For the first time that I can recall, I’m actually combining two albums in one blog, as I consider them companion pieces that fueled not only a new touring act, but a new start for one of the most legendary rock idols of the 1970’s. Following the death of drummer John Bonham and the breakup of Led Zeppelin, each of the remaining three band members went their separate ways. John Paul Jones began to focus on production and a return to his session days, Jimmy Page remained bogged down in both depression and addiction, and singer Robert Plant looked to make sense of all the tragedy he had endured over the last five years. Ultimately, he found a new direction by singing in pubs and with mostly unknown musicians, and finally formed an act he felt comfortable recording his first album with, “Pictures at Eleven”.
As an obsessed Led Zeppelin fan without the actual band still around to support, I and all of us were desperate for any glimpse or showing from any of the guys, and Robert Plant finally whetted our appetite with these albums. “Pictures at Eleven” and his second album, “The Principle of Moments”, were released in the summers of 1982 and 1983, respectively. Both were a fairly notable departure from the heaviest sounds of Led Zeppelin, although there were still notable similarities. With the exception of a few songs that I will note below, my feeling is that most of these songs on these first two solo albums were a bit incomplete. Many of them had a great hook or chorus, but few of them were what I would actually categorize as great songs. That said, we ate them up with a rabid hunger for anything Zep-related, and our prayers were answered when Robert Plant announced he would tour after the second album was released. More on that in a bit…
The two most notable members of his recording, and ultimately touring band, were one relatively anonymous performer and one mega-star. Robbie Blunt assumed the difficult role of becoming the next guitar pairing for Plant, following Jimmy Page, and to his credit, he did a remarkable job, primarily because his style was completely and totally opposite from Jimmy the riff-master. Surprisingly and admirably, Genesis and solo star Phil Collins played drums on most of each album, and also toured with Plant, doing nothing more than manning the drum kit. I always thought that was a kind and genuine gesture, to help Robert get past the loss of his dear childhood friend and drum legend, Bonzo.
On “Pictures At Eleven”, the first song and first single was the rocker “Burning Down One Side”. It still sounds good to this day, and was our first taste of what was to come. Like I said, most of the rest of the album is a bit inconsistent, but there are two real favorites that I love. “Far Post” is the last song on this album, and it is the most consistent rocker on the album, with some great drums from Collins, as well as some very fine piano work from Jezz Woodroffe. I had almost forgotten about how great this song was, until my friend Mike reminded me about a year ago. I will reserve my highest praise for this first album for the ballad, “Moonlight in Samosa”. This has to be one of the prettiest songs and best vocal performances I have ever heard from Plant. He was no longer the vocalist who blasted “Communication Breakdown” and “Immigrant Song”. Instead, he had evolved into a high-tenor crooner who could shape his voice in a much more subtle and soothing approach, and no song from this album shows this better than this gorgeous song. I highly recommend it, and if you aren’t a diehard, you have probably never heard it before.
Moving on to “The Principle of Moments”, the same lineup was assembled. This album is a bit more polished than the first, but still has its hits and misses. A bit more keyboard-centric, a common theme from both albums is that in least my opinion, the less he tried to sound like Led Zeppelin, the better the song was. If he wanted to resurrect Led Zeppelin, somewhere Page and Jones would have gladly jumped back on board, but more so than almost any artist, Robert Plant has never been about looking back, and these records showed that.
Similar to “Far Post” from the first album, “Other Arms” is a great up-tempo song that has some great layered vocals and more solid drumming from Collins. Perhaps the biggest hit from either album was the mellow glow that emerges from “In the Mood”. Not only is this an appealing groove, it is the perfect set opener, which we witnessed first-hand when we finally got to see our beloved golden god live for the first time at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1983.
I know that Mike was with me, and some combination of Shane, Jim and Matt were also in attendance. I vaguely recall that either Matt or Jim was on lockdown and sadly couldn’t join us, but I can’t remember who it was. Either way, I’m grateful I made it, it was a highly significant moment for me and one I will always remember. As one who looked only forward, Plant was emphatic about not having any Zeppelin tracks in the set list. As such, he only toured after he had two albums worth of material in order to deliver a full set, which is why I have always looked at these two records as one extended effort. We all embraced his approach, even if we still secretly hoped for some Zeppelin, and it would be the beginning of many post-Zep moments for many of us as we hung on to the past, present and future of my favorite band.
The last song of the concert was the last song of the album, and remains my all-time favorite of his solo work for multiple reasons. As the drum loop fired up, Phil Collins moved over to xylophone and the enveloping warmth of “Big Log” came on. Not only is it another purely beautiful song, it is an anthem for one of my all-time favorite past-times, the road trip. Whether with great company, or alone with my thoughts and my music, road trips have been an essential and often-deployed form of travel for all of my life. I have driven to both coasts, and in recent years have made many journeys across America and up and down the eastern United States from Florida to Virginia to Massachusetts and wherever else the next adventure lies. The lyrics of the song say it all, which I will share below. There is nothing quite like the setting sun, the coming of nightfall, and the gentle purr of the road as the miles fly by.
I look back on these records now, like many of them, with fond memories, and great appreciation for a talented artist who refused to let one era or a stack of tragedies define his career. He remains a favorite to this day, and one of the most thoughtful and insightful musicians of our generation.
“My love is in league with the freeway, its passion will rise as the cities fly by…”
“And the tail lights dissolve in the coming of night, and the questions and thousands take flight.”
“My love is exceeding the limit, Red-eyed and fevered with the hum of the miles…”
“Distance and longing, my thoughts do collide, Should I rest for a while at the side?”
“My love is in league, with the freeway, and the coming of night time…”
“My love, my love… is in league with the freeway…”