Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin: ‘Who else but me would have the authority to do this?’
The band’s founder has just finished years of work on their studio back catalogue, with no little relief. And although he appreciates a modern mash-up of their music, he says we will never see the like of Led Zeppelin again
Jimmy Page: “I hear how inspiring my guitar playing is for young musicians. And that’s how I learned: listening to other guitarists, trying to get a sound all of my own.” Photograph: Damon Winter/New York Times
Old school: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, with John Paul Jones and John Bonham behind them, in 1972. Photograph: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty
Old school: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in the studio recording Led Zeppelin II, in 1969. Photograph: Charles Bonnay/Life/Getty
Old school: John Bonham, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page arrive at Honolulu Airport, in Hawaii, in 1969, with the master tapes for Led Zeppelin II. Photograph: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty
The man Rolling Stone magazine has described with a straight typeface as the pontiff of power riffing is chatting about William Butler Yeats and Edna O’Brien. Jimmy Page knows it’s somewhat off point, but when he hears he’s talking with The Irish Times he’s up for deviations.
“There was all that celebration in Sligo recently, wasn’t there? I heard that Edna was there for some sort of anniversary dinner. Brilliant poet, Yeats. Not much of an influence on Led Zeppelin, mind, but he could sure string a verse or two together, couldn’t he?”
We are in a small room at the top of Olympic Studios, hallowed ground for British rock and pop royalty of the 1960s and 1970s. As you walk up to the top floor you are reminded that Led Zeppelin, which Page founded in 1968, recorded most of their studio albums here, as did The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Small Faces, Queen and David Bowie. Framed photographs adorn the walls. If these walls could talk they’d be yakking for days, with a roll-your-own in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.
“But enough about Edna O’Brien,” says Page, who at 71 looks at least 10 years younger, his age perhaps given away by snow-white hair that trails behind him in a neat ponytail. The regulation sober attire – black runners, black jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket – attests to his rock’n’roll background, but he’s a welcoming sort, engaged in the conversation, eager to question the questions, aiming to clarify any confusion.
Page has just come to the end of his mission as guardian of the Led Zeppelin legacy. For the past four years he has taken stock of the band’s back catalogue. In June 2014 the first three studio albums – I, II, III – were remastered and reissued. The end of this month sees the final three studio records – Presence, In Through the Out Door, Coda – reissued. Page tries to hide it, but there’s a look of relief on his face.
“It was a substantial project, and I’m sure people can imagine how substantial it was. I don’t have to go into the details of it, but if I say there were thousands of hours involved you’ll have some appreciation of the time involved.”
What about his role as guardian of the legacy? Was he always the designated driver? “Being the producer of the band, I was the one who was in the studio much more than the others, so I had more tapes, not alone points of reference. I knew what was there; I had a good recall of what there was and, more importantly, what there could be. The master plan of this was to have me seeing these albums come out with their own companion disc, in order to make the albums have total continuity, from the music to the artwork, all the way through.”
20 million in the queueThe project took root around the last time Led Zeppelin performed on stage, at a tribute concert for Ahmet Ertegun, the music industry executive who signed them to Atlantic Records in 1968, in the winter of 2007, at the O2 arena in London. (That performance holds the record for the highest demand for tickets for a single show: 20 million in the queue for 20,000 seats.)
Page knew the task of curating and annotating the band’s back catalogue should fall to him. “Not only for myself, and my own curiosity, but also on behalf of everyone else. The other aspect of having me doing it was that if someone else had done it – which happens now and again, because some bands aren’t interested – important things might have been missed. Who else but me would have the knowledge and authority to do it? I just wanted for it to be right. For me, and I’m sure for all the fans out there, getting it right is the key.”
Led Zeppelin haven’t performed for almost eight years. The possibility of performing again hangs, threadbare, on the agreement and availability of Robert Plant, the band’s former lead singer. But it doesn’t mean the band aren’t still selling albums by the bucketload.
“Well, yes, we are. Not as much as the old days, because the nature of record sales has changed so much. So these albums aren’t going to hurtle to the top of the charts and stay there for months on end – very little does these days – but the truth of the matter is that Led Zeppelin music has been quite buoyant throughout the decades. Who’d have thought that would happen?”
Page loves a recent YouTube mash-up of Madonna’s Justify My Love with Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, as well as a similar one with James Brown’s Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.
“They’re done so well, aren’t they? When people take the time to do stuff like that so ably it’s proof to me that Led Zeppelin’s music still resonates. It consolidates the appeal of the music, doesn’t it? I think with Whole Lotta Love, also, it’s the guitar riff, isn’t it?
“That something so simplistic is still quite inspiring amazes me. That’s exactly why I came into music in the first place: to be inspired by what I hear to make it something else, to make it my own. That’s how culture, creativity, moves, isn’t it?”
Page is wary of dragging up the more lurid, excess-laden pasts of both Led Zeppelin and himself. He adroitly negotiates his way around the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll years. “Do we really need to talk about stuff like that? It’s quite long ago, isn’t it?”
His use of heroin and cocaine, which was at its most intense during the recordings of Presence and In Through the Out Door, has been kicked to touch from the early 1980s, and he refuses to talk about Led Zeppelin’s more salacious moments, except to say, “It’s all about focus, and when I needed to be focused back then I was.” (A flick through Hammer of the Gods, Stephen Davis’s unauthorised biography, from 1985, will tell you all you need to know.)
“There really isn’t any more”With the Led Zeppelin back catalogue well and truly curated – “there really isn’t any more” – Page is keen to get back to solo material. “I can’t wait to get on with my own stuff, but the Led Zeppelin thing was a substantial project that took a lot of time, effort and energy. I’ll certainly put that same energy into the next thing I do, which will be guitar-based, needless to say.”
Ah, Jimmy Page and guitars. When lists of the best guitarists are being collated he rarely seems to be outside the top 10 and is often in the top five. How good does he think he is? If a 71-year-old rock star can blush, then Page is doing exactly that. “Ooh, I don’t know . . .”
He looks over my shoulder at the image of Led Zeppelin’s first album cover that adorns a full wall of the room. “My guitar playing touches so many different areas of the form, but the important thing is what it represents across the form. I get feedback on how inspiring it is for young musicians. And, you know, that’s how I learned: listening to other guitarists, trying to get a sound all of my own. That’s how we did it.”
Old school: Page on the band’s meteoric rise
“Fate had so much to do with it – and the blueprint for the band coming together is something that anyone involved in music would like to replicate. But that can’t be done these days, can it?,” Jimmy Page says, talking about his band’s meteoric success.
“The Yardbirds folded in 1968, and within a handful of months Led Zeppelin was not only a band but also a very successful one. From meeting Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, teaming up, rehearsing, playing selected gigs outside of Britain, coming back into Olympic Studios to record the first album, and then going to America, which we crack open like a nut with the debut record. All that happened, literally, within months.
“And what happens next? Each of Led Zeppelin’s subsequent albums becomes a milestone as it’s released, and one of the main reasons is because as a live band we’re virtually unequalled.
“The success of the albums proved us right. That level of success, that massive reach, you just can’t do that any more, can you? It couldn’t happen that fast, even with all of the social-media thing going on, could it?
“Name one act in the past 10 years, 20 years, even, that that kind of success happened to so quickly. Go on, I dare you. You can’t, can you?”
Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda are released as deluxe editions, through Atlantic Records, on July 31st