There's something altogether too appropriate about Jimmy Page and Paul Rogers calling their new group the Firm. Granted, the idea was to emphasize the solidity of the group's sound, just the sort of conceit you'd expect of a pair of veteran heavy rockers -- and indeed, both Page's past exploits with Led Zeppelin and Rogers' with Bad Company excuse such indulgence.
Mostly, though, the name suggests that the Firm was incorporated more to make money than to make music, as if Page and Rogers were capitalizing on their reputations in the most literal sense. That may seem cynicism of the first order, but the music the two have concocted for "The Firm" (Atlantic 7 81239-1) is as calculated as a marketing strategy and about as much fun as a tax form. As a result, "The Firm" is, despite its promising prospectus, a bad investment.
One reason for the record's lack of appeal is that guitarist Page and singer Rogers are peddling secondhand goods. Rather than risk market resistance by trying out a wholly new sound, they have simply cobbled together an amalgam of their successes.
You liked Led Zeppelin's hypnotic blues drones? Then "Someone to Love" has the groove for you. Or perhaps you preferred Zep's dreamy dips into Arabic music. No problem -- "Satisfaction Guaranteed" closes on just such a tuneful tidbit. Have you missed Rogers' stylish R&B croon? Just listen to him rock steady through "Closer." All their best known mannerisms, and available in a single, easy-to-play package. What more could a fan want?
Quite a lot, actually. True, the Firm manages to deliver a lot of what endeared listeners to both Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, but the performances here are dim reflections of the glory days. It gets embarrassing after awhile, particularly when Page and Rogers come up with something as directionless and contrived as "Midnight Moonlight." That the song -- a transparently unsuccessful attempt to merge "Feel Like Makin' Love" with "Stairway to Heaven" -- fails so completely is enough to leave the listener wondering whether Page and Rogers have truly lost it, or if they merely consider their fans to be extremely gullible.
It isn't as if the formula has been exhausted, either. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant launched his solo career with an album that was indebted to Zeppelin yet stood tall on its own. But Plant understood that the key to Zeppelin wasn't its sound so much as the process of discovery that midwived the sound. The Firm, by contrast, seems to see things entirely in terms of prefab parts.
There are moments, of course, when "The Firm" amounts to more than the paltry sum of those parts -- the odd, dissonant guitar hook in "Radioactive," or the icy fire of Page's solo in "Make or Break" -- but these are hopelessly overwhelmed by the album's missteps. The remake of "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," in fact, constitutes a full-fledged fall on the face, encumbered as it is with an absurdly flabby arrangement, Rogers' hammy vocalizing and a guitar solo that Page seems to have fallen asleep playing.
This makes the opening of "Satisfaction Guaranteed," in which Rogers asserts "I want to leave the past, and live just for today," deliciously ironic. The Firm's music lives only for the bottom line. But whatever its short-term earning picture may be, this album is a commodity without any future.
By contrast, Robert Plant's most recent project, the Honeydrippers, is totally obsessed with the past. Intended as a tribute to the records that inspired him, "The Honeydrippers, Vol. I" (Es Paranza 7 90220-1), pays homage to Plant's lost youth by harkening back to the earliest days of rock 'n' roll with painstaking attention to detail.
As an example of his taste it's an admirable effort, ranging from covers of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" to Roy Brown's "Rockin' at Midnight" to Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." Despite Plant's diligence, however, and despite its big-budget recreations, the EP is maddeningly unfulfilling if for no other reason than that the singer's respect inhibits him from truly investing himself in the performances.
His "I Got a Woman," for example, is so obviously colored by Elvis Presley's interpretation that it sounds redundant. Similarly, his tributes to Phillips, Brown and Ben E. King are far too unimaginative to be much more than that appallingly sincere flattery, imitation. Even the presence of ace session players such as guitarist Jeff Beck, who stretches out impressively in "Rockin' at Midnight," barely adds enough excitement to justify this recording as more than an indulgence by a wealthy rock star. After all, would Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun produce this album under his old alias "Nugetre" for some unknown?
In the end, this makes wholly suspect Ertegun's rationalization that the Honeydrippers is a worthwhile enterprise if only, as he told Rolling Stone, because "it might lead the 2 million people buying this record . . . to see what the old music was." After all, had the young Ertegun had as much trouble digging up R&B singles at Waxie Maxie's in the '40s and '50s as a teen-ager trying to find an original of "Sea of Love" would today, Atlantic Records might never have come into being. Perhaps Ertegun would do us all an even greater favor if the next Honeydrippers album were accompanied by a reissue series that would resurrect the glories of Atlantic's R&B back catalogue. If these records changed Robert Plant's life, why not take a chance on the young listeners of today?