It must be easy, as one-quarter of arguably the greatest rock band of all time, Led Zeppelin, to become a little full of yourself and believe that everything you or the band created is untouchable. In truth, much of this swaggering sentiment is bolstered by an undying group of fans who can find golden nuggets in every pile of dung the band ever let loose. It, therefore, takes both guts and guile to pick out a song from one’s back catalogue that you dislike, something that Robert Plant has in spades.
The band, who famously usurped The Beatles as “the biggest band on the planet” at one time or another, can be rightly revered as a watershed moment in the evolution of music. The group arguably defined the foundations of both heavy metal and rock and roll at large when they burst onto the music scene in the latter days of the heady 1960s. Buoyed by the supreme talent of former-Yardbirds maestro Jimmy Page alongside the utterly majestic John Paul Jones and the powerhouse juggernaut John Bonham, Led Zeppelin found a massive audience with their thunderous rock and roll, all perfectly completed by the wailing vocals of Robert Plant.
However, even the great man himself wasn’t averse to delivering a sub-par performance and there is one song on which Plant called his vocals “horrific”. It was the singer’s earliest efforts that he found truly distasteful suggesting that he had attempted to put on a “manly” tone for his rock debuts. Plant was in conversation with The Guardian when he picked out two songs that he’d rather were cast to the dustbin of time.
The legendary singer shared that it was when Led Zeppelin were making perhaps their most experimental album Led Zeppelin III that he “realised that tough, manly approach to singing I’d begun on [the 1966 track with former band Listen] ‘You Better Run’ wasn’t really what it was all about at all.” Plant had been using the gravel in his voice to add a sense of grit and determination to his singing voice, but, eventually, that all felt a little bit silly.
Affecting a tone is a fantastic weapon in a singer’s arsenal, however, for Plant, it seemed to be too forced. He even singled out a classic Led Zeppelin song as one he was least proud of vocally, “Songs like ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ … I find my vocals on there horrific now. I really should have shut the f— up!” While we wouldn’t go that far, the song is drenched in machismo that seemingly deters the musicality of the track and those playing it.
It was one of the first songs that Page approached Plant with when creating the band’s iconic debut album. It was an idea that centred on creating a different arrangement of ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, originally written by Anne Bredon as it appeared on a live album by Joan Baez. Much of the rest of the album can be defined as coming from a place of familiarity but also containing an element of otherworldly mystery as well.
For Plant, however, that familiarity was more closely akin to playing it safe. In the late sixties, it was far safer to try to butch up a folk song and turn it into a foot-stomping rock barnstormer than it was to add a more authentic vocal performance. For that reason alone, it’s easy to see why Plant didn’t care for his earlier work with the band, no matter how much we loved it.
Listen to Led Zeppelin’s cover of ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ below and give us your verdict on Robert Plant’s “horrific” vocals.