Sunday, March 31, 2002

Chris Blackwell interview, Part 2: Now and Zen (1987-1988) and Manic Nirvana (1989-1990)

This three-part interview of Chris Blackwell originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

In Part 1 last week, we were introduced to Chris Blackwell, a session drummer who hit the jackpot in 1987 when a few demos featuring his work were passed on from a publisher to Robert Plant. Among them was a song called "Heaven Knows," which particularly caught Plant's attention, and so he personally called up the musicians from the demo.

CB: Next thing I know there's a message on my answering machine saying, "Hi, it's Robert Plant" and would I like to join his band? He didn't even get his manager to call me! I didn't hesitate in calling him back because I thought it was a wind up! I mean you don't normally get Robert Plant leaving messages do you!

SS: Why didn't you write any of the material on Now and Zen?

CB: I thought it was a session. You don't go into a session and expect to write songs! Anyway, [keyboardist] Phil [Johnstone] had most of that side covered. It was very much Robert and Phil's album. As far as I knew I was contracted to record the album and that was that. After the recording was finished Robert started talking about us as a band and about the upcoming tours and so on. [Bassist] Phil Scragg had other commitments at the time, and he is now heavily into the Jazz scene, so perhaps it was a wise decision on his part. He never played with us live at all - Charlie [Jones] joined at the final stages of recording Now and Zen.

SS: And when you went on the road, it was the first time in Plant's solo career that he sang Led Zeppelin material. Do you know what was going through his head?

CB: You'd have to ask him that! He did seem to have an aversion to playing any Zep though. Zeppelin songs are so good to play, and we were such big fans of all that. We would play stuff in rehearsal when he wasn't there. One time he walked in on us playing "Immigrant Song" and joined in, and off we went!

SS: Do you remember the process by which the Led Zeppelin tracks covered in concert were selected?

CB: I think we all made suggestions based on our understanding of what the songs were, and how we felt they would fit into the set. Obviously 'Stairway to Heaven' was taboo! But I did get to play mandolin live on 'Going to California' . . .

SS: Jimmy Page showed up at a few of Plant's performances in 1988. They played together at the last concert of the Non Stop Go tour. What was it like having him around?

CB: Another very nice man! Great fun to be with, and an incredible musical mind - you really do feel like you are in the presence of genius.

SS: In October 1988, Jimmy and Robert brought their overlapping U.S. tours to the same venue two nights in a row, in Worcester, Massachusetts. They didn't play at each other's shows, but Robert did attend Jimmy's. Do you remember this?

CB: That first tour in '88 with Planty was such an eye opener for me that I was too busy having a good time to take part in any politics that may be going down. I do remember Robert going to Jimmy's show wearing a turban and sunglasses though - problem is he probably looked more conspicuous like that! Shortly afterwards he began to wear Jimmy Page T-shirts on stage.

SS: The next project was the album Manic Nirvana. What was the process for that?

CB: Manic Nirvana was great fun as we all knew each other by then, and we had a tour under our belts which brought many shared experiences into the frame. We began work on this straight after the Now and Zen 'Non Stop Go' tour and we were all encouraged to contribute to the writing.

I felt a little stifled in the rehearsal room, so I wrote 'Tie Dye on the Highway' in my own studio and presented it to Robert complete. He added the melody and lyrics (incidentally, that's me playing guitar on that track!).

The other stuff was written at Robert's house in Wales - 'Watching You' I think I have on video as it is actually being written! 'Big Love' began as a drum feel and just grew from there really.

SS: When you say "Robert's house in Wales," you don't mean the famous Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, do you?

CB: No, unfortunately! He had a lovely house in Monmouth, Wales, that apparently used to belong to the doctor who discovered the G spot (typical!).

SS: What an imagination that doctor must have had! So ... Jimmy Page turned up again for Plant's appearance at Knebworth in June 1990.

CB: We performed 'Wearing and Tearing' at Knebworth, and rehearsing it was a great leveller as none of us had ever played it live before - Robert and Jimmy included!

SS: What was going through your mind, knowing you had to fill the heavy shoes of John Bonham on those songs?

CB: Didn't really occur to me until Knebworth when I found myself playing the intro to 'Rock and Roll' in front of 125,000 people with both Robert and Jimmy . . . the drum solo bit at the end was a bit fraught and I wish I'd played it better! There really was no point in emulating Bonzo as he was a one off, so I just played the stuff how I remembered it with a hint of CB thrown in for good measure!

The conclusion of the Chris Blackwell interview can be found here, focusing on Blackwell's work with Plant on Fate of Nations (1991-1993) and his other professional work to the time of the interview.

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