Page & Plant - No Quarter: Unledded Review
I was nine. My brother, five years older and my guide and idol in all things, called me urgently into his bedroom one day and impatiently pointed at his bed, a ripe adolescent cocoon, and told me to lie down. I nervously obeyed, noticing he had modified it oddly. Either side of the strangely discoloured pillow lay the speakers of his underpowered stereo.
"Close your eyes," he said, "Try to empty your mind. Think of nothing."
I waited, a little confused as to this last instruction, but thrilled. The hiss of the speakers on either side of my head rose as he turned the volume up. There came the gentle but penetrating impact of the needle being lowered with infinite care onto the vinyl surface of a record. A few seconds of warped, rolling quiet...
Then there came a sound, the likes of which I had never heard before. At first I thought they were bagpipes or the lowing of some horned beast, but then the quality of the sound changed and I realised it had to be some kind of electronic keyboard. It was a deeply disquieting noise, like the blowing of an ancient horn. I felt the first tinges of fear. A voice came, half speaking, half singing:
- "And if. You. F-i-i-i-n-n-n-d. That you ca-a-a-n't... go on...
- … and. Your. Will-l-l-l’s sinkin’ low…
- Just. Be. Lie-e-e-ve… and you can’t… go wrong…
- In. The. Li-i-i-ight… you will fi-i-i-nd. The ro-o-oad...
- "BA-DOW, BA-DOW, BA-DOW, BA-DOW"
For days I lived in shame, skulking around the house and avoiding my brother's gaze. But the sound, the sound, drew me back. Something about the sound had seeped into my consciousness and was lying there like a discarded barrel of nuclear waste, radiating dark, poisonous fumes up to the surface of my awareness. Furtively, in the evenings, I crept to the wall that divided my room from my brother's and pressed my ear against it, hearing again and again that unearthly drone, calling the spirits to muster. The sound - like smudged fingerprints on a windowpane or a slightly grubby sheet of fabric pulled taut - the sound had invaded my mind and soul. Soon I had convinced my brother to make me a tape of the album (which I discovered was called Physical Graffiti by a band called Led Zeppelin) and I listened to it until the plastic cogs holding the tape came loose one night and snarled the whole cassette into an unplayable mess. But by that time I owned my own tapes of I, II and III and was a committed acolyte. I had taken my own steps down the dark path of Zep...
I say all this by way of explanation. It's impossible to describe quite how I feel about this new DVD - itself a document of events ten years old - without going back even further into the past to bring to light how I came to Zep in the first place. Zep means a lot of things to a lot of people; I'm too young to have ever seen them live (though I regularly drool and genuflect before last year's sublime 2-disk DVD set) but for those who did, I imagine their experience of connection with the ineffable mystery that is Zep is even more powerful than mine.
So. 'Page & Plant - No Quarter: Unledded’ then. First, let us make no mistake, this is not Zep. I mean no ill-will or disrespect when I say this, it is merely a statement of fact. You can't recreate a past time or place anymore than you can surf the same wave twice. When they took the stage of the Albert Hall in January of 1970 to a roar like a monsoonal deluge, Led Zeppelin brought with them the mephitic odours of a band already deeply in league with that creative daemon which has inspired the greatest musical experiments in history. Blues. Folk. Rock 'n Roll. These were the triple strands of their argumentative DNA, a musical inheritance that saw them developing from the outset a peerless live act that communicated deeply from the innermost core of the rock legacy; its lawless, wailing heart. Robert Johnson. Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf. The mighty trunk of Zep stemmed from these primal roots. Page, Plant, Bonzo and Jonesy sat at the very source and Spoke, and as they Spake, their words took on new meaning and grew, and grew, and many things came to pass. Accordingly, a Zep gig was more than just a rock concert, it was an invocation of dark forces, a primitive rite, a cataclysmic ceremony which left everyone who took part in it indelibly stained. Spontaneous but professional, tight (as the saying goes) but loose, their funky, bluesy, folky rock deafened the world.
For over a decade, steered by the titanic presence of manager Peter Grant, they rode their careening engine of rock destruction through blood and rain, steel and fire, encountering car crashes and tax problems, defining new standards of excess and indulgence and leaving a crumpled trail of broken bodies, trashed hotel rooms, burning buildings and shattered minds in their wake. Grim faced and fell, they were soldiers of a satanic rock inquisition, the enemies of God. Their influence on the musical world is impossible to overstate. It's no coincidence that the highest possible accolade accorded to Jeff Buckley (a Zep devotee whose album 'Grace' was recently voted by one music magazine the single most influential recording of the 90s) was that he was "... Page and Plant in one." Zep were and remain the ne plus ultra of rock musicians, the gold standard by which all others will forever be judged and found wanting.
But who were they? How did they get here? Why did they dress that way?
Plant. A cherubic tyrant, a golden-haired Nero, simultaneously frail and overpowering, feminine and swaggeringly macho, his mutton chop whiskers bristling with evil intent but with a voice of pure Black Country gold. To witness Plant fronting Zep in 1968 was to witness the rising of a new sun in the rock universe. It indicated not only - in his slim-hipped figure - the arrival of a powerful and cruelly seductive new lead singer on the international rock scene, but also signified the coming of a new archetype in the history of male music performers: the Eccentric British Rock God. Jagger? Too calculating. Daltrey? Too prosaic. Bowie? Too perverse. Gillan? Just…. no. Leaving aside completely his obsession with Aleister Crowley and Arthurian history, only Plant had the courage to consistently make Tolkienesque references ("Gollum!") in his lyrics AND be photographed wearing a sheepskin robe and carrying a sword and flaming torch. He was often sweetly shy on stage, yet full of a leonine arrogance that hinted at an imperious, even vicious side (singing of sending women 'to hell', of having them 'in the sights' of his loving). Fey and cool, then raging, in odd moments his gaze would take on a disturbingly empty quality, as if staring over a field of slain enemies; a second later he would be smirking ironically. He sculpted from the looming silence that hung like shrouds in the stormclouds gathered around Zeppelin's gleaming contrail screams the like of which had never been heard before in our planet’s history, a young white singer emitting great piercing agonised shrieks that seemed to reach beyond the usual parameters of the human voice and which, astonishingly, remained in tune and on note no matter how far he pushed. The overlord of the wail, he led the band down their dark, fiery path, a satanically mischievous pied piper dancing to the devil’s tune.
He brought the Four Winds. Allegedly.
Bonham. The name alone inspires fear. Looking at him flailing away at the kit inspired apprehension and even a kind of awed terror, as if one was witnessing the eruption of a volcano. He was a drum brute, a boar with sticks, the King of Tub Thumpers and a man with the courage and foresight to wear green plastic shoes with navy blue flares. None dared stand against him, and with good reason. His bearded, sweaty face, tongue arched up in concentration as he pummeled the bongos with his bare hands, was like something leering at you from a nightmare, a particularly evil entry from a dark history of the black percussive arts, a grimoire of broken eardrums, its bloodstained skin marked 'Remo'. His kick drum like heaven's gate slamming shut, his snare the death of kings, he delivered the downbeat like a man shipping a shedload of bricks, swung at his cymbals like a man in a pub brawl. Fag in mouth, sticks in hand, he conquered nations, women spontaneously conceiving during his epic, half-hour drum solos (their children formed an army of the insane), men being spurred on to acts of madness, violence and death. The stories were many and nefarious: how Bonham once spent an afternoon practicing and, returning the next day, discovered that a plant sitting near his kit had died from the volume. How Bonham (born John Henry Bonham) had been born in a storm. How he wore a headband without fear. He was the most influential rock drummer of all time, more consistent than Mitch Mitchell, more gifted than Keith Moon, more comprehensible than Neil Peart and just better than bloody Ringo.
The Bull of the Woods, if you will.
Page. Page. Page. Page. Top session player. Famed Yardbirds axeman. Zeppelin legend. Like a wise old man telling stories or a young turk screaming defiance, Jimmy Page's guitar acrobatics and killer riffs are, with Plant's wail, the most distinctive and immediately recognisable component of the Zep arsenal. He rates as one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, a fearless innovator who never stopped furthering his technique or ceasing to experiment with the latest technologies (or to find new uses for old ones, such as the violin bow). Page was the alchemist, the conjuror, the dark magus who took the folky fingerpicking of Jansch and Renbourn, the pure rock of Scotty Moore and the atavistic blues of Robert Johnson, mixed them in the cradle of his imagination and applied the incendiary heat of his own technique. A sly hierophant, by turns dispassionate and impulsive, involved and distant, he was the magnetic pole around which Zep swirled (or stomped) in smeary ellipses. The sight of Page in his double-breasted black jacket, Marlboro in mouth, Gibson ES Double-Neck to the fore, hair exploding around his face, is one of the most iconic in rock. His symbiotic relationship with Plant lies at the core of Zeppelin's mystery and ongoing appeal, particularly in the live domain. One could say Page's onstage demeanour was the dark, sepulchral yin to Plant's explosive yang, yet one could just as easily turn the conceit upside down to say that Page's fiery guitar outburst provided the masculine principle to Plant's tight-buttocked squeals; it's unsurprising that one of Page's regular guitars - the Dan Electro employed in 77-80 era renditions of 'Kashmir' - bore a black-and-white design similar to the ancient Taoist symbol.
The Captain, no mistake.
Jones. The quiet man of Zep? Maybe, but just think: he gave Zep some of its funkiest moments and also some of its prettiest; think of the gorgeous, down-stepping keyboard riff in 'Misty Mountain Hop', the lovely mandolin twitterings in 'That's the Way'. His droning bass line for 'Dazed and Confused', like the ritual chant of dark priests entering a sacrificial chamber, is one of the band's definitive musical trademarks yet, conversely, his Hohner noodlings brought a little West Coast sunshine into the grim, pasty-faced rumble of 'Trampled Underfoot'. Always inventive, never settling for the obvious, but always there in the way great bass players are (John Entwistle would be an obvious but not unreasonable comparison), Jones was the consummate professional, his background as a musical arranger adding another layer to Zep's already multi-tiered musical layer cake. With his modest good looks and quiet demeanor, Jones sometimes gave the impression of having stumbled into a Zep gig by accident. At times he looked like he should have been playing for the Beach Boys. Perhaps with three such strong musical personalities already going full tilt, there had to be someone who would step back occasionally, to provide that space which allows new concepts and structures to manifest from the Unknown. Jones provided that space and, often, the new concepts and structures themselves.
The benign Pooh of rock.
This, then, was Zep, at least as I see them.
Now, the new disk.
This new DVD is made up of the material seen in their famous 1994 MTV Unledded show (which attracted an estimated two million viewers on its initial broadcast and brought them into the lives and living rooms of a new generation), plus some more recent extra stuff. Plans had been brewing for an Unplugged set since the previous Autumn when the two had met in Boston, both flushed with recent successes: Page from his recent Japanese tour with Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale, Plant from his newly released 'Fate of Nations' album. From the beginning both men wanted to do something special, rather than the staid acoustic set produced by most bands taking part in the format. The decision was made to reinterpret the classic Zep catalogue integrating Indian and Arabic musical influences. On August 25 and 26th, 1994, Page and Plant gathered in TV studios on the South Bank to record a live set in front of an audience, with Michael Lee on drums and Charlie Jones on bass (both from Plant's touring band), Porl Thompson (of The Cure) on 2nd guitar, Ed Shearmur on Organ, The London Metropolitan Orchestra and a large Egyptian Ensemble led by Hossam Ramzy.
The DVD begins in suitably epic Zep style, with a montage of images (flying over a forest towards a rainbow, a fierce bird of prey, Plant whirling like a dervish in Marrakesh) that give on to the two of them sitting in a drizzly wooded valley, performing an atmospheric No Quarter. It's a strange beginning, arguably not the best way to introduce the band to newcomers, but undeniably provocative and in keeping with the song's ethereal spirit.
As the last note fades out, we're taken into the studio, an expectant crowd and Page strumming the first delicate notes of Thank You. The audience whoops, the band breaks in and we're well and truly away. One thing is immediately apparent: they sound great, good and tight and loud. Page's control of dynamics is to the fore from the off while Bob is giving the familiar lines a bluesy twist. My concern about Lee (can he propel the band forward with the necessary violence? Will he turn out to be the Kenny Jones of Page & Plant?) lasts roughly two minutes, at which point he unleashes a mighty stream of triplets onto the snare, rack and floors to announce Page's superb first solo (I was pleased to note incidentally that Lee was using Bonzo's classic 'one rack, two floor tom' setup, and a Ludwig kit to boot, even if he's using Zildjian cymbals, not JB's favoured Paistes). A bluesy What Is And What Should Never Be follows, with the band raising the heat still further. Page's slide work is atmospheric rather than thrilling but when he and Lee lock in, the former dryly scratching in perfect unison with the latter's deafening sixteenth note snare blows, the song catches fire, Plant tossing his yellow mane in a way that recalls days of yore…
Having clearly won the audience over with rousing renditions of two firm Zep favourites, P & P throw in their first Eastern bender. Nigel Eaton's hurdy-gurdy and Jim Sutherland's gently pummeled bodhran set an exotic texture that only resolves into The Battle of Evermore when Page appears wielding an extraordinary triple-necked guitar. With Lee and Jones both on percussion and vocalist Najma Akhtar ululating the refrain, this isn't half-hearted tinkering; it's a complete re-working of a classic track that clearly works, particularly in the inspired 'voice-and-drum' chanting break towards the end. Akhtar is a bit nervous at first, but a few swapped smiles with the old codger on lead vocals soon works wonders. Superb. Page strums a mere two necker to bring in Gallows Pole which follows. A minute in and the hurdy-gurdy, banjo and mandolin kick in, adding a real Celtic urgency to proceedings. Again, this is a fully digested addition of new elements to a well-known song, not toying for the sake of it, or a mere novelty. Jones jumps in, shoving the whole pack of maniacs along with relentless aplomb before Lee enters with Bonzo's driving 1-and-3 snare rhythm to drive the song to a frantic, ecstatic conclusion. Brilliant.
Having set up a great momentum with the live show, the DVD then takes the first of several breaks, firstly to a rocky outcrop halfway up a mountain side in Wales for a loping rendition of Nobody's Fault But Mine. This has a rather dutiful air about it and I think misses the reflected energy of a live audience. The action then shifts to Marrakesh for a sequence of songs performed by P & P there with local musicians. First off is City Don't Cry performed in a courtyard with a trio of musicians, Plant looking comfortable seated cross-legged on the ground like a guru. Apart from the band, there's only a trio of rather bored onlookers on a nearby roof. The audience is bigger for the raging The Truth Explodes, since P & P have set themselves up in the middle of the souk amongst the snake charmers and water sellers. Performing to a looped drum sample, both men do their best to excite a crowd who are partly bemused, partly enthused. Then it's back to the courtyard for a stirring Wah Wah. Then we're back to the Welsh mountainside for a rendition of When The Levee Breaks that threatens to lumber into self-parody, hurdy-gurdy or no. After a slow start, however, it's rescued by some manic drum work by Lee and reaches a stirring finish. Overall, while picturesque, the footage from Marrakesh and Wales does rather have the air of an experiment, one of those 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if we...' ideas that didn't turn out quite as one imagined.
With this, we return to the South Bank studio for a gorgeously smeary start to Wonderful One (so reminiscent of 'The Rain Song'). Unfortunately it doesn't continue so well. Oddly, with this being one of the new tracks, it's also the first to show up the cracks in Plant's voice, more a result of him overreaching himself in the choruses than any fundamental weakness. I think 'Wonderful One' is half a great Zep-style song, but the chorus, for mine, sounds like it's been transplanted from another, more commercial, tune. All is forgiven, however, thanks to the next number: a thundering seven-minute Since I've Been Loving You with the LMO adding epic strings. Page finds real feeling in the blues runs, climbing delicately through the fretboard back into the heart of this timeless classic.
And from now on it's nothing but classics, reworked and rejigged but fully Ledded, whatever the title of the DVD may be. The orchestra works brilliantly on The Rain Song, providing a beautiful counterpoint to Page's acoustic strumming, especially during an extended break where it's just the two of them playing. Jones uses a double bass on this one, also to great effect. "Flee from me, keepers of the gloom..." That's The Way benefits from some excellent banjo work by Thompson. Plant dedicates Four Sticks to Bonzo and I think he - who always understood that more was more - would have loved what his old bandmates have done with it: added a five-piece Egyptian percussion section wielding dobolla, duf, bendir, reque (?) and finger cymbals and an Egyptian string section as well as the LMO. Oud! It's the Egyptian strings, plus bamboo flute, that lead off a stunning Friends, Lee finally doing the business bare-handed in true Bonzo style. All forces are gathered - and augmented with a horn section (that got lost in the mix) - for a mighty near 13-minute Kashmir, another track where the sudden interjection of Egyptian percussion and strings is used to striking and entirely beneficial effect. The mixing of Easter and Western orchestras is fascinating, not gimmicky. A powerful segue into a burst of Whole Lotta Love, a madly improvised finale and it's all over.
'No Quarter' is a 10-year old TV broadcast so, allowing for the certain degree of fuzziness and softness that this infers, I actually thought it looked really good. Maybe my eyes were blasted by the pure power of the rock, but the live concert footage looked clean and smooth despite a challenging deep purple/blue colour scheme for the set. The Marrakesh and Wales footage looked a tad grainier but still clear. It’s presented of course in 1:33:1.
I can only speak for the DD 2.0 Stereo which sounded excellent, achieving a good balance in what was often - especially in the later songs - an extremely full soundstage. Plant's voice was always clear, crisp and centrally placed, Page's guitar bright and Lee's drums brought right to the front of the mix where they belong. Nor did the bass ever get lost. Clarity was maintained as the mix became more complex, adding bodhran, hurdy-gurdy and the Egyptian Ensemble. Truly, it did rock.
The 13-minute Interview features Page and Plant in conversation with a British interviewer literally in the middle of Camden High Street. They talk about their reasons for wanting to get together and rework the old songs. Plant describes the troublesome process of recording in Marrakesh and explains his attraction to Wales as a location for filming some of the songs for 'No Quarter': "It's all there!" Since this was quite a major project for both men, it deserved a more in-depth interview than this off-hand affair. However, Zep were always notoriously press and interview shy and perhaps old habits die hard. For the interview subtitles are offered in Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian, Netherlands and Portugese.
Black Dog is a live version of the song specially recorded for veteran US TV personality Dick Clarke's American Music Awards show. It's a good enough performance and the sound is a veritable assault, but it's not very long and is just the guys playing in a studio, there isn't an audience for them to respond to. Altogether a tidbit.
At under two minutes Moroccan Montage is, as its name suggests, a brief collection of colourful outtakes from P & P's trip there, much of which you get to see in the main body of the 'No Quarter' film.
The Special Features end with the disturbing video for 'Most High' from Page & Plant’s 1998 album ‘Walking into Clarksdale’.
'No Quarter' represents where Page and Plant were at with the colossal legacy of Zep ten years ago i.e in a very good, creative place. Obviously the omission of Jones gives the whole project a certain tension for true Zep fans (they could at least have told him they were doing it; he only found out by reading the papers) but what's done is done. If you're not old enough/lucky enough to have seen Zep or Page and Plant live, but love the music and own Jimmy Page's own supercolossal two-disk DVD collection of last year, 'No Quarter' will enable you to get another step closer to the eternal mystique that surrounds these two and their awesome band. It represents a fascinating chapter in the development of the Zep song archive and in the musical careers of Page and Plant. A most stimulating and interesting release.