Hammer to the Myth: Paul Rees on the Real Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 31:  Robert Plant performs live on stage during day 3 of Bluesfest 2013 at The Royal Albert
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 31: Robert Plant performs live on stage during day 3 of Bluesfest 2013 at The Royal Albert Hall on October 31, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Redferns via Getty Images)

Robert Plant is probably best known for confidently wailing above Jimmy Page's piercing but versatile guitar, John Paul Jones' nimble bass and keyboard licks and John "Bonzo" Bonham's thunderous drums in Led Zeppelin.

The singer's voice has helped sell nearly 70 million records and has put songs like "Stairway to Heaven," "Whole Lotta Love," "The Immigrant Song" and "Kashmir" on permanent rotation on American radio. "Stairway" has been played more than any other track despite its over seven-minute running time. Last year the heavy metal pioneers were even honored by the Kennedy Center.

Plant and Zeppelin were also known for their wild ways turning the Hyatt House Hotel in Los Angeles into "The Riot House," but biographer Paul Rees says that Plant's story is far more interesting than simple tales of debauchery. His Robert Plant: A Life paints a fuller picture of the vocalist, who's life and career didn't end in 1980 when Zeppelin called it quits.

The People's Band
When asked why most accounts of Plant and Zeppelin deal with the partying, Rees, speaking from the United Kingdom says, "I think because the first (biography) that came out was Hammer [of] the Gods. And that's what established what Led Zeppelin stood for and what they were. It was about all the excess and all the rest of that.

"That's actually the least interesting thing for me. Frankly, I'm not surprised that a massive rock band from the 70s that drugs and groupies were part of the picture. I think there's much more in Robert Plant and his journey then just focusing on that one thing."

For example, Plant who hailed from Britain's midlands had performed in several bands and was rejected and had some failed singles before Zeppelin's debut album flew off the shelves in 1969. Expectations for the new band so gloomy that the Who's Keith Moon joked that they would take off like the world's largest lead balloon.

Hence the name.

"When he was 18 years of age, in 1968, he was a laborer, laying roads in West Bromwich. Within 18 months, he's in the biggest band in the world," says Rees.

"In the media, they like to think they have a say in breaking bands and helping bands. (Zeppelin's ferociously protective manager) Peter Grant kept them at arm's length. They happened without anyone's permission. They came to America and almost belligerently broke themselves into America. The record came out without the support of Rolling Stone or Creem, which was around at the time. They just did it. They were a people's band. They were arguably the first people's band."

Rees' unauthorized biography features extensive interviews with Plant and his associates including Page, and it also deals with difficult periods of his life particularly like when the singer's son Karac Plant died unexpectedly while the vocalist was touring in New Orleans.

Despite having worked for two decades as a music journalist for Q, Kerrang! and The Independent, Rees says that getting this portion of the book right was especially difficult. Especially since one of Zeppelin's most famous songs, "All of My Love," was inspired by the loss of the boy.

"I felt that you had to be not dispassionate but relay what he said and what others said, particularly when his son died because you can empathize with that because it's an unimaginable tragedy for anybody," says Rees.

"Quite a few people said that he was never the same with Zeppelin after that and started to drift away from the band after that and think there were other things in life that he wanted to pursue."

Ramble On
Another challenge for Rees is that Plant's life and career are still works in progress. The singer embraced sampling in the 80s when it wasn't standard practice and now posts recent recordings onto Soundcloud.com for fans to hear.

One of his biggest sellers and best reviewed albums is Raising Sand, a 2007 duet roots album he recorded with Alison Krauss. It won five Grammys and demonstrated that Plant's best recordings may be forthcoming and don't belong to any single genre.

"I think he probably sounded like a wailing banshee. I think he's got a great, really powerful blues voice. I think as a singer, he's gotten better the older he's gotten, particularly on Raising Sand and the last Band of Joy record," says Rees.

"A lot of the people I spoke to used the same words about him, and that's 'boundless curiosity.' You could try and get hold of him, and it could alternately be he had heard some guy playing the bush flute in Somalia and had gone to see him or that he needed to hear gigs from Inuits in the Arctic Circle, and off he'd gone."

Having heard rare recordings the 65-year-old singer himself probably hasn't heard in decades and having spoke with everyone from former band members and classmates, Rees has found studying the singer's life has been rewarding, but he laments suffering an odd side effect for his trouble.

"It was really a labor of love over a protracted period. When I'd finished it, I found it very difficult to hear a Robert Plant song for a while because I've done nothing but think about him."