The most unwelcome Led Zeppelin song

While Led Zeppelin undeniably soared to musical heights, their journey was not a seamless flight. The band found itself divided along geographical and cultural fault lines, pitting West Midlands natives Robert Plant and John Bonham against the cosmopolitan pair of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. The sonic expression of these divides emerged in the form of the song ‘Royal Orleans’ from their 1976 album Presence.

Though credited to all four band members, ‘Royal Orleans’ carries a lingering discomfort for bassist John Paul Jones, who suggests that the song’s mocking lyrics stem from frontman Robert Plant’s alleged homophobic tendencies in his youth. Jones attributes this aspect of Plant’s personality to his sheltered upbringing in the West Midlands.

The narrative behind the song is shrouded in controversy as many tales from the Led Zeppelin saga are, purportedly unfolded during a debauched evening in the cultural heart of New Orleans, Louisiana. After setting up camp in the opulent Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, the band delved into the city’s delights, culminating in a visit to a renowned drag bar. Here, one band member supposedly became entangled with a drag queen, possibly Whiskers, as alluded to in Plant’s lyrics. The ambiguity persists, with conflicting reports suggesting the involvement of another drag queen named Stephanie. The commonly recounted story claims that after sharing a joint, the two fell asleep together, providing Plant with fodder to mock his bandmate through lines like, “Man I knew went down to Louisiana / Had himself a bad, bad fight / And when the sun peeked through / John Cameron with Suzanna / He kissed the whiskers, left and right.”

This tale found its way into the unauthorized biography of Led Zeppelin, ‘Hammer of the Gods,’ penned by Stephen Davis. Predictably, Jones vehemently rejected the account, accusing the author of factual inaccuracies.

In a thorough 2001 interview, Jones critiqued ‘Royal Orleans,’ denouncing Plant’s attempt to mock him and dismissing Davis as an “idiot.” He argued that the book misinterpreted facts and failed to capture the humor in the band’s stories. Jones clarified that the drag queens were friends of Richard Cole’s, and the band was well-acquainted with them. He accused Davis of weaving a narrative from incomplete knowledge and hinted that it was another band member involved in the situation, emphatically asserting it wasn’t him.

Jones concluded by acknowledging Plant’s past homophobia, attributing it to the singer and drummer John Bonham’s sheltered upbringing. A regrettable episode for all involved, the bigoted undertones behind the lyrics render ‘Royal Orleans’ the most controversial song in the annals of Led Zeppelin’s history.

Listen to ‘Royal Orleans’ below.

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