Global Bass Online March 2002
By Andy Long
The 1970's were the Glory Days for British rock bands.
Yes, Genesis, ELP, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and others released armsful of classic albums, and relentlessly toured the globe with evermore lavish shows, whilst legends of on-the-road decadence followed in their wake.
But from 1968 to 1980 one band reigned supreme on the Mount Olympus of Rock Gods. A band that released nine studio albums, all but the first of which made the number one slot in the UK album charts. A band that also starred in a classic movie based around their life on the road. A band that undertook an amazing twenty-six tours. That band was Led Zeppelin.
After the untimely death of drummer John Bonham the three remaining members of the band decided to call it a day and each went about pursuing their own musical careers. While guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant have often been in the public eye since that time, with solo albums and collaborations, bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones preferred to immerse himself in the less public world of production and soundtracks.
All that changed in 1999 when Jones released his first solo album, 'Zooma' on the Discipline label and soon was touring the material with a new band. Now, in 2002, the follow-up album,'The Thunderthief', has just been released. Jones has once again been touring, this time opening up for King Crimson on their recent tour of the States.
I spoke to John recently, beginning our conversation by asking how that tour had gone.
'The tour was very good, the set was a bit short. We only had an hour each evening, but when you're opening up... It was nice because the King Crimson audience are a very receptive, open-minded lot. They gave us a good chance, because we're quite different from King Crimson. It was quite an extensive tour, about twenty-five cities, we were out for six weeks.'
John told me that he really wanted to tour in the U.K and Europe to promote 'The Thunderthief', but at the moment there were no definite dates, (so watch this space!)
John's work since 1980 has included production credits for Ben E. King, The Mission, Jacinda Jones, The Butthole Surfers and others. As well as doing some teaching and a lot of arranging and film score work. I wondered what it was that made John decide to put out his own album after such a long break from that side of the business.
'I suppose I had been pretty busy doing everything in music except playing live and then I did an album with Diamanda Galas in '94 called "The Sporting Life". It was a collaborative album, then we took it on the road. Went out on tour and I got the bug for it again. So "Zooma", the first album, was really a response to the question "If I go out on tour what on Earth am I going to play?". I had to give myself some material and that was really the cause of it all, it's all Diamanda'sfault!' he laughed.
Both solo albums have been on the Discipline label, a company headed up by King Crimson's Robert Fripp. I asked John whether they had worked together in the past.
'No I hadn't met him before actually. We were looking round for a home I suppose and we didn't have much luck with the majors,'he explained. 'Robert and I shared managers at one point... I asked what Robert was doing. He said that Robert had this record company and it had this great ethic, you know, where the artist had total artistic control...and they retained ownership of their music, which is pretty rare in the music industry and there were no contracts, which is also nice. I just liked the whole idea, it's very artist friendly, not artist-hostile or even artist-dangerous, like some places!'
I suggested to John that 'Zooma' was exactly the sort of riff-laden album that Zeppelin fans would lap up and that the new album had a much wider spectrum of sounds and explored different musicalavenues. He wasn't too sure about my pigeon-holing of the first album.
'Well, I thought I explored different avenues on the first one as well. It was just a continuation of that, I didn't want to remake that album. What I was going to do in fact was to hav ethe heavy bass lines, but then have melodies and counter-melodies over the top. I did a few of those and then I just changed my mind and decided to start adding vocals.
The album has four tracks in which John takes the lead vocal, so was this a new venture for him? 'I've done some vocals before, I did a soundtrack album "Scream For Help" in the mid '80's. I sang a couple of songs on that, although I don't think anyone noticed, which is alright really! Sort of secret vocalising.'
One of my favourite tracks on 'The Thunderthief' is a wonderful punk rock pastiche called 'Angry, Angry', in which John expresses his pent-up anger in a very English fashion, using humorous colloquialisms. John told me that these were the first lyrics he'd written for some years. He also wrote lyrics for 'Freedom Song', a folky melody, played on mandolin, yet the lyrics have a very contemporary flavour to them.
'Yeah, well I don't see why you can't mix them,' he opined, 'I'm not a folk musician or a folk artist particularly, although I like to play folk music as well. I always say that I'm a produc tof all my influences and I'm influenced by absolutely everythin gI've ever heard. Especially at "my time of life" as you might say! I've had quite a lot of listening and it's all sort of fused together I suppose. I don't see why you can't use this treatment for a song or that treatment for a song if you're well versed in the styles'
The majority of instruments on the album are played by John himself, quite an impressive array actually. Let's have a look at some of them, starting with basses of course!
'The ten and twelve string basses are all made by Hugh Manson. In fact pretty much every instrument on the album is a Manson of one sort or another. Even the acoustics are made by Andy Manson, Hugh's brother. Hugh also made the electric mandolins that I use on "Hoediddle" and "Daphne". A lot of people think that those tracks have guitar solos on them, but it's electric mandolin.
The ten-string bass is probably the main instrument on the album this time. It has two pickups, a neck pickup and a bridge pickup, the neck pickup goes through a bass rig and the bridge pickup goes through a guitar rig. The strings are tuned in five courses of octaves. On the ten-string I use, the lowest string is 'E' and it goes up to 'C' at the top. It doesn't have a low 'B'.
The twelve-string bass does have a low'B', but I like the high 'C'. When I hear a regular five-string bass on a record it always sounds too low to me. Maybe it's just a habit of hearing but it always feels as though it's too far away from the body of the song.'
I asked about the trusty Fender Jazz, does that still get an airing?
'Yes, the Fender Jazz is in the middle of "Daphne" and funny enough I played it through my very old session amp that I used to use in the '60's. I played a solo right in the middle and had it distorted to Hell. I think it sounds great! But I usually use it anywhere I want a four-string bass, like at the end of "The Thunderthief". The four-string bass comes in right at the end and that was the Jazz.'
John has been using multi-string basses since the Zeppelin days, when he bought a Hagstrom and used it on a few riffs on the 'Presence' album, most famously on 'Achilles Last Stand'. Another of his more unusual basses is the lap steel bass. You may now ask, ‚‘What's that?´
'Well it's a lap steel guitar with bass strings. It goes right down to the bottom 'E' of a bass. I've played lap steel since I was a kid. I had this horrible acoustic guitar which was unplayable because the strings were so high from the frets. So I thought that I might as well make it even higher. So I put a little nut extender on it.
We were doing US Air Force bases at the time. Greenham Common was a country base and so I took along this thing and played a solo, "Oh Lonesome Me", this horrible, out-of-tune solo, but it was a start.
Then, when I was with Zeppelin I used to carry round a little steel guitar, so I got quite a bit of practice on it. Then when I made the Diamanda Galas album she saw the instrument standing before her and demanded to hear it played, as she does.
So I did and that got on the album. Then we used it on two songs in the show. We did a blues kind of thing and it went from there.'
The track 'Shibuya Bop' features a traditional Japanese instrument. A huge, stringed instrument called a Koto.
'I bought that in Japan in about 1972, on a Zeppelin tour. I've always had it around and had it tuned up. "ShibuyaBop" was inspired by a walk through Shibuya. Actually it was inspired by a techno track I heard coming out of some shop. I just liked the intensity of it and so that became a new song and the koto went on it. Probably the first rock 'n' roll koto solo in history.'
Another instrument that drew my attention was the triple-necked mandolin, so I asked John to tell us about it.
'Andy Manson built that. It's all tuned in fifths, like a real mandolin. So the smallest neck is an ordinary mandolin: The middle neck is the same tuning, an octave lower, but the courses are in octaves rather than in unisons. Then there's a bass mandolin, which is an octave lower than that.
I use that through the Kyma system so that particular track is just one take. Kyma is my computer system...you can basically program it to do whatever you want. For that one it's programmed to do loops and it's bringing in a loop at the end of each chorus by means of a footpedal.'
Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs (a recent guest of Global bass as well. Editor) has been a part of John's touring band since he toured 'Zooma'. Nick also features on two tracks on 'The Thunderthief'. With his Midi-equipped Stick I guessed that he would pick up quite a few parts live.
'That's right, yes, that's what he's for! He's actually for what I used to be for Zeppelin: If we needed any other part I had to play them and that's what he does. He does the string parts, piano parts, organ, anything. When I'm playing steel,he plays the bass parts.'
Also on this new album as well as in the touring band is drummer Terl, who worked together with Nick in the Celtic progressive rock band Iona.
'Terl's a great drummer. They're really nice people to have on the road as wel. A real happy family on the road, it's great. Hugh Manson comes on the road as my guitar tech and in fact on the tour last year we had Brian Conliffe, who used to be my roadie in Zeppelin: He went out as tour manager, it was really nice. That's the nice thing about touring at this level, you can pick who you want to tour with and just go out and have fun.'
Even Bob Fripp himself popped in for a guitar solo on the album, on the track 'Leafy Meadows'.
'I wrote that with him in mind actually,' said John. 'I thought we should have him on because not many artists get to have their label boss do a guitar solo, so I thought it would be a nice thing to do'.
Even though it's more than twenty years since Led Zeppelin broke up, they are still widely regarded as the greatest rock band in history: something that John told me he wouldn't disagree with. Yet they certainly earned their reputation...
'Yes, well I think so,' said John, 'we did really great liveshows and the records sounded like no other band.'
I suggested that it was the combination of musical tastes and the experiences of the individual members, that created their unique sound.
'It was exactly that. That's what Zeppelin was all about. The four members. Which is why we couldn't really carry on without John. He was such an integral part of the band. As soon as you do those numbers with another band it's like a cover band: They (the songs) don't breathe any more, they don't live any more.'
I asked if John thought that this might be the reason that so many bands have tried and failed to sound like Zeppelin.
'Yes, well they only ever sound like one bit of Zeppelin. To do the whole lot convincingly you'd have to be - Zeppelin'.
John, of course, had worked as an arranger prior to his Zeppelin days. I wondered how much of the success of the sound was down to his own arranging skills, but he was quick to point out everyone's skills.
'We all chipped in, the sound of the band really was the four members and we all did what we could. I was an arranger so I helped arrange and add colour. It really was the four of us. A lot more came from Bonzo than was ever credited, he would set the whole atmosphere for things and we'd all kind of fill in'.
I then asked if it was Bonzo's Motown influences that gave him his unique edge.
'Yeah we were both huge Motown and Stax fans and general soul music fans, James Brown fan. Which is one of the reasons wh I've always said that Zeppelin was one of the few bands to "swing". We actually had a groove in those days.
People used to come to our shows and dance, which was great. To see all the women dancing, it was really brilliant. You didn't necessarily se ethat at a Black Sabbath show or whatever: So we were different in that way. We were a groovy band. We used all our black pop music influences as a key to the rock that went over the top. I mean rock 'n' roll comes from black music anyway, it's a mixture of rhythm 'n' blues and country'.
If you ask John to pick his favourite Led Zeppelin tracks, he finds it understandably difficult. He heads to some of the classics like 'Stairway', 'Kashmir' and 'The Crunge'. I asked about some of the famous riffs that we all know and love and which ones were his?
'"Black Dog" I suppose is the most well-known one. Usually anything with lots of notes was mine and anything with chunky chords was Page's. Things like "Good Times Bad Times", those are my sort of riffs, they're quite busy'.
An awful lot has been written about wild times on tour over the years. Much of it has passed into Rock Legend. John recalls one story –
'We would have these huge stereo systems delivered to our rooms that we used to rent...one night my room was right underneath Bonzo. Bonzo plays his really, really loud. So the story is that I said to the tour manager "Look...for the next hotel, just make sure I'm not right under Bonzo's room", which was not unreasonable.
So I get to the next hotel and sure enough the stereo is as loud as it ever was. So I called up the tour manager and I said "Look, I told you not to put me under Bonzo's room". He said "What are you talking about? You're three floors away!". That was a great joke!
One thing John always made certain of when he was on tour was that he didn't vegetate in the hotel rooms.
'I used to get out during the day. I wasn't a big fan of room service and I once read that when the Beatles went on tour in America that they never left their hotel rooms. When I went on tour in America for the first time I thought "That's not going to happen to me!". I wanted to get out and see the place.'
Well, hopefully he'll be able to get out and see a place near you soon! I'm really hoping for the chance to see this band live, so c'mon promoters! Get the Led out!
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