25 Years Ago: Page and Plant Soar Together Again With ‘Most High’
It was the first single from 1998's Walking Into Clarksdale, the duo's first set of all-new material together since Led Zeppelin's Coda in 1982 and really since the band's In Through the Out Door three years earlier. It followed the small clutch of new songs Page and Plant wrote for the orchestrated, mostly covers set No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded in 1994, and "Most High" skied to No. 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart, another pinnacle for the pair.
The track would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance the following year, something Page and Plant had never done to that point. Most of their Grammy achievements came well after the band's demise, including Led Zeppelin’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and four songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Page and Plant had circled each other, creatively, since Led Zeppelin shut down in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham. While Plant had steadfastly avoided Zeppelin styles on his first three solo albums, for 1988's Now and Zen he enlisted Page to play on two singles ("Heaven Knows" and "Tall Cool One") and sampled five Led Zeppelin songs on one of them. That same year Page had Plant co-write and sing on one track, "The Only One," from his 1988 solo album, Outrider.
The new material on No Quarter is what brought the Page-Plant team back together. "That fact that we could just go after 12 years of very occasional meetings to that meant that we could do it," Plant said during a New York press conference when Clarksdale was released. "Chances were we might not have been able to do it anymore." Page concurred that "the whole thing was really resting on that. If it had happened the second day, it would have been a bit iffy. We wouldn't be here now if that hadn't happened" on the first day of the No Quarter sessions.
As the first taste of Clarksdale, "Most High" found Page and Plant treading on familiar musical terrain, albeit in some new fashions. The song's trance-like Moroccan raga is straight out of Kashmir and "Kashmir," and the rhythm section of bassist Charlie Jones (Plant's son-in-law) and Michael Lee, credited as co-writers, hit the pocket with a muscle reminiscent of vintage Bonham and John Paul Jones. But the song's hypnotic quarter tones were created by Tim Whelan of Britain's Transglobal Underground, while Page and Plant made the surprising move of bringing alt-rock icon Steve Albini - known for his work on albums by Pixies, Nirvana and Bush and seemingly the antithesis of Zeppelin's hard rock excesses of the '70s - to engineer the sessions at Abbey Road Studios in London.
"The guy's a recording engineer who does good self-promotion," Plant said of Albini's image but quickly added that "if he wasn't a great engineer, he wouldn’t have a job, really. He's a real force, but 'guru of the alternative edge'? Far out, man. I mean, Bush aren't alternative cutting edge, are they? That's pop with big guitars." Page and Plant credited Albini's acumen for helping make the album in a relatively brief 35 days, too. "We had a good time, and we did it really quick," Page noted. "I think with Steve it was quite a vacation."
Watch Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's 'Most High' Video
"Most High," meanwhile, piqued some fans' ears with some of the most overtly Christian references Plant had ever incorporated into his lyrics - even more intriguing alongside Page's professed interest in the occult and the philosophies of Aleister Crowley. The opens with a question - "Who guards the truth, oh, Lord most high" - that seemed drawn from scripture and follows with references to doves, "the righteous," "the olive tree" and to Judaism's King David, the guy who slew Goliath and to the progeny of his "seed."
Several interpretations have been forwarded about the song's intent, some positing that it's a derogative commentary on Christian demagoguery; others interpret lines such as "Who hides the east from the blind man's eye / In the land of peace where the righteous cry" reflect an antiwar sentiment that may also be targeted at the ubiquitous Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
You won't get much help from Plant in determining which of those is on target, however. "I'm not often writing for clear-cut interpretation," he once told this writer. "I like the idea of using symbols and metaphors and letting people make their own interpretation about what [the songs] are about. And sometimes they change for me ... into something other than I thought I was writing about at the time."
The Walking Into Clarksdale album reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum, while a second single, "Shining in the Light," peaked at No. 6 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The renewed Page-Plant partnership ended during 1998 (excepting a 2001 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival) and neither would have a single as successful as "Most High" again, though Plant's Grammy Award-winning work with Alison Krauss did bring him to the Top 10 of the Adult Alternative Airplay chart.