With some amazing new footage of Led Zeppelin now available on 5.1 surround sound DVD, we thought it was time to talk to the musical driving force behind the band that invented rock, Mr James Page!
He's the brain behind the greatest rock band of all time, he played most of rock's classic riffs and wrote the book on rock band production. But Jimmy Page's career began in the busy pop session studios of sixties London. Page played on hundreds of tracks. Some were memorable, like Dave Berry's The Crying Game and Joe Cocker's wonderful reworking of The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends, but mostly it was churning out forgettable rhythm tracks or hanging around as 'insurance', in case up-and-coming bands couldn't cut it in the studio.
Jimmy sometimes wound up playing tambourine for his troubles and found himself disliked or distrusted by the groups of the day, with rumours abounding as to who really played what on what - especially once his later fame had spread. Jimmy's own code of conduct prevents him from spilling such beans, yet he's happy to confess to simply doubling riffs or strumming acoustic guitar when his more inventive services weren't required.
As part of the Clapton, Page and Beck 'Surrey mafia', Jeff and Jimmy had been buddies since junior school and a close bond would be forged with Clapton later on. Page would join Beck for a twin-guitar assault in the final incarnation of the Yardbirds and produce several John Mayall tracks with EC on guitar. There was true friendship and healthy rivalry between these three groundbreaking guitarists until the Yardbirds' messy break-up, which set Jeff against Jimmy, and some untimely releases of Clapton and Page jamming together, over which Page had little control but for which, it seems, Eric held him responsible.
When the Yardbirds folded, Page had no intention of quitting band life and less still of returning to the financially lucrative but artistically stifling world of pop sessions. The Yardbirds had forged a unique position in America with what had become a highly sophisticated improvisational act and, although nothing approaching the quality of their live shows was ever committed to vinyl, Jimmy's head was full of ideas. All he needed was a set of like-minded individuals to share his vision.
Having heard that Page was looking to re-form the Yardbirds, a similarly disillusioned session bassist and arranger contacted him and offered his services. Page had played on many a studio date with the talented John Paul Jones and accepted his offer immediately. It so happened that a penniless but distinctive singer had just moved from Kidderminster to London, looking for work, and was suggested to Page by Terry Reid - Reid was his first choice as vocalist, but couldn't join due to prior commitments - and producer Tony Secunda.
Having seen Robert Plant perform in the Midlands with his West Coast-influenced band Hobbstweedle, and after a meeting at Jimmy's houseboat on the Thames where the two discovered an almost identical taste in music, Plant became band member number three. Powerhouse drummer John 'Bonzo' Bonham was the final piece of the jigsaw. Suggested by Plant himself - the two had worked together in The Band Of Joy - Bonham was already playing with Tim Rose and musing over offers from both Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. The New Yardbirds, as the band was being sold to him, didn't initially appeal. But Bonzo knew the calibre of player on offer and Plant's efforts finally paid off.
The chemistry was instant. Jones said later: "The whole room just exploded - lots of silly grins. It was pretty bloody obvious from the first number that it was going to work." Plant added: "The power of it was remarkable." Page stated, simply: "We knew that it was really exciting, electrifying. We went from there to start rehearsals for the album."
The rest, as they say, is history. But we go back to the very beginning to find out, from the horse's mouth, just how the legend began...
The very first session you played on was a number one hit: Diamonds, by ex-Shadows Jet Harris and Tony Meehan
I'd actually done one session before that, with a bass player called Teddy Whadmore, which nobody knows about. I don't even know if it was ever released, but it was called Feeling The Groove. It was [producer] Glyn Johns who invited me to go and do the Diamonds session. Diamonds itself was fine, because it was chords, just strumming along. But when it came to the B-side, there were all these notes written out and I just couldn't do it. I had no idea what it was about, so I wasn't seen again for a while after that (laughs). It was a great idea of Glyn's to book me in there, but the arranger had written these dots and I just hadn't learned to read. The sessions started coming in fast and furious a little while later, as a result of Carter Lewis And The Southerners records, which sort of crept into the low end of the charts. It was like, Who's the guitarist on that? Right place at the right time, really.
After that they'd just say, Play what you want, which was fantastic. They knew they had a guitarist who knew what was going on around the music scene and, of course, the other musicians were from a generation before me: Vic Flick, Jim Sullivan, those guys. They weren't right up to the moment with all the stuff that influenced what we were listening to.
You joined The Yardbirds after their main singles successes, when they were more of a touring band. But even so, the difference between their music and that of Led Zeppelin was enormous. What happened in the transition?
Well, actually in the Yardbirds there were all these areas, freeform or whatever you might call it - improvisation, basically. And once Jeff left I developed things of my own within that format. I'd also been listening to lots of different sources of music that probably other people weren't. I'm sure Jeff would say so if you speak to him. It could have been anything from classical music to Ravi Shankar, but I also really got into the folk aspect of music too, because it was six strings and it was a guitar. I'd listened to country blues, but all of a sudden there were all these guys who were extending the fingerpicking technique.
People would tell me about [American guitarist] Sandy Bull and I'd say, I don't know about Sandy Bull; you want to start listening to some of these people over here; Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Gordon Giltrap for heaven's sake. I was taking all that stuff on board but other people weren't interested in it. So by the time Keith Relf and Jim McCarty also didn't want to continue with the Yardbirds, I thought, I know exactly what I want to do. I had a good take on the state of radio at that point - they were playing albums and the really hip bands weren't doing singles.
It had gone into a very muso thing with people working out on stage and that wasn't conducive to going on television and miming. So there was a whole flow there and I had a good idea what I wanted on the first Zeppelin album, if I could just get the musicians.
You've got numbers like Babe I'm Gonna Leave You which, believe it or not, I heard from Joan Baez. But the arrangements I had around the idea took it into a realm that no-one else had dreamed of. The first album had so many ideas that were quite radical at the time, even though they were very blues-based.
The infamous releases of yourself and Eric Clapton jamming: what actually happened there?
The Bluesbreakers were playing over in Putney and Eric came to stay at my house. I had a Simon tape recorder that you could DI into, so the two guitars went into the machine and I just did these tapes of Eric and myself playing. It so happened that a very short time after that I was asked to produce some tracks for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - I was working with Immediate and this all preceded the Decca period. So I did one session - Witchdoctor, Telephone Blues, Sitting On Top Of The World and Double Crossing Time - and I told them about the stuff I'd done with Eric. They said that Eric was under contract and that the stuff belonged to them. I played it to them - I was really championing Eric, as you would - and they wanted to put it out.
I said, You can't do that, but in the end the other instruments were put on, some by members of The Stones, and it went out.
What do you make of that unique scenario - the great guitar triumvirate?
You mean Eric, Jeff and me? Do you think there was something in the water in that part of Surrey? (Laughs.) It's quite amazing actually, as it was a very small radius that we were all from, wasn't it? The one thing that's really important is that every one of us - and most of the guitarists within other bands at the time - went to art college. Isn't that odd? The other thing that I can say as far as Eric, Jeff and myself went, is that we all had pals who were record collectors and that really helped us along our way - in very individual ways, too.
What did you think of Jimi Hendrix when he turned up?
I thought it was great. I was doing sessions when he first came over and Jeff would come round and say, There's this wild man, he's fantastic; he does this and he does that. The tragedy is that I never got to hear him play live. Never. And the thing is that it was an audio-visual experience with Hendrix, wasn't it? But Zeppelin had started off and he'd be at the Albert Hall and I'd say, I'll see him next time. But it got to the stage when there wasn't a next time. I did get to see him play once; we were on a Zeppelin tour and they were playing the Monterrey film in a club. It was like, Wow! So it was way down the line before I actually got to see him play, even on film.
If you asked people to sum up Led Zeppelin in one word, a lot of them would say riffs.
Well, when you think of what a riff is, it's hypnotic and that's going back to the blues, which is coming out of Africa. We didn't know that at the time. Interestingly, I've just got a bootleg from a gig in Orlando and in between every song I'm playing all these riffs. Somebody played it to me and I thought, Crikey, they're really good riffs! They never got used again, but they just came out on the spur of the moment. It was such an inspiring time, playing with inspired people, and we were all absolutely on top of it.
Your solos, especially on the first couple of albums, sound like you were on the seat of your pants and just going for it.
Do you mean like Communication Breakdown? Yeah, there was a lot of that - just take a deep breath and blast. Later on it got to the point where I'd think, How am I going to start it off? That's all - on things like Stairway. What used to happen was the channels would get used up on the desk, so maybe you'd be going on to the same track as the vocal - where he's not singing, you're punching in and out. Usually I'd prefer to have three cracks at a solo and choose the best of them. If you didn't get it in three, or even with a composite, then you might as well forget it. There wasn't any point in standing there all night, because you'd peak reasonably quickly.
The whole thing was to take a deep breath and inhale the vibe of the song beforehand; from the initial track to the overdubs, filigree work, the vocals and here we go to sum it all up - now! And you really had to be on the moment. That's how I used to do it anyway: take a deep breath and then boom. There were guitar parts that were worked around songs, which is quite clear, but as far as the solos went, I really wanted to keep that fresh element to it, warts and all. People can say whatever they want about my technique, but that's what it was: just bite your lip and go.
You played a lot of slide in Led Zeppelin, but it didn't obviously come from the blues or country.
Well, the first slide thing I ever tried to play was blues: it was Dust My Broom by Elmore James. Again, a record collector friend of mine had it and I didn't even know what I was hearing. In those days I would just get a suspension bush from a car, because it was just the right length: nobody was cutting up microphone stands back then. I tried to make a bottleneck once but I wasn't too successful so I stuck to the steel (laughs) - anyway, it's a bit dodgy for a guitarist, cutting up all that glass. I started right there and just developed other things. But there were all manner of other aspects to slide playing; things like Santo And Johnny, for instance. There was a track by them called Summertime and that was astonishing; he pulled notes from heaven knows where and it was really scary to listen to. But the way I'd do it, as with everything else I did, wasn't quite orthodox. I just tried to adapt what I could do to whatever it appeared the song was.
Were any songs arranged beforehand or did they just happen in the studio - the freeform section in Whole Lotta Love, for instance?
That whole sonic wave middle section in Whole Lotta Love was worked out beforehand, but of course it became organic and grew. There was all the padding and the swirling, the sort of Jurassic Park bits (laughs).
How did you learn your production skills?
I got an old Buddy Holly record the other day, at a filling station, and it was one of those things with a choir on it, which is a bit of a drag. But to find out I had to put the first track on, which was Peggy Sue. And the first thing I noticed was that you could hear the guy opening up the reverb on the drums as each pattern goes by. I was transported back to the front room of my parents' house in Epsom, listening to these things and every nuance of what was changing within the sonic picture. There was also some [producer] Joe Meek stuff that I came back to listen to and I remember that there was this great suction of a limiter on there. Listening to it with my ears now was very interesting, but at the time I was trying to emulate these real sonic movements that I could hear on everything, but maybe I was hearing beyond.
I was listening in effect to what was being applied to vocals and guitars across the board, from Ricky Nelson to Gene Vincent and Elvis - definitely all that Sam Phillips, Sun Studios stuff. I paid a lot of attention and when it came out of that into the limiters and compressors of Joe Meek, then it all started to take on a framework.
But I tell you what, I had an album by a guy called Dick Rosmini, called Adventures For 12-String, 6-String & Banjo, and it had the best-recorded acoustic guitar sound I'd ever heard up until that point. This American singer I was working with, Jackie De Shannon, knew Dick Rosmini and asked him how he recorded it and he said, You need an RCA limiter. It took quite a while to get one, but I got one and after that things sort of changed.
But it was all part of this apprenticeship of listening and learning. And bit by bit I had all these production ideas, like turning the tape over and putting the echo on it and then turning it back again for backwards echo. They were quite radical things at the time.In a sense you were defining rock music production, the same way that The Beatles and George Martin were doing for pop. How conscious were you of them?
There's no doubt about it: George Martin was doing some amazing stuff, wasn't he? I actually saw The Beatles' first London concert - at Walthamstow Baths, I think. Love Me Do was just scraping into the charts and they played Please Please Me that night, before it had been released. But they didn't go down too well and I actually heard John Lennon going past saying, Fuck these London audiences. But of course it was all to change soon after that.
The thing was, because I had respect for quite a number of different musicians and bands down south, I wasn't that impressed when I saw them and even less so when I heard the album. I wasn't into the fact that they could do A Taste Of Honey in three-part harmony, and the fact that they were doing Please Mr Postman I just couldn't take too seriously. But when you think of the short time between that and when they recorded I Am The Walrus and Blue Jay Way, it was like, Wahey! Hang on to your head here. It was a different thing entirely. So I would say that, apart from the fact that they completely revolutionised the music business, in as much as people suddenly started looking for bands who wrote their own songs and that really opened things up for everyone else, they really progressed and developed into something astonishing. I really loved George Harrison's contributions too.
The first album was recorded with minimal equipment, but your arsenal of guitars and amplifiers grew as your success did. Can you talk us through some of the equipment you used most famously?
On the first album I had a little Supro amp, a wah-wah pedal and a Tonebender and that's all. The Telecaster did just about everything on that album. I had inherited some Super Beatle amplifiers from the Yardbirds days and that's what was used on the second album. They were brilliant. Then of course I went to Hi-Watts and ended up with Marshalls. I also had these funny cabinets that were left over from Rickenbacker amps. The amps actually weren't that good because I don't like transistors, I like things with valves. I like to see the thing burn when you hit a chord - that blue glow.
The second album was done on the Les Paul and I stuck with that all the way through. Then again, I'd bring in other guitars because of their sonic quality. In a way it would have been a good idea if I'd have got into Strats, but the reality was that I loved the sound of the Les Paul. I just found that I could get so much tonal quality out of it. It was very user-friendly to play as well. It is odd though, because where I was coming from - listening to rockabilly and blues records - that was a Strat. But Leo Fender built all those wonderful guitars and I loved the fantastic mechanics of the Strat, but he put amps that went with them too. That was the difference with Fender.
I got the double-neck specifically for doing Stairway To Heaven live. I'd recorded the thing and then wondered how I was going to do it on stage, so I got the guitar to suit the number. I used to have the switch in the middle so that both necks were on at once, so you'd get all that sympathetic resonance coming through from the other neck. I used to end the song like that.
Here's something that I did want to say to you because it's quite interesting, actually. In those days of learning and eventually finding that I couldn't bend an E string in the way that I could hear it on records, I was actually using a banjo string on the top - an .008 - and de-stringing everything else. I'd get a set of Fenders or Gibsons and put their first string on the second and throw the sixth string away.
That was how things were done - I think Eric was doing a similar thing as well. Then I went to LA with Jackie De Shannon and went to a music store there - I was trying to meet James Burton if I could have done - and they said that I could get strings right now: Ernie Ball Super Slinkies. Of course, from that point on it was history.
As a rule, the Les Paul was always strung up with an .008. Later on, you know how people in the 1980s made strange decisions - how they looked, what music they played etc? (Laughs.) I don't think I looked too bad in the eighties, but I definitely changed my strings because of the heavy sets that were around then. But I forgot that the really good guitar sounds had been done with all this quite light stringing.
As a producer who's been working since the days of valve mixing desks and ancient technology, what do you think of modern advances in recording?
If I had a choice I'd still prefer to record in analogue. It's heartening, as I hear that there's a studio in the East End called Toe Rag that has all the early stuff. I think he's got some of it out of EMI and it's all valve stuff. The White Stripes' album was done there and so forth. But I tell you what: the room has got to be good that they're playing in, as everything depends on how it all sounds acoustically. Is it too dead or too live, y'know?
I've worked with ProTools in the past, but with analogue too, and mixing on to digital. But it's the first time on this project - the new DVDs - that I've actually worked in analogue going to complete digital. I had quite a lot of stuff to load up and I thought I'd be mixing in two weeks. But when I was still loading five or six weeks later I thought, Oh my goodness gracious! But there's so much you can do with ProTools - although you can't play CDs backwards and hear messages from Satan (laughs).
Are you pleased with the way the DVD has turned out?
It's an epic! I loaded all the live stuff that we had, which isn't that much, surprisingly. I mean, we thought we had three nights recorded from Earl's Court or whatever, but then you find out that the recording truck broke down on the first night, the bass drum wasn't being recorded on the second night and all that sort of stuff. But I did discover two performances from 1972 which I remember at the time were really good. I always wanted to capture what we were doing in LA, as we always played at our optimum there. I have memories of that place that somehow just brings something out of you, whether it was the Yardbirds or Zeppelin. LA is always fantastic, and I hope I haven't jinxed myself with that. Each member of the band was playing at their best during those performances and giving like 150 per cent. And when the four of us were playing like that, we combined to make a fifth element. That was the magic, the intangible.
Did you ever suppose that people would be playing your riffs in guitar shops 30 years down the line?
Well, not in guitar shops, no. But I knew the quality of the musicianship and the power of our collective force, and I knew we were making really good music. I don't want to be pretentious, but it was a little more intellectual than some of the other stuff that was going on at that point. I think that's why it just shot through, because it had so many nuances and calibres to it. You always hope that it'll stand the test of time, and I still do.
Would Led Zeppelin have been so successful if you'd done singles and pandered to the press the way other bands did?
No, if we'd have done the thing of going and miming to singles on Top Of The Pops once, we'd have had to have made the next album recognisable simply by what had gone beforehand. That would have been a terrible trap to have got involved in, because the reason why every album was different was because each one was a summing up of where we were at that point in time. They were all very honest statements. It was what it was, because it was what it was, y'know?
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