Book Review: Robert Plant: A Life – by Paul Rees

When asked by Absolute Radio in 2009 why Led Zeppelin would not reunite for a tour, Robert Plant candidly admitted that they just wouldn’t be as good as they were in their heyday.  In an era when every band who enjoyed even just one or two minor hits are reforming “for the fans”, his honesty is refreshing.  Plant has always been an artist first and foremost, and the mark of a true artist is to follow the muse wherever it may lead – even if that means turning down squillions of dollars to tour once more with the biggest band of the 70s.

Of course the story of Led Zeppelin takes up a sizable chunk of this book by ex-Q Magazine editor Paul Rees, but it’s to the author’s credit that the Zeppelin years are not allowed to dominate his tome.  The book is divided into three distinct parts, with equal time devoted to each. 

Part One, “Beginnings” deals with Plant’s early years growing up in the English Midlands.  His appears to have been a pleasant childhood, all Saturday football, chasing girls and discovering blues music.  From the age of sixteen, the singer weaves in and out of various bands, and his numerous attempts to get his big break often read as a comedy of errors.  Schoolfriend Gary Tolley recalls rebuking Plant’s offer to sing for Tolley’s band The Jurymen, reasoning that “we all had our stage uniforms and there wasn’t anything that would fit Robert”.  Even when he signed to CBS Records as a solo artist in 1967, he was re-cast as a crooner, a la Englebert Humperdinck, to little success.  For Plant, however, “there was no notion of where [I] was going but no known cure either”, and eventually, the “cocky little bleeder” was snaffled by Jimmy Page for his new band.

Part two deals exclusively with the Zeppelin years. Read about John Bonham being a psycho thug! See Jimmy Page consume massive amounts of drugs and lose his fire!  Marvel at John Paul Jones turning up uninvited to help Page and Plant stink up Live Aid!  It’s made apparent that Plant gives little credence to the wild events described by author Stephen Davis in his infamous Zeppelin book “Hammer Of The Gods”, and that, in fact, the singer “detested” the dark forces around the band in their imperial period.  Rees also tackles the deaths of John Bonham, and Plant’s son Karac, with the singer poignantly admitting that “[When Karac died] Bonzo saved me.  And while he was saving me he was losing himself”.

Part three is simply titled “Solo”, bringing Plant’s story right up to date.  His collaboration with Alison Krauss, his ramshackle Priory Of Brion band (“Like a thoroughbred pulling a milk float” according to manager Bill Curbishly) and the 2007 one-night-only Zep reunion prove the most interesting reads in this section.  Paul Rees interviewed Robert Plant a number of times in his roles as editor of Kerrang! and Q magazine, but did not interview him for the purposes of this book.  As a result, he defers to other authors at various junctures, which lessens the book’s, and Rees’, authority.  This is a pity, as Paul Rees has an excellent pedigree and writes wonderfully.  It’s also a slimmer volume than one would expect, running to only 335 pages in rather large type.  Given that Barney Hoskyns’ book Trampled Underfoot and Mick Wall’s When Giants Walked The Earth, both of which deal only with Zeppelin, run to 624 and 544 pages respectively, one can’t help wondering what stories, facts, and other information have been omitted from Rees’ tome.  Few musicians have led a life as interesting, tragic, influential and successful as Robert Plant, and as an overview of his life in and out of music, this book will do for now – but the definitive account remains to be written.

This review originally appeared in edited form in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper