When a group disbands it's usually the lead singer that has the most prosperous career. While that proved true with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant it was hardly a slam-dunk. With the death of drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin pulled the plug after a decade as the premier Hard Rock group. Plant's first two solo releases "Pictures At Eleven" ('82) and "Principle Of Moments" ('83) were tepid, if well received efforts-largely because critics tempered their disappointment. After all, this was one of Rock's most recognizable voices. "Principle Of Moments" had a couple early hits, the semi-mystical "In The Mood" and the inscrutable "Big Log."
What nearly sidetracked Plant's career before it had a chance to get going was the Honeydrippers project. Once again teamed with Jimmy Page, they released a remake of the turgid early '60s Phil Phillips hit ballad "Sea Of Love," complete with a Nelson Riddle-type string arrangement. It shot up the charts. The video, which featured a young couple cavorting on the beach - no doubt near the sea of love - got major MTV play. At first the Rock audience recoiled is horror, then disgust. Plant was in grave danger of losing his core audience. Even the spirited Big Band Rock cover of the '50s gem "Good Rockin' Tonight," with horns blasting and Page on guitar, did little to improve the situation.
"Shaken N Stirred" ('85) provided the hit "Little By Little" but not much else.
Finally, "Now And Zen" established Plant as a major solo success with three stellar songs, "Ship Of Fools," "Heaven Knows" and Rocker "Tall Cool One" which concluded with a handful of Zep snippets, just to remind everyone where Plant had been.
Albums "Manic Nirvana" ('90) and "Fate Of Nations" ('93) came out before Plant and Page hooked up yet again.
The three surviving Zep members had appeared at one-off events (most notably Live Aid and Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Party) with a fill-in drummer. But after a planned reunion tanked Plant and Page decided to proceed as a duo. The "No Quarter" ('94) album and tour revisited the Zeppelin catalog. Another Plant/Page effort "Walking To Clarksdale" arrived four years later.
Plant resumed his solo career in '02 with "Dreamland" and a compilation of his work outside Zeppelin, "Sixty Six To Timbuktu" ('66 was the year of Plant's first recordings) came out a year later. The free-flowing "Mighty ReArranger" saw the light of day in '05.
Plant has taken some interesting (and occasionally dull) turns in his decidedly eclectic post-Zeppelin career. '07's "Raising Sand," a collaboration between Plant and Country/Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, was just such an excursion. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the 13-track set was largely covers, but included "Please Read The Letter," a song Plant co-wrote with Jimmy Page. On singing harmony with Krauss, Plant said, "I'd always liked harmony singing but I'd never been a part of anything . . . that ever went anywhere near harmony work." Plant first sang with Krauss on an '04 Leadbelly (Hudy William Ledbetter) tribute album.
"Raising Sand" sold 112,000 units in its first week of release to debut at #2 on the Billboard 200. Country singer Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride" was in the top spot. Still, the #2 slot marked career highs for both Plant and Krauss as solo artists.
Following a one-off Led Zeppelin concert in London rumors began percolating that the band was planning an extensive tour. This time though, it looked like it might actually happen. Page, Jones and Jason Bonham (the son of late Zep drummer John Bonham) were onboard. What about Plant? When finally cornered, Plant made it abundantly clear (once again) that he had no intention of abandoning tour plans with Krauss, for a romp with his former bandmates. OK, fine. So Page, Jones and Bonham began holding auditions for a singer. The famous, not-so-famous and has-beens-looking-to-rebound gave it a shot. But nobody made the cut (big surprise). In the end, the search for a frontman was cancelled as well as any tour discussions.
And right on the heels of that, Plant and Krauss nabbed the Record of the Year ("Please Read The Letter") and Album of the Year ("Raising Sand") awards at the 51st Grammys in L.A.
Months later, Plant received another major honor for his contributions to music. Presented by none other than Prince Charles, Plant was given the Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal during a London ceremony. Plant said he felt humbled to receive the honor alongside people recognized for military and community service.
Hey Robert, real nice medal. That's great. "So what about getting back together with Zeppelin?" That was the question on reporter's minds. "Sometimes I go a bit deaf in either ear, especially when people are talking nonsense," Plant responded.
Plant continued his roots journey with the "Band Of Joy" album. The title was taken from the name of a pre-Zeppelin group that Plant was in with the late Zep drummer John Bonham. This time around Plant, the only original member, worked with Patty Griffin (vocals), Darrell Scott (multi-instrumentalist), Buddy Miller (guitars and co-producer), Byron House (bass) and Marco Giovino (drums).
"Buddy's integral to this album, you can hear his taste all over the instrumentation," said Plant in a statement. "Buddy's zone is beautiful, with a lot of reflections going back into mid-Fifties Rockabilly, and all the great Country stuff, along with the Soul and R&B from Memphis."
With the recording completed Plant embarked on a Band Of Joy tour with Griffin, Miller, Scott, House and Giovino.
Re-teamed with the Sensational Space Shifters, who backed Plant on the '12 set "Live In London," "Lullaby And The Ceaseless Roar" dropped in '14. The album, recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in southwestern England, was what Plant termed a "celebratory record."
1982 Pictures At Eleven
1983 The Principle Of Moments
1985 Shaken 'n' Stirred
1988 Now And Zen
1990 Manic Nirvana
1993 Fate Of Nations
2005 Mighty ReArranger
2010 Band Of Joy
2014 Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar
1984 The Honeydrippers: Volume One (with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck)
1994 No Quarter Unledded (with Jimmy Page)
1998 Walking Into Clarksdale (with Jimmy Page)
2007 Raising Sand (with Alison Krauss)
The trademark siren wail of Plant's Zeppelin days is largely absent from his solo career. No longer the "golden god" of his early career Plant tried, with mixed results, to get away from sledgehammer Rock and expand Zeppelin's airier notions.
"Now And Zen" stands as the pinnacle of his '80s work.
There's a difference between ex-Rock stars and Rock legends. Though the faces are sagging, butts dragging and the vocals aren't nearly as sharp as they were two decades earlier, former Rock stars make a valiant effort to show that they still have "it." They may not have as much of "it" as they used to but they're out to prove they're still in the game.
Legends take a different tack. They know what they'll be remembered for and are generally okay with that. There is no need to re-establish themselves - they already are. Legends usually have a fan base that is large enough and loyal enough to support their eclectic efforts. Record labels know they won't make a fortune on these projects but they won't lose their shirts either. It works all the way around.
Plant is certainly a legend. On the "Mighty ReArranger" (one of the worst album titles in recent memory - but hey, this from a guy who once had a hit with a song called "Big Log"), Plant is in good voice as he strolls through a set of acoustic songs, propelled by North African rhythms and backed by synth and strings. It's a comfortable, low key effort.
Plant further pursues and develops his more restrained yet expressive vocal style to "Raising Sand's" advantage. Krauss, for her part, is right at home with the elegantly simple arrangements adorning largely obscure songs. "Raising Sand" sounds like it was recorded at Sun Studios two hours before Elvis arrived. There's a vibrancy, and even an authenticity, to the performances.