27 Years Ago: Robert Plant Finally Embraces His Past on ‘Now and Zen’
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On Feb. 29, 1988, Robert Plant released his fourth solo album, Now and Zen, and in the process finally admitted to himself and the world that it was pretty cool to have been the singer of Led Zeppelin.
The singer — quite admirably — spent the eight years since the legendary group’s breakup working hard to establish a solo body of work that didn’t tread on Zeppelin’s sonic territory, and avoided playing any of their hits at his own concerts.
For the most part, Now and Zen continued that forward-thinking tradition, favoring precise keyboards, ultra-clean production and impeccably restrained singing. But there are more guitar heroics lurking about than before, and an undeniable return to the sense of majesty of his former band’s sound on songs like the one Plant says sparked the album’s direction, “Heaven Knows.” In fact, at times Now and Zen sounds like it could be picking up near where Zeppelin’s last studio album, 1979’s Plant-dominated In Through the Out Door, left off.
“I’ve stopped apologizing to myself for having this great period of success and fanatical acceptance,” Plant explained to Rolling Stone magazine in a March 24, 1988 interview. “It’s time to get on and enjoy it now.” Inspired by new songwriting partner Phil Johnstone, and perhaps by the wave of Zeppelin imitators and borrowers enjoying the fruits of his labor at the time, Plant began to open the door to his past.
“We were working on (album-closing song) “White, Clean and Neat,” and I had this neat riff to go with it,” Johnstone explains. “He said, ‘But, aw man, that’s bluesy.’ And I said to him, ‘But that’s what you are. You’re a blues singer.’ He’d denied that he was a blues singer for so long.”
Plant even recruited Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to play lead guitar on two of the album’s big hits — “Heaven Knows” and “Tall Cool One,” which one-upped the Zeppelin-sampling Beastie Boys by featuring Plant dueling with his younger “Black Dog” self over samples of guitar riffs from “The Ocean” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
Not everything on the album stands the test of time — the sound can get a little too pristine at times, and tracks like “Why” veer dangerously close to Howard Jones synth-pop territory. But highlights abound, including the gorgeous ballad “Ship of Fools,” the gloriously disjointed “White, Clean and Neat” and “Billy’s Revenge,” a lively, irreverent number that blends doo-wop, rockabilly and what sounds like the world’s most demented carnival piano player.
In one of the era’s most welcome developments, Plant also began performing Led Zeppelin songs at his solo concerts again while touring in support of the album, and collaborated on a song named “The Only One” for Page’s ’88 solo album Outrider. (Side rant: Why the heck aren’t there more Jimmy Page solo albums?) Six years later, the pair reunited for several tours and two albums under the Page & Plant banner. In 2007 the surviving members of Led Zeppelin played a one-off reunion show that was documented on 2012’s Celebration Day concert film.
But for the most part Plant has continued to ignore nostalgia in favor of a dogged pursuit of whatever new sounds he hears in his head, changing band names and lineups at will, most recently performing live and on record with the Band of Joy and the Sensational Shape Shifters.
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