35 Years Ago: Robert Plant Releases His First Post-Led Zeppelin Album, ‘Pictures at Eleven’
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Plant wasn’t positive he was up for the task. As he told NPR, “I thought, maybe I should just quit now [because] nothing could be like that. But on the other hand the great challenge was, what’s it going to be like?”
Released not even two years after the death of John Bonham suddenly ended Led Zeppelin’s time together, the album found Plant assembling a band featuring Genesis frontman and solo star Phil Collins on drums for all but two tracks, which instead featured former Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell.
Relatively unknown guitarist Robbie Blunt was chosen to step into, in the public’s eye at least, the big shoes of legendary Zep axeman Jimmy Page.
However, Plant had no intention of picking up where his former group left off.
In fact, the singer’s biggest fear wasn’t tied to the record’s commercial fortunes, but that it would sound too much like his former group. As he explained to Steven Rosen at Ultimate Guitar, “Pictures at Eleven is a lot smoother and a lot more kind of sophisticated if you like.The qualities of Led Zeppelin can never be touched, never be matched; never be equaled … and it cannot be anymore.”
Indeed, the album trades Zeppelin’s thunder for a more polished sound. Plant doesn’t waste time on a big dramatic introduction, instead opening with the straight-ahead, almost understated riff of “Burning Down One Side.” The deep bass line that enters after the first verse is a welcome sign that Plant was at least partially responsible for — and still in command of — the creativity and inventiveness that marked much of Zeppelin’s best work.
Other highlights include the beautiful, Spanish-tinged ballad “Moonlight in Samosa” and the appropriately titled slow-burner “Like I’ve Never Been Gone.” Some of the dynamics and musical themes of his former group’s later days come through in songs like “Pledge Pin” and especially on the epic “Slow Dancer.”
The latter track features an arrangement and strings reminiscent of Page’s work on Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir.” Near the end of the song, Plant silences any concerns over whether he’s still got the rock god chops and charisma necessary to command attention with a simple “Ah-ah-ah” refrain.
With its extremely ’80s-sounding production, the songwriting and guitar playing contributions of Blunt, and Collins’ clean, precise drum style, Plant’s voice is — obviously and by far — the most familiar part of Pictures at Eleven.
Although this new sonic palette must have been slightly disorienting to longtime Zeppelin fans, they seemed willing to follow along, or at least eager for any new music from one of their heroes. The album debuted in the Top 10 and successfully launched a career that remains strong to this day.
Plant would further solidify his exploratory solo methods with his next album, 1983’s Principle of Moments, which featured the hit single “Big Log” and the all-time classic “In the Mood.” And what did his former bandmate and songwriting partner Page think of his friend’s solo efforts? As Plant told Ultimate Guitar, “Jimmy was proud of me and pleased for me. It was very emotional between the two of us — always will be.”
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