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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."
Boyle found it amusing that, after the release of Now and Zen, many reviewers pegged him as a talented Jimmy Page disciple. "Before I joined up with Robert," he says, "I was playing jazz and funk and R&B, blues and even country-and-western." Everything but the high-octane bombast made famous by the British supergroup.
In fact, when he was recruited for Plant's band by his friend Chris Blackwell, who had already come aboard on drums, Boyle wasn't playing anything at all. "When I met Robert, I was working for a holiday company [British for "travel agency"]," Boyle says. "I was tired of bands at the time. Because, you know, when you're playing in pubs with small, struggling bands, the politics of trying to keep it together when people aren't happy with each other and it's hard to get gigs can get to be a bit much. And I had been doing that ever since I left school."
Needless to say, Boyle feels "very lucky" Plant pulled him out from behind a reservations terminal and gave him a job on the instrument so integrally associated with Plant's soaring vocals. Perhaps that's why he so sportingly tolerates the Pagey shadow that still cloaks his contributions.
"It's one of those things," he shrugs. "You're following in the footsteps of a rock 'n' roll legend, and you just have to deal with that. I feel good being a part of playing that music for a new generation. It's kind of like the legacy goes on. At the same time, I think I'm bringing something new to that sound."
THAT "SOMETHING NEW" is undoubtedly what Robert Plant was looking for when he drafted a bunch of unknowns to back him on the pivotal Now and Zen. With the one-time teen dream teetering on the precipice of his fortieth birthday, Plant knew he needed some young blood to update his trademark wanton wail for the late Eighties. "A lot of the secret to our chemistry has to do with the fact that we're all a good deal younger than he is," admits Boyle. (The oldest member of Plant's band is a decade younger than the singer.) "We haven't been out on the road for years and years like he has, so we're kind of fresh. And so we all enjoy sort of rejuvenating the old boy," he chuckles.
The disparity in age and experience between the band leader and his boys also plays a part in the heady mix of new and old influences that have given Plant's last two albums so much of their appeal. On Manic Nirvana, for example, the singer again experiments with sampling, a thoroughly modern technique most commonly associated with rap.
On his cover of the obscure early-Sixties Kenny Dino single "Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night," Plant samples the drum track off his own ancient copy of the 45--complete with the snaps, crackles and pops of the old disc. (The CD carries a unique apology for the "unavoidable" surface noise on the track.)
"The sampling is kind of a bow of the head to the modern black influence, you know, imitating what a lot of the rap guys do, but with a sense of humor," Boyle explains. "Phil Johnstone is kind of the prime mover on that stuff. But Robert comes up with a lot of his own ideas on it, too."
The backing quartet's relative youth also comes in handy, Boyle points out, in keeping Plant on track with the adolescent frustrations that the heavy-metal audience will always depend on his inimitable voice to vent. "You know, that whole angst-ridden teenager thing," Boyle shorthands.
If Plant's young pupils provide the input that keeps the old bloke in tune with the times, it's the homework their mentor assigns them that gives the records their roots. "Once in a while, he'll play us some old records to show us what kind of a sound he wants on a song," Boyle says. "For `Liar's Dance,' [a stark vocals-with-acoustic guitar arrangement], he had me listen to some Buffalo Springfield and a tune by Stephen Stills called `Black Queen.' It was a style of playing I really hadn't heard much."
Of course, with the band members all heading rapidly into their thirtysomething years, it might not be all that long before the generation gap closes. Boyle, a married man with a one-year-old son, already talks about missing his family on the road and "trying to get back some of that feeling I had when I was a kid" in his playing. And forget any ideas about Plant's new band trying to live up to the legendary hotel-room debauchery of his old outfit. You're just as unlikely to find Boyle and his buds committing some obscene act with a shark and a roomful of groupies as you are these days catching a potted Plant on-stage.
"We hardly even drink anymore," Boyle says. "We mostly just stay in our rooms and practice a lot." He sighs. "We're kind of boring, I guess!"
Robert Plant will perform at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday, August 7. Show time is 7:30 p.m.
"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."
"We haven't been out on the road for years and years like he has, so we're kind of fresh. And so we all enjoy sort of rejuvenating the old boy.