“Slipped through the window by the backdoor, and took the keys to my poor heart” – Robert Plant, “Burning Down One Side”
A few weeks ago, I set my maniacal musical focus on 1982 for one of our “historically-themed” playlists. I have to admit I’ve always seen ’82 as a year when music was transitioning. It was moving away from those classic sounds of the 70s to a sleeker and more synth heavy/drum machine sound in the 80s. That said, 1982 was a damn fine year for music. One of the albums that really jumped out at me while I was doing the playlist, and that I’ve found myself returning to since, was Robert Plant’s solo debut Pictures At Eleven. That album certainly made our B&V list of “favorite solo debut albums.” While I chose the lead off track and first single from the album for the 1982 playlist, “Burning Down One Side,” there were so many great songs to choose from, I decided that it was indeed time to take a look back at this superb album. And I must admit, I put the original vinyl LP I’d purchased upon it’s release in 1982 (pictured above) on the turntable this week and it sounded spectacular… suddenly I was back in high school sitting on the edge of my bed with the music cranked… my mother shouting in the background to “turn it down.”
As I’ve shared before, I really didn’t start listening to rock n roll until roughly 1978 when I was in junior high school (aka middle school). You hit those teen years and your soul just needs some good rock n roll, I suppose. Obviously there was a ton of great rock n roll released prior to 1978 and it was all I could do to catch up on what had been released prior while simultaneously trying to keep up with new stuff coming out. Zeppelin was one of the first groups I was drawn to because, well, they’re one of the foundational acts in the history of rock n roll. You couldn’t get into music back then and not be into Zeppelin…or Pink Floyd for that matter. I remember I had their debut album, Led Zeppelin and I believe it was the first of theirs I purchased because I loved the trippy “Dazed And Confused.” I liked that song more than “Stairway To Heaven” back then and probably still do. Despite that, the second Zeppelin LP I’d added to my collection was Led Zeppelin IV or Runes or whatever you like to call that album…because it had “Stairway” on it and you had to have that song and album in your collection or your music credibility would be called into question.
Then in 1979 Zeppelin returned from an extended absence and released a brand new album, In Through The Out Door. There are a lot of people who disparage that record but for a bunch of junior high kids, it was just a thrill to see a new Zeppelin album in our lifetimes. They’d been away for 3 years at the time. Everyone I knew who was into music – and everyone I knew was into music – had that album. I still have a special place in my heart for that LP and included it on my list of albums maybe only I like… By the time they’d announced a U.S. tour, I was in high school. I remember the buzz in the lunch room as a couple of seniors were trying to get people to sign up to charter a bus to Chicago, the closest the mighty Zeppelin was going to get to Kansas City. I remember thinking, “Damn, I wish I could get on that bus.”
But then, suddenly, drummer John Bonham was dead. He died in perhaps the most spectacular way a rock star can die… he consumed 40 shots of vodka over the course of a day and choked on his own vomit which was oddly common back then (Jimi Hendrix, Bon Scott). We were all wrecked. The tour was cancelled and there were some angry seniors in the lunch room that day…best to be avoided. I couldn’t help but think, “I’m glad I’m not on that bus…I’d have lost my deposit.” I was a frugal kid. People weren’t sure what was going to happen to Zeppelin at that point. The Who had continued on a few years earlier when Keith Moon had died, recruiting former Faces drummer Kenny Jones to take over. Everyone was hoping Zeppelin would do something similar and continue with a new drummer but then they issued the terse statement:
“We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” – Led Zeppelin
Which was sad, but totally made sense. There couldn’t be a Led Zeppelin without John Bonham on the kit. But… what was next for guitarist Jimmy Page, bass/keyboard player John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant? There were actually rumors – and I’m not sure where these started, probably ‘Hit Parader’ or ‘Creem’ magazine – that Plant and Page were going to form a new group with a different rhythm section. Apparently they weren’t that close to John Paul Jones so he was to be left out. At the same time Zeppelin broke up the wheels were coming off of the band Yes – guitarist Steve Howe split for Asia and singer Jon Anderson had gone off to record solo stuff with a guy named Vangelis (“Friends Of Mr. Cairo,” anyone? Anyone?) – leaving Yes’ drummer Alan White and bassist Chris Squire without a singer or guitarist… It was fate. Page/Plant would unite with White/Squire and a new band would be born named XYZ. The name was supposed to mean ex-Yes & Zeppelin. I don’t know if any of that was true or it was all just conspiracy theory but it never came about.
At that point we figured Plant would go solo. Oddly, the first song I think I’d heard Plant sing outside of Zeppelin was a cover of a song made famous by Elvis, “Little Sister” recorded live with Rockpile (Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe’s band) from the Concerts For The People Kampuchea spearheaded by Paul McCartney. We wondered if Plant was just going to join Rockpile… But no, he was forming his own solo band with guys he’d played with before he joined Zeppelin: Robbie Blunt/guitar, Jeff Woodroffe/keyboards and Paul Martinez/bass. For drums he recruited Genesis drummer Phil Collins with Cozy Powell (Rainbow/Jeff Beck) playing drums on a few tracks. I heard Plant interviewed and he said at the time he recorded Pictures At Eleven, he really didn’t know how to make a record. He was usually asleep on a couch when Page was putting Zeppelin’s LPs together. He had recruited Collins because Collins had just done his first solo album Face Value and he felt Phil could help him figure out what to do in the studio, although he did not get a producers credit.
Maybe it was because he was just learning how to make a solo record, but Plant has always been seemingly embarrassed by his early work. I absolutely love his first two LPs. The first track I heard from Pictures At Eleven was the aforementioned first single and lead off track on the album, “Burning Down One Side.” I was blown away. It starts with a cascading guitar and then Plant’s voice soars in. I remember asking this guy in my Biology class if he’d heard it. He said with an over abundance of feigned confidence, “Yes, it’s really where Zeppelin was headed anyway.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that.
I loved “Burning Down One Side” and the lyric, “How could I fall without a shove?” The slinky guitar and Plant’s trademark vocal… it wasn’t Zeppelin, it was something wholly unto itself but still “awesome” in it’s own right. It was the perfect vehicle for Plant to move forward in music. I took the leap of faith and purchased the album almost immediately which was rare in high school. I needed to hear 3 good songs from a record before I plunked down my hard earned lawn mowing money. Besides “Burning Down…” I was also immediately drawn to “Pledge Pin.” The drums on that track are fantastic. It’s got an almost jaunty guitar. It’s another song about a “Man Eater” kind of woman. I just love Plant’s voice on the song and features a sax solo. Plant was expanding his musical palette. These two songs, both on side 1, hit me in the lower brain stem. And when I say “immediately,” I mean on the first spin of the album. It was that electric.
On side two, I had the same experience with one of the two ballads on the album, “Fat Lip.” I heard Plant was in a bar writing the lyrics and he saw a fight and so just named the song, “Fat Lip.” The song has a spidery, haunted guitar that just grabs me. I also really connected with the final track on the album “Mystery Title.” It’s another rockin’, upbeat song. I like Blunt’s guitar on this song as well… he acquitted himself well considering he had to know he’d be compared to Page. I literally connected with those four songs the first time I heard them. I figured at the time in Blunt, Plant had found that next Page… but in retrospect, just like Bonham, you don’t replace a Jimmy Page. The exuberant ignorance of youth…
As I continued to listen to the record – over and over again, like you do in high school – other tracks emerged for me. “Slow Dancer” was an epic rock song. It’s probably the most Zeppelin-esque track on the album. It’s heavy with an edge. Plant wails as if he’s in pain on that song… “Worse Than Detroit” kicks off side two and it was another early favorite. There’s a movement or swing in a lot these songs that really puts air under the tracks. “Moonlight In Samosa” is a Spanish-tinged ballad that ranks amongst my favorite of Plant’s ballads. “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” is as close to a blues track as Plant gets here but it’s another epic track. The blues had largely disappeared from music by ’82 but this song gives me a real bluesy vibe. The lyrics are killer, “I caught a taste of springtime on your lips, I saw the sunlight in your eyes…”
Pictures At Eleven was the perfect solo debut for Plant. The album is a knock out. Even so, there was a b-side track on the “Burning Down One Side” single that was left off the LP, “Far Post” that will definitely be on a post I’m working on about “favorite b-sides.” I’ve never understood why they left “Far Post” off the record. It’s fueled by Woodroffe’s piano with Blunt’s guitar following along for the ride. If you’ve never heard this song, find it wherever you get your music. I think they started adding it to CD versions of the album.
If you don’t have or have never heard Robert Plant’s solo debut Pictures At Eleven, its one of his best solo albums – and as strong as his solo career has been, that says a lot – and you need to hear the whole thing. Take my hand and walk with me back 40 years… it’s worth the trip… “When the rain stops falling down, I’ll be waiting for you baby, when your time has come…”