An Interview With Jimmy Page: Turning Led Into Gold
To paraphrase Led Zeppelin's 1969 psychedelic classic: "What Is and What WILL Never Be." In short, a Zeppelin reunion is what will never be. Seemingly, at least. Guitar genius/producer Jimmy Page wants it; vocalist Robert Plant vociferously does not. So it's not the elephant in the room -- or in this case, on the phone line from London. It's oft-discussed, but Page, uncharacteristically talking to the press and doing public events in the U.S., is laser-focused on promoting his book (the succinctly titled Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page) and the massive year-long-plus Zeppelin reissue/remastering campaign offering previously unreleased "companion audio." Page, 70, is charming and articulate, if slightly cagey, and though there's so much fans want to ask -- ZoSo! Crowley! John Bonham! The Riot House! -- the elder statesman of rock has earned and demands a respect few others can claim.
Clearly, reissuing and remastering all your records with additional new material was a monumental task. Did you have all the moving parts in your possession? Well, I started off archiving my collection, and when it got to the Led Zeppelin stuff, I set up a studio in my own house; it was just going to take so long to listen to all this stuff. I set up a listening studio, and then proceeded going through and making copious amounts of notes, and checking out the bootleg scene; I didn't want to release something that was already out there on bootleg. Being the producer [originally], I was in there more than other guys like when Robert was putting the vocals, so I have various mixes of that. And when [bassist/keyboardist] John Paul Jones went in, I have various mixes of that too. I had more source material than anybody else had to kick off with, but it meant that there was so much more to listen to.
It seems that so many alternate takes and mixes are still available. Do you still have three dozen other mixes and versions to choose from for every song? I had to listen to everything that there was. I left no stone unturned. To be honest with you, I am a bit like that, a bit OCD. So the fact was, if I was going to take this project on, I had to do it right. I came up with the idea of it, I had to see it through and I knew it was going to take hundreds of hours of listening time to sift through the analog tapes of the rough mixes or rough mixes in progress. So, yes, there are bits and pieces of mixes but these ones seem to best complement the original recordings and versions and are different enough for people to go, "Oh, well, that's interesting."
I believe Led Zeppelin IV initially had "Night Flight" and "Boogie with Stu" (featuring the Rolling Stones' Ian Stewart on piano) recorded for it, but that those were saved for later albums like Physical Graffiti. How come? There are three, actually, from the sessions: "Down by the Seaside," "Night Flight," and "Boogie with Stu" were left; actually they would all go on Physical Graffiti in the end. They were initially taken over to be mixed...I went with Andy Johns to Sunset Sound [Los Angeles], where we started the preliminary mixes for this album. "Battle of Evermore" wasn't completed with Sandy Denny yet, but the whole shaping of the album became very apparent there and then, as far as going from one tangent to another, and one extreme to another and having something like the whole menace, density of something like "When the Levee Breaks" to the whole caressing quality of "Going to California." This whole body of work from going to [Hampshire U.K's] Headley Grange, we all stayed in there -- this was a commitment -- and all we did was eat, sleep, and make music and record it with a recording truck. That was it, and we were able to really go from one extreme to another. Mutate time really, and made it sidereal really. That's funny you say that, as I know several people have called you an "alchemist" -- turning metals into gold, and you mention manipulating time, which sounds like another form of alchemy as well. Or turning gold into Led. [Laughs]
As both the producer and a band member, did your "producer side" have the final say in the track listing and decisions like that, or was it a democratic thing? We take it into account, obviously, but you also have to understand that originally these albums were done for vinyl, as that's the medium that there was, you would have one side and then turn over to side two. On side one it would finish with "Stairway to Heaven" and on side two it would finish up with "Levee Breaks," so the whole selection of tracks was always an important thing, as far as I could see. It gave the impact to the track that would follow it. Now, on CDs, you go straight from what would be the last track of what was side one to the first track of side two and you get a continuum right from "Black Dog" to "Levee Breaks." In the days of albums, I think it was really, really important in the way things were put together and the running order. So I put these things together and play it to everyone and they go, "Yeah."
Often producers are babysitters in the studio to control egos and hold hands, or they have to impose their will and are dictators. Did you have to do either of those? Well, I was sort of shaping it, wasn't I, because I had written the material and when I first put the band together, I really knew what I wanted to do with the band before I even had one. I knew exactly what route it was going on: It was through...all those underground clubs I had done in America with the Yardbirds; it was going to flirt with the FM radio, where they were playing songs that were longer than three minutes or two minutes 30. It was underground radio; I knew exactly where I was going with it and that we weren't going to do singles. I knew which way I'd hope it would go if I could get the musicians. Now, fate intervenes at this point and the musicians come on hand very quickly, and it's pretty profound what we managed to do.
Exactly. Fate and vision both. I mean, it looks like it, right? Fate intervened or dictated that we should break musical horizons or traverse the musical map. And we did that.
Zeppelin has topped every chart and won every award...what means the most to you? How you do you define success? Is it meeting President Obama, or recognition from some little Blues Hall of Fame-type thing with three people in it? [Meeting President Obama] was pretty awe-inspiring stuff, I've got to say. Well, all of those sort of awards, it means it comes as a result of people either voting for you or the general public has, and that's really cool. I know I am blowing my own trumpet here, but over here recently [Britain], the BBC had a poll as far as all the guitar riffs and "Whole Lotta Love" came out at the No. 1, actually way in the lead of anything else. That was so cool. That riff was done in 1969 and that's really good that it can still put a smile on people's faces, and you can dance a few shapes to it still.
Correct me, but it seems you have had several periods you needed to be reinvigorated -- such as after John Bonham passed away -- with the ARMS shows. Did this huge Zeppelin project reinvigorate, ending a chapter and you can go forward? No. What, go forward? No, no no, I'm going to go backwards. I'm seriously going to go backwards.
Meaning? That I'm going to go backwards. [Laughs]
So is new music going backwards, or new solo records? I read that you were thinking of doing a tour that would cover all phases of your career, Outrider, The Firm... Who said that?
I read it on the internet, and the internet is always right. Well, let's tease the internet and see what comes later.
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