How Robert Plant Ribbed John Paul Jones on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Royal Orleans’
If you’re looking for Led Zeppelin album on the light side, Presence (1976) isn’t it. On Zep’s seventh studio album, you hear neither acoustic guitar nor keyboards. It’s strictly an electric-guitar record and probably the most metal album the Zep recorded.
Looking back on its production in ’77, Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page said Presence was “a reflection of the total anxiety and emotion” for everyone involved. If you dig into biographical data of the band members, you’ll see exactly what Page meant.
For starters, Robert Plant worked on tracks such as “Achilles Last Stand” and the pitch-black “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” while confined to a wheelchair. Indeed, at the time, doctors couldn’t be sure Plant would go back to walking without a limp.
But Zeppelin did manage to brighten the mood somewhat on two Presence tracks. On “Candy Store Rock,” the band unleashed its own potent brand of rockabilly. And on “Royal Orleans” Plant told a story full of in-jokes intended to embarrass bandmate John Paul Jones.
Robert Plant told the story of John Paul Jones’ adventure with a drag queen
As with many Led Zeppelin stories, the tale that inspired “Royal Orleans” is a mix of fact and fiction. But it’s one of the more entertaining episodes in the accounts of band’s touring days. And as you can guess it began on a wild night in New Orleans, a favorite destination of the band’s while on tour.
While staying at the French Quarter’s Royal Orleans Hotel, the band made its usual round of Bourbon Street haunts, including some gay and drag-queen bars. In Plant’s lyrics, a member of the Zep party didn’t realize a transvestite (dubbed “Whiskers”) was a man. (“If you take your pick, be careful how you choose it.”)
According to Jones, that wasn’t him but another member of Zep’s entourage in another country entirely. But Plant wasn’t writing a nonfiction account here, so he brought that into the story as well. What did happen to Jones provided an equally fun part of the song.
The band members were friendly with the drag queens, and Jones was hanging out with a character named Stephanie. Late that night, after smoking a joint in his room at the Royal Orleans, Jones and Stephanie fell asleep. A near-disaster followed.
Jones said he set fire to his room before he and a drag queen escaped
As Plant sings his story about “a man I know [who] went down to Louisiana,” he mixes in references to both parts of the story. When he mentions “John Cameron,” that was the name of a rival of Jones’ from his session days in London.
But the part about how “fire preceded water” and how “Poor Whiskers set that room alight” actually happened to Jones. “We rolled a joint or two and I fell asleep and set fire to the hotel room, as you do, haha,” Jones told Mojo in 2007. “And when I woke up it was full of firemen!”
Afterwards, the hotel manager called Zep’s manager to assure him everything was all right. So when a roadie checked in on Jones he discovered the embarrassing episode. And he made sure to get the details to Plant, who relished ribbing Jones with his lyrics.
Plant has a few golden lines in this track, real or imagined. “When I step out, strut down with my sugar,” he sings, “She’d best not talk like Barry White.” Don’t let anyone tell you Led Zeppelin didn’t have a sense of humor.