Listen to this track from Percy and Pagey, once of conquering Nordic-style hard rock demi-gods Led Zeppelin, reunited as world-music enthusiasts Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. It’s “Four Sticks”, a massively underappreciated Zep track from their most soundly celebrated 1971 untitled fourth album (sometimes called IV, Four Symbols, or Zoso), and revisited here on their live No Quarter album, recorded and released in late 1994.
Since 1980, and through solo career efforts of varying degrees of success and quality, Page and Plant were burdened with their legacy as game-changing rock icons. The pair were constantly asked about Zep re-unions, teased out by appearances with John Paul Jones at Live Aid (with Tony Thompson and Phil Collins sitting in for a departed John Bonham). There was also a brief show together at the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th anniversary. Yet, through it all, the commonality that runs through their music was their interest in Celtic traditions and the blues as informed by the musical traditions of North Africa.
After all, this is a central geographical location of the musical traditions on which Zeppelin built their sound; the rhythm-centric drone that would evolve into the blues, and the string-and-wind-based instrumentation that are mainstays in Afro-Muslim and Middle-Eastern music. This latter influence went on to be imported into Spain, France, and Celtic regions of Great Britain, which influenced the development of Celtic folk music, the influence in turn of which you can hear in songs like “Friends” “Battle of Evermore”, and “Gallows pole”.
With their continued interest in this musical amalgam in place, the pair decided to revisit their Zeppelin catalogue together (significantly without contacting John Paul Jones, who found out about the shows in the papers). The decision to include musicians from Morocco and Egypt for an MTV appearance on the very popular 90s series ‘Unplugged’ (or ‘Unledded’ in this case) was a logical one, musically speaking.
This musical complexity is what really separates the Zeppelin catalogue from that of its many hard rock imitators. There is a well-established musical tradition behind the pomp and raw riffage for which the band is known. And stripped down here, you can hear it extremely well, easily translated as it is into a kind of musical fusion cuisine. “Four Sticks” has always been a favourite Zep tune of mine, with a driving 5/4 rhythm, as well as a hypnotic vibe which certainly lends itself to a pan-cultural treatment by musicians who share common musical roots. In some ways, this treatment brings this song back to where it came from to begin with, and reminds us where rock n roll itself comes from, too.
The results of this show were such that this appearance sparked a full tour, and even a follow-up four years later in the album Walking into Clarksdale, a reference to another important geographical location for the two veteran musicians; no less than the seat of the blues itself, the hometown of one McKinley Morganfield AKA immortal electric blues architect Muddy Waters, a man who inspired their entire generation to contribute to the evolution of rock music beyond the blues.
Despite the interest in this pan-cultural strain of music they were making at the time, both Page and Plant couldn’t shake the demand for a full Led Zeppelin reunion. The clamour for this event would of course be realized a decade or so later at another Atlantic Records event celebrating the life and work of founder Ahmet Ertegun. This appearance featured Bonzo progeny and respected drummer in his own right Jason Bonham drumming behind them, and with a re-instated John Paul Jones on bass at London’s 02 venue. The ensuing press pieces riffed on the possibility that a full tour would follow, and the pressure was on the former band members to follow through.
Yet, Robert Plant would make it clear that the musical roots of Zeppelin were as important to him as the legacy of the band itself was, soldiering on with new bands like the Strange Sensation, in which North African strains of music were also a main ingredient. And of course, Plant would explore American folk traditions as well, with Grammy-winning Alison Krauss on their celebrated Raising Sand album, the record itself winning a whopping five Grammies in 2009.