‘All the old gods are long gone. But still…” An interview with Robert Plant

Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin, his solo career and more...

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It’s market day in Ludlow, a picturesque town deep in the Welsh Marches. In the busy Castle Square, stallholders are out selling everything from garden plants to artisan cheeses. Walking past the stalls, Robert Plant is dressed appropriately for this hot spring day in a blue t-shirt, red and grey striped shorts and plimsolls. Clearly, this is a place Plant knows well. As he guides Uncut first round the market and then off on a meandering tour round the town’s side streets, Plant explains that his grandparents used to bring him here as a child. “I lived as a boy in a terraced house in Tipton,” he says. “It was fantastic, because the spirits there were great. My granddad and all that lot, who were all bonkers. My grandfather, who was called Robert Shropshire Plant, was the founder and leader of a Black Country brass band. They were a pretty serious, renowned band. They were also known as the Dudley Port Drinking Band. He played trombone, then he played violin in the orchestra pit behind silent movies, and stuff on the piano.”
We come across a poster for the Ludlow Arts Festival that’s Sellotaped inside the window of a butcher’s shop. Plant pauses to examine the line-up: Showaddywaddy, David Essex, the Bay City Rollers, Ken Dodd. “I’d come and see Ken Dodd,” he nods, almost to himself. “You can’t stop him. He played for three and a half hours once.” Eventually, we find ourselves in a gastro pub just off the market square. Prints by local artists line the pastel coloured walls, and the floor is tiled with dark flagstones. “We may not be gods but our pizzas are heavenly” is written on a chalkboard hanging from a wall, while another sign advertises “Live music every Thursday and Saturday from 9pm”. Plant mentions that he recently saw a local band called Grey Wolf play here. “The whole pub was singing along to ‘In The Pines’,” he says grinning at the memory.
Today, Plant is accompanied by an amiable, soft-spoken soul called Trace. It transpires the two have been friends since the late Seventies, when they played football together on a local pub team in Kidderminster. This is typical of Plant’s modus operandi. Even when Led Zeppelin were in their pomp, playing multiple nights at huge venues, he would still find time for a five-aside kickabout at his local. Much of Plant’s career has been about balancing the fantastical with the down-home. But equally, much of his musical history has been intellectually and musically exploratory. As we settle down in a shady corner of the pub garden, Part reflects on the beginnings of his ongoing musical journey. It just might, he concedes, have something to do with an early interest in philately.
“Maybe it was all those stamps that told me about other countries and postcards I picked up of ruins and castles and hilltops and iron-age forts and all that stuff,” he muses. “But most of all it was the music that crackled through the radio from American Forces Network back in the early ‘60s that beckoned America.”
Plant himself didn’t leave the UK for the first time until September 1968, aged 20, on Led Zeppelin’s first concert tour (though for contractual reasons they were billed as the Yardbirds). “I’d only travelled on this group of islands until then,” he remembers. “We flew to Denmark. John Bonham and I had never seen so much cutlery in our lives as on that aeroplane. We couldn’t get enough of it into our bags to steal it to take home, because we had been eating hand to mouth up until then in the Band Of Joy.”
Perhaps the journey that left the biggest single legacy on Plant was his first visit to Morocco in 1971, when he was 23. “It’s a very unnerving place sometimes, Pre-Saharan Morocco,” he clarifies. “It’s fascinating, full of wild men and fools. ‘Achilles Last Stand’: ‘Into the sun, the south, the north, at last the birds have flown, the shackles of commitment fell in pieces on the ground’. It’s all that thing about going back to the desert.
“I remember one time, the Algerians were financing the Polisario in the Spanish Sahara, so there was this pretty savage guerrilla thing going on in the Seventies,” he continues, setting off on one of his characteristically expansive travel yarns. “I suggested that Page meet me. My wife Maureen went back, she left as Jimmy was landing. Then we headed south. We managed to get down into the salt flats past Tan Tan Plage where all the pink flamingo colonies are. Phew, that was some place. Amazingly desolate and yet… beautiful. We were gonna spend the night on this salt flat. I remember we had a Primus stove you pumped up, so in the desert darkness there was just this glow to cook an omelette or whatever. Suddenly coming in from everywhere, beetles, phosphorescent insects popping out, it was amazing. Then the Moroccans, it’s their job to be funny, said, ‘There are mountain lions here.’ I said, ‘No, that can’t be true, there’s nothing for them to eat.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ So I went, ‘Oh!’ Got back in the car and drove back to Guelmim or somewhere like that. It was amazing down there then, once you got through all the machine gun nests and that. ‘Cos the army was parked right across, east to west.
“We stayed in Guelmim, the Salam Hotel. I remember calling my wife and having to book the call three days in advance. Fortunately, she was in when I called. One morning, we woke up. It was a Friday or Saturday. The camel market was out the back. I opened the windows. We were listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, it was real Cheech And Chong shit, and I said to Jimmy, ‘Fuck this, let’s get out of here I want a pint of bitter.’ We drove straight to Tangier, we got the boat across to Algeciras, then we went to Torremolinos. We went to a disco and we stood in the middle of the floor with two pints of Watney’s Red Barrel, with all the lights and music.”

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