In the early ’80s Robert Plant played a solo gig in Sheffield during his Big Log Tour. A group of fans gathered in front of the stage were shouting: “Led Zep! Led Zep! We want Led Zep!” Plant was not amused and eventually, unable to ignore them any longer, broke. “Led Zeppelin is not where I’m coming from,” he answered back. To which a wag at the back of the hall responded: “Nay, thee are from Birmingham.”
It’s a story to remember listening to Mothership, the latest ‘best of’ compilation released by the band’s surviving three members in the run up to the (now postponed) reunion gig at London’s O2. Not because it reveals any pretentiousness in Plant (you only have to listen to the lyrics of Ramble On or Stairway To Heaven to know this is a man who takes himself very seriously), but because it shows how hard it has been over the last 40 years for Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist and keyboard player Jean Paul Jones to exist beyond the Greatest Rock And Roll Band Ever.
The 24-track, two CD collection differs only slightly from the 1990 Remasters – here Celebration Day and The Battle of Evermore are replaced by When the Levee Breaks and Over The Hills And Far Away. The tracks are ordered chronologically according to when the original studio album on which they appeared – kicking off with Good Times, Bad Times, the opener on 1969 debut Led Zeppelin and closing with All My Love from the weak final album, In Through the Out Door (1978) from which Page and drummer John Bonham were absent for much of the recording.
Though light on notable acoustic tracks, such as Black Mountain Side, Mothership showcases the most talented band line-up in history: Jones’s bass on Dazed And Confused drips like acid on Plant’s agonised vocal adding a layer of complexity to what would otherwise be straight down the line blues; Page’s guitar soars above the rhythmic repetition of Kashmir like flowers in the desert; Bonham’s drumming has the urgency of a heart attack on Black Dog; and through it all Plant’s vocal dexterity – from the pit of despair to orgasmic ecstasy – reminds us that he is the greatest blues singer produced by the UK, never mind Birmingham.
Plant’s lyrics have were both strength and weakness of Led Zeppelin. Mothership represents him at his sublime best with Heartbreaker, both an embittered lament and anthem to female potency, and self-indulgent, pompous worst with Achilles Last Stand, the epic lyric of which has all the profundity of a 13-year old Tolkien-obsessed poet.
Achilles Last Stand and the irritating reggae-lite D’Yer Maker (as bad as you would expect from a song named after a lame joke) are the only tracks I would have omitted. In their place I have added the deeply sexy What Is And Should Never Be, in which Plant’s whispering vocal backed by Jones’s purring bass are guaranteed to get the knickers off every girl in the room. But it is a minor quibble. As an introduction for Led Zep virgins, Mothership is as good a starting point as Remasters, which also featured Achilles and D’Yer Maker.
More than anything Mothership is a blissful reminder of how dull rock stars have become. In an era when Amy’s and Pete’s wretched struggles with addiction are upheld as the ultimate in rock and roll rebellion, Mothership is a memento of a time that revelled in excess: a glorious age of pre-Aids indulgence, when 20-somethings worried about getting laid not getting a mortgage.
At the centre of that guilt-free time reigned Led Zeppelin. I don’t mean for red snapper moments or televisions hurled from hotel rooms, I mean for the low down dirty rock and roll they created as a soundtrack to lust, which sweats from their music with the force of an unconsummated crush. No wonder Christians hate them. And no wonder we have missed them so much.