Where: Chicago, Illinois (hotel and airplane)
What: Just the strangest experience I ever had, is what.
I’m sitting aboard Caesar’s Chariot, Led Zeppelin’s customized Boeing 707 jet. Appropriately named after the conquering emperor who was ultimately doomed by an addiction to his own glory, this flying fortress now carries on board an invading modern-day musical force. Zeppelin has just annihilated a sell out crowd of pagan revellers in St. Louis. We’re returning to Chicago where the band has set up its base of operations, the city that will represent ground zero for the next several weeks. For the previous two tours, in 1973 and 1975, they have adopted a similar strategy of positioning itself in one location and then flying out to concerts from a central point. It is the refuge for only the high and mightiest of groups. And it is the brainchild of tour manager Richard Cole, Peter Grant’s first lieutenant and long time fixer.
It (the 1977 tour) wasn’t a lot different to me from the 75 tour; it was the same process of working, you know. We had our 707 jet, and I worked out what cities were in range of Chicago. It was easier to leave at 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon and then just go to our plane and fly straight into the city we were performing in. It was specifically because it was much better and more comfortable for us to be based in one city and fly in and out. And leave straight afterwards and go straight back to Chicago.
And that’s where we’re headed now, back to the Windy City’s Ambassador East Hotel. I’e been sequestered there for eleven days, a week-and-a-half of unchecked excess and dark rumblings. The former balances the latter. The plane, for instance, has been refitted to accommodate a bar, two bedrooms, a 30ft. couch, and a Hammond organ. Luxury comes at an uncomfortable price – $2500 per day leasing fees. Still, amidst this opulence, you can’t help but notice how John Bonham lumbers about the cabin, a bottle of something in his hand, greeting everyone he encounters with barely-concealed contempt.
Bonzo walks by me and I don’t dare make eye contact. This is one of the many instructions I’ve been informed of during my stay. I’m still seat-buckled in, trying to make myself inconspicuous and ruminating over what I’d been through this past week or so. Only a couple days earlier was I finally granted my first audience with the guitarist. I had begun to think that might not ever happen. But my room phone rang one late morning and a voice informed me that Jimmy would see me now. As I was ushered – you never walked anywhere within the hotel compound without an escort – into his spectacular suite – multiple rooms exquisitely furnished – it was impossible not to notice the busted telephone, the hole in the wall, and a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels perched on his nightstand. Tell tale signs of an angry young musician. He would upend that bottle at regular intervals during our conversation. His speech would become increasingly slurred and deliberate but this was more than a guitarist getting drunk in the early afternoon. This is 1977, Zeppelin’s eleventh U.S. tour, and Page’s drinking habits are by now, well documented. No, there’s more, an underlying current of anger in every word slowly muttered. As if he’s in a constant posture of self-defense or even, paranoia. In fact, he’s ripped the telephone from the wall because he felt intruded upon and didn’t want spying ears listening in.
I’ve got two different approaches, Jimmy explained, as he fiddled with the remnants of a broken telephone receiver. I mean onstage is totally different than the way I approach it in the studio. (On) Presence, (I had) control over all the contributing factors to that LP – the fact that it was done in three weeks, and all the rest of it, is so good for me. It was just good for everything really, even though it was a very anxious point and the anxiety shows group-wise, you know. ‘Is Robert going to walk again from his auto accident in Greece and all that sort of thing (on August 4, 1975, Robert, Maureen, Plant’s sister, and the singer’s and guitarist’s children were in a rented car that skidded out of control; Robert suffered a broken ankle and elbow and the children were severely bruised and traumatized).â€
Obviously, Jimmy is still feeling the pain of that near-fatal crash. And so, the tour in 1977 kicks off under a black cloud. This is just a small taste of the underlying drama that will haunt every aspect of the operation. No one realizes it at the time but this will be the foursome’s final fully blown march across America, their swansong.
Upon boarding for the return flight, Janine Safer, Swan Song publicist, has instructed me that it may happen on tonight’s flight – the all important follow-up. You come to recognize, early on, that the Zeppelin machine is well oiled and finely tuned. Schedules are maintained and rigidly enforced. If anything is going to happen, it’s because Zeppelin wants it to. They wield total control over their own destinies, and the fates of everyone around them. So, when the press liaison informs you there are 15 minutes to be squeezed in during a flight that only lasts 30, you heed the instruction.
Indeed, after reaching cruising altitude, I’m accompanied to the rear of the plane. Safer is on point, a monster of a security guard follows her, then me, and another security soldier brings up the rear. Military precision, though, for all the world, this feels more than anything else like a dead man walking. And I’m about to understand why. I greet Jimmy (it’s hard to tell whether he recognizes me from a few days ago or not), sit down, and begin talking. As I’m hunched over, trying to hear him above the din of the whirring white noise, from behind, a vice-like grip grabs my right shoulder. I’m thinking that was a fast 15 minutes when I’m physically lifted from the seat and violently spun around. Standing before me is one seriously pissed-off John Paul Jones. And that’s when my world unravels.
Rosen, you fucking cunt liar, I should fucking kill you.
The venom in his voice staggers me. I feel as if I’m having an out-of-body experience. But each time I shut my eyes and open them, I’m still there, standing on an airplane traveling 600 miles an hour, hurtling towards a destination I know I don’t want to reach.
What makes this all the more unnerving is that John Paul and I had spent some illuminating time together just two days after I’d arrived. No Jack, no mutilated furniture. Only a soft-spoken bass player telling me about his life.
â€œThe first time, we all met in this little room just to see if we could even stand each other. It was wall-to-wall amplifiers and terrible, all old. Jimmy said, ‘Do you know a number called ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ I told him, ‘No’ And he said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A’. He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’. And we just sort of built it up from there. (And now) I wouldn’t be without Zeppelin for the world.
And I believed him; you couldn’t help but believe him. Led Zeppelin was his life and passion and he was forever protecting it, as he told me, from those who would try to run it down. He was talking about critics, in the main, journalists who would tell him how much they admired the band and then turn around and write scathing reviews. And here, confronting me now, is all that passion turned poisonous. The bassist hurls curse after curse, and even motions in a gesture carrying with it physical implications. Though I’ve never been in a fight in my life, his veiled threats do not cause me much alarm. John Paul, I felt, was someone against whom I could probably hold my own. No, it is the standing mountains of muscled beef surrounding him – his security team – that give me pause. They shoot me looks that convey a pretty simple message: Make even the slightest motion towards this man before you, and what happens next will surely be one of the less pleasant moments you’ll ever experience.
At that point, it’s hard to determine whether it’s more the fear or embarrassment that has rendered me speechless and immobile. But, no, it’s the fear, definitely the fear. As I fall in and out of moments of lucidity, I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been singled out for Jonesy’s personal attentions. Then I see, there in his right hand, a copy of Rock Guitarists. It is a compilation of Guitar Player stories collected over the past several years. He has rolled it up into a tube shape and smacks it repeatedly into his open left palm. I had written the Jeff Beck story gracing the cover and had brought copies for he and Jimmy. Peace offerings. They both knew Jeff, of course, and I thought the gesture would present me as a writer with a bit of street cred. And in that terrible second, it hits me – no, not magazine as billyclub – but the realization: I have sent Jonesy off the deep end because I’ve betrayed his trust. Repeatedly I told him how honored I was to be on the road with him. And I know he believed what I said – until he read what I’d written. The very thing that has brought me here is going to bury me. I had been warned. On the very day I arrived, the rules were outlined for me. And now, only eleven days later, I had already broken the 5th commandment. Incidentally, he also demanded all the interview tapes be returned. I instantly obliged.
Chalk it up to inexperience – and maybe no little bit of stupidity. At this point, I’ve only been freelancing for about 3 ? years, plying my trade in various local and regional papers. I made my bones and cracked the inner sanctum of magazines like Creem and Circus. And then in December 1973, Guitar Player, after rejecting multiple submissions, accepted a Q&A on Jeff Beck and used it for that month’s cover. This is the story – the first one I’d ever written for GP – that would make Jones go crazy. It was my breakthrough as a fledgling scribe. And here, now, all that hard work was culminating with the opportunity of a lifetime. After nearly a year’s worth of phone calls to the Swan Song offices in New York, I was going to be given entree to Led Zeppelin. I’d be allowed to travel with the band on their private plane and stay with them in the same hotel. After all this, getting this close, I was going to leave empty handed. Or with a broken finger – same difference.
The JPJ encounter will finally resolve itself, but in order to put things in true perspective, it’s essential to understand the juggernaut that was Led Zeppelin. By 1977, the quartet had nothing left to prove and no one left to prove it to. On April 30th of that year, the band had set a new world’s record for the largest paid attendance at a single-artist performance. They drew 76,229 people to a concert at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and grossed a staggering $792,361.50 (also a record breaker). The concert was sold out in one day.
The year before, Led Zeppelin had been named the Best Group in the Circus Reader’s Poll. Page kicked Jeff Beck and Brian May a couple pegs down the popularity ladder to maintain his spot as Best Guitarist. Robert Plant was voted Number One Male Vocalist; and Plant and Page had a lock on the Best Songwriting team, pushing Elton John and Bernie Taupin down a notch.
Also, in 1976, the group issued Presence, an album that truly revealed the band’s complex musical makeup (though not selling tremendously well). And later that same year saw the release of the soundtrack for The Song Remains The Same, the film revealing personality-through-indulgence. This hedonism would be carried to ridiculous extremes on the upcoming tour.
Needless to say, here was a band that lived life like super heroes. They were pampered and treated as kings and couldn’t see, or refused to, that they were being devoured by the very machine they’d created. Still, when you were with them, you, too, became a part of their bigger-than-life adventure.
I am sure we all felt a little invincible on this tour, explains Gary Carnes, head of the lighting crew. By being associated with Led Zeppelin, it seemed impossible not to have a false sense of power. I am sure the band felt that way and I know everyone on the road crew had a feeling of being invulnerable.
On the day I arrived, a black limo had been sent to the airport to retrieve me. After a glass of champagne, I, too, could feel wings sprouting. Janine Safer, the group’s publicist, accompanied me, and as we rode back she instructed me on the Five Rules of Engagement:
◾Rule 1. Never talk to anyone in the band unless they first talk to you.
◾Rule 2. Do not talk to Peter Grant or Richard Cole – for any reason.
◾Rule 3. Keep your cassette player turned off at all times unless conducting an interview.
◾Rule 4. Never ask questions about anything other than music.
◾Rule 5. Most importantly, understand this – the band will read what is written about them. The band does not like the press. This is the one that would prove my undoing.
Not much to get lost in translation here. Seemed simple enough. I do hesitate for the briefest of moments before handing to Janine two copies of a special issue Guitar Player magazine. I’ve brought them along because I thought they might curry favour with the band. Little did I know. She tells me she’ll personally deliver them to John Paul and Jimmy.
I have arrived during the first leg of the American tour. The kickoff segment began on April 1 – April Fool’s Day – in Dallas, Texas, and notwithstanding record-breaking attendances and grosses to come, everything seems filtered through a glass, darkly. No one is able to erase Plant’s near disastrous car accident a couple years earlier and now, the 51-show, thirty-city invasion kicks off a month late due to the singer’s contraction of tonsillitis. Additionally, Peter Grant has suffered through the ignominy of a wife dumping. And so it didn’t take long before the Fantastic Four started succumbing to the weight of this terrible cloud bearing down upon them. After only the second performance, in Chicago, Page was taken sick, owing to what Jack Calmes describes as the rockin’ pneumonia. Calmes is head of Showco, the company that provided lights, sound, staging, and logistics for the tour.
There was an extraordinary amount of tension at the start of that tour, recalls Calmes. It just got off to a negative start. It was definitely much darker than any Zeppelin tour ever before that time (Jack and company were involved in the 1973 and 1975 tours). The kind of people they had around them had deepened into some really criminal types. I think Richard Cole and perhaps some of the band and everybody around the band was so far into drugs at that point, that the drugs turned on them. They still had their moments of greatness (but) some of the shows were grinding and not very inspired.
Indeed, of the four or five performances I witnessed, the band felt as if it was merely playing by numbers. Though there was no opening act and they often played for more than three hours, the music had no life, no emotion. Many crowds grew unruly during the marathon performances, throwing firecrackers and various other garbage at the stage. I saw more than one Zeppelin bouncer grab an offending party and muscle him/her outside.
Gary Carnes, Showco’s lighting chief, had a bird’s eye view of every show. Sitting on stage about ten feet in front of the guitarist, he heard conversations, sotto voce, between Page and Plant.
I could hear what they were saying. Quite often Robert would announce a song and Jimmy would go, ‘Robert, how does that song go? And Robert would sort of turn around and hum it to him. And Jimmy would go, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah, I got it, I got it. Or Robert would announce a song and Jimmy would go into the wrong song. And the times when Jimmy couldn’t remember how a song went, it was just very, very rare but it did happen.
Besides these problems inside the arenas, there were almost nightly rituals of crazed Zeppelin fans outside engaging in minor scuffles with local police. Prior to the St. Louis show, I witnessed ardent but non-ticketed fans attempting to break through barricades. Roaming packs of hard core Zep devotees threw beer cans and generally engaged in low-key mayhem. During one arrival, Peter Grant emerged from his limo and walked over to a phalanx of policemen holding at bay a crowd of rowdy would-be gate crashers. Though I couldn’t hear specifically what the 300-pound plus manager was saying, his actions were startlingly clear. He pointed to several of his own security crew and motioned them in the direction of the battling cops. Grant would make certain no one entered the concert with a ticket.
Peter Grant, former bouncer and wrestler, was, in many respects, the physical embodiment of a lead zeppelin. Standing over six feet and weighing over 300 pounds, he used his intimidating presence to maintain order and to keep his charges safe and worry-free. He was protective, and by â€™77, insanely so. He isolated them as much as possible; hence, the private plane and the ritualized hierarchy of security, handlers, and crew. He brooked no insubordination from his own people, and with outsiders his brand of justice was swift and not necessarily just. His raison d’etre was simple – protecting his band and their finances. When a bootlegger or unauthorized photographer was identified, it was the lucky offending party who was let off with merely a severe verbal reprimand and confiscation of unauthorized t-shirts and film. I never saw an incident escalate from there, but I was told about one.
I took the plans and everything over to the band in England before this tour happened, recalls Showco’s president, Jack Calmes. They had their offices on Kings Road and spent most of the time down the street in the pub. But we had a big meeting and we were upstairs in Peter Grant’s office and they said, ‘OK, Calmes (purposely mispronouncing his name as Calm-us instead of the proper Cal-mees), what have you got for this tour? So I stood up and gave my presentation and showed them all these cool lighting effects and lasers and said the price will be $17,500 per show. The whole room went dead silent. They kind of looked at the window and Bonham went over and raised the window like they were going to throw me out of the window. And they might have done it. Then after this drama went on for what seemed like a long time, they all just started dying laughing. Because I’m sure I looked like I was about to shit my pants.
Zeppelin humour. Well, no one was laughing when John Paul Jones confiscated my tapes. I can understand Jack’s apprehension because the flight back seemed interminable. We returned to the Ambassador East, I packed my bags, and prepared for an early-morning flight back to Los Angeles. Menacing scowls from bouncers told me I was an unwanted entity and I made a hasty retreat. Janine came to my hotel room door and encouraged me to go and talk to John Paul, to try and explain my side of the story. I went down to his hotel suite, knocked, and as it swung open, my head went blank, my tongue shrivelled and I stood there, once again, like an idiot. As a failsafe, I had written him a letter. I handed it to him, he took it, and shocked me by returning my tapes. He told me he thought I was a lowlife piece of shit and the worst writer heâ€™d ever read, but that I did have a responsibility to the magazine.
I wrote the story and the cover appeared on GP’s July 1977 issue. It was a great piece and though I wish it could have been more extensive, I was quite happy with it. Page was on the cover and John Paul was the main feature.
One evening, about a month after the Zeppelin road trip, I’m at the Starwood club in West Hollywood. I’m sitting there with my brother, Mick, watching Detective, the band Swan Song was signing to its label. Mick tells me John Paul Jones is in the corner and he’s walking this way. I’d told him about the encounter and I know he’s just goofing with me. I turn around and once again, Jonesy confronts me. I don’t know whether to go into a boxer’s crouch or what when he extends his hand in friendship. He had read my letter and understood that what I’d written in that Jeff Beck story was created by an inexperienced journalist. He loved the story. We hugged.
Not that it’s important but the offending line was, “A contemporary of Beck, Jimmy Page has failed to recreate the magic he performed as guitarist for The Yardbirds. Led Zeppelin started off as nothing more than a grandiose reproduction of Beck’s past work..” and so on. It was stupid and ridiculous and I’m ashamed to this day for authoring it.
Jones was in town to see Detective and to play six nights at the Inglewood Forum, another record-breaking achievement. Following Los Angeles, the band flew to Oakland for the final dates of the tour. If there had been no significance attributed to the Zeppelin curse, what happened in Northern California certainly breathed new life into the legend. It was a terrible, dark, and ominous way to finish things out. Jack Calmes was there and he describes the violence of Zeppelin’s last dance.
I was standing right by the trailer when all this went down. Peter Grant’s kid (Warren), kind of spoiled, was there, and he walked into a secure area and one of Bill Graham’s guards kind of moved him aside; he didn’t hurt him or anything. The Bindon brothers and Peter grabbed this guy, took him into one of the trailers, and beat the crap out of him. I wasn’t in the trailer but I was right outside and this guy was a pretty tough guy and they were taking him apart in there. From what I understand they tried to pull out one of his eyes, really bad shit. John Bindon, who was in on this, subsequently murdered a guy and went to prison for life.
The Bindon brothers were the thugs that were friends of Peter Grant’s and were on this whole tour as security guards. And they kind of brought an element of darkness into this thing. The only thing I remember about John Bindon is that we were in The Roxy (in Los Angeles, prior to the Oakland shows) and he was in the back corner with Zeppelin and he had his dick out swinging it for a crowd of about 50 people that could see it.
Yeah, John Bindon later stabbed this guy through the heart; it sounds like something out of a blues song.
Richard Cole, another principal, takes up the story.
When the band came off the stage, Peter went after the guy with Johnny Bindon. I was outside the caravan with an iron bar, making sure no one could get in and get hold of them because people were after Granty and Bindon then. The next day, the four of us got arrested. Fortunately we were lucky because one of our security guys knew one of the guys on the S.W.A.T. team and said to them, “These guys aren’t dangerous, I’ve worked for them for years”. And so they agreed and they asked Peter and John Bindon and John Bonham and myself to meet them. They handcuffed us, took us off to jail, and then they let us out after an hour or so. And off we went.
And indeed, if the saga of Led Zeppelin was being played out in the lyrics of an unfinished blues song, this was not the final verse. The 77 tour had taken a terrible toll on everyone and all anyone could think of was putting as much distance between himself and fellow musicians as possible. Following this ordeal in Oakland, the members separated: John Paul remained in California and went on a camping trip with family; Jimmy and Peter remained in San Francisco; and Bonzo, Cole, and Plant headed to New Orleans, the site of their next show. Within hours of arriving at the Royal Orleans hotel, Robert received a call from his wife. The last verse was being written.
The first phone call said his son was sick, describes Cole, and the second phone call, unfortunately, Karac had died in that time.
The song would never again remain the same. In 1979, the band played some warm up dates at Denmark’s Falkoner teatre and, in August, the pair of landmark shows at Knebworth. About a year later, on September 24, 1980, John Bonham would be found dead of an overdose. He was at Page’s house at the time.
I will never forget the final words I heard Robert Plant say sums up lighting director, Gary Carnes. It would be my final show with them, my 59th show with them. I was on stage and this was the second show at Knebworth. The band had just finished playing ‘Stairway To Heaven. Robert stood there just looking out over a sea of screaming fans with cigarette lighters. There were about 350,000 people in the audience. It was a magical, mystical moment. He then walked to the edge of the downstage portion of the stage with the microphone. And again, just stood there looking. And then he said, ‘It is very, very hard to say â€¦.. Goodnight. It was an enchanting thing to witness. I will never forget that moment.
* * *
Conducting an interview with Jimmy Page, lead guitarist and producer/arranger for England’s notorious hard rock band Led Zeppelin, amounts very nearly to constructing a mini-history of British rock and roll.
Perhaps one of Zeppelin’s more outstanding characteristics is its endurance, the band has remained intact, (there has been no personnel changes since its inception) through an extremely tumultuous decade involving not only rock, but popular music in general. Since 1969 the group’s four members – Page, bass player John Paul Jones, vocalist Robert Plant, and drummer John Bonham – have produced eight albums (two are doubles) of original and often revolutionary compositions with a heavy metal sound. For as long as the band has been an entity, their records, coupled with several well-planned and highly publicized European and American tours, have exerted a profound and acutely recognizable influence on rock groups and guitar players on both sides of the Atlantic. Page’s carefully calculated guitar frenzy, engineered through the use of distortion, surrounds Plant’s expressive vocals to create a tension and excitement rarely matched by Zeppelin’s numerous emulators.
But the prodigious contributions of James Patrick Page, born in 1945 in Middlesex, England, date back to well before the formation of his present band. His work as a session guitarist earned him so lengthy a credit list (some sources site Jimmy as having been on 50-90 per cent of the records released in England from 1963 to 1965) that he himself is no longer sure of each and every cut on which he played. Even without the exact number of his vinyl encounters known, the range of his interaction as musician and sometime-producer with the landmark groups and individuals of soft and hard rock is impressive and diverse: the Who, Them, various members of the Rolling Stones, Donovan, and Jackie DeShannon to name a few. In the mid-’60s, Page joined one of the best-known British rock bands, the Yardbirds, leading to a legendary collaboration with rock/jazz guitarist Jeff Beck. When the Yardbirds disbanded in 1968, Page was ready to start his own group. According to Jimmy, at the initial meeting of Led Zeppelin, the sound of success was already bellowing through the amps, and the musicians’ four-week introductory period resulted in Led Zeppelin, their first of many gold-record-winning LPs.
Let’s start at the beginning. When you first started playing, what was going on musically?
Jimmy Page: I got really stimulated by hearing early rock and roll, knowing that something was going on that was being suppressed by the media which it really was at the time. You had to stick by the radio and listen to overseas radio to even hear good rock records – like Little Richard and things like that. The record that made me want to play guitar was ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ by Elvis Presley. I just sort of heard two guitars and bass and thought, “Yeah, I want to be part of this.” There was just so much vitality and energy coming out of it.
When did you get your first guitar?
When I was about 14. It was all a matter of trying to pick up tips and stuff. There weren’t many method books, really, apart from jazz which had no bearing on rock and roll whatsoever at that time. But that first guitar was a Grazzioso which was like a copy of a Stratocaster; then I got a real Stratocaster; then one of those Gibson “Black Beauties” which stayed with me for a long time until some thieving magpie took it to his nest. That’s the guitar I did all the ’60s sessions on.
Were your parents musical?
No, not at all. But they didn’t mind me getting into it; I think they were quite relieved to see something being done instead of art work, which they thought was a loser’s game.
What music did you play when you first started?
I wasn’t really playing anything properly. I just knew a few bits of solos and things, not much. I just kept getting records and learning that way. It was the obvious influences at the beginning: Scotty Moore, James Burton, Cliff Gallup – he was Gene Vincent’s guitarist – Johnny Weeks, later, and those seemed to be the most sustaining influences until I began to hear blues guitarists Elmore James, B.B. King, and people like that. Basically, that was the start: a mixture between rock and blues. Then I stretched out a lot more, and I started doing studio work. I had to branch out, and I did. I might do three sessions a day: A film session in the morning, and then there’d be something like a rock band, and then maybe a folk one in the evening. I didn’t know what was coming! But it was a really good disciplinary area to work in, the studio. And it also gave me a chance to develop on all of the different styles.
Do you remember the first band you were in?
Just friends and things. I played in a lot of different small bands around, but nothing you could ever get any records of.
What kind of music were you playing with [early English rock band] Neil Christian and the Crusaders?
This was before the Stones happened, so we were doing Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Bo Diddley things mainly. At the time, public taste was more engineered toward Top 10 records, so it was a bit of a struggle. But there’d always be a small section of the audience into what we were doing.
Wasn’t there a break in your music career at this point?
Yes, I stopped playing and went to art college for about two years, while concentrating more on blues playing on my own. And then I went from art college to the [early British rock mecca] Marquee Club in London. I used to go up and jam on a Thursday night with the interlude band. One night somebody came up and said, “Would you like to play on a record?” and I said, “Yeah, why not?” It did quite well, and that was it after that. I can’t remember the title of it now. From that point I started suddenly getting all this studio work. There was a crossroads: Is it an art career or is it going to be music? Well anyway, I had to stop going to the art college because I was really getting into music. Big Jim Sullivan – who was really brilliant – and I were the only guitarists doing those sessions. Then a point came where Stax Records [the Memphis-based rhythm and blues label] started influencing music to have more brass and orchestral stuff. The guitar started to take a back trend, and there was just the occasional riff. I didn’t realize how rusty I was going to get until a rock and roll session turned up in France, and I couldn’t play. I thought it was time to get out, and I did.
You just stopped playing?
For a while I just worked on my stuff alone, and then I went to a Yardbirds concert at Oxford, and they were all walking around in their penguin suits. (Lead singer)Keith Relf got really drunk and was saying “Fuck you” right into the mic and falling into the drums. I thought it was a great anarchistic night, and I went back into the dressing room and said, “What a brilliant show!” There was this great argument going on; [bass player] Paul Samwell-Smith saying, “Well, I’m leaving the group, and if I was you, Keith, I’d do the very same thing.” So, he left the group, and Keith didn’t. But they were stuck, you see, because they had commitments and dates, so I said, “I’ll play the bass if you like.” And then it worked out that we did the dual guitar thing as soon as [previously on rhythm guitar] Chris Dreja could get it together with the bass, which happened, though not for long. But then came the question of discipline. If you’re going to do dual lead guitars riffs and patterns, then you’ve got to be playing the same things. Jeff Beck had discipline occasionally, but he was an inconsistent player in that when he’s on, he’s probably the best there is, but at that time, and for a period afterward, he had no respect whatsoever for audiences.
You were playing acoustic guitar during your session period?
Yes, I had to do it on studio work. And you come to grips with it very quickly too, very quickly, because it’s what is expected. There was a lot of busking [singing on street corners] in the earlier days, but as I say, I had to come to grips with it, and it was a good schooling.
You were using the Les Paul for those sessions?
The Gibson “Black Beauty” Les Paul Custom. I was one of the first people in England to have one, but I didn’t know that then. I just saw it on the wall, had a go with it, and it was good. I traded a Gretsch Chet Atkins I’d had before for the Les Paul.
What kinds of amplifiers were you using for session work?
A small Supro, which I used until someone, I don’t know who, smashed it up for me. I’m going to try and get another one. It’s like a Harmony amp, I think, and all of the first album [Led Zeppelin] was done on that.
What do you remember most about your early days with the Yardbirds?
One thing is it was chaotic in recording. I mean we did one tune and didn’t really know what it was. We had Ian Stewart from the Stones on piano, and we’d just finished the take, and without even hearing it [producer] Mickie Most said, “Next.” I said, “I’ve never worked like this in my life,” and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” It was all done very quickly, as it sounds. It was things like that that really led to the general state of mind and depression of Relf and [drummer] Jim McCarty that broke the group up. I tried to keep it together, but there was no chance; they just wouldn’t have it. In fact, Relf said the magic of the band disappeared when Clapton left [British rock/blues guitarist Eric Clapton played with the Yardbirds prior to Beck’s joining]. I was really keen on doing anything, though, probably because of having all that studio work and variety beforehand. So it didn’t matter what way they wanted to go; they were definitely talented people, but they couldn’t really see the woods for the trees at that time.
You thought the best period of the Yardbirds was when Beck was with them?
I did. Giorgio Gomelsky [the Yardbird’s manager and producer] was good for him because he got him thinking and attempting new things. That’s when they started all sorts of departures. Apparently (co-producer) Simon Napier-Bell sang the guitar riff of ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ (on LP of the same name) to Jeff to demonstrate what he wanted, but I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I never spoke to him about it. I know the idea of the record was to emulate the sound of the old ‘Rock Around the Clock’-type record – that bass and backbeat thing. But it wouldn’t be evident at all; every now and again he’d say, “Let’s make a record around such and such,” and no one would ever know what the example was at the end of the song.
Can you describe some of your musical interaction with Beck during the Yardbirds period?
Sometimes it worked really great, and sometimes it didn’t. There were a lot of harmonies that I don’t think anyone else had really done, not like we did. The Stones were the only ones who got into two guitars going at the same time, like on old Muddy Waters records. But we were more into solos rather than a rhythm thing. The point is, you’ve got to have parts worked out, and I’d find that I was doing what I was supposed to, while something totally different was coming from Jeff. That was all right for the areas of improvisation, but there were other parts where it just did not work. You’ve got to understand that Beck and I came from the same sort of roots. If you’ve got things you enjoy, then you want to do them – to the horrifying point where we’d done our first LP (Led Zeppelin) with ‘You Shook Me’, and then I heard he’d done ‘You Shook Me’ (Truth). I was terrified because I thought they’d be the same. But I hadn’t even known he’d done it, and he hadn’t known that we had.
“There was a lot of busking in the earlier days, but I had to come to grips with it.”
Did Beck play bass on ‘Over Under Sideways Down’.
No. In fact for that LP they just got him in to do the solos because they’d had a lot of trouble with him. But then when I joined the band, he supposedly wasn’t going to walk off anymore. Well, he did a couple of times. It’s strange: if he’d had a bad day, he’d take it out on the audience. I don’t know whether he’s the same now; his playing sounds far more consistent on records. You see, on the ‘Beck’s Bolero’ (Truth) thing I was working with that, the track was done, and then the producer just disappeared. He was never seen again; he simply didn’t come back. Napier-Bell, he just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing and I was in the box [recording booth]. And even though he says he wrote it, I wrote it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it. Beck’s doing the slide bits, and I’m basically playing around the chords. The idea was built around (classical composer) Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. It’s got a lot of drama to it; it came off right. It was a good line up too, with (the Who’s drummer) Keith Moon, and everything.
Wasn’t that band going to be Led Zeppelin?
It was, yeah. Not Led Zeppelin as a name; the name came afterwards. But it was said afterwards that that’s what it could have been called. Because Moony wanted get out of the Who and so did [Who bass player] John Entwhistle, but when it came down to getting a hold of a singer, it was either going to be (guitarist/organist/singer with English pop group Traffic) Steve Winwood or [guitarist/vocalist with Small Faces] Steve Marriott. Finally it came down to Marriott. He was contacted, and the reply came back from his manager’s office: “How would you like to have a group with no fingers, boys?” Or words to that effect. So the group was dropped because of Marriott’s commitment to Small Faces. But I think it would have been the first of all those bands sort of like the Cream and everything. Instead, it didn’t happen – apart from the ‘Bolero’. That’s the closest it got. John Paul (Jones) is on that too; so is Nicky Hopkins (studio keyboard player with various British rock groups).
You only recorded a few songs with Beck?
Yeah. ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ [The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits], ‘Stroll On’ [Blow Up], ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin” [Having a Rave-up with the Yardbirds], and ‘Psycho Daisies’ [available only on the B-side of the English single release of ‘Happenings Ten Years Ago’ and an obscure bootleg titled More Golden Eggs], ‘Bolero’, and a few other things. None of them were with the Yardbirds but earlier on – just some studio things, unreleased songs: ‘Louie Louie’ and things like that; really good though, really great.
Were you using any boosters with the Yardbirds to get all those sounds?
Fuzztone which I’d virtually regurgitated from what I heard on ‘2000 Pound Bee’ by the Ventures. They had a Fuzztone. It was nothing like the one this guy, Roger Mayer, made for me; he worked for the Admiralty [British Navy] in the electronic division. He did all the fuzz pedals for Jimi Hendrix later – all those octave doublers and things like that. He made this one for me, but that was all during the studio period, you see. I think Jeff had one too then, but I was the one who got the effect going again. That accounted for quite a lot of the boost and that sort of sustain in the music.
You were also doing all sorts of things with feedback?
You know ‘I Need You’ [Kinkdom] by the Kinks? I think I did that bit there in the beginning. I don’t know who really did feedback first; it just sort of happened. I don’t think anybody consciously nicked it from anybody else; it was just going on. But Pete Townshend [lead guitarist of the Who] obviously was the one, through the music of his group, who made the use of feedback more his style, and so it’s related to him. Whereas the other players like Jeff and myself were playing more single notes and things than chords.
You used a Danelectro with the Yardbirds?
Yes, but not with Beck. I did use it in the latter days. I used it onstage for ‘White Summer’ [Little Games]. I used a special tuning for that; the low string down to B, then A, D, G, A, and D. It’s like a modal tuning, a sitar tuning, in fact.
Was ‘Black Mountain Side'[on Led Zeppelin] an extension of that?
I wasn’t totally original on that. It had been done in the folk clubs a lot; Annie Briggs was the first one that I heard do that riff. I was playing it as well, and then there was [English folk guitarist] Bert Jansch’s version. He’s the one who crystallized all the acoustic playing, as far as I’m concerned. Those first few albums of his were absolutely brilliant. And the tuning on ‘Black Mountain Side’ is the same as ‘White Summer’. It’s taken a bit of battering, that Danelectro guitar, I’m afraid.
Do those songs work well now on the Danelectro?
I played them on that guitar before, so I thought I’d do it again. But I might change it around to something else, since my whole amp situation is different now from what it used to be; now it’s Marshall. Back then it was Vox tops and different cabinets – kind of hodge-podge, but it worked.
You used a Vox 12-string with the Yardbirds?
That’s right. I can’t remember the titles now; the Mickie Most things, some of the B-sides. I remember there was one with an electric 12-string solo on the end of it that was all right. I don’t have copies of them now, and I don’t know what they’re called. I’ve got Little Games, but that’s about it.
You were using Vox amps with the Yardbirds?
AC30s. They’ve held up consistently well. Even the new ones are pretty good. I tried some; I got four in and tried them out, and they were reasonably good. I was going to build up a big bank of four of them, But Bonzo’s kit is so loud that they just don’t come over the top of it properly.
Were the AC30s that you used with the Yardbirds modified in any way?
Only by Vox; you could get these ones with special treble boosters on the back, which is what I had. No, I didn’t do that much customizing apart from making sure all the points, soldering contacts, and things were solid. The Telecasters changed rapidly, you could tell because you could split the pickups – you know that split sound you can get – and again you could get an out-of-phase sound, and then suddenly they didn’t do it anymore. So they obviously changed the electronics. And there didn’t seem to be any way of getting it back. I tried to fiddle around with the wiring, but it didn’t work so I just went back to the old one again.
What kind of guitar were you using on the first Led Zeppelin album?
A Telecaster. I used the Les Paul with the Yardbirds on about two numbers and a Fender for the rest. You see the Les Paul Custom had a central setting, a kind of out-of-phase pickup sound which Jeff couldn’t get on his Les Paul, so I used mine for that.
Was the Telecaster the one Beck gave to you?
Yes. There was work done on it, but only afterwards. I painted it; everyone painted their guitars in those days. And I had reflective plastic sheeting underneath the pickguard that gives off rainbow colors.
It sounds exactly like a Les Paul.
Yeah, well that’s the amp and everything. You see, I could get a lot of tones out of the guitar that you normally couldn’t. This confusion goes back to the early sessions again with the Les Paul. Those might not sound like a Les Paul, but that’s what I used. It’s just different amps, mic placings, and all different things. Also, if you just crank it up to distortion point so you can sustain notes, it’s bound to sound like a Les Paul. I was using the Supro amp for the first album, and I still use it. The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo was done when I pulled out the Telecaster, which I hadn’t used for a long time, plugged it into the Supro, and away it went again. That’s a different sound entirely from the rest of the first album. It was a good, versatile setup. I’m using a Leslie on the solo on ‘Good Times Bad Times’. It was wired up for an organ thing then.
What kind of acoustic guitar are you using on ‘Black Mountain Side’ and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ [both on Led Zeppelin]?
That was a Gibson J-200, which wasn’t mine; I borrowed it. It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy-gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.
Do you just use your fingers when you play acoustic?
Yes. I used fingerpicks once, but I find them too spiky; they’re too sharp. You can’t get the tone or response that you would get, say, the way classical players approach gut-string instruments. The way they pick, the whole thing is the tonal response of the string. It seems important.
Can you describe your picking style?
I don’t know, really; it’s a cross between fingerstyle and flatpicking. There’s a guy in England called Davey Graham, and he never used any fingerpicks or anything. He used a thumbpick every now and again, but I prefer just a flatpick and fingers because then it’s easier to get around from guitar to guitar. Well, it is for me, anyway. But apparently he’s got calouses on the left hand and all over the right as well; he can get so much attack on his strings, and he’s really good.
The guitar on ‘Communication Breakdown’ sounds as if it’s coming out of a little shoebox.
Yeah. I put it in a small room, a tiny vocal booth-type thing and miked it from a distance. You see, there’s a very old recording maxim which goes, “Distance makes depth.” I’ve used that a hell of a lot on recording techniques with the band generally, not just me. You’re always used to them close-miking amps, just putting the microphone in front, but I’d have a mic right out the back, as well, and then balance the two, to get rid of all the phasing problems; because really, you shouldn’t have to use an EQ in the studio if the instruments sound right. It should all be done with the microphones. But see, everyone has gotten so carried away with EQ pots that they have forgotten the whole science of microphone placement. There aren’t too many guys who know it. I’m sure Les Paul knows a lot; obviously, he must have been well into that, as were all those who produced the early rock records where there were one or two mics in the studio.
The solo on ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is interesting – many pull-offs in a sort of sloppy but amazingly inventive style.
There are mistakes in it, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll always leave the mistakes in. I can’t help it. The timing bits on the A and Bb parts are right, though it might sound wrong. The timing just sounds off. But there are some wrong notes. You’ve got to be reasonably honest about it. It’s like the film track album [The Song Remains the Same]; there’s no editing really on that. It wasn’t the best concert, playing-wise, at all, but it was the only one with celluloid footage, so there it was. It was all right; it was just one “as-it-is” performance. It wasn’t one of those real magic nights, but then again it wasn’t a terrible night. So, for all its mistakes and everything else, it’s a very honest film track. Rather than just trailing around through a tour with a recording mobile truck waiting for the magic night, it was just, “There you are – take it or leave it.” I’ve got a lot of live recorded stuff going back to ’69.
Jumping ahead to the second album [Led Zeppelin II], the riff in the middle of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was a very composed and structured phrase.
I had it worked out already, that one, before entering the studio. I had rehearsed it. And then all that other stuff, sonic wave sound, and all that, I built it up in the studio, and put effects on it and things – treatments.
How is that descending riff done?
With a metal slide and backwards echo. I think I came up with that before anybody. I know it’s been used a lot now, but not at the time. I thought of it on this Mickie Most thing. In fact, some of the things that might sound a bit odd have, in fact, backwards echo on them, as well.
What kind of effect are you using on the beginning of ‘Ramble On’ [Led Zeppelin II]?
If I can remember correctly, it’s like harmony feedback, and then it changes. To be more specific, most of the tracks just start off bass, drums, and guitar, and once you’ve done the drums and bass, you just build everything up afterwards. It’s like a starting point, and you start constructing from square one.
Is the rest of the band in the studio when you put down the solos?
No, never. I don’t like anybody else in the studio when I’m putting on the guitar parts. I usually just limber up for a while and then maybe do three solos and take the best of three.
Is there an electric 12-string on ‘Thank You’ [Led Zeppelin]?
Yes. I think it’s a Fender or Rickenbacker.
What is the effect on ‘Out on the Tiles’ [Led Zeppelin III]?
Now that is exactly what I was talking about: close-miking and distance-miking; that’s ambient sound. Getting the distance of the time lag from one end of the room to the other and putting that in as well. The whole idea, the way I see recording, is to try and capture the sound of the room live and the emotion of the whole moment and try to convey that. That’s the very essence of it. And so, consequently, you’ve got to capture as much of the room sound as possible.
On ‘Tangerine’ [Led Zeppelin III] it sounds as if you’re playing a pedal steel.
I am. And on the first LP there’s a pedal steel. I had never played steel before, but I just picked it up. There’s a lot of things I do first time around that I haven’t done before. In fact, I hadn’t touched a pedal steel from the first album to the third. It’s a bit of a pinch really from the things that Chuck Berry did. Nevertheless, it fits. I use pedal steel in ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’ [Led Zeppelin]. It sounds like a slide or something. It’s more out of tune on the first album because I hadn’t got a kit to put it together.
You’ve also played other stringed instruments on records?
‘Gallows Pole’ [Led Zeppelin III] was the first time for banjo, and on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, [Led Zeppelin IV] a mandolin was lying around. It wasn’t mine, it was Jonesey’s. I just picked it up, got the chords, and it sort of started happening. I did it more or less straight off. But, you see, that’s fingerpicking again, going back to the studio days and developing a certain amount of technique – at least enough to be adapted and used. My fingerpicking is a sort of cross between Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, and total incompetence.
The fourth album was the first time you used a double-neck?
I didn’t use a doubleneck on that, but I had to get one afterwards to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’. I did all those guitars on it; I just built them up. That was the beginning of my building up harmonized guitars properly. ‘Ten Years Gone’ [Physical Graffiti] was an extension of that, and then ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ [Presence] is like the essential flow of it really, because there was no time to think things out; I just had to more or less lay it down on the first track. It was really fast working on Presence. And I did all the guitar overdubs on that LP in one night. There were only two sequences. The rest of the band, not Robert, but the rest of them I don’t think really could see it to begin with. They didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it. But I wanted to give each section its own identity, and I think it came off really good. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it in one night; I thought I’d have to do it in the course of three different nights to get the individual sections. But I was so into it that my mind was working properly for a change. It sort of crystallized and everything was just pouring out. I was very happy with the guitar on that whole album as far as the maturity of the playing goes.
When you started playing the doubleneck did it require a new approach on your part?
Yes. The main thing is, there’s an effect you can get where you leave the 12-string neck on and play on the 6-string neck, and you get the 12-strings vibrating in sympathy. It’s like an Indian sitar, and I’ve worked on that a little bit. I use it on ‘Stairway’ like that – not on the album but on the soundtrack and film. It’s surprising; it doesn’t vibrate as heavily as a sitar would, but nonetheless, it does add to the overall tonal quality.
You think your playing on Led Zeppelin IV is the best you’ve ever done?
Without a doubt, as far as consistency and the quality of playing on a whole album. But I don’t know what the best solo I’ve ever done is – I have no idea. My vocation is more in composition, really, than in anything else. Building up harmonies, orchestrating the guitar like an army – a guitar army – I think that’s where it’s at, really, for me. I’m talking about actual orchestration in the same way you’d orchestrate a classical piece of music. Instead of using brass and violins you treat the guitars with synthesizers or other devices; give them different treatments, so that they have enough frequency range and scope and everything to keep the listener as totally committed to it as the player is. It’s a difficult project, but it’s the one I’ve got to do.
“I don’t like anybody else in the studio when I’m putting on the guitar parts.”
Have you done anything towards this end already?
Only on these three tunes: ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Ten Years Gone’, and ‘Achilles Last Stand’, the way the guitar is building. I can see certain milestones along the way, like ‘Four Sticks’ [Led Zeppelin IV], in the middle section of that. The sounds of those guitars – that’s where I’m going. I’ve got long pieces written; I’ve got one really long one written that’s harder to play than anything. It’s sort of classical, but then it goes through changes from that mood to really laid-back rock, and then to really intensified stuff. With a few laser notes thrown in, we might be all right.
What is the amplifier setup you’re using now?
Onstage? Marshall 100s that are customized in New York so they’ve got 200 watts. I’ve got four unstacked cabinets, and I’ve got a wah-wah pedal and an MXR unit. Everything else is total flash [laughs]. I’ve got a harmonizer, a theremin, a violin bow, and an Echoplex echo unit.
Are there certain settings you use on the amp?
Depending on the acoustics of the place, the volume is up to about three, and the rest is pretty standard.
When was the first time you used the violin bow?
The first time I recorded with it was with the Yardbirds. But the idea was put to me by a classical string player when I was doing studio work. One of us tried to bow the guitar, then we tried it between us, and it worked. At that point I was just bowing it, but other effects I’ve obviously come up with on my own – using wah-wah and echo. You have to put rosin on the bow, and the rosin sticks to the string and makes it vibrate.
What kind of picks and strings do you use?
Herco heavy-gauge nylon picks and Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings.
What guitars are you using?
God, this is really hard, there are so many. My Les Paul, the usual one, and I’ve got a spare one of those if anything goes wrong. I’ve got a double neck; and one of those Fender string-benders that was made for me by Gene Parsons [former drummer with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers]. I’ve cut it back from what I was going to use on tour. I have with me a Martin and a Gibson A-4 mandolin. The Martin is one of the cheap ones; it’s not the one with the herringbone back or anything like that. It’s probably a D-18, it’s got those nice Grovers [tuning machines] on it. I’ve got a Gibson Everly Brothers, which was given to me by Ronnie Wood [guitarist with the Rolling Stones]. That’s the current favourite, but I don’t take it on the road because it’s a really personal guitar. I keep it with me in the room. It’s a beauty; it’s fantastic. There’s only a few of those around; Ron’s got one, and [Rolling Stones guitarist] Keith Richards has one, and I’ve got one. So it’s really nice. I haven’t had a chance to use it on record yet, but I will because it’s got such a nice sound. Let’s see, what else have we got? I know when I come onstage it looks like a guitar shop, the way they’re all standing up there. But I sold off all my guitars before I left for America; there was a lot of old stuff hanging around which I didn’t need. It’s no point having things if you don’t need them. When all the equipment came over here, we had done our rehearsals, and we were really on top, really in tip-top form. Then Robert caught laryngitis, and we had to postpone a lot of dates and reshuffle them, and I didn’t touch a guitar for about five weeks. I got a bit panicky about that – after two years off the road that’s a lot to think about. And I’m still only warming up; I still can’t coordinate a lot of the things I need to be doing. Getting by, but it’s not right; I don’t feel 100 per cent right yet.
What year is the Les Paul you’re using now?
1959. It’s been rescraped [repainted], but that’s all gone now because it chopped off. [Eagles guitarist] Joe Walsh got it for me.
Do you think when you went from the Telecaster to the Les Paul that your playing changed?
Yes, I think so. It’s more of a fight with a Telecaster, but there are rewards. The Gibson’s got a stereotyped sound maybe. I don’t know. But it has a beautiful sustain to it, and I like sustain because it relates to bowed instruments and everything. This whole area that everyone’s been pushing and experimenting in, when you think about it, it’s mainly sustain.
Do you use special tunings on the electric guitar?
All the time; they’re my own that I’ve worked out, so I’d rather keep those to myself, really. But they’re never open tunings; I have used those, but most of the things I’ve written have not been open tunings, so you can get more chords into them.
Did you ever meet any of those folk players you admire – Bert Jansch, John Renbourn or any of them?
No, and the most terrifying thing of all happened about a few months ago. Jansch’s playing appeared as if it was going down, and it turns out he’s got arthritis. I really think he’s one of the best. He was, without any doubt, the one who crystallized so many things. As much as Hendrix had done on electric, I think he’s done on acoustic. He was really way, way ahead. And for something like that to happen is such a tragedy, with a mind as brilliant as that. There you go. Another player whose physical handicap didn’t stop him was Django Reinhardt. For his last LP they pulled him out of retirement to do it; it’s on Barclay Records in France. He’d been retired for years, and it’s fantastic. You know the story about him in the caravan and losing fingers and such. But the record is just fantastic. He must have been playing all the time to be that good – it’s horrifyingly good. Horrifying. But it’s always good to hear perennial players like that; like Les Paul, and people like that.
You listen to Les Paul?
Oh, yeah. You can tell Jeff [Beck] did too, can’t you? Have you ever heard ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’ [mid-’40s single by the Les Paul Trio with Bing Crosby]? You ought to hear that. He does everything on that, everything in one go. And it’s just one guitar; it’s basically one guitar even though they’ve tracked on rhythms and stuff. But my goodness, his introductory chords and everything are fantastic. He sets the whole tone, and then he goes into this solo which is fantastic. Now that’s where I heard feedback first – from Les Paul – also vibratos and things. Even before B.B. King, you know, I’ve traced a hell of a lot of rock and roll – little riffs, and things – back to Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Cliff Gallup and all those. It’s all there. But then Les Paul was influenced by Reinhardt, wasn’t he? Very much so. I can’t get my hands on the records of Les Paul, the Les Paul trio, and all that stuff. But I’ve got all the Capitol LPs and things. I mean, he’s the father of it all: multi-tracking and everything else. If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been anything, really.
You said that Eric Clapton was the person who synthesized the Les Paul sound?
Yeah, without a doubt. When he was with the Bluesbreakers [British blues band with John Mayall], it was just a magic combination; he got one of the Marshall amps, and away he went. It just happened. I thought he played brilliantly then, really brilliantly. That was very stirring stuff.
Do you think you were responsible for any specific guitar sounds?
The guitar parts in ‘Trampled Under Foot’ [Physical Graffiti], this guy Nick Kent [British rock journalist], he came out with this idea about how he thought that was a really revolutionary sound. And I hadn’t realized that anyone would think it was, but I can explain exactly how it’s done. Again, it’s sort of backwards echo and wah-wah. I don’t know how responsible I was for new sounds because there were so many good things happening around that point, around the release of the first Zeppelin album, like Hendrix and Clapton.
Were you focusing on anything in particular on the first Led Zeppelin LP with regards to certain guitar sounds?
The trouble is keeping a separation between sounds, so you don’t have the same guitar effect all the time. And that’s where that orchestration thing comes in; it’s so easy, I’ve already planned it, it’s already there; all the groundwork has been done now. And the dream has been accomplished by the computerized mixing console. The sort of struggle to achieve so many things is over. As I said, I’ve got two things written, but I’ll be working on more. You can hear what I mean on Lucifer Rising [soundtrack for the unreleased Ken Anger film]. You see, I didn’t play any guitar on that, apart from one point. That was all other instruments, all synthesizers. Every instrument was given a process so it didn’t sound like what it really was – the voices, drones, mantras, even tabla drums. When you’ve got a collage of, say, four of these sounds together, people will be drawn right in, because there will be sounds they haven’t heard before. That’s basically what I’m into: Collages and tissues of sound with emotional intensity and melody, and all that. But you know, there are so many good people around, like John McLaughlin, and people like that. It’s a totally different thing than what I’m doing.
Do you think he has a sustaining quality as a guitarist?
He’s always had that technique right from when I first knew him when he was working in a guitar shop. I would say he was the best jazz guitarist in England then, in the traditional mode of [jazz stylist] Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow; a combination of those two is exactly what he sounded like. He was easily the best guitarist in England, and he was working in a guitar shop. And that’s what I say – you hear so many good people around under those conditions. I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t know one musician who’s stuck to his guns, who was good in the early days that hasn’t come through now with recognition from everybody. [British pop/rock guitarist] Albert Lee, and all these people that seem to be like white elephants, got recognition. I think he’s really good, bloody brilliant. He’s got one of those string benders, too, but I haven’t heard him in ages. But I know that every time I’ve heard him, he’s bloody better and better.
Do you feel your playing grows all the time?
I’ve got two different approaches, I’m a schizophrenic guitarist, really. I mean, onstage is totally different than the way that I approach it in the studio. Presence and my control over all the contributing factors to that LP – the fact that it was done in three weeks, and all the rest of it – is so good for me. It was just good for everything really, even though it was a very anxious point, and the anxiety shows, group-wise – you know, “Is Robert going to walk again from his auto accident in Greece?” and all this sort of thing. But I guess the solo in ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ on Presence is in the same tradition as the solo from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the fourth LP. It is on that level to me.