Sunday, March 30, 2008

Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones

Bass Player
Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones

By Brian Fox | January, 2008

After nearly three decades of other projects, rock’s top musical alchemist is ready to shake the world again with Led Zeppelin.

Chemistry—life as a musician can cultivate a deep understanding of how it all works. But forget about moles and molecules, polymers, and peptides. In music, that’s not the kind of chemistry that matters.

On the subjects of rhythm-section magnetism, melodo-harmonic catalysts, and general rock & roll entropy, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones is an undisputed expert. A musical alchemist of the highest order, Jones’s tenure in what is argued to be the most influential rock band of all time has yielded some of the most productive experimentation in music.

With his quick reflexes, uncanny intuition, and seemingly bottomless skill set, Jones was the ultimate addition to Led Zeppelin, a rhythm-and-blues supergroup formed in 1968 by guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist Robert Plant, and drummer John Bonham. Armed with years of experience as a session bassist and arranger—having worked with the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, and Donovan—Jones brought a deep groove consciousness and an ear for experimentation, folding keyboards, mandolin, and much more into his band’s potent brew of blues, folk, rockabilly, and hard rock.

Today, Jones spends most of his time assisting on other people’s projects, most recently producing bluegrass outfit Uncle Earl’s Waterloo, Tennessee [Rounder, 2007]. (Jonesy even appears in the band’s bizarre “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat” music video, a postmodern audio-visual mash-up of kung-fu, Irish stepdancing, and bluegrass.) Meanwhile, Jones has continued with his own music, currently working toward his third solo record.

All that, of course, is overshadowed by the obvious: Led Zeppelin is reuniting.

From the explosive blues of the band’s early records though the mystical folk and world-music explorations of its later sets, Led Zeppelin was always ambitious and on point in the studio. But for Jones, Zeppelin has always been, first and foremost, a live band. Since John Bonham’s death in 1980, Jones has performed just twice with surviving bandmates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant: at Live Aid in 1985 (with Phil Collins on drums), and at an anniversary concert for Atlantic Records in 1988 (with John Bonham’s son Jason on drums). That is, until now. The group came together on December 10 to perform at a massive tribute concert for Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmeet Ertegun, who died in 2006. At press time, rumors of a full-blown reunion tour are hitting fever pitch, and it seems likely the band will make this grand reunion more than a one-off. The timing couldn’t be better, as two new releases have birthed a new brood of Zeppelin fans: the 24-track Mothership [Atlantic], collecting key cuts from each of Zeppelin’s eight studio albums, and the expanded DVD/CD reissue of The Song Remains the Same [Warner Home Video/Swan Song], Zep’s 1976 concert film.

With Led Zeppelin set to soar once more, the band’s utility man spoke with Bass Player a few days before the December 10 performance at London’s O2 Arena.

How did Zeppelin prepare for this reunion?
We did about four days’ rehearsal in total secret—just to see whether we could play together—and it was fantastic. We played through a couple of well-known numbers, and it was amazingly tight. So we decided to go full swing with rehearsals right through until the show.

What was your first priority in rehearsals?
I didn’t want to have to think about what I’m playing—that’s where you run into trouble. It’s got to be familiar so I can feel loose. And there can’t be any hesitation.

Had you played much with John Bonham’s son, Jason?
I think we played at his birthday party once—maybe it was his wedding reception. People talk about “growing up with the music,” but Jason really did. There are obviously similarities with his dad: He hits hard, and it sounds right. Plus, he really knows all the songs—even parts the rest of us have forgotten. He’ll ask things like, “Do you want to do the ending from 1972, or the one from ’75?” [Laughs.] Plus, he’s a really lovely guy as well, and he’s brought a lot of energy.

How did the recent reissue of The Song Remains the Same come about, and what was your hand in it?
The original was mixed to have a sort of enlarged stereo sound with some ambience and effects—like a guitar chord seeming to swirl over your head. We remixed the whole thing in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. For legal reasons, we weren’t allowed to touch a single frame of the film, so if there was anything out of sync we’d have to work around it. We’d just nudge things around slightly, keeping the groove and the musicality.

In July, you hooked up with Ben Harper and ?uestlove for Bonnaroo’s celebrated SuperJam set. How did that come about?
I was invited to be in the core band for the SuperJam, which, as I understood it, meant we’d be a rhythm section for lots of other musicians to get up and jam with. But when we got there, nobody else got up! [Laughs.] We had a couple of hours to get to know each other—I had never met either of them. We tried “Dazed and Confused” and said, “Well, let’s just wing it.” We made five or six numbers last for two-and-a-half hours in front of around 20,000 people. For a trio that’s never played together before, it was pretty good!

You also sat in on mandolin, bass, and keyboards with a several bands playing the festival.
Yes, I played with Uncle Earl, whose record I produced, and also with Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings, because I’m big fans of theirs, and because I just like playing bluegrass mandolin. I also sat in with Gov’t Mule, and had a two-man bass jam with Juan Nelson during Ben Harper’s set. Everybody was really nice, and we had a blast. It was a great festival.

Do you still play your ’62 Fender Jazz Bass?
I use it for recording, but I don’t take it out. I’ve even got my old Teddy Wallace session amp, which I had renovated. It’s a 30-watt tube combo with two 12" speakers. It’s what I used for all those sessions in the ’60s.

In the late ’70s, you often played an Alembic bass.
That Alembic 4-string was made for me by Rick Turner. It had LEDs all the way up the fingerboard on the top, which was nice. My tech used to just hold it up and I could walk onstage in a blackout!

You were one of the first bassists to experiment with 8-string. What were some of the challenges you faced?
When I started playing 8-string, it was very hard to get the action right. Rotosound made a bass string with an exposed core—based on piano string design—making 8-string setup much easier.

Did you prefer flatwounds or roundwounds on your 4-string basses?
Everybody used to think I used flatwounds, but I stopped using flatwounds back in the session days because they just didn’t give me the sustain I wanted.

What was your keyboard setup?
It changed over time. I used to use a Mellotron, which was the only way you could get a string or flute sound in those days. But you’d never know whether it was going to be in tune, so I replaced that with a Yamaha GX1, the big green machine. In the end, I think I used a Fairlight, an early 8-bit sampler.

When you played keyboards live, there was often a strong bass presence. Did that come from organ footpedals?
Yes. I had bass pedals littered all over the stage. I’d be there with a triple-neck guitar, bass pedals, and keyboards, and Robert would ask, “Can you sing, as well?”

What was your contribution to Led Zeppelin’s overall sound?
I was a sort of Motown and Stax specialist when I was a studio musician, and I brought that groove into Led Zeppelin. Bonzo was also a big R&B fan, so there’s a lot of it in the Zeppelin rhythm section. In addition to keyboard, mandolin, and other things like that, I just brought my musical experience. I’ve always said that Zeppelin was the space between four individual musicians, and it was bigger than the sum of its parts. We all had completely different musical tastes, and we didn’t try to emulate any other band. Soul, jazz, country, folk, Arabic, Indian—we all had these different influences, and we weren’t ashamed to whip them out at any time. The way those influences mixed became Zeppelin.

What was the first Zeppelin rehearsal like?
We met up in a tiny room in London and all looked at each other, working out what we were going to play. It was kind of like, “Well, what do you know?” “I don’t know, what do you know?” Page said, “Do you know ‘The Train Kept Rolling’?” I said no, and he said, “It’s in E, but there’s a riff that starts on G.” He showed me the riff and counted it in, and the room just exploded. We all looked at each other and knew we had something special.

Bonham’s drum phrasing was unusual.
Absolutely. He was like that—a very imaginative drummer. He could pick out the interesting parts of a riff and come up with a really cool part.

How would you go about matching up with his drums?
Since Bonzo’s kick-drum playing was so complex, it was much more effective to synchronize and play with the kick rather than just boom right across it. That was part of our style; I would leave out notes in order to let a kick or a snare come through. That’s especially effective with a really good drummer—it makes the rhythm come alive when you leave holes for the drums to pop out.

When and why would you switch from playing fingerstyle to playing pickstyle?
My preference is fingerstyle, but I often had to play with a pick in the session days, so I got quite used to it. I can play “Immigrant Song” with my fingers, but it just sounds better with a pick. Same with “Black Dog.” It just gives you different phrasing, and a more metallic, guitar-y sound. I didn’t see any reason not to swap one for another if the occasion demanded it.

How did Zeppelin communicate onstage?
There was eye and ear contact. Robert always used to tell me to stand up in the front. I used to play the first song up front, then I’d gradually edge my way back to my favorite position: just under the ride cymbal off the corner of the drums, where I could feel the kick. For improvised parts we would group around center stage with a lot of eye contact, and a lot of focus. That concentration is what made it successful. Anybody could take anything anywhere, and we’d all follow.

What was the band’s approach to recording and touring?
To me, Led Zeppelin was a live performance band. We would make a record and that would be the blueprint. Then we’d go off and play the record live, and it would move on from there. I’m pretty used to recording studios, so it was no big thing to be in the studio. Playing live was the most fun for me; I think that was the best of Zeppelin. But when we were sorting out the track list for Mothership, I had the occasion to listen to the old tracks. I’d be listening to one track and end up listening to the whole album—not something I normally do—thinking, Oh, we did that? This is great!
Thirty Years Gone

In July 1977, Jonesy talked for a tick with Guitar Player. Here’s what he had to say.

On good bass playing “I don’t like bass players that go boppity boppity bop all over the neck. You should stay around the bottom and provide that end of the group.”

On session work “I always thought the bass player’s life was much more interesting in those days, because nobody knew how to write for bass. They used to say, ‘We’ll give you the chord sheet and get on with it.’ So even on the worst sessions, you could have a little runaround.”

On the first Led Zeppelin rehearsal “We met just to see if we could even stand each other. Robert had heard I was a session man, and he was wondering what was going to turn up—some old bloke with a pipe?”

On remembering songs “I could never remember—I’m still the worst in the band remembering anything, and the group jokes about it. I even have a piece of paper stuck on top of the Mellotron that says: ‘Kashmir’—remember the coda!”

On amplification “At first I used a converted television, one of those big standup televisions with the amp in the bottom and a speaker where the screen should be. I ended giving myself double hernias. It never occurred to me when I was deciding between bass and drums that I’d have to lug a bass amp.

“Amps were always murder. We used Vox amps, and I had the big Vox T-60. It sounded great, but we had to have an arrangement with Vox to replace them every couple of weeks because they would not last any longer. Suddenly there’d be a horrible noise, and the thing would just sit there looking at you.

“Our first tour was a shambles. For about a year I never even heard the bass. We had a deal with Rickenbacker, who designed a speaker cabinet with one 30" speaker! I plugged it in, and in a matter of seconds I blew it up. Univox also came up with a bass stack which, unfortunately, didn’t last. But while it was going, it was the most unbelievable sound I’ve ever heard. It was at the Nassau Coliseum in New York, I remember, and the bass filled the hall. I don’t think I’ll come across anything that sounded like that. Then I used two or three Acoustic 360s for quite a long time—they served me well.”

On his first bass “Before I got a real 4-string, my father had a ukulele banjo I strung up like a bass. My father didn’t want to back me in the payments for a bass. He said, ‘Don’t bother with it—take up the tenor saxophone. In two years the bass guitar will never be heard of again.’ I said, ‘No, Dad, I really want one—there’s work for me.’ He said, ‘Ah, there’s work?’ And I got a bass right away—a solidbody Dallas bass guitar with a single cutaway.”

On his Gibson EB-1. “I generally don’t like Gibson basses because they feel rubbery—I like something you can get your teeth into. But I got a hold of a very nice old Gibson ‘violin’ bass. I used it on Led Zeppelin III and still every now and again, usually when I’m tracking a bass after I’ve done keyboards. The one I have went through Little Richard’s band, then through James Brown’s band before arriving in England. In fact, I saw it on an old movie clip of Little Richard.”

On his Alembic “Rick Turner made me an Alembic bass, and it’s beautiful. When your intonation is true on all four strings all the way up the neck, you suddenly realize you can play chords, and the notes are clear. It’s a whole different way of playing. But I try to never forget my role as a bass player: to play the bass and not mess around too much at the top.”

On strings “When I tried flatwound strings on the Alembic, I lost half the instrument. The Alembic demands you use something a bit brighter, otherwise you’re doing the instrument a disservice. Plus, the roundwounds seem to fill out better if Jimmy’s soloing.”

On effects “What can you do with the bass, anyway? You can go wah-wah-wah, or you can phase it and make it sound even muddier than it usually does.”
Zep Returns!

Believe the hype. Taking the stage for the first time in twenty years, Led Zeppelin proved after just a few explosive numbers that it has lost none of its arena-rocking power. The real magic of the fierce foursome’s December 10th return lay in its willingness to stretch out and jam, even if it meant a few dropped beats and missed cues. After an obvious flub in “Dazed and Confused,” John Paul Jones even shot Jimmy Page a look that seemed to say, “Well, better luck next time.” We can only hope there is one.
Zep Set

With Led Zeppelin (on Atlantic, except where noted)
Led Zeppelin [1969]
Led Zeppelin II [1969]
Led Zeppelin III [1970]
Led Zeppelin IV [1971]
Houses of the Holy [1973]
Physical Graffiti [Swan Song, 1975]
Presence [Swan Song, 1976]
The Song Remains the Same [Swan Song, 1976]
In Through the Out Door [Swan Song, 1979]
Coda [1982]
BBC Sessions [1997]
How the West Was Won [2003]
Led Zeppelin (DVD) [2003]
Mothership [2007]

Solo albums (both on Discipline)
Zooma [1999]
The Thunderthief [2001]
Current Gear

Basses Manson 4-string and 10-string (tuned EADGC) with EMG pickups
Rig SWR SM-900 with various SWR speaker cabinets
Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song?

Leave it to Led Zeppelin to keep the mystery alive. While guitarist Jimmy Page recently hinted the band might re-reunite after Robert Plant finishes touring with vocal partner Alison Krauss, nothing’s bankable. The web is heavy with hyperbolic praise of Zeppelin’s celebrated return to the stage for its December tribute to Atlantic Records visionary Ahmet Ertegun. But what really went down at London’s O2 Arena? After writing Bass Player’s February ’08 cover story on Zeppelin’s harmonic helmsman John Paul Jones, BP Associate Editor Brian Fox took a trip to see the man—and band—back at it. Here’s a page from his travelogue.

I knew I had to manage my expectations. Of course it was going to be pretty awesome—after all, I was about to see the greatest rock band of all time. But could Led Zeppelin, after all these years, still play with the youthful intensity it had used to change the face of rock? I had my doubts.

Having caught bassist John Paul Jones’s set with Ben Harper and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson at Bonnaroo a few months prior, I felt like I had caught that dude’s dry run: the all-star trio had ripped through the most beloved Zeppelin riffs for the exuberant crowd. Jones still had it—that much I knew. But the band?

I’d been lucky enough to earn an invite to the December 10th performance, but I was warned this wouldn’t be an all-access affair. Still, I was happy with a spot to watch the show from a designated media room adjacent to the action, and the atmosphere was electric as I watched ecstatic fans file into the arena.

As it turned out, press accommodation was pretty dismal: a soundproof room with a bank of phone lines and a single television wired—we were told—to carry the performance taking place not a hundred yards away. And lots of bottled water. The pain of being so close—and yet so far—from the music event of the decade might kill me, but at least I wouldn’t die of thirst.

Panic set in as technicians struggled to configure the closed-circuit connection. It seemed the band hadn’t authorized transmission of the audio feed, and a venue representative relayed the bad news that was we’d have to report on the show purely from what we saw on the tiny screen. It didn’t sit well, with reporters having come from as far as San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro. As the ire grew to a crescendo—peaking when the Brazilian contingent suggested that taking a hostage might strengthen our position to bargain—audio began to croak from the television box in the corner, and the most agitated members of the press began to simmer down.

With technical issues sorted out midway through the opening set from Foreigner, we scrambled for spots on the floor in front of the television, bent on viewing the performance from the best possible vantage point. Finally, showtime. A slide-show montage of the band unfolded on a massive screen above the stage as we stared at the TV and settled in for the ultimate Zep set.

I had other things in mind. Banking on the promise of being escorted into the arena for one or two songs, I stalked the press liaison, eager for my chance to observe the scene from inside. Keeping an ear out for my escort cue, I listened as the band tore through “Good Times, Bad Times” (track one from the band’s 1969 debut, a fitting opener). “Ramble On” seemed to steamroll the skeptics among us.

Around me, another mild panic ensued. It seemed some sort of miscommunication meant the crew had been unable to erect a media pen to keep us from simply wandering off into the crowd (Hmm, hadn’t thought of that…), putting escort privileges out of the question. Again, the outspoken among us made it clear: That wouldn’t fly. Corralling a small herd of reporters gathered near the door, a hassled press handler took his chances that we were an honorable lot (fat chance) who wouldn’t overstay its welcome once inside the arena. Leading us past a gauntlet of security guards, we entered the arena just as Robert Plant’s “Hey hey, mama” shout kicked off the killer “Black Dog.”

Enchanted, I let my feet carry me closer to the action. I kept an eye open for my cue to return to the media room, but before I knew it I was sucked in by the gravity from the stage. Out of eye contact with my media pack, I was on my own. It seemed there was but one option: enjoy the show.

The energy radiating off the stage made it near impossible not to. Grabbing a Gibson ES-175, Jimmy Page set into “In My Time of Dying,” making the Gibson’s P-90s squeal with tortured glee. On a fretless Fender Precision, John Paul Jones responded, gliding across the fingerboard to create a churning bass vortex. The guys seemed to be just warming up. Jonesy tramped across stage to sit behind an Oasys keyboard rig to tap out the funky-as-hell clavinet groove for “Trampled Under Foot.” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was next, Jones’s majestic Manson 10-string chime cranking the crowd’s rapture up a tick.

Returning to keys, Jones set into the sublimely ethereal intro to “No Quarter,” showing that while Page and Plant’s onstage jousting made for a good show, his own deep musicality was perhaps a more active ingredient in Zeppelin’s magic music potion. Taking it slow and heavy—and already drenched in sweat—Page channeled something dark and sinister for the bluesy “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Throughout the night, Page was a study in contrast, showing great taste and discretion on moment, stretching beyond his own abilities and fumbling the next. Though I had begun to doubt his stamina after a few bungled lines in “No Quarter,” here he redeemed himself with some of the most heartwrenching phrases of the night. This was the real deal. Plant, having recently resurfaced to record a rootsy album of duets with Alison Krauss sounded comfortable, yet eager to prove he’s still got it. He does.

It was clear the dudes had done their homework, and the grooves sounded settled. Jason Bonham was holding his own in his father’s throne. Though he seemed to lack some of his father’s off-the-wall spontaneity, he made up for it with raw power. Just like the old days, Jones stood just off the drum riser, eagerly pursuing those magical drum-and-bass hookups that happen when talent and telepathy converge within a rhythm section. His face said it all: They were happening at every turn.

After the band’s collective battery seemed to drain during “Dazed and Confused,” which was plagued by botched cues and spotty soloing, it charged full-forward with “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Song Remains the Same,” making me wonder it Page’s apparent energy brown-outs weren’t part of a carefully calculated setlist arc. The insistent stomp of “Misty Mountain Hop” and controlled ecstasy of “Kashmir” pulled me out of my rhetorical flight and back into rock-and-roll reverie at hand, and the encore of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll” absolutely cinched it. These guys still have it in ’em. Let’s just hope they’re still willing to share.

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