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Doug Boyle has the kind of job most aspiring rock guitarists would give their whammy bar for. Playing behind Robert Plant on the former Led Zeppelin vocalist's current worldwide tour, Boyle gets the chance, on the four or five Zeppelin tunes Plant works nightly into his concerts, to rip authoritatively into those classic monster guitar riffs that pretty much set the foundation for today's heavy-metal.
What's more, as a member of Plant's first sustained band line-up since the dissolution of that legendary outfit ten years ago, Boyle gets to share the credit for helping Plant put a contemporary sheen on that great, gothic Zeppelin sound.
Night after night, the 28-year-old Londoner plays the part, in effect, of the new Jimmy Page. It's an enviable position, to be sure. Boyle claims he doesn't even mind when the real Jimmy Page shows up and the audience all but tosses him aside like a bland stepfather in the sudden company of a heroic, long-lost daddy.
"Actually," Boyle says by phone during a stop-off in New York City, "it's quite a bit of a thrill, you know, when Jimmy Page comes on-stage, and he starts playing and you see the reaction of the audience. The energy level just goes right over your head."
Still, it's at times like those that Boyle and his bandmates--keyboardist Phil Johnstone, bassist Charlie Jones, and drummer Chris Blackwell--must face some music more bone-crunching than the loudest Zeppelin screamer. During those tentative reunions, it's hard to escape the thought that no matter how loudly audiences may applaud Plant's latest band as it churns out championship heavy-metal, it's a fickle allegiance. Reunite the three surviving Zeppers, teamed with the late John Bonham's son Jason, and you'd think nine out of ten Plant fanciers would vote he drop the new outfit like a loose-fitting pair of shorts on America's Funniest Home Videos. "Yeah, I suppose there are people who feel that way, who'd rather see Robert with Led Zeppelin," Boyle admits. "But I think it's more like one in ten. I mean, when we play over here [in the U.S.], we get an incredible reception. So I really don't feel any lack of audience support. But then," he adds insightfully, "a lot of the Robert Plant fans who are waiting for a Led Zeppelin reunion probably aren't spending their cash to see us."
Boyle is optimistic that as his boss records more albums with the current line-up (the combo has remained intact since Plant's 1988 album Now and Zen), the clamor to bring back Led from the dead will subside.
"I hope people will eventually lose interest in the idea of a Led Zeppelin reunion," Boyle sighs. "It must be a terrible distraction for Robert. I mean, really, it's probably harder on him than it is on us. You know, he's out there trying to place this band and this project on the map, and he's really enjoying himself. And then he'll sit down for interviews, and the question will always come up. `Thanks for coming out, Robert,' you know. `By the way, what about a Led Zeppelin reunion?' And . . . " Boyle stops for a second to consider his employer's usual response to the inevitable query. "Actually, he's very patient about it, to tell you the truth."
INDEED, IT COULD BE SAID that Plant somewhat encourages the constant fascination with his old group's legacy. Since his first post-Zeppelin get-together with Page and Jones at the 1985 Live Aid concert, the golden-haired Goliath has managed to pull together a high-profile reunion behind the release of each solo album. Now and Zen had the living Leds' show-closing rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" on the twice-televised Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary bash to push the LP's sales along. Manic Nirvana has been selling briskly since the appearance of Plant, Page, Jones, and the junior Bonham on the MTV-aired Knebworth benefit concert.
And while the music on Nirvana lacks overt references to past glories like Zen's "Tall Cool One" (with its sampled "Whole Lotta Love" dive-bombing guitar bites), devout Zeppophiles will notice a fascinating coincidence in Plant's choice of recording studios for this outing. The site of the Nirvana sessions was London's Olympic Studios--the very same hallowed halls, as Plant's latest Atlantic press release handily points out, where "the first Led Zeppelin album was recorded in 1968."
Boyle scoffs at the attention people have given that minor detail. "Really, the main reason for doing it there was just that that studio was available when we needed it and it was good. That's one of the best studios in London."
He denies the ever-karmic Plant expressed any spiritual calling to set up shop in the studio where Led Zeppelin laid down the tracks for its standard-setting debut in an astoundingly quick 36 hours. "I think the Led Zeppelin thing must be a great source of intrigue to other people," he laughs. "It never occurred to us to go into the studio, sit around in a circle and try to pick out the vibes."
At least Plant can't be accused of having hired a pack of Zeppelin impersonators to resurrect the spirit of his old band. Interestingly, up until a short while ago, Boyle had never delved very deeply into Led lore himself. "Just recently I started listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin albums," the guitarist says. "But before that, they weren't really an influence on me."