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Whole Lotta Love Lost

John Paul Jones, the guy Page and Plant forgot, talks about his days with Zeppelin and his first solo album.

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John Paul Jones: He'll play with Plant and Page when hell freezes over.
  • John Paul Jones: He'll play with Plant and Page when hell freezes over.

For fans of the classic rock behemoth Led Zeppelin, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones has become somewhat of a mystery. While Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have remained in the limelight with solo projects and reunion tours, Jones could easily be the subject of a VH1 "Where Are They Now?" segment.

Almost two decades after drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham's sudden death ended one of the 1970s' more decadent and successful careers, Jones is finally getting around to releasing his debut solo disc. Surely, he hasn't spent all this time writing the instrumental Zooma?

"Well, I could say I was a really slow worker, but that's not entirely the truth," says Jones via phone. "I suppose, in the last twenty years, of all the things I've done -- between producing, arranging, and composing -- one thing I haven't done is play live, except for a short spell with Diamanda Galas. And this album gives me a body of work, a body of music, that I can then take out onto the road and play live. And it's sort of two birds with one stone, really."

Not that Zooma is going to secure him a spot on the Billboard charts. It's a self-serving release that classic rock fans will find disappointing. Composed of electronic instrumentation and momentous grooves, it serves as excellent background music and little else. It should come as no surprise that Jones, a purveyor of intricate basslines, surreal organ/keyboard melodies, and ingenious song structure, has indulged his talents crafting a solo disc with little commercial value.

"I mean, the hardest thing about producing yourself is not that you're self-indulgent, but that you don't let yourself be self-indulgent," he says in defense of Zooma. "You tend to throw out more than you keep. And sometimes I have to remember to stand back and not be quite so critical. Because, also, if I'm producing a band as opposed to producing myself, there's some things that I say to myself that you simply wouldn't say to a guitarist. He'd walk out. So I have to learn not to be too hard. You know, not to be too critical; otherwise, nothing gets done at all."

If Page and Plant were the main visual attraction of Led Zeppelin, Bonham and Jones were the glue holding them together. Their monstrous rhythm section was a kaleidoscope of complex musical time signatures that Jones still admires to this day.

"We both had a love of the groove," he says. "I think Led Zeppelin was one of the few funky rock bands around. We loved soul music. We loved rhythm and blues. We loved rhythm. But when you work together -- I mean, a rhythm section's like a marriage. You really are. You really get very, very close -- musically, that is."

The recent release of Led Zeppelin's BBC Sessions allowed Jones to hear his former partner in a new light.

"It was one of the first times I could hear Bonzo, John Bonham, in a live situation [that was] well-recorded," says Jones. "Because normally, I'm standing next to him playing, and everything's like loud and of the moment. But it was really nice to sit back and just listen to what he was doing."

Page and Plant initially rekindled their working relationship with 1994's No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded. The consequent tour would have been a perfect opportunity to bring Jones back into the fold, but he wasn't asked. Relations were further strained a year later, when Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jones, who was present for the induction, made a joke about his absence on the No Quarter tour and album that suggested he was a little more than upset.

"I was probably disappointed not to be informed of what they were doing, I guess," Jones says. "I was kind of hurt at the time. I mean, we were all very close as a band. And I suppose I was surprised somebody didn't call me and say, "Hey, we're going to do something together. You should hear it from us rather than read about it in the papers,' which is what happened. But had they ever asked me at the time, I would have certainly considered it. But I guess having heard now that they do go over so much old ground, I'm glad I didn't [join them]. I'm around for Zeppelin business, if there are meetings. Relations are cordial, I suppose. There's no point in being unnecessarily immature about this. But I can't say we hang out."

Unlike Page and Plant, Jones seems to have found closure regarding his former band. Not that he won't be playing any Zeppelin material on this solo tour -- expect a few instrumental versions of Zeppelin favorites -- but Jones isn't satisfied with simply recreating the past. In fact, even when he was with Zeppelin, he always looked forward to future projects instead of dwelling on past glories (he says he doesn't have a favorite Zeppelin record and doesn't spend time thinking about it).

Although he doesn't get the credit, Jones sharpened his producing chops while still a member of Zeppelin. He confirmed a long-standing rumor that he was the one behind the band's last studio album, In Through the Out Door. The role was assigned to him when Page's drug use became such a problem he didn't bother to show up for pre-recording rehearsals. While Jones won't discuss the guitarist's vices, he does admit to being responsible for most of the songwriting and producing on In Through the Out Door. He's recently even become a studio wizard, working with such diverse acts as R.E.M. (he arranged the string sections for Automatic for the People), Heart, the Butthole Surfers, Brian Eno, and Lenny Kravitz.

The remaining members of Zeppelin have had to find solace after their extraordinary drummer died. Jones says he spent the early '80s in a daze, but the peace he now feels doesn't come without regret and thought of what might have been.

"Oh, no, the ending came too early," he says. "I mean, we were just about -- well, we were in rehearsal for another American tour. And I think we'd come through some difficult times. And we were just about to get our second wind, as it were. We were all very enthusiastic. Everything had been -- the music had been stripped down. We realized what we were doing. And I don't know, it was just -- it was tragic."

And in case diehards are still hoping a reunion similar to the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" tour will take place, Jones doesn't advise holding your breath.

"It's pretty remote," says a cocksure Jones. "We have different ideas of what should be done and how it should be done, I think. So, I'm happy to be doing my own music for a change. I thought, now the time has come. Enough of other people's stuff."

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