For most Led Zeppelin fans, the group’s canonical releases between 1969’s self-titled debut and 1979’s In Through the Out Door are consumptive enough that they needn’t bother with the solo efforts that followed.
Still, there are a number of musical treasures to be found — even excluding obvious radio hits like Robert Plant’s “Big Log,” his collaborative “Tall Cool One” with ex-bandmate Jimmy Page, the Honeydrippers or “Radioactive” from Page’s post-Zep band the Firm.
We’ve collected a handful of these deep cuts to keep you started, all of them from solo projects. That means we avoided anything that included both Plant and Page, like No Quarter or Walking into Clarksdale, as well as albums that principally featured others. So, none of Plant’s work with Alison Krauss, no Them Crooked Creatures, no Coverdale-Page, and no Band of Joy.
This is focused solely on projects produced under their own names …
“BURNING DOWN ONE SIDE,” ROBERT PLANT (PICTURES AT ELEVEN, 1982): Plant, much to the consternation of every dyed-in-the-wool Zep fan, spent much of this decade exploring the new-fangled wonders of synthesizers — making this crunchy little aside a rare connective moment with his former band’s sound.
Phil Collins, who was already becoming a huge solo artist in his own right away from Genesis, subs in the John Bonham role — and while he smashes away, Plant and guitarist Robbie Blunt storm through a track that stops and starts with all of the angular force of Led Zeppelin at its best.
In a moment with no small amount of symbolism, however, Pictures at Eleven would be Plant’s final release for Zep’s now-defunct Swan Song imprint. Plant, perhaps sensing an opportunity to build a familiar-sounding bridge to his solo career, actually made “Burning Down One Side” the lead single, but it only managed to get to No. 64 in the U.S.
“LEAFY MEADOWS,” JOHN PAUL JONES (THE THUNDERTHIEF, 2001): John Paul Jones, who found himself on the outside looking in when Plant and Page initially reunited in the late 1980s and 1990s, can scarcely be accused of similar attempts at recreating the old Zeppelin magic.
In fact, tracks like “Leafy Meadows” couldn’t be further from it. Featuring both Robert Fripp (who’s absolutely sawing on the guitar) and Nick Beggs (on the Chapman stick), “Leafy Meadows” takes a decidedly prog-focused turn — though its flinty math rock has more to do with Fripp’s King Crimson than most of the more atmospheric work Beggs has been doing with Steven Wilson lately.
Still, there is, deep within the song’s DNA, everything that made Jones an underrated element of Led Zeppelin myth: An understated but fascinating bottom end, working in support of this epic compositional sweep. Of course, it’s difficult to discern what, if anything, this song is about. But Jones never wrote lyrics for Zep, anyway, right?
“MIGHTY REARRANGER,” ROBERT PLANT (MIGHTY REARRANGER, 2005:) A mesmerizing combination of nasty Delta blues and, for a few interspersed and very tantalizing moments, a consumptive drone — all dripping with this scalding harmonica wail.
“Mighty ReArranger,” which found Plant working with a backing group that boasts this fascinating international flavor, ends up sounding something like that would happen if John Lee Hooker had come across the Malian guitar style before high tailing it up to Chicago.
Of course, Plant had been mixing such things for years with Zeppelin, but there’s a forward-looking attitude — probably to do with Plant’s darkly focused, more agedly cynical lyrics throughout the album — that keeps “Mighty ReArranger” from ever feeling like been-there, done-that pastiche.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Return with us now to 'Houses of the Holy,' the often-overlooked successor to 'Led Zeppelin IV.' Even all these years later, though, we still can't decide where it ranks.]
“EMERALD EYES,” JIMMY PAGE (OUTRIDER, 1988): The easy assumption, at this point, was that Page had lost whatever will he had to again scale the heights of his own dizzying guitar-god edifice. After all, John Bonham had been dead for some eight years before Page bothered to issue a solo album.
When he did, most of the focus went to Page’s reunion with Plant on “The Only One,” which also featured Bonzo’s son Jason Bonham at the drums — echoing a portion of the reunion lineup that had gathered that May for Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary concert event at Madison Square Garden, and would storm the charts again in 2012 with Celebration Day.
The album’s most complete return-to-form moment, however, can be found here. “Emerald Eyes,” this time featuring Jethro Tull drummer Barriemore Barlow, reanimates all of Page’s legendary atmospherics, not to mention the tough tone, of his best moments in Led Zeppelin. Over a dramatic arc that begins (and ends) with a pastoral turn on acoustic, Page hurtles himself across a storm-front of strings with this crunchy electric solo — belatedly reclaiming everything he once seemed intent on giving away.
“GREAT SPIRIT,” ROBERT PLANT (FATE OF NATIONS, 1993): Collaborating again with Phil Johnstone (who had co-written the former Zep frontman’s earlier “Heaven Knows” and “Hurting Kind”), Plant finds a more ruminative moment here, something probably best described as spooky folk.
Credit goes to the presence of Kevin Scott MacMichael, as the Cutting Crew guitarist adds a series of perfectly attenuated moments of anguish, echoing the twilit torment of Plant’s enveloping vocal. “Great Spirit” captures every element of his genius at the mic, as Plant glides from whispering mystery, to dimly sensual entreaties to this kind of pained ecstasy.
There’s a sense of control, of having mastered that gift, though. After hiding behind so many of the contemporary sounds of the day, from keyboards to sampling, Plant finally was beginning to sound comfortable in his own skin.
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