I have unscientifically determined that not enough people know about this (I mentioned it to someone I assumed would own a copy and she said “WHAAAAAT?”), so off we go: in 1994, Mute records released The Sporting Life, a fantastic collaboration between Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and the amazing avant-garde/operatic vocalist Diamanda Galas. The result was an album too underground for the casual Zeppelin-head, for whom lyrics like “Husband/With this knife/I do you adore” were probably a bit much (plus that crowd was occupied with drooling over Page & Plant around then anyway), yet tamer and more straightforwardly rock than Gala’s fans were used to. But goddamn if the thing doesn’t SMOKE—and the booklet photos of Jones and Galas cavorting in a convertible with a pretty intimidating knife are good fun, too. Per AllMusic’s Ned Raggett:
Having explored sheer extremity throughout her fascinating range of solo efforts, Galas takes a turn to the slightly more accessible with her collaboration with Jones on The Sporting Life. Her vocal approach is still something which will freak out the unfamiliar listener, so anyone expecting some VH1-friendly switchover needs to think again. Keyboards are once again her other main instrument of choice, with both Hammond organ and piano used. Meanwhile, the Led Zeppelin bassist and arranger handles production as well as guitar and bass, while one Pete Thomas—apparently the Attractions’ drummer on an interesting side effort indeed—handles percussion. While it’s inaccurate to say the results are Galas fronting Led Zeppelin, Thomas does put in some heavy pounding with a hint of John Bonham’s massive stomp.
The album is noteworthy for reasons beyond its unexpected combination of principals. Jones’ playing on the album really doesn’t recall Zeppelin all that much. It actually sounds as though he’d been taking some cues from the Jesus Lizard’s bassist David Sims, and it definitely plays like a product of its time as opposed to a ‘70s throwback, which isn’t too much of a surprise—I’d always sensed that Jones was a more musically adventurous Zep than Jimmy Page, who himself was hardly a slouch in that department. Check out the opening track, “Skótoseme” (the title is Greek for “kill me”).
That rawness and sparse instrumentation continues with “Do You Take This Man,” from which the above “Husband/With this knife…” lyric is quoted. It’s pretty much all like that, really.
Next is a version of the old Percy Sledge tune “Dark End of the Street,” rendered just with drums, organ, and Galas’ bottomlessly expressive voice. Galas and Jones spoke with Bomb magazine’s Michael Albo about the choice to keep the instrumentation minimal:
DG But, I had heard Led Zeppelin for years not necessarily knowing who it was . . . You know what I mean, one of those things like, (gasp) “How riveting, I like that, I could sing with that.” Especially if you’re talking about Jones-Bonham, the power rhythm section. John Paul Jones is legendary. I’d been creating tapes and working very, very remotely with musicians. Usually it would go into a tape thing and then it would turn into some concerts. So when we talked, we talked about doing live performances together from the beginning, which was a little different for me. You’ve got voice, hammond organ, drums, amp, that’s it. The power trio.
MA So from the very beginning it was a very solid, spare arrangement, not too studio.
DG It couldn’t have been; not the way John Paul plays, not the way I play. What do we need all that for? It would just get in the way. It would just be like having another bitch on stage. I mean why?
MA There are no lead guitars in this album . . .
JJ The only guitar on this is the lap steel on the song “Last Man Down”. There’s no regular guitar anywhere else on the record.
MA Which I think is absolutely incredible. You know, when I was becoming a cognizant music listener, I didn’t know Led Zeppelin’s work as much as I knew John Paul Jones’s as a producer/arranger; and Diamanda, you were releasing your work as I became interested in the “avant-garde.” So I am interested in how your audiences, the fans of Led Zep and those of Diamanda, are going to merge. What sparks will come out of this?
JJ Well, it’s not as if Zeppelin was exactly a rock band. We were a blues band base and there were a lot of excursions and journeys into unusual areas. So anybody familiar with that shouldn’t be surprised by anything we do. With this record, there’s still definitely the energy that is found in the best of rock and roll, and there’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been heard before. Nobody else is doing anything like this.
There’s much, much more to the album, and I’d encourage you to find more online (or just buy a damn CD, ffs), but I’ll leave you with a live version of “Skótoseme” from a young Jon Stewart’s old MTV talk show, years before The Daily Show made him political satirist numero uno, followed by an audience-cam version of the same song that I really like.