1988 Countdown #47: Robert Plant, “Tall Cool One”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

Forget “He’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s dead”–my favorite rock ’n’ roll coverline of all time came from the perpetually underrated Musician magazine, circa 1988. To the best of my memory, Robert Plant appeared on the cover wrapped in what appeared to be an exotic blanket. In very small type (except for his name) appeared the message: “I’m not a burrito! I’m ROBERT PLANT.” I find this to be a surprisingly useful mantra with which to approach life, even if for most people it is only fifty percent true.

The video for “Tall Cool One” opens with silhouetted audience members looking at some white lights. Presumably, one of them is saying, “Have you ever really looked at the lights, man?” Then a black curtain opens to reveal a burrito! No, wait, it’s Robert Plant, his back to the camera, snapping his fingers.

The camera wheels around: we’re in a dimly lit warehouse studio that’s been tricked out to look like a nightclub, with strands of blinking lights and a hundred or so fans who have been encouraged to look vacant. The guitar makes big swooping sounds, like a plane coming in for a landing.

Plant finally turns around. He’s in a sleeveless leather vest. His hair is curly, blond, and fulsome. In 1988, he was forty years old, and charismatic as hell. “I’m like a strange cat running in the heat of the night,” he sings. “I’ve got a fire in my eyes, got a date with delight.” Plant’s pouting, crouching, making incoherent hand gestures in front of his face. He seems goofier and twitchier than in his Zeppelin days, but he gets away with it. (Other over-handsy lead singers we’ve seen in this countdown: Huey Lewis (of the News) and Joey Tempest (of Europe).)

There’s a large video screen behind Plant and his band: sometimes it shows a black logo on a red background (presumably a sigil left over from the cover of Led Zeppelin IV). Other times it has footage of Plant: not duplicating his performance in the foreground, but an alternate runthrough of the song with different hand gestures.

Plant’s band look like they got pulled in from other videos that were shooting in the same studio. The guitarist is working an indie Minneapolis vibe with a plaid shirt and a mullet. The bassist has a ponytail, a tanktop, and the desire to fling his bass around in figure-eight patterns: I’m pegging him as part of a Bay Area thrash band that just signed a major-label deal. The keyboardist is rocking a new-wave synth that has flipped the colors of the black and white keys; he presumably grabbed it on his way out of the Thompson Twins shoot. The drummer looks happy to have drumsticks and a leather jacket.

Plant shimmies, raises both clenched fists in the air, points at the camera, and flaps his right hand around like it’s a fish gasping for air. Then he decides that his right hand is getting lonely, so his left hand flaps around with it to keep it company.

There are three female backup singers in black dresses, tasked with repeatedly singing “Lighten up, baby, I’m in love with you.” Two of them are beautiful brunette rock chicks with big manes of black hair. But behind them there is a singer with short bleached hair who appears to be higher in the pecking order. She gets to stand with her hands on her hips while the other two have to clap and gesticulate. Maybe she’s Plant’s girlfriend?

The singers sway their arms in time with the bridge; Plant joins in the same rhythm, and crosses his arms across his chest before opening his palms out to the audience in a gesture of supplication. The crowd is doing synchronized hand gestures that borrow equally from David Byrne performing “Once in a Lifetime” and Cy Curnin singing “One Thing Leads to Another.”

“You stroll, you jump, you’re hot and you tease,” raps keyboardist/producer Phil Johnstone. (Although I always thought that line began “you smoke, you joke.”) “Tall Cool One” is a hard-driving rock song, but you can tell Plant’s been listening to contemporary R&B, from that rap to the sound of the keyboard riff to the samples that show up at the end. Despite those AOR allergens, the song spent four weeks on top of the “Mainstream Rock” Billboard chart. And as a result of that cross-pollination, the song still sounds really good today.

Plant continues his master class in rock-star posing; presumably, he invented most of these postures. He swings his hips from side to side, pumps his arms like he’s rowing a boat, throws some punches, and acts as if he’s trying to stumble through some invisible curtains. The drummer–who appears to be the MVP of this band, strong with both stuttering rhythms and full-force doomsday pounding–keeps lifting his sticks above his head. The editor throws in short clips of black-and-white footage and film that appears to have slipped a sprocket, trying to give an artistic veneer to the enterprise, or at least let us know that it was made in 1988.

A brief interlude: Plant and the bleached alpha backup singer stand very close together. She’s in profile. She lifts an éclair to her mouth and takes a large, sensual bite. Plant’s eyes widen–and then he reveals that he is also holding an éclair, of which he takes a (smaller) bite. The psychosexual implications of this four-second vignette are left as an exercise for the reader, but at the very least, it shows that Plant has a sense of humor.

The song rolls out a cascade of cheeky Led Zeppelin samples; Plant is quoting the Beastie Boys as much as his previous band. At 40, Plant was around the age when many rock stars make one last craven bid for a hit single. As it happens, this was his last American pop hit, but part of what made him awesome was that he gave the impression of not caring .

The camera wheels through the crowd. Plant hops up and down, and pounds his index finger on his own chest. The alpha backup singer gives him a dismissive sideways look. We hear bits of “Whole Lotta Love” and see a DJ scratching a vinyl record. Plant sings directly to the alpha; she coolly ignores him. The band starts rocking out harder, judging by the intensity of their head-bobbing and hair-shaking. We end with the image of an exploding light bulb.

While this song still sounds excellent and shockingly modern, this video is not much more than a collection of artistic tics and mannerisms that carbon-date it with uncanny precision. But it doesn’t matter. Robert Anthony Plant is performing in it, and he’s riveting. Also, he’s not a burrito.

“Tall Cool One” hit #25 on the singles chart. You can watch the video here. Or if you’d prefer Plant performing a rockabilly version on tour with the Band of Joy this past summer, try here.

posted 24 November 2010 in 1988 and tagged . 13 comments

13 Comments on 1988 Countdown #47: Robert Plant, “Tall Cool One”

  1. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I don’t have anything to say about Robert Plant, but I can tell you that the movements from “Once in a Lifetime” that he quotes here were choreographed by the one and only Toni Basil. She got David Byrne to understand what she was going for by showing him film clips of people having epileptic fits.

  2. obsidian kitten Says:

    I’m not Robert Plant! I’m a purrito:

    Couldn’t resist.

  3. azul120 Says:

    There was also a sample from the opening of “Black Dog”, the melody from which, of course, David Coverdale himself jacked in the intro to “Still of the Night” by Whitesnake. I wonder if this was a veiled “take that”.

    Tall Cool One got off to a really good start on the Top 20, shooting up to #9 in its third week, only to stall and drop off due to the overwhelming competition there. Still, it’s more than made up for it here by outranking many, many Top 5 videos on this countdown, which have been seen on about every single tier. (Including the aforementioned Huey Lewis, who hit #3.) Which is funny, because many videos just making the top 50 in a given year probably made it that far on the chart in the midst of heavily rotated runs. (Though again of course, there are a ton of other factors that matter more in the big scope.)

    Robert did have one last minor hit with “Hurting Kind” in 1990. It missed the Top 40 on Billboard, but did hit the top of the mainstream rock chart, and was #88 of the year on MTV. (I remember seeing it on Dial MTV.)

    I concur that for a song that by all rights could be written off as corporate and calculated, “Tall Cool One” has a lot of verve and swagger, no doubt owing to Plant himself.

  4. Chris M. Says:

    I have a vivid memory of seeing this video at an older (Boomer-age) cousin’s house in ’88, and when the song concluded with the pileup of Zeppelin samples, my cousin’s husband exulted: “Plant’s so brilliant — he’s sampling himself, showing those lazy rappers how it’s done.” To him, this song was a salvo in an emerging generational music war.

    I’m not as impressionable now as I was at 17, but all these years later I’m still not sure whether my cousin-in-law was wrong. In other words, is Plant, in fact, throwing haterade on his samplers (and, I guess, Coverdale) here?

    Remember, in ’88, a judge’s ruling on sampling, and the resulting lockdown post-rap’s-golden-era, is still a few years away; Plant could well have been pissed at the Beasties et al. This could well have been his warning shot.

    I’m inclined to agree with you that “Tall Cool One” was Plant’s stab at cheekiness and insouciance rather than bitterness at lost royalties. And I have nothing but fond memories of the song (which I owned on cassingle and played into the ground). But it’s worthwhile to consider that ol

    Or maybe, as you imply above,

  5. Chris M. Says:

    Sorry, hit the button too soon there. Anyway, it’s worthwhile to consider the possibility that ol’ Robert was not entirely embracing of this brave new world of borrowing.

    Like, y’know, the way Zep “borrowed” from Robert Johnson? OH SNAP!!!

  6. azul120 Says:

    Sad timely footnote on this video. Peter Christopherson, who directed this video among other Plant collaborations, just passed away. He also shot Chains of Love the same year, and also worked with the likes of Depeche Mode, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. He was only 53.

  7. Gavin Says:

    I don’t have the Musician burrito issue, alas, but I did dig up the 1988 Rolling Stone interview with Plant (by Mr. David Fricke), and Plant has mixed feelings about the Beastie Boys and imitators like the Cult and the Mission UK–he seems both flattered and annoyed.

    Q. What’s your opinion of producer Rick Rubin and what he did with the Led Zeppelin sound on the Beastie Boys’ album? He seems to be one of the few people trying to take that thing out on a different tangent.

    A. Maybe he ought to write his own riffs then. He’s not particularly an innovator in that way. There’s loads of house music from Chicago and rap stuff that steal Zeppelin in far less obvious ways. I guess if he’s going to nick something, he might as well nick something good.
    He contacted my office and said he’d like to produce my new album. It would be right round full circle. Jimmy could come around and guest on that, and he could just sample the riffs we got this time. Take ’em over to those three guys. But I can’t have any sort of anger towards Rick Rubin. He’s made a lot of money. Maybe he’ll buy me a drink. He owes Page more of a drink than he owes me.

    (earlier, discussing “Tall Cool One”):

    A. Especially as throughout every verse there is this sonic-dive-bomber guitar sound. I played it to Jimmy Page, and he didn’t even know what it was. It’s the guitar that goes into the middle bit of “Whole Lotta Love.” He thought it was just something we’d written in. Then he played the solo on it, and we put all the Zeppelin-record bits on at the end. We played it for him, and I wish I’d had a camera to catch the expression on his face.

    Q. Pleasant surprise?

    A. It was more like tiresome wonder. Like “What is he doing, and why is this essential for him? Is he taking the piss out of it?” I’m not taking the piss. I’m showing that his riffs are the mightiest the world has ever heard.

    Q. How did you choose which Zeppelin records to sample?

    A. I just picked what I thought was appropriate. In face, onstage now, we finish “Tall Cool One” with about a minute of “Custard Pie” because it sounds so good. “The Ocean” was an important one to use because it’s been a hit with “She’s Crafty,” by the Beastie Boys.

    Q. Whereas you were basically borrowing from yourself.

    A. Well, I borrowed from Jimmy, truth to tell.

  8. Chris M. Says:

    Thanks, that was fun. I guess the answer is, he was both pissed and bemused.

  9. Gavin Says:

    Pissed and bemused for so long, it’s not true.

  10. Rob Says:

    “Enchilada, I am cooommmiiiiiiing!”

    This might be your funniest write up ever. What a great song, what a great chorus (“lighten up, baby, I’m in love with you”), the weird tall-cool-one bit, even before the novelty samples arrive at the end. I’ve bee listening to a fair amount of solo late 8os Plant lately (blame the 50 cent cassette rack at Permanent Records) and there sure aren’t more where this one came from.

  11. Gavin Says:

    I think the only other post-Zep single he did that ranks with this one is the Honeydrippers’ “Rockin’ at Midnight.”

  12. Gavin Says:

    Also, calling an album Manic Nirvana in 1990 turned out to be weirdly prescient, or synchronous, or a symptom of Plant’s great love for Bleach.

  13. Dan Says:

    There was Calling To You in 1993. It’s definately a rocker.

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