Robert Plant Is Ever the Sensational Space Shifter

Robert Plant at Bayou Music Center, June 2013
Robert Plant at Bayou Music Center, June 2013
Photo by Jason Wolter

Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin By Dave Thompson Backbeat Books, 280 pp., $27.99.

He's been in a laundry list of bands: The Crawling King Snakes. The Honeydrippers. Strange Sensation. The Band of Joy (twice). The Priory of Brion. And the Sensational Space Shifters. There's also that solo career and collaborations.

But of course, Robert Plant's musical legacy and career is inevitably tied to just one group: Led Zeppelin. Not that he's -- to the chagrin, frustration, and disappointment of millions (including his former bandmates) -- tied to it.

Zeppelin reissues and history-burnishing? Let Jimmy Page handle it. Reunions? A handful of one-off disastrous appearances. A full-on tour after the band's hugely successful they-still-got-it two hour show in 2007? Not a chance.

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He'd rather hang out with Alison Krauss and make bluegrass music for a small audience that satiate stadium audiences around the world and fatten his bank account with untold riches.

"Robert Plant is not following a career course," Thompson writes in this book's introduction. "He is following his dream...for Plant, reinvention means reignition."

Thus is the thesis of Thompson's book, the second full-blown Plant bio to arrive on shelves in recent times (the other being last year's Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees).

To bring it all together and compare/contrast Plant's story, Thompson utilizes a neat literary trick: Even-numbered chapters follow Plant's life from birth to the dissolution of Zeppelin after the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham. Odd-numbered ones pick up the story from then to the present day.

Rather than seem jolting, the time-travel works, with each narrative's events serving to illuminate the other. And the skilled scribe Thompson can give facts without it seeming like rote repetition, analysis without it being too arcane, and opinion without seeming pushy, though he does mention -- about a half-dozen times -- that he thinks Plant's finest lyrics come in Led Zeppelin IV's "The Battle of Evermore."

Story continues on the next page.


Thompson also goes out on a limb to debunk the oft-repeated storyline that punk music was hugely impactful in its theoretical war against classic-rock "dinosaur bands," Zeppelin being the chief offender. He likens it to minority music played for a minority audience (the dinosaurs still ruled popular tastes and charts), whose influence was overstated at the time and recognizable only a decade later.

Plant's voice himself makes occasional appearances through archival quotes, but it's a tribute to Thompson's flow as a writer that his subject springs so fully from each page anyway, despite an air of mystery still about him.

The book brings Robert Plant from the Teenage Fanboy whose father cut his record player's cord with a pair of scissors after one to many spinnings of "I Like it Like That," to the strutting, bare-chested, mane-flipping Golden God of Classic Rock, to the Lion in Winter still challenging himself and his audiences in 2014,

Plant's journey has been anything but rote. It's as if he is consistently choosing to explore tiny offshoot dirt roads on a whim rather than stick to the main, paved one. And forget about him taking that easiest route on a stairway to heaven.


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