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."
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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.
In Hammer of the Gods, these early days are characterized as a long, twisted bacchanal; in one memorable incident, Grant associate Richard Cole boasts about coaxing a willing groupie to multiple orgasms using a flip-flopping red snapper. Story after story of sexual conquest are told about Plant, Bonham and Page, too, but few about Jones crop up -- and those that do are generally unflattering. (On one occasion in New Orleans, Jones reportedly picked up a sexy someone who turned out to be a transvestite, a mistake he didn't discover until the following morning.) For his part, Jones has claimed that he had just as much fun on the road as his bandmates but was more discreet about it, and Benoit Gautier, an employee of Atlantic Records in France, said much the same to Davis. According to him, "The wisest guy in Led Zeppelin was John Paul Jones. Why? He never got caught in an embarrassing situation."
Neither, though, did he get much credit. As the years went on and Led Zeppelin became the biggest band in the States (and possibly the world), he was listed as a songwriter on more and more songs. His thumbprints are all over smashes such as 1973's Houses of the Holy and on the final Zep studio offering, 1979's In Through the Out Door, he was practically the musical director. But even then he remained the band's invisible man, for understandable reasons. "It would be fair to say that Jimmy was the driving force of the band," he says. "It was his idea. He had the vision of it. And once we got on stage, Jimmy and Robert were obviously the frontmen. They would do all the pyrotechnics, whereas it's the job of the rhythm section to mind the shop, keep the whole thing driving along and give them a rock-solid basis on which to work. And that's what John and I did."
Bonham's death, which was preceded by several disasters and tragedies (Plant's son died of an infection, Plant himself was badly injured in an auto accident, and Page became very well-acquainted with heroin), brought Led Zeppelin to a close; in December 1980, the other three announced that continuing to perform under that name would be inappropriate. Shortly thereafter, Plant revved up a solo career that produced six Top 40 albums, and Page fumbled his way through a couple of failed supergroups, including the Firm, with Bad Company's Paul Rodgers, and Coverdale-Page, featuring Plant-imitating Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale. (In addition, he was part of the Honeydrippers, a lark of an oldies group that co-starred Plant.) Jones, meanwhile, kept a much lower profile, putting together the soundtrack for the 1985 filmic obscurity Scream for Help and re-establishing himself as an arranger and studio player: He oversaw the orchestrations on R.E.M.'s 1992 CD Automatic for the People, handled string chores for metallic acts such as Cinderella and Raging Slab, and added his musicianship to Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street, from 1984, and the 1992 Brian Eno effort Nerve Net. But he generally got ink only when he hooked up with Page and Plant. The trio performed at 1985's Live Aid concert, 1988's bash celebrating Atlantic Records' fortieth anniversary and the wedding of Jason Bonham, John Bonham's son. After these get-togethers, Jones recalls, "We'd always get fired up and say, 'Let's do something.' But when we did, it never amounted to much, for one reason or another. I always thought that Robert never wanted to do Zeppelin things."
Obviously, something changed his mind. In 1994, while he was in Hamburg, Germany, for an appearance with Diamanda Galas, the eccentric singer whose album Sporting Life he'd just produced, Jones says, "I turned on the television in my hotel and saw Jimmy and Robert -- and somebody was playing all my organ parts and all my bass parts, and then my string parts came in. It was spooky." The next day, at a press conference, "people were asking me all these questions, and I had to tell them I simply didn't know anything about it. Of course, no one believed it. They were like, 'They must have told you. You're putting us on.' And I told them, 'No, not really.'"
Other ignominies followed, including the decision of Page and Plant to dub their new album No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded after "No Quarter," which had always been Jones's in-concert signature song. "I've never asked them why they called it that," he says. But in the main, Jones took the high road when it came to questions about the topic. Today he's more open about discussing his feelings. Had he been asked to be part of the project, he says, "I would certainly have considered it. I can't tell you if I would have given them a yes or a no, and if they'd told me, 'We're going to go out and just do Led Zeppelin numbers,' I would have said, 'Fine, let me out. I don't think that's a very good idea.' But we were very close over the years, a very tightly knit band -- probably one of the few bands that really was that close. It was us and Peter Grant against the world. So it was surprising to me to see them do what they did the way that they did it. I mean, I don't care what they do; it was their choice. But the way they did it was impolite, because the least they could have done was told me, 'Now, look, this is going to be all over the papers, so I think you should hear it from us first. Okay?' Then I'd either have gotten pissed off or wished them luck or whatever."
The following year, when Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a similar scenario presented itself. "That was a miserable day for me," Jones says. "People were moving the seating arrangements about, and there was all this stuff about how I wouldn't play unless this happened or that happened. And I turned up at the gig with my bass in my hand. People came up to me and said, 'I heard that you refused to play.' And I'm like, 'Uh, here's my bass.' And in the end, I did the sound check on my own. It was so petty -- so much petty shit went on -- and I just thought, 'It shouldn't have been this way. It should have been a celebration.' But I think Robert and Jimmy were very embarrassed about the situation they'd put themselves in."
These days the grapevine has Page and Plant on the outs -- a story that received a boost at this month's Net Aid concert, where a Plant-less Page recycled "Kashmir" behind Puff Daddy and churned out a version of "Whole Lotta Love" with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes expertly mimicking Big Bob. But if Jones (who sees the pair when Zeppelin-related business must be discussed) is taking pleasure in this rumor, he's keeping it to himself. "I was surprised they ever got together in the first place. If there was a problem, it was always Robert and Jimmy who were against each other, wasn't it? And I was friends with both of them, so you never know. But fortunately, I don't really care. I've got my own music to make."
Zooma, Jones's debut for Discipline Global Mobile (a label founded by guitarist Robert Fripp), isn't an overtly commercial disc; the absence of vocals will prevent many timid FM programmers from giving it much of a chance. But Jones and a highbrow team of helpers, including King Crimson's Trey Gunn on Chapman stick and drummer Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's Attractions, rip into his compositions with a finely controlled fury. The title cut rides in on a sonic storm that gives way to a Tek-9 bass pattern and massive riffs far more aggressive than the Moroccan noodling on No Quarter; "Grind" takes a potentially delicate melody and makes it rumble; "Goose" persuasively mates mock sirens and slamming; "Tidal" sends waves of synthesized sound crashing down upon listeners; and "Snake Eyes" approximates that ol' Led Zep grandeur by juxtaposing Jones's bass lap steel and organ with guest appearances by members of the London Symphony Orchestra. "The Smile of Your Shadow" and "Bass 'n' Drums" are gentler and more understated, but for the most part, Zooma is a sleek, noisome jam sure to leave lovers of fleet-fingered rock heroics feeling wrung out but happy.
Jones says he didn't consciously set out to make such a comparatively fierce album, and he dismisses a Bass Player magazine headline that asked, "Heavier Than Zep?" as mere hyperbole. "That's just the way I like to play rock and roll. It's what I like, which is definitely blues-based, rock-based music -- and that's what I contributed to Led Zeppelin. That's what I liked to do musically, and I still like it, so there are bound to be links. And I didn't make any conscious efforts to get away from that."
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It was only natural for Jones to produce the CD himself; his production resumé includes a startlingly wide range of pieces, including the 1993 Butthole Surfers opus Independent Worm Saloon and Road Home, a 1995 Heart LP. ("People see quite a gap between those two, but I don't," he says. "Heart is more acoustic and has violins, and Butthole Surfers don't. But they're all committed musicians, and we all speak the same language.") However, he acknowledges that doing everything by his lonesome on Zooma presented some unexpected challenges. "In a way, producing yourself is trickier. I can say things to myself that I wouldn't say to another musician, and therefore, I can be too hard on myself. People say, 'Doesn't that let you be self-indulgent?' Well, no. What I need to remember is to let myself be self-indulgent, because I ruthlessly cut everything that I do. I can work on something for two days and then listen to it and say, 'You know, I don't think this is really any good,' and cut it out. But if someone else was there, they might say, 'Actually, it's not really that bad.' So I have to come up with tricks that prevent me from falling into my own traps. In other words, I second-guess myself, but I also try to give myself the freedom I need to do my best work.
"This album was really just an excuse to tour -- to give myself something to play," he adds. "I've always thought it would be nice to do a solo album, but the impetus was to play live again. Because it's really hard when you're a musician in my position. You can't just turn up somewhere."
Oh, yeah: Jones will cover a couple of Led Zeppelin songs during his shows -- a bonus that he suspects will get more of a reaction in the U.S. than in England. "America immediately took us to its heart, and the rest of the world sort of followed. In fact, in England they initially thought we were an American band. I suppose it makes sense. All British rock music is American-inspired, whether it's rock and roll, rhythm and blues or blues. In that sense, the Beatles were American music. We just very skillfully sold it back to you." He chuckles. "You probably knew that already. But we did it differently. Otherwise, you wouldn't have needed it." There remain some Led Zeppelin fanatics in his home country, but "there'd never be a Led Zeppelin month here," he says wryly. "And I never get recognized anywhere in England, except perhaps occasionally by American tourists."
Since it's unlikely that either Plant or Page could say the same, Jones's admission seemingly lends credence to the bad-luck argument. But he doesn't see it that way. His relative anonymity "is why I live here," he says. "I speak the language, and nobody knows who I am or cares, for that matter. And that's all right. Having to wait in line somewhere keeps your feet on the ground. I'm doing just fine."