“Forget the myths”
Monday, February 14, 2005. It’s the morning after and Jimmy Page is in Los Angeles celebrating Led Zeppelin’s first ever Grammy. The only thing that’s riling him is the failure of Robert Plant to turn up.
“It wouldn’t have taken much to pop over here and meet everybody, would it?” he grumbles to anyone who will listen.
Fast-forward one week and, back in London after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, Page has come to accept his former partner-in-crime’s absence. “I’m sure Robert had good reasons,” he observes diplomatically.
But Page still makes no attempt to conceal his own delight at the belated recognition by the American music industry, which for years seemed to begrudge Led Zep their success.
“I’m sure people must have thought we’d been nominated in the past,” he says. “But, you know, we never even got a single Grammy nomination until now. I never thought it would happen. So, of course, I really enjoyed it.”
That they were overlooked for so long verges on the perverse. Led Zeppelin sold some 70 million albums in America. The band’s fourth release alone found a place in 18 million American homes, making it the fifth best-selling album in recording history. Among British groups, only The Beatles have outsold them.
Yet the American rock establishment never quite approved of Led Zeppelin. Too cocky. Too loud. Too damn successful, and not afraid to enjoy the trappings of that success to the hilt. “Give an Englishman 50,000 watts, a chartered Lear jet, a little cocaine and some groupies and he thinks he’s a god,” Rolling Stone once sneered at the height of Zep’s success.
Today, Page can afford to laugh off such brickbats. “After a while there was no point in caring about what anybody said,” he shrugs. “We knew what sort of quality we had and so did the fans.” And, in the end, Rolling Stone was more right than it realised. In a way, Led Zeppelin were gods, and their dominance of ’70s rock’n’roll – particularly in America – was every bit as mighty as The Beatles’ in the ’60s.
For the 25 years since the band broke up, Jimmy Page has been the main keeper of the flame and custodian of the Zeppelin legacy. Robert Plant couldn’t wait to get out from under the group’s shadow and make a new life. John Paul Jones has similarly distanced himself from his past. And John Bonham, of course, is sadly dead.
Which leaves Page. It was the guitarist who remastered the Zeppelin catalogue for a 10-disc box set at the beginning of the ’90s. And it was Page who painstakingly pieced together the posthumous live album How The West Was Won and the recent Led Zeppelin DVD, which swiftly became the best-selling music release in the short history of the format.
Unlike Plant, he hasn’t made a string of solo albums. Instead, when the singer made clear his reluctance to continue touring with the former Zeppelin guitarist following their temporary late-’90s reunion, Page took to the road playing Zep songs with The Black Crowes.
In talking to him, it swiftly becomes obvious why he was so delighted with the Grammy. Now 61, slightly less than one-fifth of his life was spent in Led Zeppelin. But he clearly does regard those dozen years as his lifetime’s achievement.
In fact, long before Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page had already enjoyed a music career that would have been sufficient to earn him a place in the rock history books. Indeed, when he first joined forces with Plant in the summer of 1968, the contrast between them could hardly have been greater. By his own admission, Plant was a 19-year-old ingénue whose nascent singing career was going nowhere fast – so much so that he’d been reduced to laying tarmac to pay the rent and was thinking of resuming his training as an articled clerk with a Midlands chartered accountant. Page was only four-and-a-half-years older, but in terms of experience it might as well have been half a lifetime. Growing up in the same triangle of the Surrey stockbroker belt that produced Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, Page was playing an electric guitar before the ’50s were over. By the time he was 17, he was already famous on the London music scene as the hottest young guitar slinger in town, long before anyone had heard of either of his Surrey compatriots.
His first studio session was playing on “Diamonds” with two former members of The Shadows, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. It was also Page’s first No 1, topping the British charts in January 1963.
After that, he became the first name that stellar producers such as Shel Talmy, Andrew Loog Oldham and Mickie Most called on when they had a hit to record. Among those whose records Page’s guitar graced were Them (“Here Comes The Night”), The Who (“Can’t Explain”), Lulu (“Shout”), Tom Jones, Donovan (“Hurdy Gurdy Man”), Herman’s Hermits (“I’m Into Something Good”), The Kinks (“You Really Got Me”), Chris Farlowe (“Out Of Time”), and even Val Doonican (“Walk Tall”).
By early 1965, round about the same time an awestruck teenage Robert Plant was seeing Sonny Boy Williamson at Birmingham Town Hall and sneaking backstage to nick one of his harmonicas, the 21-year-old Page was actually recording with the blues legend in a London studio. That same year, he was invited to replace Clapton in The Yardbirds. As he was making far more money playing sessions, he turned down the gig and recommended his mate Jeff Beck, taking up a post as a staff producer on Oldham’s Immediate Records instead. He ended up producing tracks for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, whose lineup by then featured Clapton.
In short, he was, as Stephen Davis put it in Hammer Of The Gods, “The wise hack of the pop world, a consummate pro making a fortune while the rest of his generation of English musicians toiled for little money.” Yet Page was also growing increasingly dissatisfied with playing anonymously on other people’s records, and when he was asked a second time to join The Yardbirds in 1966, he agreed, even though the invitation was initially to play bass, before he switched to a dual lead guitar role alongside Beck.
By that time, The Yardbirds had already passed their zenith and, as early as late 1966, Page and Beck were talking about a new band that was to include another well-known London sessioner, John Paul Jones, on bass. Steve Marriott and Steve Winwood were both approached to fill the vocalist spot. In the end, it never happened but, as Page explains below, the idea became the prototype of the band that he would eventually put together with the assistance of new manager Peter Grant when The Yardbirds finally disintegrated in the summer of 1968.
What happened next was either fate or simply a slice of extraordinary luck. Singer Terry Reid, who Page had got to know on a ‘British Invasion’ package tour of America, was approached to join the new band and declined the invitation, but recommended his old Midlands mucker instead.
Unconvinced by the Buffalo Springfield covers Plant was singing with his then band, it took a musical bonding session over a mutual love of the blues at Page’s Pangbourne home on the Thames before the guitarist was convinced he’d found a singer with the right alchemy to realise his vision.
The story of how over the next dozen years Led Zeppelin trampled the rock world underfoot has literally become the stuff of legend. Yet, according to Page, off the road, the four members of Zeppelin were as meek and mild as a bunch of church mice. “Two of us lived in the south and two lived in the Midlands and, apart from when we got together to do rehearsals and write and record, we were all family men with separate lives,” he says. But when they came together, he concedes they “created this fifth monster”.
At this point, he’s talking mostly about their musical chemistry. But it might just as easily apply to the lifestyle that went with the band, and which Page once famously likened to “a stag party that never ends”. For Zeppelin on tour invented the template for Rock’n’Roll Babylon later lampooned in movies such as This Is Spinal Tap and Almost Famous. Many of the greatest excesses were undoubtedly down to the mercurial John Bonham. It was the drummer who was at the heart of the notorious incident involving the groupie and the ‘mud shark’ at the Edgewater Hotel, Seattle in 1969. And it was Bonham who in 1971 reduced John Paul Jones’ room at the Tokyo Hilton to matchwood with a samurai sword, earning the group a lifetime ban from Hilton hotels worldwide.
Page was less into mindless destruction and more interested in serious and serial debauchery. He reputedly indulged some strange tastes. In Pasadena in 1969, he was said to have enjoyed the spectacle of two groupies sharing a bath in his hotel room with four live octopuses. On the road in LA in 1972, he became infatuated with 14-year-old schoolgirl Lori Maddox and spent the next 18 months hiding her in his hotel room. Then there is the lurid account of Pamela Des Barres in her book Rock Bottom, which paints a picture of drug-taking with drag queens in the toilets of the transvestite clubs Page was said to enjoy visiting after a typical Zeppelin show.
He was also famously fascinated – some would say unhealthily obsessed – with the occult and, in particular, the black magic practices of Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Great Beast” who was once dubbed by the press as the “most evil man in Britain”. Page even bought Crowley’s former castle on the shores of Loch Ness. When a series of disasters and mishaps befell the band, from Plant’s car crash and the loss of his son to Bonham’s death at Page’s home in Windsor, some superstitious and/or mischievous souls were all too ready to blame the guitarist’s dabblings with the occult.
It’s not an area of his life Page has ever been prepared to talk about. Certainly, such talk seems a long way from the avuncular image Page presents today, a born-again family man who rises early to ready his kids for school and is clearly appreciating the opportunity to lead his life away from the pressures and excesses of rock’n’roll touring.
There is an undeniable air of irritation on the part of Zeppelin’s former members about the stories of drug-crazed hell-raising. They make no effort to deny the stories, but there’s a feeling that the lurid headlines have in some way served to obscure or diminish the potency of the music they made. Was that the reason that Zep never received a Grammy nomination, let alone won an award, when the band was still on active service?
As Page will insist to Uncut in the quiet and cultured tones of lace-curtained Surrey suburbia that have never left him: “Forget the myths. Because it was really all about the music.”
Today, Jimmy Page is talking about a new album, which, apart from a live recording with The Black Crowes, will be his first since 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale with Robert Plant. There are no plans for them to work together again and, talking to the two of them, it’s hard to envisage the circumstances in which that might happen.
But then, Jimmy Page has already achieved enough to last several lifetimes.
Why do you think it took America more than 30 years to give Led Zeppelin a Grammy?
Over the years I’ve tried to say to myself that perhaps we weren’t Grammy material. But quite clearly we were. Yet we never even got nominated in what I call our active career. Maybe there were reasons. I’d come to think we’d been overlooked for good, so the Lifetime Achievement Award was really nice.
But all these years on, is there sometimes a frustration that everybody concentrates so heavily on the dozen years you spent in one band?
Not really, because it was a great life in Zeppelin.
But, as Robert likes to point out, it was only part of your life…
But it’s what Led Zeppelin means across the board – the playing, the writing, and the fact that we made so many groundbreaking statements. To me, Zeppelin is a multi-faceted phenomenon. When I did the CD boxset I had to listen to everything we’d ever done. It was the first time I’d ever done that, really, and I could really feel what a great body of work it was.
Does it surprise you all these years on that there is still such an appetite to put Led Zeppelin on magazine covers?
What you should remember is that we get all this acclaim now, but we used to get bad reviews consistently. Every time we had an album out, it got bad reviews. But with hindsight, I can see how if somebody got Led Zeppelin III, which was so different from what we’d done before, and they only had a short time to review it on the record player in the office, then they missed the content. They were in a rush and they were looking for the new “Whole Lotta Love” and not actually listening to what was there. It was too fresh for them and they didn’t get the plot. So, in retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me that the diversity and breadth of what we were doing was overlooked or under-appreciated at the time. Although it wasn’t overlooked by those who were buying the records. I think Melody Maker dismissed the fourth album in one paragraph. That’s fantastic! But reviews are very transient. It doesn’t matter now what they said, does it?
You’ve become the keeper of the Zeppelin legacy. Why do you think the band’s legend has endured so well?
Forget the myths. Because it was really all about the music. As far as the studio recordings are concerned, they were performed with such class. The input was coming from four people. It was a textbook approach. That’s the way it should be when you’re writing songs and performing them – playing together and everyone relating to each other. But we didn’t have a proper testament of what was going on live, which was why it was important to put the DVD together. It wasn’t only a chronological potted history from the early TV appearances right up to Knebworth. I think it got inside Zeppelin and gave people a chance to see how it was when we were onstage together and firing on pure spontaneity.
In going through all the archive material for the box set, the live album and the DVD, were there favourite or most memorable musical moments that stood out for you?
What struck me most is that it was a period of growth throughout. The first album is really roaring. The four members came together and created this fifth monster [laughs]. The beauty of playing in the band was that when we went onstage we never actually knew what was going to go on within the framework of the songs. They were constantly changing. New parts would come out on the night. The spontaneity was on the level of ESP, which meant it was always exciting. That’s what you can see on the DVD. The Albert Hall in 1970 was a big, big gig for us with all the media there and our families, and you can see we’re all still really listening intently to each other. Then, by the time we get to Madison Square Garden in 1975, you can see how the music has taken us over. It’s become very physical by then and the music is just exploding out of us.
When you were putting the band together and went up to Birmingham to see Robert for the first time, did you already have a vision of the music you wanted to make?
I certainly had a good idea of the sort of direction I wanted us to go in. It goes back to the band I was going to form with Jeff Beck, in which we wanted a Steve Marriott or Steve Winwood-type vocalist. That was the call. And the person we accessed at that point for Zeppelin was Terry Reid. If you’re familiar with his vocal style on an album like River, that’s the way I was thinking. And having a really dynamic drummer was always going to be very important within the framework of it, because it was going to be a trio instrumentally with the fourth member being the singer and using the voice as an instrument. I knew the material I wanted us to do as well. I had a game plan for it. Definitely. But the four musicians that eventually came together as Zeppelin were a gift from on high. You know, you can get four really good musicians but it doesn’t mean they’re going to play as a band. The thing about Zeppelin was that we always played as a band.
So Robert wasn’t the first choice. But he became the best singer of them all in that style you once called “the primeval wail”, didn’t he?
Yes. Absolutely. And he was a damn fine lyricist as well. I was writing lyrics in the early days and encouraging him to write more because I knew he was going to be a much better lyricist than I ever was. Then it got to the point where he was writing all the lyrics, and I was very content with that because it allowed me to concentrate totally on the music.
I talked to him the other day and he’s very dissatisfied with his singing on the first couple of albums. Why do you think he’s so self-critical?
I know he’s not happy with the ad-libs on Led Zeppelin I, but I think he should be really pleased with his vocal approach. He was performing in a very inspired way, like everyone else in the band. What he did was really fitting in terms of where we were going. It was an essential element. And millions would agree with me and not with him on how great his singing was on those first couple of records.
Was it a conscious decision to move in a more acoustic direction on Led Zeppelin III?
There were a lot of bands at the time who had a hit and a format and they stuck to that. What we were doing was different. When we went in the studio, it was a summing up of where we were at that point in time. So there was no way the third album was going to be like the first. Then there was no way the fourth album was going to be like the third. If there was a Zeppelin philosophy, it was always: “Ever onwards. Let’s see what we can do next.”
A lot of people would say Physical Graffiti in 1975 was a kind of high-water mark for Zeppelin.
I’d probably agree with that.
Were the later records more difficult to make, with so many other things going on around the band?
Up to Graffiti, we hadn’t experienced any of the tragedies that happened. First of all there was Robert’s accident. The album that was done around that period was Presence. That was recorded in just over three weeks from beginning to end, and the urgency of it is there if you listen. But it’s not an easy album for a lot of people to access. And because a lot of people found that a difficult album to listen to, I think the writing took another shift on the next album, which was In Through The Out Door and was recorded in Stockholm, again over a quite short period of time. It wasn’t rushed. It was just that we worked so very fast. And again, it was a summing up of where we were at that moment in time. When Robert lost his son, that was another tragedy and it affected him deeply.
Then after the various traumas within the band and the punk onslaught on the so-called dinosaur bands, Knebworth was an amazing comeback, wasn’t it?
Look at the DVD and you can see we were really thrilled to be playing again. We were about to embark on the American tour and the game plan was definitely for another album, which I think would have been different again.
I was going to ask you that. Just when you seemed to have survived all of the traumas and come out the other side, John Bonham died. Where do you think Led Zeppelin might have gone if that hadn’t happened?
For my part, I’d already discussed the next album with him. We said we were going to resort to some really intense riffing. I don’t want necessarily to call it heavy, but you know what I mean by that. That’s the way I figured the next album should be, because the music had started to lighten up on In Through The Out Door and I wanted to get back to that sort of urgent intensity we managed to evoke. That was the discussion I had with Bonzo, anyway. But who knows? The potential was definitely still there.
Do you think it was inevitable that you and Robert would get back together again in the ’90s?
No, not necessarily. In fact, it wasn’t inevitable at all. But Unledded was great fun to do. We took it around the world again. The seductive playing of the Egyptians – thousands of people had never heard anything like that before, so it was great to represent that sort of musical tapestry. We even had Nigel Eaton playing hurdy-gurdy onstage with us. The album was like one dress rehearsal and then – “Let’s do it.” That was great, but on tour it got even better, like you always do on the road when things start to fall into place and mutate.
Did you feel that if you were going to do old Zeppelin material you had to represent the songs in a new way to make it meaningful, and not come over as some kind of nostalgia act?
But we never did the songs in the same way. Never. In Zeppelin we may have had the framework, but it would change all the time. That’s the way we played and I’d always played like that in all the bands I’d ever been with from day one. There was always the capability to improvise. You go onstage and you have a benchmark. But then you say, “Right, let’s see what’s going to happen tonight.” That not only keeps you on your toes, but it gives a sharp edge to the music as well.
What’s next? Is there going to be a new record?
Yes, there is. My main intention this year is to get up to speed. The way to look at it is that I took a year out. I had some things to sort out and that’s done and now it’s time to get back on a serious roll this year. And hopefully there will be some music. What I need to be doing is trying to make a new musical statement. I had some great fun playing with The Black Crowes. But we were doing a lot of Zeppelin material on that tour. Then I was busy doing the DVD and the How The West Was Won live album. That was great fun as well. But now’s the time to do something that makes people say, “I didn’t think you’d do that, but I can see why you’ve done it.” We’ll see what we come up with. I’m not retired yet, if that’s what you’re thinking.
One suggestion I read last year was that you might make a collaborative album with different singers and songwriters, as Carlos Santana has done recently.
That’s not what I’ve got in mind at the moment, although other people did make some overtures of that kind. There are so many avenues I could take at this point. Or maybe they’re footpaths. It’s just a question of which one to commit to, because when you get involved in a project it’s a time-consuming thing. Let’s put it this way: I’ve got a line drawing. I just haven’t filled the colour in yet.