After 52 years one of the great enigmas around Led Zeppelin’s IV was reported as solved on the anniversary of the album’s release, November 8 1971. With no wording on the sleeve, it all added to the uncanny image of what became known as ‘the stick man’, a mysterious and bearded hunched figure in a black hat carrying sticks.
Researcher and longterm Zep fan Brian Edwards recently revealed the man in the picture as Lot Long, a 19th-century thatcher from Wiltshire photographed by Ernest Farmer. The news has arrived just in time for the reissue of the album best known as Led Zeppelin IV, or as singer Robert Plant refers to it, “the fourth album”, for the 75th anniversary of Atlantic Records.
I arrive at the Molineux Stadium, home of Wolverhampton Wanderers to meet “the golden god” as he once jokingly referred to himself to amplify the “nonsense” around Led Zeppelin. The club’s press officer quips that we might have to chat in the broom cupboard. When Plant arrives it turns out to be not that far from the truth.
“I’ve done some interviews in those cupboards, someone comes in looking for the cheese plates for a visiting luminary and I’m in there on the phone to NPR radio or something,” he says.
At 75 Robert Plant remains an arresting presence, in an elegant black three-quarter-length jacket, grey checked trousers and suede boots. The top part of his hair is tied back while the golden curls flecked with grey still fall down his back. He looks refreshingly authentic and is free from affectations while carrying his rock-star charisma with a Gandalf-like wisdom.
I refer to his return to performing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ 16 years after Led Zeppelin’s one-off reunion back in December 2007 at London’s O2. Plant performed the track at a benefit concert with Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor just days before our meeting.
“I played it last week with Andy,” he explains. “It was great. Andy has had this incredible force of nature coming out of nowhere because he was done, he was finished; it was the end of his time but he was invited to take part in this trial and he’s powerful now, you can’t get in the way of that.”
While sections of the press portray Plant as having a “beef” with the song, that’s far from the truth. Putting a full stop on Led Zeppelin felt more about moving on to a different experience. “I didn’t start doing this and getting addicted to this game sixty years ago, making my first record on my own when I was seventeen to end up wandering around giving it large for all the stuff that everybody knows,” says Plant.
Staying with Led Zeppelin IV, he also performed ‘The Battle of Evermore’ earlier this year with Alison Krauss. The pair have formed a successful partnership that included the release of two successful albums Raising Sand (2007) and Raise The Roof (2021), and a tour has taken in several Irish venues, including the Everyman in Cork.
Just over a year ago for the 30th anniversary of the BBC’s Later With Jools Holland, Plant delivered a stunning version of ‘Rock And Roll’, also from Led Zeppelin IV, and was joined by Richard Hawley and Imelda May. “We spent quite a lot of time talking about rockabilly,” he says of his time with the pair of genre aficionados.
While Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had been rumoured to want to carry on with Led Zeppelin, even if it meant continuing without Plant, those plans never materialised. The band’s front-man has been the most visible of the remaining members with his solo career and touring alongside The Band of Joy, Alison Krauss and at present with “a co-operative” entitled Saving Grace, featuring Portuguese vocalist Suzi Dian.
“You have to keep on developing. Probably for everybody and everything it was the right thing, it was right for me,” says Page of the 1980 break-up following the alcohol-induced death of drummer John Bonham. “I think Jimmy and John Paul, for a while, wanted to keep it going but we all change. You have to go from the writing of youth, you’re talking about ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ and ‘Battle of Evermore’, from writing in that fashion and those visions of a life and an eternal rub between people to the maturity you find along the way; I’m doing the right thing.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic of the many locations associated with Led Zeppelin’s history remains Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales where Plant and Jimmy Page developed their song-writing partnership and acquainted themselves with each other beyond perpetual touring. The nearby village of Machynlleth remains a place that is close to his heart, Plant’s parents took him there as a child and he has introduced his own family to the area.
“There’s so much of the old ways there,” he explains. “It’s grown in its awareness and in every respect the town and immediate area is known worldwide as a special biosphere and for environmental tolerance and development. Everyone is trying to do the right thing for our sad environment,” says Plant of an area whose council was the first in Wales to declare a climate emergency in 2019.
Those concerns were behind the cover art of Led Zeppelin IV, or Zoso as it also became known. Plant bought the framed shot of Lot Long, thought to be an oil painting, in an antique shop near Page’s home. When unfolding the album’s gatefold sleeve, the image is revealed to be hanging on a cottage wall in a state of being demolished to make way for a new inner-city with a tower block sprouting up in the distance.
Page explained the tension of the image back in 1977 saying it “represented the change in the balance which was going on. There was the old countryman and the blocks of flats being knocked down. It was just a way of saying that we should look after the Earth.”
One oft-printed story about IV is that ‘The Battle of Evermore’ was written about the Scottish wars of independence and a battle that took place on the shores of North Berwick. “It’s about [the battle of] everything and of all time because my whole childhood inspiration is the charismatic history of these islands. It’s been centred on the Welsh borders where I’ve lived most of my life and watched the to-ing and fro-ing of the culture between those two places with the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons and the Strathclyde British – we’re a real mess but where isn’t?”
The pull of home has been a strong one for Plant, particularly the culture and landscape of the Black Country and Wales. “I fled Austin, Texas, because I missed so much being around this community which I’ve been a part of for 75 years. I had to come back and suddenly I’m seeing Peri-peri chicken places, al fresco coffee shops and the flare of Iberian football.”
As we make our way through Molineux, some fans pass by with an “Alright Rob; are you still doing a bit?” It’s a common refrain around these parts.
“I’ve been around this town since I first did shows when I was 16 and that’s a boon as there is nothing special about me being around,” says Plant.
Perhaps not unlike Rod Stewart at Celtic Park or Noel Gallagher at the Etihad, these instantly recognisable rock stars become just another face in the crowd. Before disappearing into the directors’ box, he tells me not to miss the start of the game.
Just before the teams come out they play ‘Kashmir’, a personal favourite of Plant’s from 1975 album Physical Graffiti. “I’m very proud of that except they have edited the thing wrong, I need to get in there and cut it up but it’s a fanfare.”
Plant puts on his black and gold club scarf, and the Wolves’ motto “Out of darkness cometh light” can’t help but sound like the title of a Zeppelin song. With that, the pyrotechnic flames rise in and the opening riff of ‘Kashmir’ begins. Led Zeppelin are once again filling the stadium.
Led Zeppelin IV has been reissued on clear vinyl for the 75th anniversary of Atlantic Records