Throughout Led Zeppelin's 12-year career, the band remained a tight four-piece unit with only a handful of outsiders penetrating their inner circle. Notwithstanding the occasional guest appearance of mates like Phil Carson, Simon Kirke, Mick Ralphs and Ron Wood at live shows, and noteworthy contributions from the likes of Ian Stewart, Sandy Denny and Viram Jasani in the studio, Zeppelin were never all that keen on augmenting their sound with the help of extra musicians, particularly on stage.
What a difference 14 years can make.
In 1994, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant decided to work together again and perform classic Led Zeppelin song with a mind to adding new textures and arrangements to some of their classic compositions, particularly those featuring exotic middle-eastern sections. To bring those plans to fruition, Page and Plant recruited Charlie Jones and Michael Lee on bass and drums respectively from Plant's touring band (Lee also spent time with The Cult prior to linking up with Plant) and augmented this basic four-piece rock unit with a wealth of international musicians, including second guitarist Porl Thompson from the Cure, Jim Sutherland on mandolin and bodhran, Indian superstar vocalist Najma Akhtar, acclaimed session musician Nigel Eaton on hurdy-gurdy, keyboardist and string arranger Ed Shearmur, a string section of Middle Eastern musicians known as the Egyptian Pharaohs featuring percussionist Hossam Ramzy, and the London Metropolitan Orchestra's string section.
When gathered together for the grand finale of Kashmir, more than 30 musicians filled the stage. Quite a contrast from Zeppelin's original four-piece takes on this classic tune!
The resounding success of the UnLedded project led (sic) to a world tour in 1995 and '96; with many of the same musicians joining Robert and Jimmy, plus orchestras "picked up" from town to town to fill the roles played by the London Symphony string players. Editor's note: When asked to comment on his former band mates' No Quarter album and UnLedded MTV special, John Paul Jones took great pleasure in noting how many musicians it took to play the parts he once handled on his own on stage and in the studio.
Eric Gorfain, violinist, is one of the many classical musicians who joined this multi-national caravan of musicians working with Robert and Jimmy. Eric joined the string section during a few 1995 tour dates and then signed on for the entire run of shows in Japan in 1996.
Eric began playing violin at the age of four, influenced by his father who had studied violin until his teens. Within a few years, Eric was playing in youth orchestras, eventually working his way up to Concertmaster of the Sacramento Youth Symphony. While attending UCLA as a Music Performance major, Eric was given the opportunity to study in Japan in his senior year, which, after graduating, led to the start of his professional career as a studio musician in 1991. The first foreign violinist to establish himself in the studios of Tokyo, Eric spent three years playing violin on recordings and tours for the top artists in Japan, but in 1994 he decided to come back to Los Angeles. Now ten years into his career, Eric is truly a bi-continental musician. He's performed with Live, Bryan Adams, Sinead O'Connor, Eric Clapton and even Grand Funk Railroad!
During the interview that follows, Eric talks about how he came to work with Robert and Jimmy and the role he played during the Japanese tour. He also discusses his current project - a tribute to Led Zeppelin featuring his string section called, appropriately enough, The Section.
Please meet Mr. Eric Gorfain.
How did the opportunity to work with Robert and Jimmy first come about?
The whole thing started when a local contractor hired me to play on the Irvine Meadows shows in October of 1995. He also sent me to Salt Lake City and Boise to help out with the local orchestral players. Concurrently, the San Francisco sub-contractor for the Sacramento and Mountain View gigs hired me, so without even trying I had six consecutive dates with the band. After the first few shows I became friendly with the keyboardist, Ed Shearmur, who then asked me to accompany the tour to Japan to hire and translate for their orchestras, as I used to live there and I speak Japanese.
Were you a Led Zeppelin fan before working with Robert and Jimmy in 1995?
Before working with the band, actually, I wasn't (laughs). I did go back and buy all the albums and realized that I had missed out on a lot! For about two years following the tour, I devoured everything on the studio albums and became quite the fan.
When presented with the songs to arrange/perform during the '95 dates in the U.S. and the '96 tour of Japan, how did you prepare? Did you listen to the original recordings? If so, what struck you the most about the songwriting, the use of strings, etc., on the originals?
Well, let me clarify here that I did not write the string arrangements for the '96 tour or the '95 dates. Ed Shearmur, who is now a successful film composer, wrote all the arrangements for the tour and was musical director for the band. He would fly ahead to the next city early every morning in order to rehearse the orchestra for the next show. Needless to say, he must have been tired! In terms of prep-work for the shows, I must admit there was none on my part. At first I was a hired musician, so we arrived at Irvine Meadows in the afternoon, for example, sight-read the material with Ed, did a short sound check and, voila, it's show time!
By the time the Japanese leg came around, I had fully immersed myself in the Zeppelin song catalog, so I was much more aware of what I was playing. I found that Zeppelin was ahead of its time in blending world-music with heavy rock, taking a cue from the Beatles I suppose, and also using orchestral flourishes in that blend. Their songwriting and arranging skills became very apparent.
Was it at all intimidating to be working with two rock legends like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant?
But of course!! Both Jimmy and Robert were very gracious and nice to me and treated me in a very professional, respectful manner. I was incredibly flattered.
Page/Plant were extremely adventurous during the '96 tour of Japan, playing many songs that had never been performed live *and* shuffling the set list from night to night. Were there any songs - new or Zep - that were rehearsed, but *not* played during the tour and if so, why not?
To my knowledge, no. There were some songs in the orchestra's book that were never rehearsed or played during any shows I played on, but I seem to remember those to be from Robert's later solo albums, which may explain why they weren't brought out. I do remember that Tie Dye on the Highway was one of them.
During rehearsals, we didn't interact too much. The band knew the songs backwards and forwards, so most of the rehearsals involved the orchestra without the band. Jimmy and Robert didn't even play every soundcheck. Ed kept things very much under control, so the band didn't have to worry too much about the orchestra from night to night and town to town. The only input I may have had, indirectly, was by assembling a good group of players in Tokyo, which made doing the Rain Song possible. After trying it out in a rehearsal at Budokan, both Robert and Jimmy were excited to dust it off and give the song its first appearance on the tour. That may have also given them the confidence to pull out Ten Years Gone and Tea for One later on.
Speaking of Ten Years Gone; TYG has long been considered a very special song by Zeppelin fans. In fact, many consider it *the* Zeppelin song, surpassing even Stairway and Kashmir in notoriety. Consequently, you can imagine how excited Zep fans were when it was performed during the 2.15.96 show. Can you explain why it was only played once and how it came to be tried/performed in the first place?
I was excited too! I mean, to have songs like Rain Song, Ten Years Gone and Tea For performed because the band had the enthusiasm and the confidence in the orchestra was a great thrill. As you know from the bootlegs, the first attempt at Tea For One was something to behold, but to paraphrase John Cleese, "it got better." I think that Jimmy & Robert were trying to juggle the set lists to keep it interesting not only for themselves (remember, this was around the 100th show of the tour) but also for the Japanese fans, who everyone knows are quite rabid. This tour marked the first time in 24 years that Jimmy & Robert had played together in Japan, so it was a big deal for everyone involved.
Anyway, why Ten Years Gone was only played once, I do not know. I would have played it every night, since it is one of my favorite songs. That's why I included it on my tribute album.
One more specific question about your experiences during the '96 tour of Japan. The new Page/Plant song Yallah was performed during the '96 Japanese tour featuring a brand new middle eighth section. Were you involved in writing/arranging this new section? It's a dramatic and powerful enhancement of the original arrangement on the "No Quarter" album.
No, I was not involved in any of the writing or arranging. That song also met a quick fate at Budokan when the loop providing the basis for the song couldn't be heard through the monitors on stage, which basically stopped the song in its tracks. Makes for a good bootleg, though.
What was it like working with the Egyptian Pharaohs and a musician like Hossam Ramzy? Did this present any challenges or difficulties when trying to synthesize the Japanese classical musicians with these Middle Eastern string and percussion players?
The Egyptian Pharaohs were nuts! Very cool guys, actually, and amazing musicians, lead by the unbelievable Hossam Ramzy. I didn't get to interact too much with the guys, as some of them didn't speak much English, but I liked listening to them warm up backstage and I did get a few pointers as to the tunings the violinists use and whatnot. The Japanese players were also impressed by the Pharaohs, especially the violin soloist - the same guy from the Unledded video, actually. He was incredible. The only challenge with any of the orchestras was trying to get "classical" players to sound more rock & roll!
Any funny or interesting stories to tell about the tour?
When they decided to do Tea For One, I was asked to go help put the lyrics together for Robert, since Zeppelin had never performed the song live in their career. So what did we do? We went down to the production office, whipped out a tattered, commercially produced Zeppelin songbook, just like the one everyone who's ever tried to learn Stairway to Heaven has, and proceeded to type out the lyrics for Robert!
The only other story I can tell, without getting sued (laughs), is of those moments on stage where I would catch Jimmy's eye and he'd give me a wink and a smile...and then continue on with rockin' the house! Those were special moments.
Are you still in touch with people like Michael Lee, Charlie Jones, Ed Shearmur and other members of the Japan '96 Page/Plant crew?
Yes, I am in touch with Charlie and Michael and Ed quite a bit. I'm most in touch with Charlie in England, though I've recently seen Michael in LA, and Ed lives here in LA.
How do you look back on the experience?
I made good friendships with the guys in the band, friendships that continue to this day, so I look back with great pride and fond memories. I mean, how many violinists get to pretend they're rock stars?
Let's bring this discussion up to the present day. Your current Zeppelin-related project is a tribute album titled "The String Tribute to Led Zeppelin - Volume Two." First off, can you discuss "Volume I" and where Zeppelin fans can find ordering information for it?
The String Quartet Tribute to Led Zeppelin - Volume I was released by Vitamin Records in January of 2000. That was the first string quartet tribute album on which I participated. There are a variety of arrangers and musicians on that album, but I contributed with Dazed & Confused and No Quarter. The album can usually be found at Amazon.com, cdnow.com and the usual sources, but since it is three years old, it may be a bit harder to find. I'm sure the label is prepared to fill orders that may be generated by the Volume 2 release.
Now tell us about the new album.
Volume 2 is entirely arranged by myself and performed by my quartet, The Section. It includes standards like Good Time Bad Times and Thank You, but also more obscure songs like Darlene and Tangerine, with Ten Years Gone as the focal point of the album.
It's surprising that you went for some of Zep's more rockin' tunes like Good Times, Bad Times and Living Loving Maid over more "orchestral" songs like In the Light and Achilles Last Stand. Was it a conscious decision on your part to do some unexpected songs instead of more obvious choices?
I purposely chose songs that you wouldn't think would work, while keeping an eye on the "hits" that people would want to hear. Living Loving Maid follows Heartbreaker, so there was no getting around that one! Achilles would have been fun, but a monumental task. Perhaps for Volume 3? As I mentioned before, Ten Years Gone is the focal point for me on this record and was the song I was most excited about arranging. Hearbreaker, complete with my version of the guitar break, came out pretty good too.
Where can Led Zeppelin fans go to find out more about you and ordering information for The String Section Tribute to Led Zeppelin - Volume 2?
They can go to my web site at http://www.quietstreet.com to order the CD and also to learn about my company - Quietstreet Productions. Radiohead fans - I'm told there are a number of them in your club - are also encouraged to check out our tribute to the band called "The String Tribute to Radiohead - Strung Out on OK Computer." Upcoming string quartet tribute albums include "The Cure" and "Nine Inch Nails", which I am very excited about. Be sure to check out my site for updates.
What music are you listening to these days?
Let's see, having just gotten back from England and Ireland, I'm listening to a lot of trad Irish music lately. And I performed over there with Grant Lee Phillips, so I've been listening to his new solo material as well as re-discovering the Grant Lee Buffalo songs. But I've been listening to Elbow, Afro Celt Sound System, Jimmy Eat World, a bit of Sigur Ros, and Starsailor. The new Ozzy record is pretty good - a throwback to the days of old! I've been making personal compilations recently, which have ranged from 80's rock to 90's emo-rock. Oh yeah, we're in the 00's, right? (laughs) The old stand-bys are Peter Gabriel, Zeppelin, Joe Jackson, Live. I was lucky enough to play on Live's latest record, which was a definite thrill! It's always hard to say because I do listen to the radio quite a bit just to stay on top of what's out there.
Eric, thanks a million for your time and for answering so many questions.
Thank you! It's been a pleasure and I hope your readers enjoy my interpretations of these classic Zeppelin songs!
Copyright © 2002 by Bill McCue. All rights reserved. No part of this article/interview may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Bill McCue.