Zeppelin's John Paul Jones Brings The 'Thunder'

As a principal member of what was arguably the greatest rock'n'roll band of all time, John Paul Jones was in need for a change by the time Led Zeppelin dissolved in 1980. Putting his own music on the

As a principal member of what was arguably the greatest rock'n'roll band of all time, John Paul Jones was in need for a change by the time Led Zeppelin dissolved in 1980. Putting his own music on the backburner, he thrived as a producer and arranger with artists as diverse as Diamanda Galas, the Butthole Surfers, and R.E.M. But since 1999, Jones, now 56, has turned his attentions inward to make his own solo albums. His second album, "The Thunderthief," arrived in early February via King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp's Discipline Global Mobile label.

As with 1999's "Zooma," the set is dominated by the kinds of monster riffs Jones and drummer John Bonham trademarked in Led Zeppelin. Backed by Nick Beggs (of '80s U.K. hitmakers Kajagoogoo) on Chapman stick and Terl Bryant on drums, Jones tries his hand with an eye-popping array of instruments, including a custom-made triple-neck mandolin, ukulele, kyoto, and a range of keyboards, basses, and guitars. He also wrote out nearly every note of "The Thunderthief," although Fripp dropped in to rattle off his own appropriately complex solo on opener "Leafy Meadows."

Indeed, you would think that after a lifetime in music, Jones would have done just about everything on an album at some point or another. But "The Thunderthief" boasts two rarities: not only does Jones sing four of the nine tracks, but he also penned the lyrics to "Angry Angry," a tale of a perpetually irritated narrator set to uppity, punk-styled riffing. In perhaps the most surprising display of his talents, the artist offers "Ice Fishing at Night," a gorgeously sung and played solo piano ode to the title sport.

"I knew right off I didn't [want to work with outside vocalists]," Jones admits. "I knew that as soon as the vocalists would walk in, I would be producing them. And also, as a solo artist, my sound is not as easily recognizable. Like that Santana album: he had guest vocalists, but it didn't matter. As soon as he played a couple of notes, you knew it was Santana. I don't have that easy identification. I knew that if I had a lot of vocalists, everybody would go, 'who is this?' I thought I'd like to sing them myself."

With rapid-fire licks and relentless drumming, tracks like "The Thunderthief" and "Daphne" will certainly get the fists of Zeppelin-philes pumping. On the other end of the spectrum are the traditional "Down to the River To Pray," an instrumental played on the aforementioned triple-neck mandolin with shades of Zeppelin's "Bron-Yr-Aur," and the ukulele closer "Freedom Song."

Jones says he had to temper his inclination to "over-orchestrate," particularly on mellower selections such as "Ice Fishing at Night." Of that piece, he says, "I thought I could orchestrate it and have a nice big string section, but it's just this small song, with an almost claustrophobic feeling about it. I thought that anything else would just kill it." Inspired by Bill Evans's 1963 album "Conversations With Myself," Jones overdubbed a second piano part that he plans to replicate in a live setting by running synthesizer modules through Beggs' Chapman stick.

After playing live on only a handful of occasions in the years following Led Zeppelin's demise, Jones has toured the world frequently of late. On a fall 2001 North American jaunt opening for King Crimson, he and his band offered three songs each from the solo albums and three Zeppelin favorites, including "When the Levee Breaks," "That's the Way," and "Black Dog." Details for a late spring/summer tour are still being worked out, but this time around, Jones is hoping "to headline in larger places, and have a nice extended show."

"We do like to jam, but we can't for too long," he says, noting the limitations of 60-minute sets on the King Crimson tour. "You can see the union guys looking at their watches. It was like, 'Keep the solos down to 32 bars, guys, because we may have to cut a number the next night if we run over!'"

Jones says his deal with Disciple Global Mobile has been a godsend from an artist's perspective -- and, "it's not often you get to have your label boss doing guitar solos for you," he concedes with a laugh. "The artist has total artistic control," he says. "The next thing, which I particularly like, is that there are no contracts. The third one is that the artists own their own copyrights. For me, it's not such a problem, because I can always license. But for other artists who don't have that situation, it means a lot to hold on to their own music. I like the ethic and the policy."

Speaking of licensing, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin recently agreed to license the song "Rock'N'Roll" for a series of Cadillac commercials, the first time the band had ever done so. "Good slot, huh," Jones says of the Super Bowl halftime show unveiling of the ads. "I don't know about America, but for us Brits, Cadillac is a romantic, rock'n'roll car! So I had no problem with it at all. It seemed quite appropriate!"

And while Jones has no illusions about a reunion with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (he was excluded from that pair's two collaborative studio albums and concert tours in the '90s), he confesses he still derives joy from his chance encounters with a vintage Zeppelin song. "When you do hear some of your own stuff, you think, 'Oh, that's good! I forgot about that!" he says. "I still like all those magic rhythm section moments, you know, 'Over the Hills and Far Away,' 'What Is and What Should Never Be.' Just remembering Bonzo [late drummer John Bonham] in those things is great."