Here’s A.M. Shuffle, where I get the writing engine going with a few words on whatever pops up next on my phone. Today: Robert Plant’s “Burning Down One Side.”
Growing up as a middle-class white kid in suburbia, I idolized rock god Robert Plant because, obviously, we had so much in common. Each Zeppelin album was a freaking revelation, and even though they were all available by the time I was old enough to comprehend what was going on, I’d take weeks or months to get through each one, wringing every cassette tape/CD dry to dive deep into the bass line on “No Quarter” or the yelps on “Trampled Underfoot” or the existential weirdness of “Four Sticks.”
As for his solo albums? Let’s just say I was a VERY generous listener. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t digging on the avant-garde absurdity of Plant’s solo work (which reached its apex/nadir/whatever with “Little By Little,” an album which, by Plant’s own admission, has not one chorus whatsoever). Granted, Plant was in an uncomfortable position, as you can see from that photo — a classic rock icon who wanted to make NEW music in a post-punk era — so he pursued the strategy Dave Chappelle would use three decades later: do whatever the hell you want and purge those not willing to follow along.
“Burning Down One Side” is a perfect example of Plant’s post-Zep arc. This was off Plant’s first solo album, “Pictures At Eleven,” and while it certainly SEEMS like classic rock, it fits in that niche like a car parallel-parked the wrong way. Sure, it sounds like a distant cousin of a Zeppelin tune, but that’s mainly due to Plant’s voice; the dude could sing “Jingle Bells” and make it sound like a “Houses of the Holy” B-side.
This is more a product of ’80s rock, with synth drums and barely intelligible vocals and strummed chords thrown out like raw meat to hold off the charging we-want-Zep-back hordes (a crew which, it must be noted, has only increased in number in the ensuing 30 years).
Listening to this now, without the benefit of a cheap high school car stereo and a curfew to mitigate it, what I’m struck by is the lack of meanness to this. Much like when Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl made their own solo joints, Plant lost a crucial sinister element when he cut loose from Jimmy Page. Sure, he’ll still romance your mom, but he’s not going to scare you while he’s wooing her.
Plant’s still cranking out albums, of course; dude won a Grammy for his duets with Alison Krauss. And he turned down enough money to buy Mordor itself by refusing to tour with a re-formed Led Zeppelin. Even after all these years, I still have so much in common with him it’s scary.