In a recent interview with BBC Radio, John Paul Jones, the bass player for Led Zeppelin, let it be known that he, Jimmy Page and Jason Bonham (son of the band’s original drummer, the late John Bonham) were considering the unthinkable: Touring as Led Zeppelin with a replacement singer for Robert Plant.
Said Jones at a guitar show in England: “We are trying out a couple of singers. We want to do it. It’s sounding great and we want to get on and get out there.”
Since then, that remark has been subjected to more interpretations than the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Some believe that the remaining original members of the group plus Jason are dead serious and are tired of waiting for a reluctant Robert Plant to come around to the idea. Others think it was a ploy to put pressure on Plant. Still others regard it as Jones thinking out loud, his way of offering up a Led trial balloon.
Billboard recently reported that Plant-less Zeppelin is leaning toward Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy and that the vocalist has rehearsed with the band on several occasions. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave is another rumored candidate, as is Chad Kroeger of Nickelback.
The entire episode produces much food for thought, especially on the topic of bands that have forged ahead after replacing key members. How well are they received? Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to fans? What are the legal issues involved?
‘It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard’
But first, Led Zeppelin — without their iconic frontman? Is there anyone who can scream “Looooooooove!” from “Whole Lotta Love” like Robert? Would anyone even try?
“The idea of touring as Led Zeppelin without Robert is ridiculous. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Danny Goldberg, former Led Zeppelin publicist, former vice-president of the band’s Swan Song record label and author of the memoir, “Bumping Into Geniuses.”
“Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are brilliantly talented people and I hope they don’t do anything so silly. I understand their frustration. But if they’re patient … at some point it might happen.”
Goldberg is referring to the possibility that Plant may eventually warm to the idea of a reunion tour after he is finished working with Alison Krauss. Plant and Krauss stopped touring in October, but Plant said in September on his Web site that he had no intentions of touring with anyone for at least the next two years. Rumors of a mega-Led Zeppelin tour started to percolate after the rousing success of their charity reunion concert last December in London.
“I don’t know how much stock I put in this,” said Jonathan Cohen, Billboard senior editor. “It might be just some scuttlebutt from John Paul Jones speaking out of turn, and there may be a difference of opinion on whether the band should go on without Robert.
“I do know for a fact that they have rehearsed with the other guy (Kennedy). They may have wanted to see what the chemistry was like, if it was a good fit. But that doesn’t mean they’ll go out with him.”
Dumping the singer isn’t unprecedented
But while Ann Powers, pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, isn’t sure it will happen, she doesn’t think the prospect is so far-fetched, either.
“Bands do this kind of thing all the time,” she said. “In the larger landscape of classic rock or legacy artists switching numbers or switching singers, it’s been done many times. Look at Queen with Paul Rodgers. They’re having a lot of success. Journey is having the most success it has had in years with Arnel Pineda. Sometimes it can be a shot in the arm.
“But,” she cautioned, “here’s a big caveat: Led Zeppelin, aside from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, is the most iconic white rock band ever. It may be different in a case like that.”
What is acceptable and what isn’t?
The Who without Keith Moon and John Entwistle? Acceptable, at least judging by the reception they’ve received on recent tour stops. Queen without Freddie Mercury? Acceptable, because Mercury passed away. Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett? He left the band just as it was on its way toward superstardom, so most fans didn’t notice.
“Fleetwood Mac is a good example,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, the leading concert tracking publication. “When they had their big reunion a while back with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, that was a huge success. But right before that John McVie and Mick Fleetwood toured as Fleetwood Mac and they played nightclubs.
“Even though the name is the same, people understood the difference between one Fleetwood Mac and another.”
A Zeppelin by any other name...
In the case of Led Zeppelin, there is a question as to whether Page and Jones can even use the name Led Zeppelin.
The band is believed to have been set up as a four-way partnership, which means Plant would have to give his permission for the others to use the band’s brand name on a tour. But years have passed and documents may have scattered, and that is an issue lawyers would have to sort out if it came to that.
“I honestly don’t know,” said Marc Reiter of Q Prime management, which represents Page. “We’ve been working with Jimmy for the last year and a half. We haven’t seen all of the original paperwork from their original deal.”
Of course, permission can sometimes be granted for the right price.
Reiter confirmed that Page is keen on getting the band back on the road, although he said there are no plans to tour as of now.
“I get the impression he’d like to work again,” Reiter said. “You can’t really say something like that is possible if one of the three remaining members of the band doesn’t want to do it. But I know he’d like to work.”
If Led Zeppelin tours without Plant? “It would just depend on what they called it,” Billboard’s Cohen said. “I think it would sit pretty poorly if they used the Led Zeppelin name with a different singer.”
If Led Zeppelin tours with Plant? “It would be the biggest tour in the world that year, if they did enough dates,” Pollstar’s Bongiovanni said. “They would sell as many tickets as they wanted to.”