Tall Cool One: Robert Plant at 75

Looking back on the career of the mighty Led Zeppelin singer

Robert Plant (Image: Pinterest)

You might not be reading this piece, or at least would be reading a very different one, had Terry Reid had said “Yes. I’ll do it right away.”

Reid’s answer was Robert Plant’s gain, as he became the lead singer for Led Zeppelin, launching him on a career that continues as he celebrates his 75th birthday.

Reid had a burgeoning solo career and, important to this story, upcoming tour dates he’d committed to. He told guitarist Jimmy Page he could talk to him about this New Yardbirds project after that, but Page moved on. So did Deep Purple, which is how Ian Gillan became Rod Evans’ replacement.

The whole thing started with the Yardbirds’ breakup in 1968 due to musical differences, with singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty wanting to do more acoustic, folky material and Page more interested in heavier rock.

The band still had some tour dates left in Scandinavia. Relf and McCarty gave Page and bassist Chris Dreja permission to do the gigs. Reid had mentioned that perhaps Page should check out Plant singing with his band Obs-Tweedle. Page’s Plan B quickly became Plan A. Plant suggested John Bonham, his drummer in Band of Joy, would be a good fit. John Paul Jones, who knew Page from their days as session musicians, replaced Dreja who left music for photography.

Post-tour The New Yardbirds went into the studio and changed their name. They secured a hefty advance and creative control, launching with their first two albums in 1969.



At the start, Led Zeppelin leaned into heavy blues rock, going louder with its reinterpretations, if still indebted to its influences.

But there was an undeniable chemistry between the four, a big part of it being Plant, the big frontman with the even bigger voice. Roger Daltrey had the scream and the bellow. Rod Stewart had the grit. With Plant, it was the wail. If “Immigrant Song” had a guitar riff heralding the arrival of the Gods, it was the voice that made it clear they were here. A lesser singer would have turned the heavy blues of the first two albums into self-parody, but he mostly kept from stepping over that line. His versatility would reveal itself as the band expanded its sound, incorporating folk, Middle Eastern and other influences. He was interested in Celtic culture, particularly Wales (where his parents used to take him when he was a kid). That pastoral mysticism and sense of exploration informed his lyrics.

Here was Plant, a handsome 20-something man, with massive curly hair and a tendency to perform with shirt unbuttoned and loosely draped, with chest for all to see. In 1974, readers of Rock Scene magazine voted him as Best Chest, to which he quipped, “I’m really greatly honored although it’s hard for me to be eloquent on the subject of my chest.”

And he was anything but shy and retiring onstage, an environment far different than the post-war West Midlands where he grew up wishing he could be like Elvis. Part of it was putting on a good show and part of it surviving in a band with Page and Bonham.

Confession time. There was a point where I was sick to death of Led Zeppelin. Album rock stations and classic rock stations had playlists with way too much overlap with too little new music being given a chance.

And there was so much Zeppelin. Dear God, so much Zeppelin. Regular rotation wasn’t enough. Stations had to have “Get the Led Out” segments. It became a cue for me to change the station or switch to the music I had on hand at home. This went on for a while until I started picking up the remastered albums in the 2000s. Hearing them with fresh ears post-Zepxhaustion, I could appreciate the songs again — Page’s leads, Bonham’s combination of precision and power, Jones’ terrific work as a player and arranger and, of course, Plant.

His was the voice that launched plenty of imitators, especially those who sought to unleash their own banshee howls. But some of the more derivative descendents like Greta Van Fleet missed that there was more to Plant than wielding a vocal Hammer of the Gods.

There were the smart song dynamics. Plant didn’t have to come out blaring. The Zep repertoire was full of songs that followed the quiet-loud template. The most prominent example became their most played and overplayed, deservedly beloved by fans and hated by Guitar Center employees. “Stairway to Heaven”, off Zeppelin IV, is all about the gradual buildup. Plant starts off hushed, as if he doesn’t want to upstage the flutes, but when Page unleashes his solo and Bonham (the real hammer-wielder) gets going, Plant is right there, front and center, a reminder that while Zeppelin wasn’t metal, they certainly inspired a lot of metal bands.

And then there were the times where the lightning and thunder were kept at bay, The vastly underrated “Tangerine”, where folk and country mingled, with Plant remaining properly restrained throughout.

“Thank You” was the most affecting moment of the first two albums, an unabashed love song which suited Plant much more than asking for his “lemon” to be squeezed.


VIDEO: Led Zeppelin “Kashmir” live at Knebworth 1979

The group was on a roll though their best album, 1975’s Physical Graffiti, which had their best song, “Kashmir”, another great example of Plant holding back the wail until needed.

Plant had dodged potential tragedy a couple of times. In early 1970, he lost control of his Jaguar, winding up with a piece of windshield in his skull, avoiding more serious injuries. Five years later, in another tour break, the Plants’ car went off the road in Greece. His wife at the time, Maureen, needed life-saving treatment in Greece. He would have to be in a wheelchair for a while, up to when he began writing for the troubled Presence album.

Then came the horrific blow of the death of his young son Karac from a sudden illness while Zeppelin was in the middle of a U.S. tour. Plant stayed at home for almost a year, even seriously thinking about leaving the music business.

But he didn’t, even if the band wasn’t in the best state. Page’s heroin use was becoming a problem. So were Bonham’s issues with alcohol. Still, Plant and Jones were able to hold the fort enough to complete In Through the Out Door.

Their first shows in North America in three years were scheduled for the fall of 1980, but the tour never happened. Bonham started drinking before the first rehearsal, continued straight through it, then after the band went back to Page’s house. By the time he’d been put to bed after night, he’d drunk the equivalent of 40 shots of vodka. He never woke up.

It was an additional layer of grief for the singer. Bonham and his wife lived close by, well outside London. They were helpful support as the Plants mourned Karac’s death away from the public glare of celebrity. Losing Bonham was like losing a brother, one who’d helped get him out of the house again.

There were rumors about Zeppelin’s future, but there was no doubt among the three survivors. There was no replacing Bonzo. It was time for the three to go their separate ways.

We’re now pretty much at the point where Led Zeppelin has been defunct for four times longer than they were while actively building their legacy. To this day, they’re still the most played act on current classic rock radio (followed by Aerosmith).

Jones moved on to producing, session work and collaborations, free to take on projects he wanted to, including a couple of solo albums. The result is a diverse list of credits, from Them Crooked Vultures to Diamanda Galas to Paul McCartney to opera.

Page had short-lasting collaborations with other lead singers — two Firm albums with Paul Rodgers, the Coverdale-Page record. There was a scuttled group with then ex-Yes members Chris Squire and Alan White and a tour of Zeppelin songs (with covers mixed in) with the Black Crowes. He even got back together with Plant (more on that as we go along) in the ’90s. But he’s been a lot quieter over the last 20 years, spending more time as the overseer of all things Zeppelin, producing various remasters and the release of previously bootlegged archival material such as the live How the West Was Won (so superior to Song Remains the Same).

That leaves Plant as the keeper of the flame in terms of regularly putting out albums and touring. He’s released 11 solo albums, a couple with Page (one live, one studio), two with Alison Krauss and an EP with the Honeydrippers.



The latter was a busman’s holiday of sorts, a love letter to R&B oldies, put together by Plant, including Page and Jeff Beck on guitar. The EP came three years after a few UK club shows. Its cover of Paul Phillips’ “Sea of Love” became a hit. And, by the way, when I say “oldies,” the Phillips song then was as old as, say, Brandy and Monica’s “This Boy Is Mine” is now.

Despite the oldies break, Plant was focused more on moving forward, starting with his first solo album, Pictures at Eleven, released in June, 1982.

He mostly avoided Zeppelin when he began touring again in July, 1983 behind his second release, Principle of Moments, far more likely to do covers of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” or Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.”

That evolved over time, starting with Plant deciding he could beat the Beastie Boys at their own sampling game. The group, in the days before sample clearances, had used bits of “When the Levee Breaks,” “The Ocean” and “Custard Pie” on their Licensed to Ill album.

Two years later, Plant sampled those Zeppelin songs, along with a couple of others (and a Page cameo) into “Tall Cool One,” co-written with Phil Johnstone. The song itself is peppy little “I’m attractive and I find you attractive, so let us engage in conjugal relations” kind of number. Plant was clearly having fun with it, as he’d turn the studio version’s samples into performed song snippets in live versions.


VIDEO: Robert Plant “Tall Cool One”

In the years since, he’s been more comfortable incorporating his past into his present, but has never turned it into Percy Flogs The Years 1969-1979. He’s steadfastly kept “Stairway” out of his setlists. You’re just as likely, if not moreso, to hear “The Crunge” in his sets.

One thing Plant had steadfastly avoided is a full-on reunion as Led Zeppelin. There were brief sets at Live Aid in 1985 (with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums), the 40th anniversary celebration of Atlantic Records in 1988 (Bonham’s son Jason at the kit as he would be from then) and their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. The big one-off reunion came about in 2007, when they got together for a charity performance and tribute to former Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun. A planned shorter set expanded when they realized how difficult it would be with all the solo sections. Basically, 40 minutes would have been four songs. It turned into a well-received farewell, 16 songs including a couple they’d never performed live before.

There’s no mistaking what the demand would have been for Led Zeppelin shows. There were 20 million online ticket requests for the 2007 show, a Guinness World Record at the time. But Plant hasn’t needed the money and, frankly, he’s been more interested in doing his own thing — a painter making new work rather than recreating his past pieces.

As bummed as some fans might be, bolstering the respect for Plant’s stance has been the quality of what he’s done since. He hasn’t made an outright bad album post-Zeppelin, avoiding his own Knocked Out Loaded, Never Let Me Down or Everybody’s Rockin’. There have been a few that were weaker than others, but even those had songs worth recommending, such as Manic Nirvana’s “Tie Dye on the Highway.”


VIDEO: Robert Plant “Tie Dye On The Highway” Live at Knebworth 1990

Zeppelin was never a big singles band, with its one Top 10 hit being a ridiculously truncated edit of “Whole Lotta Love” peaking at No. 4. One of their other singles, which reached as high as 16 on the pop charts, is their biggest song for airplay in the classic format today — “Immigrant Song”, helped by its use in movie soundtracks.

Plant’s subsequent work followed a similar trajectory. The “Sea of Love” cover peaked at three while the evocative, subdued “Big Log” off Principle of Moments was the only other single to reach the Top 20. But a number of songs were in rotation on mainstream rock stations over the first 20 years. That lasted until the mainstream rock format shifted, mutated and splintered, with formats like active rock and adult album alternative.

Plant’s last song to reach the rock chart was 2005’s “Shine it All Around” off The Mighty Rearranger. By the time of his most recent rock release — 2017’s Carry Fire — the chart was topped by the likes of Portugal: The Man and Imagine Dragons.

Set aside the whims of radio programmers and algorithms. Plant’s solo discography contains much worth exploring. Pictures at Eleven, was in its own way, a continuation of his work with Zeppelin (a cleaner, crisper In Through the Out Door in spots), without always trying to sound like Big Rock.

As the ’80s wore on, there were more of the tools of the time in synths and drum machines as well as the incorporation of rhythms beyond the standard blues, rock and folk. There was the return of Middle Eastern influence on Now and Zen’s “Heaven Knows”, which also mixed in gospel-style backing vocals on the chorus and a fiery Page solo.

1993’s Fate of Nations was an engaging blend of moody atmosphere and the melodically heartfelt with more of a political bent. There’s even a cover of “If I Were a Carpenter” that begs the question of why Plant hadn’t covered it before.

He dove headlong into covers on 2002’s Dreamland (six of its 10 songs). Included among them, a lush version of “Song to the Siren” by Tim Buckley and the Zeppelin-channeling take on “Skip’s Song” by Moby Grape, both Buckley and Moby Grape being longtime Plant favorites.

In the years since, his work has displayed a sure, steady hand working in the milieu he knows well.

Besides, why settle for ersatz Plants from a Christmas tree farm when you can have moments like the one on 2005’s “Tin Pan Valley” where the loud part of quiet/loud kicks in with Portishead’s Clive Deamer in the Bonzo role sounding like a blast from 30 years before. Or the 2010 cover of Low’s “Monkey,” which ups the menace (and shows he has good taste in bands). Or 2014’s propulsive, mystic “Little Maggie.” Or the knowing nod of 2017’s “May Queen.”

The reunions with Page weren’t approached as lazy cash-ins. 1994’s No Quarter, recorded live, mixed four new songs with a series of Zep tunes reworked to fit the Moroccan and Egyptian musicians who appear throughout. The new material fit in nicely. The reworked old songs showed the pair were capable of bettering the original, as with the way they cut to the core of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

The experience went well enough that they cut the all-original Walking to Clarksdale in 1998. If it doesn’t soar to the hoped-for heights, it isn’t as lugubrious as The Firm or as frankly disappointing as Coverdale-Page.

His two albums with Alison Krauss – 2007’s Raising Sand and 2021’s Raise the Roof, are as strong in their way as anything he’s done. The pairing of a man from the West Midlands and the sweet-voiced roots music legend from Illinois, born 24 years apart, proves to be as warm and effortless as if they’d grown up together as friends with a lot of overlap with their record collections.



Through it all, even when not sounding like Zeppelin, Plant carried on its spirit by staying true to himself as a writer and performer. He’s both a craftsman and a miner, who has found many rich musical veins over 50-plus years that he’s been able to tap into while always sounding engaged in what he’s doing.

Plant’s smarts extend to his voice. He realized as he moved into the age of senior citizen discounts that his voice didn’t have the range he had as when he was strutting under the stage lights in his 20s. 

He adjusted, making sure his songs, new and old, were arranged to fit what his still terrific voice could do. As he showed from early on, he was more than just a guy who could do more than summon the forces of nature with his high-pitched yowl.

Page has recalled being impressed with Plant from the first time he heard him, wondering if there was something wrong with him because he was still unknown. There wasn’t. And the unknown part would disappear soon enough.

That proved to be a good thing for the 54 years of music (and counting) that sprang from that invitation to leave Obs-Tweedle (try picturing a band with that name on classic rock radio today) to be a New Yardbird.

Judging by the hundreds of millions of albums sold, Plant isn’t the only one glad he said “Yes.”


AUDIO: Digging Deep, The Robert Plant Podcast Episode 1





Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

7 thoughts on “Tall Cool One: Robert Plant at 75

  • August 21, 2023 at 12:47 am

    I discovered Zeppelin in my teenage years (I was born in 1981) and it was a revelation. I got super excited in 2007 that they might decide to go on tour, but it was not meant to be. I have had the privilege of seeing Robert perform twice, once in 2019 with the Sensational Space Shifters and once earlier this year with Alison Krauss. He’s such an affable guy on stage, with no hint of an attitude that you might expect from a rock “god”. Just an amazing voice and talent.

  • August 21, 2023 at 7:45 am

    An accurate account of a somewhat melancholy series of events through many decades. With a small bright spot of real entertainment around 1988.

  • August 21, 2023 at 10:09 am

    Great article. Only disappointment with Coverdale Page was that it didn’t go any further. Robert put an end to that quickly.

    • August 21, 2023 at 11:35 pm

      Always good to hear the now 75yo Robert Plant. Saw him in’88 at the Costa Mesa Amphitheatre. My 21st birthday gift. “Heaven Knows” and “Tall Cool One” had just been released as singles from his solo album Now and Zen.

  • August 21, 2023 at 12:55 pm

    Thank you for this spectacular work Kara! I too have been through my “Zepxhaustion” periods and yet like you, here I am re-celebrating and bathing in the bright, sonic light of the “gods”. Much love and respect to you and Deb, Johnny Hickman

  • August 21, 2023 at 9:28 pm

    I remember being a teenager in the mid-70s growing up in Connecticut and a girlfriend had a Led Zeppelin album and she played it for me , man that’s all I needed to hear it was fantastic. I was blessed and honored to see Jimmy page and Robert plant in Las Vegas I think it was 1994 and they had a 38 piece orchestra, accompanying them. I am it was just overwhelmingly beautiful. I totally enjoyed it and now at 66 and living in Honolulu Hawaii every morning I get up I start my beach walk off with houses of the holy the song remains the same. Thank you for all the joy, all the energy, all the good vibrations that you brought me and millions who love and adore your work over the decades .

  • August 24, 2023 at 9:56 pm

    My first experience with zep was in junior high and an old wooden desk that some kid embedded the entire lyrics to stairway into. It covered the entire top of the desk and I always tried to sit at there to read the lyrics while the teach babbled. Sweet, sweet memories…


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