Getting Out of the Led

Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones goes it alone.

Bassist John Paul Jones isn't the unluckiest founding member of Led Zeppelin; at least he's not slowly decomposing like drummer John Bonham, who died in September 1980 after guzzling an estimated forty slugs of vodka in a twelve-hour period and then asphyxiating on his own vomit. But while his surviving bandmates, epic ax man Jimmy Page and indomitable screecher Robert Plant, have been championed as rock geniuses in the nineteen years since Zeppelin finally came down to earth, Jones has often been overlooked or disrespected -- and some of the group's most delusional fans actually blame him for killing the band. Consider the words of Pamela Des Barres, a onetime lover of Page, as quoted in Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods, the 1985 book that helped cement Led Zep's image as a combo very much in touch with the dark side of the force. "The rumor that I've heard forever," she said, "is that they all made this pact with the Devil, Satan, the Black Powers, whatever, so that Zeppelin would be such a huge success. And the only one who didn't do it was John Paul Jones."

That's a bizarre burden for anyone to shoulder, but Jones seems utterly untroubled by it. In conversation from his quiet home in England, he's the quintessential British gentleman: soft-spoken, deferential and precise, with a thoughtful manner and a sense of humor so dry that a light breeze might blow it away. Yet even though his current tour in support of the all-instrumental Zooma, his first-ever solo album, is a symbolic step from the shadows where he spent most of his time with Led Zeppelin, he's still self-deprecating to a fault. He acknowledges that he'll have a more prominent onstage role this time around than he's had in the past ("There'll only be three of us playing, so I can't be that far in the background") but laughs at the thought of him doing showboating routines like playing the bass behind his back. "I think the bass is a bit too heavy to play behind my back," he allows. "I can just about lift them, let alone get them behind my back."

Nonetheless, his modesty has its limits. He admits to being troubled by the mid-Nineties move by Page and Plant to reunite for a duo project without bothering to mention anything about it in advance to him, and he doesn't bother to hide his displeasure over what he regards as subsequent shabby treatment at their hands. Moreover, he chafes at the widely held assumption that he was Led Zeppelin's most disposable part, when in fact his bass and keyboard prowess and arranging skills were important, frequently essential, musical components in the act's mix -- a conclusion underlined by Zooma. The album is among the loudest and ballsiest of the projects by onetime Zeppelins, a regularly raucous blast of fusionoid virtuosity that has caused numerous reviewers who'd previously taken Jones's contributions to the Led Zep legacy for granted to rethink their opinions. The bassist confesses to some satisfaction over this turn of events. "It's nice to be recognized for what you do. Of course, I never had any trouble recognizing what I did myself, and quite a lot of people did know what I did. But I suppose quite a lot thought there wasn't any more than Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in the band, and it was most definitely a partnership. It was four people, and I was one of them."

Born John Baldwin in January 1946, Jones is the son of musicians who began packing him from gig to gig when he was in diapers. He started playing piano at age six, and after mastering the bass, he performed alongside his father at parties and the like. He formed his first band when he was in boarding school, and by seventeen, he was part of a collective that included guitarist John McLaughlin, who later went from Miles Davis's Bitches Brew-era crew to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. After the McLaughlin group fell apart, Jones briefly considered stepping into the star machine (in 1964, he issued "Baja," a single whose B-side was called "A Foggy Day in Vietnam") before opting for the quieter career of session bassist. He soon went from playing on cuts starring Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield and Lulu to arranging for Donovan ("Sunshine Superman" is his work), the Rolling Stones (he handled "She's a Rainbow" on the Stones' stab at psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request) and Herman's Hermits, an outfit whose seemingly endless string of lite-pop smashes challenged the Beatles for chart supremacy in 1965 and 1966. After joining Led Zeppelin, Jones's reputation as a studio guru suggested to some observers that he was less a full member of the band than a permanent sideman. But as Jones notes, "Jimmy Page and I were both session musicians. He just got out before I did."

True enough, Page played on many of Jones's sessions before being invited to hook up with the Yardbirds, a blues-rock act that also helped elevate Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton to guitar-god status. When that combo disintegrated, Page and the Yardbirds' manager, notorious behemoth Peter Grant, set out to create what initially was billed as the New Yardbirds. Jones was the first recruit, followed by Plant, a little-known country boy who'd fronted an equally obscure group called the Band of Joy, and Bonham, a fierce pounder and Band of Joy veteran recommended by Plant. After playing a series of live dates in Scandinavia, the foursome decided they needed a new moniker, eventually settling on Led Zeppelin, from a joke floated during a conversation with the Who's John Entwhistle and Keith Moon. In 1969, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II were released in quick succession, immediately earning mostly terrible reviews (Rolling Stone quickly got into the habit of panning everything by the group) but thrilling untold thousands of mostly young, freaked-out blues-rock junkies. Many of the songs on the first two platters, including "Dazed and Confused," "Communication Breakdown," "Whole Lotta Love," "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" and "Ramble On," have been absolutely beaten to within an inch of their lives by classic-rock radio, yet they retain their vitality thanks to the singular meshing of Page's leviathan riffs, Plant's hysterically oversexed wailing, Jones's deft, almost jazzy bass lines and Bonham's cataclysmic rhythms. Subtle it wasn't, especially in the beginning, but that was part of the point. If you're going to surf on a wave of testosterone, you might as well hang ten.

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