When Robert Plant Tried to Shake His Legacy (Again) on ‘Shaken ‘N’ Stirred’
In fact, by the middle of the decade, Plant had already repeatedly dashed the expectations of anyone hoping his albums would offer a Zeppelin redux. His first two solo efforts, 1982's Pictures at Eleven and 1983's The Principle of Moments, both diverged strongly from the band's successful sonic template, and when he reunited with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page for 1984's The Honeydrippers: Volume One EP, hopes of a crushing rock record were dashed with a set of '50s covers led by the syrupy Top Five hit "Sea of Love."
Although Plant would later admit to being a little disturbed by the way "Sea of Love" overshadowed his other early post-Zeppelin singles, it definitely gave his profile an added boost in the months leading up to his next proper solo release, Shaken 'N' Stirred, which arrived in stores May 20, 1985. "That song was good for me," Plant shrugged in conversation with Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times. "It broke through to all the radio stations that wouldn't normally play a Robert Plant record. My music usually isn't accessible. ... I'll never be a real pop star, but that doesn't bother me."
Plant's decision to forego a Honeydrippers follow-up in favor of a return to active solo duty offered added proof that he made his decisions based on what felt right creatively. As he went on to explain to Hunt, while that project had served its purpose as a fun detour, he soon found himself needing to move on. "I just made up my mind one day that I couldn't sing Eddie Cochran songs forever. It was time for me to go back and start writing again. I had a lot of feelings and emotions I had to release somehow. Writing music is the way I release all that."
With Shaken 'N' Stirred, Plant delivered arguably his least commercial effort to date. Working with an eclectic studio band that included keyboardist Jezz Woodroffe and guitarist Robbie Blunt as well as Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, he entered the studio with an assortment of musical sketches that slowly took shape over an extended period of jamming that incorporated old-fashioned playing as well as the electronic instruments that were then in vogue.
Listen to Robert Plant Perform 'Little by Little
"The songs didn’t exist," Hayward told Modern Drummer. "We worked up the tracks, and Robert made up the lyrics and melodies and sang over them. Then we went in the studio and recorded it. ... Robert was obsessed with being modern at that time, which was the mid-’80s. At that time English music had taken this unfortunate twist toward electronic and non-organic music. He wanted to do that, but he had a bunch of guys in the band who were my age and who grew up playing real instruments, so we were making a compromise to be modern for Robert."
The album's six-month studio gestation proved somewhat ironic, given Plant's stated intention of putting together a record that would move him further away from Zeppelin's shadow while also shaking off the increasing technological burden placed on record-making in the '80s. While it probably wouldn't be fair to say Shaken 'N' Stirred sounds labored, subsequent efforts came a lot closer to the sound he described pursuing in interviews around the time of its release.
"The whole idea of this record is to get rid of my preoccupation with removing images from people's minds, and get down to making some instant music," Plant told Rolling Stone. "The theme, if any, is getting out and being more immediate, both in intention and expression."
Still, Shaken 'N' Stirred proved another successful outing for Plant, garnering positive if not glowing reviews and peaking at a respectable No. 20 on the albums chart while spinning off a Top 40 pop single (and No. 1 rock hit) with "Little by Little." The second single, "Sixes and Sevens," also made inroads at rock radio, peaking at No. 18.
Listen to Robert Plant Perform 'Sixes and Sevens
But even as he took another solo step forward with this album, the specter of Led Zeppelin lingered: On July 13, 1985, Plant rejoined his surviving bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones for a heavily hyped appearance during the landmark Live Aid concert, with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson filling in for the deceased John Bonham on drums. Although their set was infamously uneven, it offered further proof that there was an endless thirst for more music from the band — and that its legacy would always loom over his own recordings.
Given that he was already set for life financially before he ever set foot in a recording studio as a solo artist, Plant could afford to take the demands of the marketplace lightly — and as he proved on his next album, 1988's Now and Zen, he could be willing to embrace and tinker with his classic past when the mood struck. Ultimately, having already been one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he neither wanted nor expected to achieve the same success on his own — a position he explained in his own inimitable way during a 1985 interview with NME.
"I once spent an evening in a Puerto Rican nightclub in Spanish Harlem, and I just sat there all night and enjoyed all those very, very sharp people who'd taken so much pride in themselves and the fact that it was Friday night," Plant recalled. "Everything about them – their movements, their clothes, their profiles, their gestures – everything was splendid. It wasn't glossy and it wasn't trashy or kitsch. It was so for real it was great."
In that moment, Plant said that he saw his vision for his solo recording career brought to life. "I realized I wanted my music to be like that: sharp and mildly aggressive, something that you might stand back from and squint your eyes at and wonder about," he explained. "But not so uncomfortable that you can't hold its hand occasionally."
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