John Paul Jones wasn't at all shocked when a British paper reported this summer that Led Zeppelin, his former band, was about to reunite. He'd been hearing rumors of it ever since the group broke up in 1980. But when it turned out that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were, indeed, getting back together for Unledded and that they hadn't bothered to invite their former bassist/ keyboardist Jones, 48, was ''a bit surprised,'' he admits with characteristic understatement and not a trace of rancor. ''Nobody ever talked to me. And now it's kind of embarrassing because everybody's been asking me about it and I've got to explain myself.''
No explanation necessary. As a session musician-arranger in the early '60s, Jones worked with, among others, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Herman's Hermits. And since Zeppelin crashed, he's ventured into even more
diverse territories: composing classical music and film scores, producing albums by the Butthole Surfers, Ben E. King, and Heart, and arranging for such artists as Peter Gabriel, Raging Slab, and R.E.M. To promote his newest project, The Sporting Life, an album-length collaboration with pop's darkest chanteuse, Diamanda Galás, he's even taken to the road for the first time in 14 years, on an international tour that arrives in the States this week.
So, had his old mates asked, would Jones have gone? ''Perhaps, but playing songs we did 20 years ago wouldn't have been that interesting to me even new versions. I've already done it in the best band. And we did 'em great. I know a lot of people like to hear the old stuff, but I prefer to look forward.''
Which isn't always easy. Often, it's Jones' Ledded past that attracts potential employers and collaborators. ''I get a lot of tapes from bands that want to be Zeppelinized,'' he explains. ''I've also had a lot of requests to do Zeppelin numbers with a large orchestra, which is a horrible thought. Makes your eyes water just thinking about it.''