John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin's best-kept secret
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 10 December 2009 21.45 GMT
When he was the bassist with globe-bestriding hedonists Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones was hidden in his bandmates' midst like some medieval scholar at a whirling Odinist stag party. Jimmy Page acquired both a heroin habit and Boleskine House, the remote edifice on the shores of Loch Ness where Aleister Crowley once enacted The Book of the Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage. Robert Plant cast himself as a priapic rock satyr, a self-proclaimed "golden god" from West Bromwich. John Bonham rode a motorbike down hotel corridors. But over the 30 years since Bonham died and Zeppelin – bar the odd reunion – ceased to be, Jones has quietly accumulated a CV to shame his starrier colleagues. The unlikely combination of Brian Eno, the Butthole Surfers and Nick Beggs of Kajagoogoo all feature on a resume that now also includes Anglo-American supergroup Them Crooked Vultures.
Page and Jones pretty much tie for astonishing pre-Zep employment, thanks to their ubiquity on the session scene in the 1960s. Jones played or arranged for Nico, the Shadows, Shirley Bassey, the Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield, the Rolling Stones and Lulu. Page also worked with the Shadows, Nico and the Stones – and then clocked in with the Kinks, Van Morrison, Marianne Faithfull and the Who. But it's the post-Zep years that support the idea that Jones was the one ceaselessly trying to expand his horizons.
Jones played on Eno's Music for Films III album in 1988 and the rest of his post-Zeppelin career seems to have been dictated by the random factor of Eno's Oblique Strategies cards. On the more bathetic side, Jones provided the soundtrack for Michael Winner's 1984 thriller Scream for Help, a film so inadvertently hilarious the DVD release could only muster a rave review from Winner himself (admittedly Page had beaten Jones to the dubious honour of soundtracking a Winner film, recording the music for Death Wish 2 in 1982). Jones has also produced rock mystics the Mission and written string arrangements for US hair-metal goons Cinderella. He then played in a band that featured Kajagoogoo's titanically non-U bassist Nick Beggs. But, in keeping with the musical facility that saw him become a 14-year-old choirmaster and church organist, he's also worked with REM, Paul McCartney and Ben E King. Then there are the collaborations that surreally invert his position as "the quiet one" in Led Zeppelin. In 1994 Jones made an album with Diamanda Galás, the ferocious Greek-American voodoo-blues medusa. In 1993, he produced an album for the scatological Texas rock absurdists Butthole Surfers, Independent Worm Saloon. Even more remarkably, Jones's advice helped give them a US top 30 single.
Jones's surviving Led Zeppelin colleagues have operated less quixotically. Robert Plant's post-Zep career has been rootsily respectable enough to earn him a CBE, while the recent activity of Jimmy Page OBE has sometimes been governed by a gallumping market logic. How else can you account for his work alongside Puff Daddy, Limp Bizkit and – on a double-decker bus in Beijing's Olympic stadium – Leona Lewis and David Beckham?
No gongs for Jones, but next to some of Page's post-Zep combinations, his current supergroup is an honourable, impressive thing. With Dave Grohl on drums and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme on lead vocals and guitar, Them Crooked Vultures reinvest and exceed standard supergroup weights and measures. The young Jones was both a Stax fan and a classically trained musician – facets manifested in the funkiness and compositional breadth he brought to Led Zeppelin. Such dimensions are also there in Them Crooked Vultures, giving them proximity to a Led Zeppelin's scope and scale.
In retrospect, maybe Jones's underplayed dash was there all along. After all, while his bandmates persisted with their prosaic given names, Sidcup-born John Baldwin renamed himself after a hero of the American war of independence.
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