mean that…”
All four Zep members are family men, millionaires, country squires (Plant also has a home near Birmingham, as does Bonham; Page and Jones are in Sussex), with eight kids among them. “It’s much easier to live that settled life,” Plant has discovered, “when you know there’s the other too. They augment each other. I daresay one good concert justifies a week of satisfaction at home. Kids are very stabilizing,” he philosophizes. “Carmen used to think she had two fathers—the one whose singing she heard through the speakers and the one on whose knee she was sitting. They love it when I come back to tell them tales.”
An endangered species, the English rock-star-resident of the U.K., Plant won’t tax-exile his family, he says, because “wealth isn’t something you hide away for in some remote place—just to maintain figures. Life’s got to be lived the best way possible.” For Robert that’s roaming his land with his family underfoot; to “get involved with my 300 sheep and one pig—her name is Madam” and jot down “my meanderings about life which might give me a lyrical inkling.” He also used to play soccer with a village team, until he broke his foot and ankle in an auto accident during a family excursion in Greece 16 months ago.
That injury—and the long, hobbling recovery—halted a mini-tour of the U.S. and forced Plant to sell his beloved horses. “I wouldn’t like to be tended to only every now and then,” he empathized. “That’s why,” he winks, “I joined a rock’n’roll band.”
It could have been worse—like an accounting career, which is what Plant, the son of a Birmingham civil engineer, was originally targeted for via Cambridge. “I can still count faster than an adding machine,” he cracks. “But as a lad I was always gregarious. You can’t fake being an extravert. Nothing better than bright conversation.” So the lure of black blues music led Plant into Birmingham’s bohemian circles, and several bands in the mid-’60s—the most durable of which was the Band of Joy whose drummer was Bonham, another local lad. Plant had never written a song before Zeppelin.
In 1968 the fabled Yardbirds (of which Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had been members) split up. Page set out to form his own band. He had known Jones for years around London’s sessions circuit and learned of Plant and Bonham through a musician friend. “From the first it was pure enthusiasm and desire.” says Plant. “Jimmy doesn’t play—he enforces. It was the Ultimate Unit we had all been thinking about for years.”
Robert says the “forced senility” from his accident is over and the group will tour the U.S. by spring ’77 for the first time in two years. “There is a great amount of triumph and emotion when we rock onstage—and a royalness about the way we do it.” But are Plant and Zep still up to the task? “If we couldn’t rock we wouldn’t try. I’m not going to turn into the Leonard Cohen of rock—sitting there going to sleep singin’ the blues,” he cracks. The satisfaction Robert Plant vows to provide—in a multisyllable adverb probably never employed by a rock monster before—will be “adamantly Zeppelin.”