Sunday, March 31, 2002

Chris Blackwell interview, Part 2: Now and Zen (1987-1988) and Manic Nirvana (1989-1990)

This three-part interview of Chris Blackwell originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

In Part 1 last week, we were introduced to Chris Blackwell, a session drummer who hit the jackpot in 1987 when a few demos featuring his work were passed on from a publisher to Robert Plant. Among them was a song called "Heaven Knows," which particularly caught Plant's attention, and so he personally called up the musicians from the demo.

CB: Next thing I know there's a message on my answering machine saying, "Hi, it's Robert Plant" and would I like to join his band? He didn't even get his manager to call me! I didn't hesitate in calling him back because I thought it was a wind up! I mean you don't normally get Robert Plant leaving messages do you!

SS: Why didn't you write any of the material on Now and Zen?

CB: I thought it was a session. You don't go into a session and expect to write songs! Anyway, [keyboardist] Phil [Johnstone] had most of that side covered. It was very much Robert and Phil's album. As far as I knew I was contracted to record the album and that was that. After the recording was finished Robert started talking about us as a band and about the upcoming tours and so on. [Bassist] Phil Scragg had other commitments at the time, and he is now heavily into the Jazz scene, so perhaps it was a wise decision on his part. He never played with us live at all - Charlie [Jones] joined at the final stages of recording Now and Zen.

SS: And when you went on the road, it was the first time in Plant's solo career that he sang Led Zeppelin material. Do you know what was going through his head?

CB: You'd have to ask him that! He did seem to have an aversion to playing any Zep though. Zeppelin songs are so good to play, and we were such big fans of all that. We would play stuff in rehearsal when he wasn't there. One time he walked in on us playing "Immigrant Song" and joined in, and off we went!

SS: Do you remember the process by which the Led Zeppelin tracks covered in concert were selected?

CB: I think we all made suggestions based on our understanding of what the songs were, and how we felt they would fit into the set. Obviously 'Stairway to Heaven' was taboo! But I did get to play mandolin live on 'Going to California' . . .

SS: Jimmy Page showed up at a few of Plant's performances in 1988. They played together at the last concert of the Non Stop Go tour. What was it like having him around?

CB: Another very nice man! Great fun to be with, and an incredible musical mind - you really do feel like you are in the presence of genius.

SS: In October 1988, Jimmy and Robert brought their overlapping U.S. tours to the same venue two nights in a row, in Worcester, Massachusetts. They didn't play at each other's shows, but Robert did attend Jimmy's. Do you remember this?

CB: That first tour in '88 with Planty was such an eye opener for me that I was too busy having a good time to take part in any politics that may be going down. I do remember Robert going to Jimmy's show wearing a turban and sunglasses though - problem is he probably looked more conspicuous like that! Shortly afterwards he began to wear Jimmy Page T-shirts on stage.

SS: The next project was the album Manic Nirvana. What was the process for that?

CB: Manic Nirvana was great fun as we all knew each other by then, and we had a tour under our belts which brought many shared experiences into the frame. We began work on this straight after the Now and Zen 'Non Stop Go' tour and we were all encouraged to contribute to the writing.

I felt a little stifled in the rehearsal room, so I wrote 'Tie Dye on the Highway' in my own studio and presented it to Robert complete. He added the melody and lyrics (incidentally, that's me playing guitar on that track!).

The other stuff was written at Robert's house in Wales - 'Watching You' I think I have on video as it is actually being written! 'Big Love' began as a drum feel and just grew from there really.

SS: When you say "Robert's house in Wales," you don't mean the famous Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, do you?

CB: No, unfortunately! He had a lovely house in Monmouth, Wales, that apparently used to belong to the doctor who discovered the G spot (typical!).

SS: What an imagination that doctor must have had! So ... Jimmy Page turned up again for Plant's appearance at Knebworth in June 1990.

CB: We performed 'Wearing and Tearing' at Knebworth, and rehearsing it was a great leveller as none of us had ever played it live before - Robert and Jimmy included!

SS: What was going through your mind, knowing you had to fill the heavy shoes of John Bonham on those songs?

CB: Didn't really occur to me until Knebworth when I found myself playing the intro to 'Rock and Roll' in front of 125,000 people with both Robert and Jimmy . . . the drum solo bit at the end was a bit fraught and I wish I'd played it better! There really was no point in emulating Bonzo as he was a one off, so I just played the stuff how I remembered it with a hint of CB thrown in for good measure!

The conclusion of the Chris Blackwell interview can be found here, focusing on Blackwell's work with Plant on Fate of Nations (1991-1993) and his other professional work to the time of the interview.

Friday, March 29, 2002

John Paul Jones interview with Lemon Squeezings (in 22 parts)

John Paul Jones sat down with me for an interview on Dec. 10, 2001. Because the interview was scheduled for only one hour of his time, I didn't bother to bring more than 120 minutes' worth of blank cassette tape. Jones and I started on time, but our conversation unexpectedly went on for nearly four full hours!

Over this time, he an interview that is believed to be his longest and most in-depth since 1977. Also, Jones busted out the instruments he himself carried into his hotel upon arrival from a bus traveling from the previous night's gig in Connecticut.

As I mentioned, not enough tape was available to record the full conversation. Even if I had brought enough tape, certain things he told me were off the record and could never be repeated. Other portions that were taped were too inaudible to be transcribed. For these reasons, the full interview will never be published anywhere.

Nevertheless, I have broken the interview transcript portions available to me into 22 sections as outlined below:
  1. John Paul Jones on his early days
  2. John Paul Jones on the Yardbirds
  3. John Paul Jones on the formation of Led Zeppelin
  4. John Paul Jones on touring with Led Zeppelin
  5. John Paul Jones on the Bath Festival 1970
  6. John Paul Jones on blaming the Beatles
  7. John Paul Jones on Phil Carson
  8. John Paul Jones on the "drag queen" story
  9. John Paul Jones on the story that he was considering leaving Zeppelin early
  10. John Paul Jones on touring with John Bonham
  11. John Paul Jones on all the keyboard instruments he plays
  12. John Paul Jones on his Mellotron and Fairlight keyboards
  13. John Paul Jones on "progressive" music
  14. John Paul Jones on the "tight" Zeppelin
  15. John Paul Jones on Led Zeppelin's accusations of plagiarism
  16. John Paul Jones on journalists
  17. John Paul Jones on his daughter Jacinda's music
  18. John Paul Jones on his theatrical and cultural work in Spain
  19. John Paul Jones on the title of "Nosumi Blues" from his solo album Zooma
  20. John Paul Jones on his singing
  21. John Paul Jones on his unreleased and bonus tracks
  22. John Paul Jones on his management and record label
In addition to the above portions, we discussed other topics. Some of these exchanges have also been disseminated in my newsletter, "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History." These include:

Monday, March 18, 2002

Will Jimmy Page recognize the DVD format's potential?

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Concerts like the one 31 years ago today, during Led Zeppelin's "Return To The Clubs" U.K. tour, may have been officially recorded. Jimmy Page has mentioned throughout the years that his vault of live Led Zeppelin recordings includes a number of professionally recorded concerts from the era. He frequently mentioned an amazing gig captured at Southampton University, the 31st anniversary of which passed one week ago today.

These tapes, Page repeated again and again over the years, could be released someday on a Led Zeppelin live box set. Although no official chronological live compilation has ever emerged from Page, he's never forgotten his words. In early 2000, he would state that he would hate to spend a lot of time working on such a set, only to have it vetoed by another former member of Led Zeppelin.

However, there's still hope that there will be some sort of a chronological live compilation. The DVD format opens up new possibilities for this, which I'm sure Page has explored at great lengths. There was talk in December 2001 of such a set being released in spring 2002. John Paul Jones told me on Dec. 10, "I can't imagine it will be out by the spring -- not the way we make decisions, anyway!" He turned out to be correct.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Chris Blackwell interview, Part 1: Early influences through 1987

This three-part interview of Chris Blackwell originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Chris Blackwell played drums on three Robert Plant albums (1985-1993) and two tours (1988 and 1990). He also played some guitar and mandolin for Plant in the studio and on the stage. Chris had the opportunity recently to answer some questions for me, and I'm presenting the interview here in three parts.

SS: Chris, thanks for all your help.

CB: No problem- glad I could be of help!

SS: We might as well start from the very beginning. Tell me about your musical influences as a child.

CB: According to my parents, I started hitting things when I was 3! Our neighbour used to play the drums and we would often hear him through the wall practising. Sometimes he would let me go and watch. I remember vividly that his kit had a very interesting smell about it, and of course it was very loud! He later emigrated to South Africa and didn't want to take the kit with him, so my Dad bought it and gave it to me for my eleventh birthday - that was that!

I've been in bands since the age of 14 but picked up the guitar at around 10, bass at 17, and keyboards at 20. There were always instruments lying around at rehearsals and so I would amuse myself with them during the breaks.

The first album I ever bought was Led Zeppelin 4, and this had an undoubted effect on me. I also loved Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Prokofiev, Ralph Vaughan Wiliams and Return to Forever. All very much a part of me now as a musician. I firmly believe that music is an all encompassing thing - you miss so much if you close your mind to certain genres!

SS: So you were a Led Zeppelin fan. Had you heard any of Plant's solo work before joining his band?

CB: Funnily enough, some friends and I drove from London, England to Northern Spain. We covered about 1,000 miles in 24 hours. And we played Shaken 'n' Stirred all the way down! It had just been released then, and my friend had just bought it and kept playing it! The drumming is very complex on the album. I remember saying to my friend "I'd like to have played on this album!"

We [Plant's band] did "Pink and Black" live sometimes, and some of those fast rolls are very difficult to fit in!

SS: Tell me about how you got to be in Plant's band.

CB: I did a lot of session work in and around London and was always in the studio doing something or other. Anyway, one of the people I used to work with a lot was Phil Johnstone. I had drummed on a few of his demos, and Virgin (Phil's publisher) had sent some of these tracks to Robert as potential singles for his new album. Robert liked one track in particular ("Heaven Knows") and also happened to like my drumming (I was on the demo).

Next thing I know there's a message on my answering machine saying "Hi, it's Robert Plant" and would I like to join his band? He didn't even get his manager to call me!

SS: That must have been exciting. Did you call him back right away?

CB: I didn't hesitate in calling him back because I thought it was a wind up! I mean you don't normally get Robert Plant leaving messages do you!

SS: Lots of folks say he doesn't call enough. What did you expect -- musically or personally -- when you got involved with him?

CB: I'm not sure really . . . the first meeting was a terrifying experience 'cos I had all these preconceptions of how he would be I guess. As it turned out he was (and is) a really nice bloke. Any nerves I had totally disappeared after our first handshake! Musically it was a session for me because as far as I knew I was contracted to record the album and that was that. After the recording was finished Robert started talking about us as a band and about the upcoming tours and so on. I had no idea at that time of the fun that was in store!

Part two of the Chris Blackwell interview covers the beginning of his work with Robert Plant.