By: Madeleine Porter
The evolution of Robert Plant’s voice through his time in Led Zepplin is shocking. Have you listened to one of Zepplin’s old albums to a newer one lately?
There is a difference and it comes from Plant’s voice. Why is there a change of Plant’s voice over the years?
This analysis of the evolution of Robert Plant’s voice aims to answer that question and beg many more. I am in no way a vocal analyst; this is simply from a die-hard fan’s perspective.
Plant set the tone for vocalists everywhere with his crazy new way of singing. His range and pitch were insane when the band first came together; Plant was a bit over the top. I won’t reveal my age but I am part of the younger generation and only wish I could have experienced the vocal intensity of Led Zepplin’s live shows. For now, YouTube will have to do.
Led Zepplin I: The beginning of Plant
When Plant first joined Led Zepplin his voice was raw and incredibly powerful at just 20 years-old. Most experts call it an unrefined vocal strategy.
Check out this alternative rendition of Led Zepplin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You for proof of this vocal intensity. There are no overdubs so Plant’s voice is pure and clear.
His screams are wilder and his growls are deeper on Led Zepplin I in comparison to their later albums. At such a high bar he set for himself and at such an early stage in his career one can imagine the strain this kind of singing can take on one’s voice.
In Led Zepplin I, you can hear the timid nature of Plant’s voice. Not knowing what his bandmates would think of this new nature of singing. However, in Led Zepplin II, a new Plant emerges. Calm, confident, and ready to tear down social norms of what singing “should” be.
Led Zepplin II: A changed Plant emerges
For the first half of 1970, Plant is consistent. The Montreux show on March 7th in particular features him in great voice. You can especially hear it in the way he launches some great vocal adlibs in We’re Gonna Groove.
The band ends up canceling the rest of their March-April US tour due to Plant’s voice becoming strained, something that should have been done more often to prevent further destruction.
This was Richard Plant’s vocal peak of his career for the next year. He had control, range, and such a high pitch there is a conspiracy theory about it. Rumor has it, that at an early Zeppelin concert, the PA went out, and the crowd could all still hear Plant with no trouble. Based on shows like this one, I’d believe it.
The performance of Since I’ve Been Loving You from the former is the best performance of the song ever vocal wise. Plant seems to go even higher than the studio recording. Meanwhile, on the latter, Plant’s voice is so powerful that it actually distorts the tape.
However, when the band went to Dublin, Ireland in 1971 for a gig the first subtle signs of vocal deterioration begin to emerge.
Led Zepplin III: The forever changed Plant
On that night’s performance of Black Dog, Plant’s voice cracks a bit on the highest notes, and he sings in a lower register for a couple of lines. Whether this is an artistic decision or him not wanting to push his voice remains to be seen.
Plant contracts laryngitis towards the end of Led Zepplin’s tour, forcing the band to postpone their BBC sessions. Despite the postponement, Plant is still clearly not in top form. His voice is gravelly and hoarse in this performance in London, England. He still has an impressive performance given the circumstances, but it’s not one of his best by any means.
The band’s summer US tour features more of Plant’s girlish tone. He’s still hitting the high notes, but he’s doing it with much less “oomph” behind it. His voice is now cracking not just on the high notes, but on lower notes as well. He does a good job singing new songs like Over the Hills and Far Away, but on other songs, the change is definitely noticeable.
Compare Whole Lotta Love at the Royal Albert Hall with Whole Lotta Love on HTWWW. The bluesy power that was so evident in his voice on the former is missing on the latter. While HTWWW is indeed a great live album, it does not capture Plant at his peak. Even at this point, he’s pretty diminished from the singer he was just a year earlier.
The 1980 Tour Over Europe shows Plant and Jones essentially carrying the rest of the band, much like they did on In Through The Out Door. His voice alternates between being gravelly and rough and being full of power. He’s able to get quite low for songs such as their cover of Money. Most remarkably, he’s able to sing songs like Rock and Roll and the coda of Stairway to Heaven in their original melodies again, something which he hadn’t been able to do in years.
The point I am trying to make here is that Plant’s voice changed but he also evolved into an incredible singer who always gave 100% effort. Even when his voice was at its worst or he was sick, he still gave it all.
Despite the small but evident vocal changes, Robert Plant’s voice is so unique it had to be recognized. He went from essentially screaming out the lyrics to altering melodies to suit his newfound limitations. Do I wish he took better care of his voice?
Sure, but I believe he takes care of his voice now because he didn’t back then. So there is a lesson in everything. Regardless, Robert Plant is still one of the greatest and most influential singers of all time, and we are very fortunate that he formed an essential part of Led Zepplin and music history.