Once again for Classic Albums we circle back to the summer of ’88. That year was an embarrassment of riches for good music, it really was. At the end of my freshman year of high school, my cousin Franc made me a tape of something that I quite frankly wore the shit out of. That something was Robert Plant’s Now and Zen album. I was less than impressed with his previous effort, Shaken ‘n’ Stirred, so I put it in my Fisher rack system with some trepidation. See, the difference between Franc and me on the Led Zeppelin front was that while I loved them, he was OBSESSED. This also stretched to any and all of the members’ solo projects. Jimmy Page’s two albums with The Firm? Check. John Paul Jones’ soundtrack album to the thriller Scream For Help? Yep. So naturally he was all over anything from Mr. Plant as well, who could do no wrong. I was more on the fence on solo stuff…until that day.
SO I put this thing in and “HOLY SHIT HOW FUCKING COOL IS THIS??” is what came out of my mouth 30 seconds in. “Heaven Knows” was such an immediate departure from previous work while still retaining some pop sensibilities that I was hooked immediately. Keyboardist and co-writer of all nine songs Phil Johnstone found the perfect balance on this, and all subsequent tracks. Not surprisingly, that songwriting partnership would continue for years. “Dance On My Own”, a subtle metaphor for masturbation is next, with the teasing, jangly guitars of Doug Boyle, who also proved himself worthy of tackling the Zeppelin catalog on the tour that me and Franc caught at Nassau Coliseum on July 28, 1988.
Speaking of, I love how Robert Plant finally comes to grips with his past on “Tall Cool One”. He had been running from it for eight years, and it took sampling from those hacks in Beastie Boys to finally snap him out of it, but hey, I’ll take it! Utilizing samples of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog”, among others, he really gives the fans what they want, and the live rendition was even more high-energy, and perfect in every way. This version however, was another “REWIND! REWIND! REWIND!” song in the Walkman everywhere I went. I didn’t started torturing everyone I knew with my constant song repeats while screaming, “This is the GREATEST SONG EVER!!” until May of ’89, (Right, Russell??) but if I had, this song would have been one of them for sure. The Middle Eastern flavor that we first saw in “Heaven Knows” comes back for another visit in “The Way I Feel”, lyrically adding the Zen to the album, as it closes side one.
“Helen of Troy” not only opens side two, it was the opener for that leg of the tour, and live it has some bite, believe me. Chris Blackwell’s drums are crisp, and on the attack, and Phil Scragg’s bass pops and fills all over the place. Oh man, what can I say about “Billy’s Revenge”? A doo-wop intro followed by a guitar-driven rocker? Yes, please!! “Ship of Fools” is without a doubt one of the best songs Plant has ever written, case closed. It is moody, atmospheric, and wonderfully understated. With a synth percussion, Boyle playing just the right notes on his guitar, and an outro that felt like it could transport you anywhere, this was, and is, a major home run for me. And yet it segues beautifully into the glaringly 80’s keyboard-driven “Why” which is also a favorite to this day. It pops into my head at the weirdest times, too.
Closer “White, Clean and Neat” is a testament both to growing up in the 50’s and young lust. “Beneath her skirt, between the clean white sheets / It’s such a long long way from the streets.” While name-checking Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, this song totally represents the divisiveness of rock and roll in many a household at that time, and that alone makes it a great song, never mind that it’s catchy as hell.
So there you have it, my take on Robert Plant’s Now and Zen. It really is an amazing record, and it always sounded best to me in my headphones while walking to my summer job at 7-11, or while stocking the cooler there. Suffice to say my copy wore down pretty quickly. Getting to see the tour was the icing on the cake, too, as it was not only my third concert ever, but one I’ll never forget. Seeing an icon like Robert Plant up close and personal is something I can’t put a price on. Thanks, Franc! ~dc