Take one look at the pants Robert Plant is wearing on the album cover, and that should provide the listener with all they need to know about its contents (the album I mean, not what’s in Robert’s trousers). Plant’s debut solo album is often regarded by many critics as one of his finest, perhaps even the finest of his entire post Zeppelin career. And while I myself personally wouldn’t say that it’s his very best, it could be argued that it remains at least the most satisfying out of all his 1980’s output, a decade which wasn’t always kind much less sympathetic toward many an aging rock star who once plied their trade back in the day. Although Plant did at first entertain some doubts as to whether he could embark on an actual solo career at all. Would he be capable of pulling it off, he wondered? What would all the Zep Heads think? What would it all sound like? These were questions the world was also asking in 1982, when it was announced that Robert’s first LP, the somewhat cryptically titled Pictures at Eleven was to be released.
Now Plant just didn’t select any old troupe of musicians to back him. Rather than session players, he brought in none other than Phil Collins and Cozy Powell to play drums (a couple of power houses if there ever were), along with Gerald Woodroffe (keyboards, synthesizers), Paul Martinez (bass), and a one Mr Robbie Blunt, who at the time was a relatively obscure guitarist and yet who would prove to be a perfect fit for Plant’s new band, in more ways than one.
First track “Burning Down Side One” gets things going in typical 80’s style, where as was often the case back then, the production values betray the level of true talent in the room. But no matter; it is what is. In those days most people wouldn’t even have noticed much less complained, happy just to hear old Percy and his highly distinctive, almost supernatural voice once again wail through their speakers. But this is 1982 we’re talking about and a lot had changed. Which means that the only qualities which manage to hold my attention are, naturally Plant’s voice, but also Blunt’s rather brief Page-esque bursts of electric guitar. Yet apart from that, there’s really little else to recommend it, composition wise. The same (almost) goes with “Moonlight in Samosa”, a terrific tune which would have benefited greatly if it had have been recorded in any other decade than the 80’s. Plant croons convincingly to be sure, while the rest of the playing is faultless, but I just can’t get past the production, where to me it sounds as if each musician is performing in different rooms, so much so that it doesn’t even sound like they’re all in the same studio together.
“Pledge Pin” is a good song which suffers from the usual complaints. Even through headphones the mix is flat and compressed, as if all the instruments were being deliberately condensed by whatever dickhead was behind the recording consul, in order to make it seem “contemporary” and “cutting edge”. Still, Raphael Ravenscroft’s saxophone solo is a delight, and one of the highlights of what is overall a fairly standard tune. Next song “Slow Dancer” is the most Zeppelin oriented number, whose big drums, droning guitar and Eastern arrangements reminds one of “Kashmir”, or a poor man’s remake. Although it’s nice to hear Plant belt it out in epic style all the same.
“Worse than Detroit” certainly swings, with some terrific harmonica from Robert, not to mention outstanding guitar work by Blunt. It’s the best track in my opinion, and would have fitted well on Presence. “Fat Lip” cruises along in inoffensive fashion, where once again Blunt establishes his instrumental credentials, in a Jimmy Page kind of way. On “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” Plant revisits the style of singing for which he’s famous for, like a “Since I’ve Been Loving You” for the ‘80’s. The album ends with “Mystery Title”, another song which could have been off Presence, full of funky, Pagey riffs, and trademark vocal evocations by Plant, enough to put a bulge in the pants of any Zep devotee.
My own view is that Picture’s at Eleven is the closest indication as to what Led Zeppelin’s next album might have sounded like, or at least the second side, although minus some of the awful production values that were typical of the time, something which not even the Norse Gods themselves would have been capable of challenging. No doubt much of this had to do with Plant’s reluctance to resemble his past, preferring to set a new course and direction for himself, both emotionally as well as artistically. And who can blame him. Zeppelin had a dynamic that could never be repeated, much less replicated, so therefore why even bother pretending. But is this his best LP? Hardly. 2002’s Dreamland, and Mighty ReArranger, released in 2005, are in my mind far more satisfying affairs, where Plant finally reached back to his Pagan roots and unleashed his inner Thor. Nevertheless, Pictures is an accomplished effort I must admit, and for many older music lovers who couldn’t quite relate to “Girls on Film”, this album would have made an essential and exciting purchase.