ROBERT PLANT WEEK ON TBL: TBL ROBERT PLANT ARCHIVE DAY 1 – HONEYDRIPPERS 1981 REVISITED
To celebrate Robert Plant’s forthcoming London Forum gig, over the next few days it’s Robert Plant week on TBL with daily archive postings. Today we look back to his first post Zep appearances in the Midlands based pick up band The Honeydrippers.
Honeydrippers ‘81 Revisited
Two months ago Led Zeppelin announced they could not continue as they were. For Robert Plant this decision signalled a period of self-evaluation that resulted in a complete change of musical status, from being the seminal rock demi-god to being, well, just the singer in a band. It was a remarkable adjustment, from singing to thousands in the biggest arenas in the world to taking the stages of tiny clubs in the north of England, from seeing the world through the windows of a rented limousine (as the song goes) to the clambering from the side door of a rented Hertz van… this was the reality of The Honeydrippers.
While America still reeled from the shock of a cancelled tour and a world without Zeppelin, Robert Plant quietly got back to performing, albeit on a very different scale to what he had been used to. This then is The Honeydrippers ‘81 – Revisited.
“No more Led Anything”
The first time I heard anything about The Honeydrippers was a few days after their début gig at a Stourbridge Wine bar. Among my daily crop of mail, I received a cutting from a Birmingham newspaper. “Led Zeppelin’s Plant Stages Return” proclaimed the headline. It went on to report that Robert had hitched up with a group of local R&B musicians under the name The Honeydrippers and had played in Stourbridge on March 9, followed by an appearance at Keele University the next night.
Pleased as I was that Robert was back on stage, a quote attributed to him after these gigs made me realise, perhaps for the first time, the stark reality that the dream really was over. “As far as I’m concerned there is no more Led Zeppelin, no more Led anything. The band no longer exists.”
The Honeydrippers was evidently Robert’s initial attempt at exorcising the past, a move not all that surprising since throughout it all he had made a point of never losing sight of his Midlands roots. It was therefore only natural that he would surround himself with local musicians and return to the kind of small club venues he was accustomed to in The Band Of Joy. It was the very opposite of the high-flying but sheltered world of Zepp on tour.
On April 12, 1981, The Honeydrippers continued their low key gigs with a date at the Kelvington County Club, Middlesboro. Carolyn Longstaff and Sarah Brewin, two regular Tight But Loose readers, sent me a full report and pictures of the gig. It was startling to see Robert with such short hair, and equally bizarre to see him in performing in such small venues.
I was finally able to view this new beginning for myself when The Honeydrippers played at the Retford Porterhouse on May 4. Swan Song had tipped me off about this gig - surprisingly, the date was billed in the music paper gig guides. With word already spreading of Plant’s return to action under The Honeydrippers monicker, a healthy crowd had gathered by the time fellow TBL associate Tom Locke and myself found the venue on a bleak May Bank Holiday Monday.
The last time I had seen Robert sing live was to thousands of fans on the Over Europe tour the previous year. That only a few hundred would witness this Retford performance seemed remarkable. The fact that the amps and monitors were all stacked on beer crates made me realise this was a long way from the days of the PA experts Showco Inc. of Dallas, Texas.
Robert was ushered into the club via a fire exit door around about 6pm. Having become accustomed to Plant’s image as a flamboyant front man, I remember being very conscious of a distinct change of character in this 1981 model. Gone was the self-styled carnal rock god. The flowing locks and bangles seen in the world’s biggest stadiums were replaced by a pre-1968 length hair and a penchant for slick zoot suits. Here was a man just glad to be among friends, singing the songs that had fuelled his original ambitions to be a successful singer back in the mid-Sixties.
There were no Zeppelin songs performed during The Honeydrippers tour of early ’81; no familiar on stage preening either, just plenty of rhythm and sweat and a few nods in the direction of where many Zeppelin influences originally surfaced.
On May 18, Plant and Co took the road to Pontypridd deep in the valleys of Wales, coincidentally six years to the day of the Earls Court show. At an afternoon soundcheck at the Treforest Teachers’ Training College, I watched Robert coax Robbie Blunt in a soulful version of the Al Green standard ‘Can’t Get Next To You’. Already one could sense a keen rapport between the pair. After the evening show, Robert held court in more familiar manner backstage. The inevitable questions about Zeppelin, put to him by well wishers and interviewers alike, were fielded casually but carefully. Back then I think the sheer enormity of what Led Zeppelin had achieved had become clouded in the tragic circumstances of their forced demise. The pride, though, still shone through.
Particular instances I remember include his disgust at the way Atlantic had altered the colour of the original sleeve of a pristine new copy of Led Zeppelin II he was autographing. At the Sheffield Limits Club, looking through a copy of the Over Europe Viva Japanese magazine, his eyes lit up and he eagerly thrust the pics of John Paul Jones towards his new colleagues, proclaiming “Look at Jonesy – Billy Fury or what!”
I next caught up with them a week later when Robert Plant went back to the Nottingham Boat Club, scene of one of the “Back to the Club” shows in 1971. In the tiny confines of this old wooden hut The Honeydrippers delivered a blistering set. Earlier in the afternoon, Robert had strayed onto the club’s balcony to talk to the fans queueing below. It was typical of the scale of this tour. Out went the limos and luxury hotels. In came the communal group van and overnight stays anywhere they found themselves.
The Honeydrippers tied up this three days a week tour with a show at Bradford University on May 27. The cramped stages at previous shows, coupled with his own wish to forget the past and with it the image he once projected, had ruled out any major Plant stage preening up to that point. The Bradford stage, however, was fairly spacious. I distinctly remember Robert doing a very ‘Trampled Underfoot’ style stage dance before spinning round in quintessential fashion during a run down of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’. When he realised what had spontaneously happened, he checked himself and returned to the more conservative R&B stance. A rare slip of the new found image.
The relaxed college environment here made for a couple of other memorable sketches. Before the gig Plant slipped away from The Honeydripper entourage to watch live coverage of Liverpool’s successful 1981 European Cup defence against Borussia, in a TV room alongside a host of students. The presence of the star of the ensuing show went virtually unnoticed among the gathering. When he passed by the entrance area, he even took a brief stint on the door collecting tickets for his own show!
There were plans for The Honeydrippers to make a further round of appearances in the summer and, indeed, a London debut was announced for Dingwalls Club on July 14, together with a handful of other shows including Birmingham’s Romeo and Juliet Club and Leeds Warehouse. These shows were advertised openly, NME going as far as to plug the London show with a vintage Earls Court photo. Perhaps this put unnecessary pressure on Robert for no sooner were they announced than they were swiftly cancelled.
This decision signalled the end of The Honeydrippers Mark 1, though Plant had developed a musical kinship with guitarist Robbie Blunt and back in Kidderminster they began demoing ideas for songs together. By August several completed songs were at the ready-to-record stage. Auditions for musicians to help record the first ever Plant solo album brought forth Paul Martinez on bass, and keyboardist Jezz Woodroffe. Cozy Powell was listed as the initial drummer, and later Phil Collins was called in to complete the album.
All roads from there on led to Monmouth and Rockfield Studios. The following June, Robert Plant’s first solo album Pictures At Eleven was the second best selling album in the UK.
“Zojo was a great bloke, but he ain’t here now”
On the end of a cassette I recorded of The Honeydripper’ Pontypridd show, there lies a long lost Robert Plant interview. In the dressing room after the gig Robert held court with his entourage, chatting with students and friends. One of the students, it turned out, ran the local college rag magazine and asked Robert for an interview. He agreed to do it there and then.
Within the confines of the dressing room, Robert replied to the questions with much humour and self depreciation. This is an extract from that back stage interview, conducted on the night of May 18 1981 at the Treforest Technical College in Pontypridd, South Wales.
Interviewer: “How did all this start?”
RP: “. It all started as an idea to stop boredom setting in on an old dinosaur who was sitting at home not doing a great deal. My pals said fancy having a blow so we’ve had ten blows.”
INT: “And how many more have you got to do?”
RP: “We’ve got another five to do, then we’ll revamp the whole thing. Go back to our separate corners have long farewells I suppose.”
INT: “Did you know all this lot years ago?”
RP: “Yeah, I’ve known ’em for years, they’re all pals. They have their own band they work on at weekends. We just work Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Just casual.”
INT: “It’s alright for some! What about the choice of numbers, is it all their own stuff?”
RP: “No, they’re all standards.”
INT: “Does it worry you playing numbers that half the audience can’t remember?”
RP: “No. That’s half the challenge really because they come along expecting something else and they get something they had no idea they were going to hear. I mean the numbers are all good, even though they come from a different point in time. So, it’s a young audience basically that we’ll get to begin with, plus a few diehards who were around when mono was in force. It’s a good choice really and if it initiates a few kids to what got us fired up in the first place… the bonds in the Sixties and Seventies then its good.”
INT: “Two inevitable questions… you don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to.”
RP: “Do I go with women?” (Laughs all round)
INT: “No no… I could ask that as well I suppose. Was it a conscious decision not to play any Led Zepp?”
INT: “Fine. And the other one. What about the fact that the audience are here for you rather than for you and the group. Or would you disagree?”
RP: “Well, I think that’s a cross we have to bear to begin with. But as time goes on everyone will make their own little niche in it all. It’s awkward because in a way I feel bad about it, though I shouldn’t feel bad about it because it’s inevitable. You can introduce someone at the beginning and there’s a mild ripple of applause but by the end it’s very warm. There’s no room for comedowns in a short life.”
INT: “And the final inevitable question after that totally innocuous one: is there going to be the same albatross hanging over you and John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page as there was for The Beatles, the inevitable Led Zeppelin reunion or is Led Zeppelin totally dead and gone?”
RP: “l think we are fortunate because we were never that good that it was gonna be… it wasn’t like The Beatles… they were like everything, they encompassed everything really. It was a total audience from 65 to 15 or 5 or whatever whereas we had a sort of niche. So whatever happens… I don’t think it can happen really because there are loads of bands coming along and taking the majority of our audience away already. You know the patches are already coming off the jackets.”
INT: “Oh I don I know… what about the amount of people who have Zojo (sic) and everything else on the back of their jackets?”
RP: “Well Zojo was a great bloke but he ain’t here now.”
POSTSCRIPT: The Honeydrippers moniker was retained by Robert for the infrequent R&B club gigs he undertook during the rest of the Eighties (amended, humourously,to Moneydrippers and Skinnydrippers for gigs in Wolverhampton and Monmouth respectively). He also recorded a mini-album of standards under the title The Honeydrippers Vol One which spawned a top 3 US hit with Sea Of Love. The Honeydrippers reformed for appearances at Kidderminster Town Hall in December 2006 and on February 14th 2007 at JB’s Club in Dudley.
Originally written for TBL 6 –Copyright Dave Lewis/TBL –not to be reproduced without prior permission.
Here’s a rare clip of Robert performing Sea Of Love on German TV in 1985
ANOTHER ROBERT PLANT TBL ARCHIVE FEATURE TOMORROW
Robert Plant – Sea Of Love