Robert Plant has forged a unique career over the past fifty years, first as the frontman, vocalist, and lyricist of the mighty Led Zeppelin, and then as a restless and always evolving solo artist. Still as musically and critically relevant as ever, he remains a fairly private and mysterious man behind the public persona. A book by author Paul Rees that I reviewed last year, based on extensive interviews over the years with Plant and numerous family and friends (although published without any actual involvement from Robert) did a nice job in trying to pull back the curtain in order to show what made him tick, although the narrative flow left a bit to be desired. It was a solid book, but left me wanting more. Shortly after, a new book about Plant was announced and piqued my interest as I still wanted to know more about the real person behind the facade. Dave Thompson's Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin, acknowledges Rees' book as "definitive" in its introduction, but I wanted to see just how the two books compared.
Right at the beginning, Thompson lets the reader know that his book is structured differently from a typical biography: instead of a linear narrative, he jumps back and forth between eras, with the odd numbered chapters starting off with the end of Led Zeppelin in 1980 and continuing onward, while the even numbered chapters begin with Plant's birth in 1948 and progress up through his career with Led Zeppelin. The author also states in his introduction that the chapters can either be read in sequence or all of the odd can be read in order and then all of the even...however, I chose to just read the book from beginning to end. Setting up the entire scenario with the immediate aftermath of John Bonham's death in September 1980, Thompson does gives an interesting take on Plant's life and career, running the two threads parallel to each other in order to show that he's always been an inquisitive, restless, and ever-learning fan and creator of music regardless of his situation. Similar to the Rees book, Thompson shows how Plant grew up in a comfortable middle-class existence but was bitten by the music bug and decided that it was the only career path he was interested in. After bouncing around a series of small bands in the Black Country of England and nearing a self-imposed deadline of "making it" by his 20th birthday, he finally hit pay dirt when he was recruited by Jimmy Page to front a new band he was forming called Led Zeppelin late in the summer of 1968. The rest is, of course, history as Led Zeppelin went on to be one of the biggest and best rock bands of all time, dominating the 1970s with their records and legendary concert performances. However, it all came crashing down for Robert in 1977 with the sudden death of his young son Karac and even though the band limped on for another three years, his heart wasn't really in it. The death of his childhood friend and bandmate John Bonham on the eve of their 1980 US tour killed the band off for good. However, rather than rest on his laurels or churn out solo albums that were pale imitations of Zeppelin, Robert Plant forged his own unique path through his solo career, proving his detractors wrong and showing that he had no interest (or need) to ever go back to Zeppelin apart from a handful of one-offs for special occasions.
Thompson's strange construction of bouncing between eras in alternating chapters is actually not as jarring as it seems at first and after the first few, flows pretty nicely. However, from around halfway through the book to the end, the chapters start to feel like little more than short bursts listing Plant's latest projects one after another and tend to get a bit repetitive. This is exacerbated by the author's writing style, which eschews traditional narrative style writing for a more hip, clipped style where sentences are short packets of words and thoughts rather than anything particularly deep. Additionally, it became apparent about halfway through the book that there's very little firsthand material in the way of interviews or contributions from people that the author spoke to directly. Apart from the occasional quote taken from old articles and interviews (many of which have been repeated so many times in other places that they're instantly recognizable), the majority of the book is just the author writing about Plant's life and career in short paragraphs. While the book was readable, it just didn't feel like anything of great depth. With that being said, one major difference between this book and the Rees book is that, while the Rees book seemed to focus more on Plant's personal life and the various rumors around it, Thompson for the most part ignores the sex and drugs and focuses more on the music, especially Plant's multifaceted solo career. In that respect, his book does a better job than Rees', although there were some factual inaccuracies that I found. For instance, the claim that Chris Dreja played bass at the first Led Zeppelin rehearsal before quitting...this has never been confirmed and if I recall correctly, Dreja himself has denied it. Also, immediately after this the book states that Page called Jones to ask him to join the band, while elsewhere it's been documented that Jones' wife saw in the musical papers that Jimmy was forming a new band, told him, and it was Jones who called Page offering his services, not the other way around. These are minor but still important things that should have and could have written about correctly.
My final conclusions about this book? It's a short book and a quick read, interesting and readable enough that it's enjoyable and does a better job discussing the musical aspects of Plant's career, while the Rees book is better at describing his personal life and the various aspects of his personality (as well as drawing from more firsthand sources). For that reason, I would say The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin is about equal with Rees' book, and both should be read to get a complete picture of Plant's life as each fills in gaps that the other one doesn't.
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