Heaven Knows: Now and Zen and Kingdom Come at 35
Robert Plant’s fourth solo album and Kingdom Come’s debut came out in tandem. Really.
You can’t make this stuff up: February 29, 1988 – a leap day, no less – saw the same-day release of Kingdom Come’s eponymous debut and Robert Plant’s Now and Zen.
Not only was the former seen by many as such a Led Zeppelin pastiche that some critics sneeringly called them “Kingdom Clone,” but Zen was the album where Plant stopped worrying and learned how to love his legacy. The fact that they’d enter the world on the same day is uncanny.
My friend Alfred Soto and I have had a conversation, more than once, about how pretty much all Boomer icons/artists whose recording careers started in the 1960s have at least one embarrassing album in their catalogs: think Press to Play, or Knocked Out Loaded. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) But you know who doesn’t? Plant. You may not like everything he’s done, but none of it is anything he should be embarrassed by. (Not even the 1984 collaborative effort Honeydrippers: Volume One, which I find to be a hoot and a half.)
Plant told Uncut’s Nigel Williamson in 2005, of Zen, “… if I listen to it now, I can hear that a lot of the songs got lost in the technology of the time,” and to be fair, a few of the selections, especially “Dance On My Own,” sound a bit overwhelmed by the late ‘80s-ness of it all. But the moment’s advances in production actually benefit the album’s biggest, most iconic single, “Tall Cool One,” which features snippets of five Led Zeppelin songs in sampled form – for who better to sample Zep than the band’s own lead singer?
VIDEO: Robert Plant “Tall Cool One”
“Tall” is also one of a pair of songs featuring guitar solos from one former Zep guitarist, Jimmy Page, the other being the album’s soaring opener, “Heaven Knows.” Four months later, Page would release his one and only solo studio album, Outrider – which featured a track with vocals from Plant, “The Only One.” Clearly, Plant was making peace with his past, and was no longer afraid to remind listeners of his previous band. Even less afraid to remind people of Zeppelin was the German/American band Kingdom Come – or were they?
Supposedly – I’ve heard this repeated over the years but haven’t found anything to confirm it – when Kingdom Come’s American record label, Polydor, released their debut single “Get It On” to AOR radio, the response from listeners was hysterical, with many calling stations asking, excitedly, “Is that a new Led Zeppelin single?!” It wasn’t, but the fire was lit; the single climbed to #4 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart, and its attendant album shipped gold (500,000 copies) and reached #12 on the U.S. charts.
VIDEO: Kingdom Come “Get It On”
“Get It On” definitely sounds Zeppelin-esque. But as for the rest of Kingdom Come’s debut? Not so much. To be certain, lead singer Lenny Wolf has a Plant-ish howl, and co-producer Bob Rock clearly knew what he was doing in the way he recorded James Kottak’s drums, which are reminiscent of John Bonham on several songs (“Pushin’ Hard,” “17”). Primarily, however, the band just sound like solid, if unexceptional, hard rock/hair metal. Being part German, there’s unsurprisingly some touches of the Scorpions – ironically enough, Kottak would go on to drums for them for 20 years – but overall, their sound is fairly generic. The rap against them wasn’t entirely earned. That said, without it, would they have broken out of the hair metal B-list? Not likely.
As for the rest of Now and Zen, it’s strong. “Helen of Troy” has an insistent, almost industrial throb, along with some chiming guitar from Doug Boyle (who’s strong throughout). “Billy’s Revenge” brings Plant’s beloved rockabilly into the fray. “White, Clean and Neat” suffers a little from its au courant production, but thumps along in a delightfully direct way. And “Ship of Fools” is strong yet delicate, spotlighting the textures of Plant’s voice in a lower gear. Boyle, again, stands out here, as do co-producer Phil Johnstone’s keyboards.
VIDEO: Robert Plant “Ship of Fools”
Kingdom Come never made another mark beyond the excitement caused by their first single, and they didn’t really deserve to. But “Get It On” is nonetheless big dumb fun, whether they were leaning into its Zep-isms or not. Plant’s fourth album, on the other hand, obviously earns any Zep callbacks it makes, and does so in much stronger fashion. He clearly had wanted to make a name post-Zep as his own artist, and he did, so by 1988 he could, as it were, re-own his legacy; Now and Zen does a fine job in that department.
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