Jimmy Page is as wary of discussing his formidable past as he is talking to the press in the first place. The latter state of affairs has been alleviated somewhat but exists as a reminder of the consciously anti--Zeppelin bias that prevailed in several noteworthy periodicals for so long, and Page's own awareness that facts and statements can so easily be twisted and perverted into something else again when splashed across the printed page.
Still, looking almost obscenely calm and healthy in the wake of the last (and exceptionally grueling) Led Zeppelin assault on the United States, the dapper Mr. Page genially acquiesced to being plugged with questions about his pre-Zeppelin work.
"God knows what the others much think when I start talking about my old days. They must say 'Oh Christ, he's off again on his Yardbird stories'." Similarly, he prefaces a recounting of his session work experiences - which stretch from working in the studio with P.J. Proby and Dave Berry to playing on the Who's "Can't Explain" and Them's immortal "Gloria" - thus:
"The thing is, these days, nobody even knows about those old things anymore, and a lot of that really ancient stuff, I'm sure nobody gives a toss about anyway.
"The kinks' tracks and things like that are a bit more interesting, credibility-wise or whatever. Or the Who's first single, 'Can't Explain,' that I played rhythm guitar on - actually I wasn't really needed, but I was fortunate enough to find myself there. Just strengthening up riffs, that's all - just two guitars doing it instead of one.
"Concerning the Kinks' work, my presence there was to enable - I gather, looking at it in retrospect - Ray Davies to walk around and virtually control everything without having to be down in the studio all the time, because he was really producing those things as much as Shel Talmy. A lot more so, actually, because he was directing it and everything. At one point there were even three guitars playing the same riff."
Page's rise to working as a session musician is the archetypal story of the early 60s Eel Pie Island / Art School / Marquee clique of posthumous beginnings for aspiring rockers.
"I joined Neil Christian's Crusaders when I first left school and I was just sort of giggiing with his band - driving round the country and getting glandular fever and everything. I remember one night walking outside a gig, and the next point waking up and I was laying on the floor in some sort of dressing room. I just collapsed and couldn't keep going, and it was just fatigue and exhaustion. I was remembering the other day all those breakdowns on the M1 which were great in their own way but after a while it starts knocking you out. I was getting ill, and I really thought 'I just can't carry on.'
"I was doing a lot of painting and drawing in what free time I had, and so I thought I'd go to Art college, because a number of my friends had gone to Art college anyway, and I thought...maybe this is it, maybe this is my vocation. So I went - but of course I couldn't stop tinkering round with my guitar and I was still playing at the Marquee in a sort of interval band.
"I was involved in the old Richmond and Eel Pie Island sets - well, I used to play at those jazz clubs where the Kinks played and I'd always been in groups around the Kingston area. Kingston and Richmond were the two key places, really, but by that time I was well into the Marquee. It was a good scene then because everyone had this same upbringing and had been locked away with their records, and there was something really new to offer. It just exploded from there."
While working at the Marquee, Page was invited to play on a session. "It was a nothing song, but the record was a minor hit. They started using me quite a bit after that and then suddenly I became a new name, y'know, appearing on what was then a very, very tight session scene."
Visions of Art school success vanished. "Well, at that particular point all the sessions that I was being invited to were really good ones and I was doing the solos - really constructive work - and it wasn't too hard a decision to make. Then, about two years later, when guitars were almost becoming out of vogue and people were always trying to do something new - using sax sections and all that - and we used to paly just doodles on guitar, I thought it was time to get out."
As a matter of historical trivia, Page released a solo single during 1965. "There's nothing to be said for that record except it was very tongue-in-cheek at the time. I played all the instruments on it except for the drums and sang on it too, which is quite, uh...unique. 'She Just Satisfies,' that's what it was called. It's better forgotten."
So, on to the Yardbirds, of whom it is stated Page was the first to be asked to join after Clapton's departure.
"Well, you see this is all very touchy. Beck would probably say a lot of things. I could tell you a whole story about that but it's not really on the cards. What actually was going on was all cloak-and-dagger stuff, and I didn't want to be part of it at all really. And I just don't want it to be printed."
"You know, Jeff (Beck) must wince every time he reads any of this, but I've never put him down. I've always said that he's a brilliant musician and I defy anyone to show me anything I've said against him in the press. I can certainly think of a lot of times when he's put me down - but he's the one who's probably a bit paranoid about that. I don't care. Actually, there was a possibility that he and I were going to get to see each other again but ...
"Things like the 'Beck's Bolero' dispute, for instance, which he'd claim was his own, which is just not right. Certain parts of it, like the steel part, that was his work over ten chords which I worked out in the studio. He put the other parts on afterwards. Again those sort of things look like you're bitching in the press so in a way it's better to leave them out. Nicky Hopkins was another one who said something about some Immediate tapes - some 'grievance against Jimmy Page' thing which again wasn't on at all. Things just get printed and people seem to latch onto them and they don't know the full circumstances."
Back on the Yardbirds trail, Page explained how he was invited to joint the band.
"Beck and I had known each other for ages. I'd gone to see quite a few of their gigs because they were a good and to go and see, and there was this great night when (Keith) Refs was thoroughly drunk.
"I forget whether it was at an Oxford or Cambridge Union dance, but he was shouting 'fuck' at the audience and eventually fell back into the drum-kit. Instead of everybody seeing the humour of it, as three of the group and myself did, Paul Samwell-Smith (who was then the Yardbirds' bassist) just blew up and said 'I can't stand this anymore. I'm going to leave the group - and if I was you, Keith, I'd do the same thing.' And that was when he left.
"They were stuck, of course, so I said 'well I'll play.' I started out at the Marquee playing bass - an instrument I'd never played before, and that was how it came about."
Page's bass-playing were not unnaturally short and he quickly took over as second lead guitarist to Beck. The results of such a potentially explosive union were shortlived but nonetheless fruitful.
"It was good. Unfortunately there is very little of it that was recorded, but for the amount of time that it was working it was really fabulous. It could have led to so many good things except that here was a personality conflict within the group that wasn't coming from Beck and me - and that's why things started to bubble up.
"There are a lot of incidents that led up to the final break-up - something that had been there long before I joined the group But while it worked it was good.
"Like on the Rolling Stones 66 tour which was more or less its debut. I can remember one great gig at the Fillmore, but really there's so little of it left. 'Stroll On' from the soundtrack of "Blow Up" was one thing. It was funny because it had dual lead guitars and I think I was playing bass in the film. The single we made, 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," failed miserably in England."
The Yardbirds continued - without Beck - but with the questionable assistance of Mickie Most. An album "Little Games" was recorded "at a bloody fast pace We weren't even allowed to hear playbacks" and released in America but not in England. "Mickie was far more into a commercial singles consciousness then, right up to the point where he was recording Beck and Rod - when his whole attitude obviously changed."
Some "commercial consciousness" singles exist (inadequately) to testify to the power of Page's Yardbirds. A live album recorded at the Anderson Theatre was released by Epic after Page had hit his stride again with Zep, but was banned by Page himself. "We had the right to state all along whether it be released or not, and the whole thing was that it had been recorded by Epic at a particularly bad gig, engineered by some character who was strictly into Muzak and the concert itself was bad. So the guy said "Listen, wonders can be done in the studio" and he worked on the live tape for three days or more.
"We came down to hear it and found he'd overdubbed bull-fight cheers and stuff. There was one number where there was supposed to be utter silence in the audience, and there was clinking cocktail glasses, and sort of mumbling like a club atmosphere which destroyed the whole thing. Every time you took a solo you got a sort of 'raaaah' coming at you.
Apart from the aforementioned heinous package, Page has not been as dogged as some with vultures vamping old work of his. "Well, maybe they don't know what I've done and maybe it's as well that they don't. I didn't really do anything of great importance that they could package anything out of. Only a fool would reissue 'She Just Satisfies.'"
Anyway, the next step after the Yardbirds was the formation of Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones was an old session ally - "he seemed to appear on that scene some time after I did. I remember seeing him but we never really knew each other. We just used to bump into each other and say hello" - so he joined on bass.
Terry Reid was Page's first choice as vocalist. "He was the only vocalist I knew, but he'd just signed up with Mickie Most so he was out of the question. He did suggest Robert Plant - said he lived in Birmingham and that we should try and track him down. So we went to see him at a college gig and I had a chat with him and said I was trying to get something together and would he be interested to come down and have a chat?
"He came down and stayed for a couple of nights and it just went on from there." John Bonham was an old buddy of Plant's, having played in the Band of Joy, and was then residing in the drumseat of Tim Rose's band. He quickly joined.
A tour using the name the "New Yardbirds" was undertaken - "purely to fulfill old engagements" through Scandinavia - and, that completed, the band promptly became Led Zeppelin, and recorded an album in surprisingly quick time.
"We had all the songs thoroughly rehearsed at that point and it was just a case of getting our stage act down in the studio."
A first American tour was set up with the band playing second to the Vanilla Fudge - whom they promptly blew right off the stages throughout the country.
"I can't really comment on just why we broke so big in the States. I can only think that we were aware of dynamics at a time when everyone was into that drawn-out West Coast style of playing.
"I can tell you when I knew we'd broken through, which was at San Francisco. There were other gigs, like the Boston Tea Party and the Kinetic Circus in Chicago which have unfortunately disappeared as venues, where the response was so incredible we knew we'd made our impression - but after the San Francisco gig it was just - bang!"
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