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John Paul Jones: An Appreciation

I’ve long been a Zeppelin fan. Not the hardcore kind that knows every detail about every track on every album, but their music never fails to make me turn it up (even the gajillionth play of “Stairway”).  The other day, I was sitting at a stoplight listening to “Over the Hills and Far Away.” During the bridge, I settled in to enjoy the groove and for some reason noticed – REALLY noticed –the swinging rhythm section, especially John Paul Jones’ inventive bass line. I’ve heard it a hundred or more times, but this time, it jumped out in a fresh new way.

So even though he was a member of one of the world’s biggest bands and doesn’t lack for admiration,  I ruled that the decidedly non-flashy John Paul Jones needed a little more appreciation from this fan.

Jones (born John Baldwin) was competent and confident enough to take a quieter role in the group. In their 1976 concert movie, The Song Remains the Same, he’s tucked away in a corner of the stage amid a bank of keyboards, his bass, and other instruments. Meanwhile, Bonzo is wailing away on the drums, Jimmy Page throws guitar lightning, and a near-shirtless Robert Plant is working the Preening Rock God thing like the rent is due. Jonesy, in his tidy Prince Valiant haircut, is just grounding the wild force of nature that is the band.

Like Page, Jones was a seasoned studio musician having played on projects by Dusty Springfield and Lulu, to Herman’s Hermits, Shirley Bassey, and Rod Stewart. He did the string arrangement on the Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow” and also arranged “Sunshine Superman” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” for Donovan. He worked almost seven days a week, doing two or three sessions a day, and was close to burning out from the pace.  So when he once again crossed paths with Page at the studio, he offered his services for the new group he’d heard Page was creating.

Now, with a single point of creativity to focus on, Jones let his impressive skillset and mastery of 22 different instruments run free. It was Jones who included the recorder at the start of “Stairway” adding an appropriately medieval note. It was Jones who wrote “Black Dog,” originally in a tempo that he admitted “nobody could keep up with.” He put a clavinet spin atop the funky grooves of “Trampled Under Foot,” the gentle mellotron notes on “The Rain Song,” and a jazz feel to “What Is and What Should Never Be.” All the while there were those exceptional bass skills forged from a deep appreciation of Motown and Stax.

For a pale, middle-class Englishman, he (and his rhythm partner, Bonzo) could swing with the best of them.

And like his bandmates, he fully enjoyed the, um, “perks” that came with being a member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands. However, he wasn’t quite as recognizable as the other three and skilled at keeping any of his own rock star antics out of the spotlight.

Zeppelin’s last studio album was 1979’s In Through the Out Door, which, according to Jimmy Page, features Jones’ best work in the group. Robert Plant was still grieving the tragic loss of his young son Karac from a stomach virus. Page was dealing with a heroin addiction, Bonzo with alcoholism, so it was Jones who dominated the sessions.

Some critics considered the keyboard-heavy sound of the album a smart embrace of the rapidly approaching punk/New Wave scene; others loathed it. But no matter: by late 1980, shortly after John Bonham’s death, the band called it quits.

After nearly splitting from Zep in 1973 from exhaustion, Jones was now free to pursue a quieter life with his family and to indulge himself musically. He’s since collaborated with artists from Lenny Kravitz, Heart, and R.E.M., to Ben E. King, Foo Fighters, and Peter Gabriel. He worked on the soundtrack to Paul McCartney’s movie, Give My Regards to Broad Street. He formed a band, Them Crooked Vultures, with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme. He’s performed alongside avant-garde musicians in Finland and on stage at the Royal Opera House as part of a theatrical play.

While their eight studio albums rank among some of the most influential in rock (and outside of a few reunion shows), Jones is far more than Led Zeppelin. A musician’s musician, he’s never rested on that impressive legacy; rather, he keeps finding new creative inspiration. And for that, we can all say “Thank You.”

-Cindy Grogan

Photo: John Paul Jones, 2010 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/laraclifford/ Lara Clifford via Wikimedia Commons)

10 comments on “John Paul Jones: An Appreciation

  1. Mark Hudson

    A consummate musician, revered by any true Zeppelin fan.

  2. Eoghan Lyng

    Nice work, Cindy.

  3. David Sloan

    What a multitalented indefatigable musician Jonesy is! Every time I read an article that mentions him my admiration grows. Didn’t know until today he did the string arrangement for She’s a Rainbow, or worked with Donovan!

    Would love to see him do a side project with Geddy Lee, another multifaceted bass player who I hear has some free time 😉

  4. Gary gioioso

    The live version of OTHAFA on how the west was won is unreal.

  5. Stephen Clayton

    Saw Jones play twice. Once with Seasick Steve. The other time with Robyn Hitchkock. Solid musicianship and he was obviously having a great time.

  6. Steve Valvano

    Wonderful piece, sister Cindy…
    REM never sounded better with his orchestrations … gorgeous stuff!

  7. Larry Lewis

    JPJ performed this March at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival. Here’s a writeup on him there (as well as other musicians) with some 18 expandable photos. Is there any instrument this man *can’t* play? https://insideofknoxville.com/2024/03/big-ears-2024-latching-onto-the-starship-and-starting-the-ride/

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