The Psychedelic Roots of Robert Plant
Issue One August 2019
Words by Riley Fitzgerald
Graphic by Nik Gernert
“Led Zeppelin rebaptized acid rock as a dream of druid community, playing riffs as if they were runes carved in granite, singing lyrics as if they were ciphers containing The Truth.” -Jim Miller
Let’s get to the bottom of this. And we’re pondering over a very serious question here. Is Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s leonine lead singer, the blues caterwauling fairy prince and self-proclaimed Golden God, at all that psychedelic?
A few facts. When a reporter from British music paper Melody Maker traveled to Plant’s Midlands farmhouse to interview him in 1970, Rob couldn’t help but gush when it came to his enthusiasm for Buffalo Springfield. When another journalist from the same paper interviewed him again five years later, Love was circling on the record player. And now that you mention it, doesn’t ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ also sound a lot like Moby Grape’s ‘Never’?
Surely this is more than coincidence. So what gives? Wasn’t Robert the strutting frontman of one of the world’s heaviest of heavy outfits, Led Zeppelin? Didn’t he stand front and center of a group whose first album is often celebrated as the year zero of aggressive and hard-hitting rock?
Jimmy Page, with his black paraphernalia and ‘do what thou wilt’ occultism, certainly fits the bill when it comes to the kind of dark demagogue you would think suitable for leading such an outfit. Plant, on the other hand, can at times seem out of place. Journalists of the day picked up on this. As one writer from Creem Magazine observed:
“Plant has always seemed rather divorced from reality, often giving the impression of being a leftover from the days of flower power, with his golden curls and brightly-coloured stage tops. That image has been perpetrated by interviews that are both vague and filled with scattered references to peace, love and world understanding – topics which have tarnished considerably in the reality of the Seventies.”
Plant was often described as such, a hippy holdover, one less inclined to inviting his audiences to raise their hands in fits of satanic ecstasy than rambling on about astrology, mantra and Lord of the Rings.
So how then does it all fit together? Well, the first thing to note is that Plant absolutely can seem incongruous if you think of Zeppelin as heavy metal. Today Zeppelin and the word ‘heavy’ are synonymous. The Zep are, after all, what the ‘heavy’ in heavy metal is all about. Looking back their 1969 debut does nothing to displace this. Led Zeppelin was harder, and it was louder. It was one of the many markers that psychedelia was over and that the Sixties were giving way to the turbulent years to come.
Yet when the Zeppelin first took flight the concept of heavy metal was far from fully formed. While the term may have been coined by William Burroughs, namechecked by Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ and hinted at on a Uriah Heep album cover, critics and fans didn’t even start using the term with any regularity until 1971. None-the-less people knew that something was afoot. As the Sixties’ counterculture was moving towards a more political and revolutionary tone rock’s music had become harsher and heavier to reflect it. Hard and progressive forms of rock were supplanting the delicate whimsy of psychedelia which had cast its spell over popular music in the years between 1965 and ‘67.
Standing aside from more organized ends of the progressive movement, bands like Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, as well as Vanilla Fudge were excelling in the delivery of crude and sludgy riffs. Hendrix could be argued to have gone here too. But it was Cream and The Jeff Beck Group which embodied the aesthetic.
Zeppelin had a connection to both. Jeff Beck had played with Page in The Yardbirds and by 1968 his new outfit The Jeff Beck Group alongside English compatriots Cream were enjoying phenomenal success in the United States. There was a huge demand for this new kind of music, something Page was keenly aware of when he was pulling Zeppelin together. Page was also attuned to the fact that as a result of Cream splitting up in ’68 their former label, Atlantic was hungry for a replacement. Recruiting John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, John Bonham, Page envisioned he could replace Cream and rival Beck.
But while Page had custom-built his Zeppelin to cash in on this new wave of rock, Plant’s mind lingered on the love philosophy of the hippy era. How did it get there? Plant, after all, had built his career as a professional blues belter from the Birmingham circuit. The bars and clubs he played were places about as far removed from the Flower Power of the Californian West Coast as you could hope to imagine. In Robert’s world, even London’s own underground was remote.
Even so records, films, movies, books and fashion were seeping through the mainstream media turning Plant and others around him onto these images and new ideas. So inspired was the teenaged Plant that he even staged his own ‘Legalise Pot’ rally (in truth an ill-conceived publicity stunt which landed him, much to his own amusement, in a local court). But where he began grooving on the music of the love generation though was Buffalo Springfield.
I must admit that for a long time things like the Beatles had really fucked me off – until somewhere around ‘Strawberry Fields’ they started to get interesting again” he told Melody Maker in that aforementioned 1970 interview. “I remember the first time I heard Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’. I thought ‘That sounds like nothing at all,’ and then I heard it again and I thought ‘There’s something more to this.’ The lyrics at the time weren’t astounding, but there was something there. Then I got the album, and it was great because it was the kind of music you could hare around to or you could sit down and dig it, and I thought, ‘This is what an audience wants – this is what I want to listen to.’”
“Then I got the first Moby Grape album, which was a knockout,” he continued, “the guitar-playing and everything was really good, it fitted together so well. It was that spirit that I reacted to. All that music from the West Coast just went ‘Bang!’, and there was nothing else there after that,” Plant concluded. “I love good blues, but all of a sudden I couldn’t listen to any old blues anymore and say it’s OK.”
There you have it. Temporarily West Coast bands replaced heavy blues. Plant drew on the style of many of these groups when masterminding the second version of pre-Zepplin outfit the Band of Joy. Between the pages of Michael’s Gross Robert Plant in 1975 Plant recounted this psychedelic iteration of Band of Joy:
“The music was built around what was going on the West Coast of America around ’65 and ’66. Bonzo and I played in Band of Joy around Birmingham and around the Midlands. We used to do a whole lot of Arthur Lee’s Love stuff and Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ and I really dug Moby Grape very early.”
“I really just wanted to get to San Francisco and join up. I wanted to be Jack Casady and Janis Joplin,” Rob states, continuing his train of thought in Barney Hoskyns’s Zeppelin oral history Trampled Under Foot. “I found the projection of English rock to be built on proficiency and a skill factor that didn’t exist in LA and the West Coast. There was some kind of fable being created there and a social change that was taking place., and the music was the catalyst in it all. With Neil Young, things like ‘On the Way Home’ and ‘Expecting to Fly’ were so spacey and yet so ambiguous. Because I come from the black country and I’m not a tormented Canadian Scorpio, I didn’t get any of that. But I tried to join in here and there.”
In the short period the Band of Joy gigged, Robert wore kaftans and his bandmembers performed with their faces colored blue. The set included many lengthy improvisations, something that stood staunchly in opposition to the Top 40 material which the pint drinking provincials in their audiences craved. As such it might not come off as too much of a surprise that Plant and company failed to catch a sympathetic ear. Even when the band finally found its way to the fringes of Swinging London they fared no better. Two appearances at hippy strongholds Middle Earth and The Speakeasy were received with no less indifference than the band had received back home. And so, after failing to make an impact, the band dissolved.
Plant did eventually make it to the West Coast on Zeppelin’s maiden US tour. But even as he was dropping in it was clear to even a dreamer like him that the Summer of Love was over. “When I finally got to San Francisco and saw the Youngbloods and the remnants of that 1966 spirit, it was a cross between being in tears and giggling all the time, because I saw that air that I knew I’d see one day,” he shared with Melody Maker, again in 1970.
While he never did get that opportunity to ‘join up’, the explorative approach to music implemented in the Band of Joy fed into Plant’s work with Zeppelin. “Bonzo and I were already in the freak-out zone after the Band of Joy,” Rob relates to author Mick Wall in Zep tome When Giants Walked the Earth. “So it was quite natural for us to go into long solos and pauses and crescendos. I mean listen to things like ‘How Many More Times’ and it swings, and it’s got all those bits and pieces that could have come off a Nuggets album.”
Psychedelia had come to enter Plant’s music. It also coloured his private beliefs and public persona. Yet watching from the sidelines Plant never received the whole transmission, his view of hippy was fragmented and idealised. But perhaps this is what led him to connect with the untold thousands too young to have been part of it either. As Dean of American Rock Critics Bob Christgau talking to Barney Hoskyns for Trampled Under Foot suggests:
“[Led Zeppelin] redefined the Sixties in the image of all teenagers for whom hippiedom was a cultural given rather than a historical inevitability – all the kids forced by the economic reality of and personal limitation to escape from rather than into, to settle for the representation of power because the real power their older siblings pretended to was so obviously a hallucination.”
And if we’re going to be running around citing the words of ancient rock critics let’s circle around to Lester Bangs:
“ALL ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SUBCULTURES PLAGERISE EACH OTHER. THAT IS INHERENT IN THEIR NATURE SO MAYBE, SINCE WHAT ROCK ‘N’ ROLL’S ABOUT IS PLAGIARISM ANYWAY, THE MOST OUT-AND-OUT PLAGERISTS, THE IMITATORS OF THE PRIME MOVING GENIUSES, ARE GREATER AND MORE VALID THAN THOSE GENIUSES!”
Plant mistranslated the Sixties, sure. But others like David Coverdale, Sammy Hagar, Billy Squier, Greta Van Fleet and so many others have mistranslated Robert and in turn, rendered less than perfect facsimiles which despite their imperfections have spoken to following generations of fans. As Bangs would have it, plagiarism is not only the name of the game it’s music at its most inspired.
Robert P. a hippy? The connection’s there. And as history compresses with the passing of time, the distinctions between Plant and counterculture lessen. To newcomers falling into the Zeppelin mystique, the Sixties and Seventies combine into an old and half-forgotten time. And it’s here that idea of Plant as hippy begins to make sense. He becomes a seminal figure of a time he was never present for, its glowing optimism – real or imagined – sits upon those curl draped shoulders. And it would seem that those who see his vision move outward by their own example.
Was it all a facsimile? A faint echo? What is undeniable is that it was, in some manner, there. The past is constantly reinvented. By virtue of missing out, Plant became a part of it. As history continues to inevitably conflate the hippy era with the years that followed Robert becomes woven into its myth. If the message is one of peace and love, is it all that bad?