‘Royal Orleans’: The most unwelcome Led Zeppelin song

News ‘Royal Orleans’: The most unwelcome Led Zeppelin song

While Led Zeppelin undoubtedly pushed music to new heights, their journey wasn’t always smooth sailing. At times, the band was divided along geographical and cultural lines, with West Midlands natives Robert Plant and John Bonham on one side and the big city boys Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones on the other. One song encapsulating these cultural fault lines was ‘Royal Orleans’ taken from their 1976 album Presence.

Although the track is credited to all four band members, even today, it seems to leave a somewhat sour taste in the mouth of bassist Jones, as, according to him, its mocking lyrical angle was a manifestation of frontman Plant’s rather homophobic nature in his younger days, something the Londoner attributes to his sheltered upbringing in the West Midlands.

The story behind the song, which is contested and covered in conjecture as most anecdotes from the Zeppelin arc are, is alleged to have happened one debauched evening in the cultural hub of New Orleans, Louisiana. After setting up sticks in the opulent Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, the band went headfirst into the night, exploring the city’s delights. At one point, they ended up at a storied drag bar, where a group member allegedly became entangled with a drag queen, thought by some to have been Whiskers. “And if you take your pick/ Be careful how you choose it,” Plant sings at one point in the song, referencing the event. “Sometimes it’s hard to feel it bite.”

It is suggested that the member was Jones, with other reports claiming that the person was not Whiskers but Stephanie. The familiar story states that after smoking a joint one evening, the two fell asleep together, which gave the backwards-thinking Plant a chance to mock his bandmate. He detailed the interaction with lines such as, “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.”

The tale was featured in the unauthorised biography of Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the Gods, by Stephen Davis. Unsurprisingly, Jones would tear it apart, claiming the author got “all the facts wrong”.

In an extensive 2001 interview, Jones discussed ‘Royal Orleans’ and criticised Plant’s attempt at mocking him before turning his attention to the “idiot” Davis. “Oh, that was Robert in his usual homophobic manner,” he commenced. “I don’t know what…you see, the only trouble with that book, that stupid book, was that it got all its facts wrong. It got all the stories the wrong way around. Part of that, it wasn’t funny. I mean, some of the stories were actually hilarious, but the way the book reads is, ‘What a bunch of miserable bastards we are!’”

Jones maintained that “everybody knew who those [drag queens] were. They were friends of Richard [Cole] ‘s. And yes, we knew they were transvestites. We were friends. Her name was … Her name was … Stephanie! We’d see her every time we’d go to New Orleans. But Robert was a bit provincial. They weren’t like big city boys. They don’t like all that sort of thing. Richard and Jimmy and I … They were friends of the band, for God’s sake, you know. And then this idiot, Steve Davis, gets it all mixed up.”

Not done with setting the record straight, the Led Zeppelin bassist accused Davis of creating a story out of “stuff that he didn’t know”. He even attempted to pass the buck, asserting it was “another member of the band who found himself in situations where they didn’t know it was a boy, and it certainly wasn’t me”. Unsurprisingly, he refused to give him information.

He did, however, conclude that Plant was “a bit homophobic in those days”, which he attributed to his singer and drummer John Bonham having a “sheltered upbringing as lads”. A moment to forget for all involved; this bigoted nature behind the lyrics is what makes ‘Royal Orleans’ the most unwanted song in the history of Led Zeppelin.

Listen to ‘Royal Orleans’ below.

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