When Page Met Plant
Jimmy Page was a sophisticated man of the world, while Robert Plant was a cultural neophyte
It is the summer of 1968 and Robert Plant is visiting Jimmy Page at his home by the Thames in the English county of Berkshire. Having met for the first time a few days earlier, Page has invited Plant to spend a few days with him—effectively an audition for the group that will become Led Zeppelin.
Robert Plant took up Jimmy Page’s invitation to visit him in Pangbourne, walking the last mile past elegant houses that bordered the River Thames, the bright blue summer sky reflected in its shimmering surface. The contrast with the noisy, crowded streets of Wolverhampton, with its traffic and multicultural mix of Indian, Pakistani and British families, was profound; this was Middle England at its most charmingly pastoral, the setting for Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, an idyll where geese sashayed across the water and garden birds twittered in the trees. This was a land where cows munched in fields and rabbits bustled in hedgerows as the endless river flowed gently past pubs with mock Tudor beams and names like The Swan or The Jolly Angler.
Sadly, despite its verdant setting and chocolate box scenery, Pangbourne didn’t take well to hippies. Soon after Plant exited the train station, he was scolded by a pensioner about his scruffy appearance. “Desperation scene, man,” he later told writer Simon Godwin, “but I had nowhere else to go.”
Legend has it that Robert brought with him LPs by Robert Johnson, the Incredible String Band, Howlin’ Wolf and Joan Baez, the latter so as to make Jimmy aware of a traditional song he liked called “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Arriving at the house, his knock was answered by Jimmy’s girlfriend. “The door opened and suddenly I saw ‘America’,” he told Nigel Williamson of Uncut in 2005. “There was this beautiful woman clad in a 1920s shawl with the light behind her. She was very charming. Then Jimmy came back from somewhere and I realised that this guy had a lifestyle I could only imagine. He had quietness… a maturity. Then we sat down and talked about music.”
The reality was that by the summer of 1968 Jimmy Page was a sophisticated man of the world, while in comparison Robert Plant was a cultural neophyte. Having travelled far and wide with the Yardbirds, Page had even found time for a solo trip to India, then an exotic location for Westerners. In addition, he had developed a taste for fine art and antiques that cluttered up his Pangbourne home. According to Melody Maker’s Chris Welch, who would visit there to interview Page, the house contained valuable paintings, records, model trains and many books. “A large white telescope has pride of place in the living room,” wrote Welch. “Copies of Man, Myth, and Magic lay around and a huge volume of the works of mystic Aleister Crowley. In one room was a Mutoscope, a hand-cranked seaside peepshow featuring ‘a gentleman’s downfall,’ involving a lissome lass wearing not unsexy 1926 underwear and a healthy smile.”
Robert Plant, on the other hand, had travelled not much further than the West Midlands, even if he did resemble a refugee from Haight Ashbury in San Francisco with his gym pumps and skinny bell-bottomed jeans. Still, there were real possibilities here. He was a tall, handsome young man with bushy blond hair that curled over his ears, and a wide, welcoming smile that lit up his friendly face; all assets in a potential vocalist. But Plant was also well aware that he had some cultural catching up to do with the more seasoned, urbane Page. “You can smell when people have travelled, had their doors opened a little wider than most, and I could feel that was the deal with Jimmy,” Plant told Williamson. “His ability to absorb things and the way he carried himself was far more cerebral than anything I’d come across. I was very impressed.”
The purpose of the visit, of course, was to share music, establish compatibility within it and, hopefully, establish a friendship, and to this end “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” turned out to the key link. Jimmy, too, loved the song and had intended playing it to Robert, a symbiotic concurrence that helped Robert pass this audition — if that was what it was — with flying colours. “I’m not sure Robert knew too much about the Yardbirds, but I started playing things like ‘Dazed And Confused’ and ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’,” said Page. “I’m not entirely sure he knew what to make of it all, but he did stick with it…” He was also impressed with Robert’s harmonica playing . “A big plus!”
In real terms, the pair bonding over “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was incredibly important to all future progress.* For Jimmy, the song exactly represented all that he wanted to achieve with his new group, its undulating structure providing the opportunity to weave between moments of musical calm and savage bursts of instrumental power (“scream to a sigh and back again,” said one critic). Equally, the song gave Robert a chance to demonstrate both his vocal range and gift for inhabiting a lyric — in this case, switching the protagonist’s gender to add an extra emotional dimension.
Consequently, for a short time at least, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” became a pivotal moment in the fledgling band’s live show, its soft/hard qualities counterbalancing their ability to amp it up, as with material such as “Communication Breakdown” and “How Many More Times,” or dial it down as with “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” but all in the space of just one tune.
At last, Page had found his man. Plant was in.
*In some tellings of the tale, Robert did not arrive at Pangbourne with Joan Baez’s ‘Babe…’ at all, leaving Jimmy to alert the singer to the song. Whatever the case, it remains obvious that Page and Plant’s love for the tune was crucial in taking things forward between them.