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‘Walking Into Clarksdale’: Behind Jimmy Page And Robert Plant’s Reunion Album
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In Depth

‘Walking Into Clarksdale’: Behind Jimmy Page And Robert Plant’s Reunion Album

Led Zeppelin legends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant left their storied past at the door with their reunion album ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’.

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It’s fair to say that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s reunion album, Walking Into Clarksdale, was one of the most-anticipated rock records of 1998. After all, its release marked the first time the legendary duo had worked in tandem on a full-length studio album of all-new material since Led Zeppelin’s swansong, 1978’s In Through The Out Door, so long-term fans were ready to run up the flags before they’d even heard a note.

The backstory: “The magic was back straight away”

With hindsight, Walking Into Clarksdale had been on the cards for some time. Despite Page and Plant both denouncing Led Zeppelin’s live reunions for 1985’s Live Aid and Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary concert, in 1988, neither completely closed the door on future activity together. In 1994, the pair reunited for a 90-minute MTV-sponsored project, recorded in Morocco, Wales and London.

Officially released as No Quarter: Jimmy Page And Robert Plant Unledded, that album featured stripped-down versions of some of the best Led Zeppelin songs, performed by Page, Plant and a core rock outfit, augmented by a Moroccan string band and an Egyptian orchestra. To the delight of long-term fans, the record also featured four new Middle Eastern and Moroccan-influenced songs written for the occasion.

Though No Quarter wasn’t a fully-fledged Led Zeppelin reunion project, the album went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic and brought the group’s revered catalogue right back into the mainstream. It also reminded Page and Plant that, together, they could still create something far greater than the sum of their individual parts.

“The will and the eagerness with Unledded were fantastic and [Page] was really creative,” Plant told Uncut magazine in 2009. “Jimmy and I went in a room and it was back straight away. His riffs were spectacular. To take it as far as we did, and the tour we did – it’s one of the most ambitious and mind-altering experiences.”

The recording: “We wanted to be a four-piece band and wail a bit”

The tour Plant referred to was the full-scale trek the pair performed in support of No Quarter’s release – undertaken with their core rock group plus the full-scale Egyptian orchestra. However, while the shows encouraged Page and Plant to begin work on the material that would make up Walking Into Clarksdale, the pair wanted to scale things back when they returned to the studio. As Plant told the Chicago Tribune, they wanted to “see how it felt to be a four-piece band and wail a bit”.

To achieve this aim, they trimmed things back drastically. Having (temporarily) ditched the orchestra, Page and Plant entered London’s RAK Studio in August 1997, with just their touring rhythm section – drummer Michael Lee and bassist Charlie Jones – in tow and with a desire to adopt what Page told Classic Rock was a “minimalistic” approach, which sought to avoid “embellishments for the sake of it”.

Certainly, the man the pair chose to oversee Walking Into Clarksdale was renowned for his preference for capturing performances live in the studio. Though arguably best known for his work on Nirvana’s spiky final album, In Utero, Steve Albini was very much the go-to guy for most superior alt-rock outfits of the day, with his production credits including Pixies, The Breeders, PJ Harvey and The Wedding Present. However, as he has since stressed, his role was primarily that of a facilitator rather than a “producer” per se.

“I could flatter myself and think they wanted to record with a hip producer,” Albini told Classic Rock. “But I don’t think of myself as particularly hip. Their recording method is very matter of fact, very old school, and there are very few people who make records that way anymore. And the fact that that is my preferred way of working I think appealed to them. They weren’t trying to make a contemporary record at all.”

The songs: “Most of it didn’t sound like Led Zeppelin”

What Page and Plant certainly weren’t trying to make was an album which sounded like Led Zeppelin. Walking Into Clarksdale’s title may have referred to Clarksdale, Mississippi – the town in the Mississippi Delta considered by many to be the birthplace of the blues – but the record they produced was anything but a collection of bluesy retreads.

That’s not to say Walking Into Clarksdale didn’t rock. Indeed, significant parts of it did just that, with Blue Train employing Nirvana-esque quiet-loud dynamics and the likes of When The World Was Young, the jagged Sons Of Freedom and the seething Burning Up sounding wholly contemporary in the post-grunge alt-rock landscape of the late 90s.

Elsewhere, though, Page and Plant clearly felt free to pursue their muse wherever it led them. Consequently, the noir-infused likes of Heart In Your Hand and the shimmering When I Was A Child sounded like they could soundtrack a David Lynch movie, while Please Read The Letter (which Plant later dressed in more ethereal clothes with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand) recalled Fairport Convention during their initial, US West Coast phase.

Several Walking Into Clarksdale songs did, however, nod to the more majestic end of Led Zeppelin’s canon. Driven by one of Page’s feistiest riffs, the album’s title track exuded a more customary swagger, while Page and Plant eventually relented on their no-embellishments rule and added some orchestral colour to both Upon A Golden Horse and the excellent Most High, transporting the latter to a whole new plateau via its intoxicating, Kashmir-esque arabesques.

The release: “I’d rather be measured by what happened two hours ago than what happened 25 years ago”

Perhaps because of its Zeppelin-like feel, Most High also drew the biggest plaudits when Walking Into Clarksdale was released, on 21 April 1998. As well as making the UK Top 30, the song went to No.1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in the US and it later won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. It also helped the album shoot into the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. Voted Album Of The Year by Entertainment Weekly, Walking Into Clarksdale would go on to procure a gold disc for Page and Plant in the US.

Addressing the wight of history that inevitably hung over the project, Plant asserted, in a press pack issued at the time of Walking Into Clarksdale’s release, “I’d rather be measured by what happened two years ago or two hours ago than what happened 25 years ago.”

Noting that and Page had wanted to capture the energy of their new ideas, Plant continued, “There were times where we could’ve actually, I think, improved on certain parts by concentrating more and more, but I think it would’ve taken away from the general feel of it. Harkening back to Physical Graffiti, there are moments on that where things speed up, slow down and I’m singing out of tune – whatever it is – doesn’t matter because you capture the moment.”

The legacy: “We did what we’d always done – we moved along”

Page, Plant and their core group continued to capture more moments during a lengthy – and highly successful – tour in support of Walking Into Clarksdale, but when the tour concluded, the two men held opposing views on the immediate future. Page confessed to Q magazine, “I wanted to keep working, but Robert wouldn’t hear of it,” and the vocalist concurred, telling Classic Rock, “I just didn’t want to do it anymore – I’d just had enough.”

Both men, however, kept busy as the 20th century wound down. Page toured with The Black Crowes (they performed some classics from the Led Zeppelin catalogue together), while Plant returned to the Welsh countryside and hooked up with his old Band Of Joy guitarist, Kevyn Gammond, in the low-key folk-rock act Priory Of Brion.

In time, though, both men came to realise that Walking Into Clarksdale would always find an audience. Twenty years after its release, Page reflected that it was “a very honest album”, while Plant, too, appreciated the record on its own merits.

“There were some fantastic moments,” the singer said. “The truth is that Jimmy and I did cut a collection of songs that weren’t immediately commercial and didn’t emulate Led Zep. We did what we’d always done – we moved along.”

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