The Firm – “The Firm” (1985)

Yesterday someone posted 1985s The Firm on the Facebook Now Playing group page.  It was the first time the poster had ever heard it, and there was some back in forth in the comments section about this debut from the band formed by Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Paul Rodgers (Bad Company).  And then I came across it today over at Seattle’s Holy Cow Records and it seemed like serendipity, so I bought it.

Chances are that the first time I was actually a fan of anything Led Zeppelin related it was either The Honeydrippers or The Firm, who put out albums within a year of each other and were getting played on KISW.  I didn’t fully “discover” Led Zep until around 1987, a couple of years later.  By then, of course, The Firm’s two hits “Radioactive” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” had disappeared from the radio as if the songs no longer existed in the material universe and were just a piece of ancient history, no more relevant to most people than Nero’s fiddle playing.  I don’t think I ever owned this album back in the day, but I can’t be sure.  It certainly seems like something I might have bought, but I simply can’t remember hearing it al the way through.

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Musically I didn’t get quite what I expected (or remembered) from The Firm.  Guitar-wise Page doesn’t have a whole lot going on.  The Paul Rodgers vocals give it a bit of a Bad Company feel, but the songs themselves are definitely not Bad Company style… though both bands play a fairly basic, radio-friendly (flirting with the dreaded “Adult Contemporary”) style of rock.  So neither of them particularly stick out.  Who does stick out is bassist Tony Franklin, who’s instrument comes across as clear as a bell throughout The Firm, and he does some pretty fancy stuff at times.  I’d go so far as to say that he flat-out makes the entire album.

The real question that haunts The Firm, however, is why the hell did they cover “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on it?  I mean, they already had eight decent songs… why add this one?  Was it overdue to chart again?  And it’s not that The Firm’s version of the song is bad – in fact it’s quite good, once again in particular because of Franklin’s fretless bass.  Maybe it was some leftover influence from when Page worked with Plant on The Honeydrippers project the year before.  I don’t know.  But c’mon Page and Rodgers… you guys have written a lot of great songs.  I’m sure you could have come up with another original.

ANYWAY, one thing that interests me about The Firm is that “Radioactive,” their biggest hit, is probably the least Firm-like song on the album.  And for some reason “Satisfaction Guaranteed” sounds like a slowed down Don Henley song from the “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” era, though the last minute or so of it is also the most impressive Page’s guitar gets on the album.

The Honeydrippers – “Volume One” (1984)

In 1985 Robert Plant earned his highest placement ever on the Billboard singles chart, performing on a song that made it all the way up to #3.

And it was with an R&B cover song.  A song that twice before had cracked the Billboard Top 40 – the original making it to #1 for Phil Phillips in 1959, and the 1981 version by, of all people, Del Shannon, sneaking up to #33 in 1981, just a few years before Plant’s version. Robert Plant sang on nine studio albums by one of the biggest rock bands the world had ever (and has ever) seen, Led Zeppelin, and had already released two post-Zeppelin solo albums.  Yet it was a cover song he recorded as part of a fun side-project band called The Honeydrippers that got him all the way up to #3 on the singles chart.  Apparently the irony wasn’t lost on Plant, who hoped the success of “Sea of Love” wouldn’t make the world see him as an aged-rocker-turned-crooner.  Turns out he didn’t have much to worry about.

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What he did have, though, in 1984, was an excellent five-song EP recorded under the name The Honeydrippers, an all-star ensemble that included Jimmy Paige, Jeff Beck, and Nile Rodgers on guitar, jazz drumming legend Dave Weckl, and Paul Shaffer on keyboards.    The five cuts were all classics originally written and recorded between 1947 and 1961, well-known songs to an earlier generation but certainly not to the younger demographic Plant generally appealed to.

I know I had a copy of this record back in the day, though I can’t remember exactly how it came to me.  My best guess is that it was being played on the radio and I got it because of its association with Plant and therefore the mighty Zeppelin.  That being said, I didn’t see it as just a novelty – I’ve been a big fan of “Sea of Love” for a long, long time ,and certainly know all the words by heart.  That wasn’t a real stretch for me though, even back in my rock/metal years, since “Thank You” off of Led Zeppelin II had always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, and there are certainly some similarities between the two.

Stylistically Volume One covers a bit of ground, from the R&B of “Sea of Love” to the up-tempo of Ray Charles “I Got a Woman” to the quasi doo-wap of “Young Boy Blues” to the rockabilly of “Rockin’ at Midnight.”  What these songs have in common is that all came from a simpler, less produced era of music, and all share their roots with rock.  Every facet of the record is excellent, from the crisp, true music to Plant’s voice, giving him the opportunity to do some things he’d never done before and showing a different side of his range.

It’s too bad we never got another Honeydrippers record.  The re-release did include a live version of “Rockin’ At Midnight” as a bonus track, and the band performed live a few times (most notably on Saturday Night Live), so there is some material out there that could conceivably be packaged at some point… hell, maybe we’ll even see another record someday. We can only hope.  But for now, check the dollar bins and pick yourself up a copy.