Jimmy Page: 'Led Zeppelin Was an Affair of the Heart'

Guitar god on the latest Led Zep reissues, his choirboy past — and potential new music next year

Jimmy Page reflects on the power of Led Zeppelin — and his life after the band — in David Fricke's extensive interview. Credit: Joseph Victor Stefanchik/Washington Post/Getty

"I don't intend to revisit the vaults for awhile," Jimmy Page says with a smile, sitting in the opulent library of a Victorian hotel in London. The ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist, 70, has spent much of the last decade in a retrospective frenzy: collating the images for his lavish, photographic memoir, Jimmy Page, first published in a collectors' edition in 2010 and now widely available; and curating acclaimed, deluxe reissues of his band's historic studio LPs. Rarity-laden editions of 1971's Led Zeppelin IV and '73's Houses of the Holy come out on October 28th, and Page has finished preparing the rest of the catalog for release.

The new version of Presence, he reveals in the current issue of Rolling Stone, includes "two extra things" he found on a reel with an early mix of that album. But in this expanded version of that interview, he is more coy about curious omissions amid the bonus tracks so far, including the Led Zeppelin III-era B-side, "Hey, Hey, What Can I Do" and unreleased Indo-symphonic versions of III's "Friends" and IV's "Four Sticks," recorded by Page and singer Robert Plant in 1972 in what was then Bombay, India, with sitars, tabla drums and a local orchestra. "Can't comment on that, really," Page says with a sly grin. "I can't tell you what's coming, can I?"

The guitarist is proud of his research for the reissues. "I listened to hundreds of hours of tape," he says. "I checked everything that came out in bootleg form, that purported to be from the studio, so that I knew exactly what was out there, in order to put stuff out that people didn't dream existed. And by the end, I think I will have covered everything."

Page explains his diligence another way, in a long, freewheeling conversation the day after he unveils the latest reissues at a playback and press conference for the European press at Zeppelin's old haunt, the former Olympic Studios in London. (It is now an upscale cinema with a small recording studio.) "As there weren't going to be any more shows, I could concentrate on these more eccentric ideas," Page says of his book and the re-releases, referring to Plant's refusal to tour after Zeppelin's 2007 reunion show at London's O2 arena. At the press conference, Page politely eluded a question on that topic. He does so here too.

But Page is blunt and voluble on so much more, for over an hour in that library, including his choirboy past, Zeppelin's manic ascent, the sudden end of that band, the power of the original records and the deeper story unveiled in the bonus tracks. "People said that was a milestone album," Page says at one point of IV. "Well, honestly, it was."

You've done more promotion for these reissues than you ever did in the band's lifetime. Do you ever get tired of talking about Led Zeppelin?
The fact is I created it. In July, 1968, I played my last date with the Yardbirds. By the end of that year, Led Zeppelin has an album, and we're playing America. I had a committment to this. I was writing the material all the way through, shaping guitar riffs and the rest of it. [Bassist] John Paul Jones writes the opening riff to "Black Dog" [on IV]. "OK, you've got that bit. Let's try a call-and-response here." Or "No Quarter" [on Houses of the Holy], where Robert's got the verse, but here's the chorus to tie all this together.

Being the producer, the one who was in the studio more times than the others, I had more points of reference to the work being done. I was the one with the knowledge to pull a project like these reissues together. You wouldn't find anyone else to do it. 

In your book, you mention a visit to a palmist the day before a Yardbirds show in Los Angeles. What did she actually say?
It was a "he" actually [laughs], although he looked more like a "she." It was on Sunset Boulevard, not far from the hotel. [Future Led Zeppelin road manager] Richard Cole was with me, so I've got a witness. The key phrase was, "You're going to make a decision in a very short period of time that is going to change your life."

Within 48 hours, the other Yardbirds said they didn't want to continue. I was disappointed. I thought what we had going . . . I was willing to do it with the Yardbirds, whatever it was. I can understand how disillusioned they were. But I could see the trajectory. FM radio was happening. I knew what that meant to underground bands. You could taste it. I wanted an underground band – but one that would come through and make a difference.

The book opens with a photo of you as a choirboy at age 13. Can you actually sing?
Not now. I have one of those gravel-y voices with no range to it. But I'm singing on Led Zeppelin records. On the first album, I'm part of the backing voices. On "Thank You" [on Led Zeppelin II], I'm singing in the verse. I'm not a good singer. [Grins] That's why Robert was in the band.

The choirmaster was Mr. Coffin. I thought that was amusing for a church choir. We contacted his son-in-law about using the photo. He said, "Oh, Mr. Coffin remembered Jimmy very well. He used to take his guitar to choir practice and tune it to the organ." [Smiles] Lots of black artists say they started in the church. In my humble way, me too.

The alternate mixes in these reissues highlight dramatic details on the original albums, like the overlapping waves of guitar and mandolin in "Battle of Evermore" on IV. Did Led Zeppelin's success overshadow the hard work on the records?
People heard the details. They might not get it. The details caress on an unconscious level. The effects are not thrust in your face. They're back here [raises hands behind his head]. The depth and layers – that was intentional.

The fourth album was a commitment. We were living in a house with a recording truck, eating and sleeping music together. We could push everything we were doing, to the point of total extremes like "When the Levee Breaks." It's so dense and dark – there isn't a color to describe it. It's not black. It's darker than that [laughs].

People said IV was a milestone album. Well, honestly, it was.

The drums feel way upfront. How would you describe the alternate mix of "Rock and Roll"? What's alternate about it?
That one is not quite so extreme as the others [on the reissue of IV]. You can hear more piano on it.

Maybe so. The mix has a different perspective. But all the elements are employed that you hear on the final version. There's another alternate mix – "Stairway to Heaven," done at Sunset Sound in L.A. That is one where all of the elements are employed but the perspective is totally different. You can hear that and feel the difference. 

It's almost folk-rock in the beginning – quieter, more restrained, especially in the front of the song. Is that why it was rejected? [The final mix was redone in London at Olympic.]
No. The reason was you couldn't hear the bass properly [laughs]. Around that time, there were horror stories of people's tapes being interfered with, getting wiped by accident when they travelled with them. When we came back to London, and played the L.A. mixes at Olympic, the speakers there were more mid-range than those at Sunset Sound, which had a bigger high and low end. In England, when we played those tapes, it sounded like we'd lost top and bottom. We thought something had happened to the tapes. It was deemed better to just remix.

Was there ever a take or mix of "Stairway to Heaven" with a different guitar solo?
No. The elements of the overdubs were all there. I was pretty consistent in being able to remember what was supposed to go where. But these alternative mixes are different enough. That Sunset Sound one [of "Stairway"] sounds like a hi-fi mix to me. It's got all that headroom which the other one doesn't have.

At the playback yesterday, the screen displayed concert photos from 1971-73, when you were touring behind IV and Houses of the Holy. A striking thing about those images is how often they show the band members standing in front of John Bonham's drum kit. No matter how big the stage, you always gravitated back there, like he was the center of the sound.
Each Led Zeppelin performance was different. There would be so many elements that can and did change. We were flexing our muscles in these songs. Once a song went into the set, it was going to get beaten up. There was no safety there. I didn't like safety.

Did you stand so close together, in front of Bonham, for eye contact – visual cues as you improvised?
It was that. But it was also the listening. That was the best point for us to listen to each other. John Bonham always had his monitors really loud behind his kit. That was a good point to hear everything that was going out to the crowd. As stage monitors improved, we moved around more. But it was better to position yourself where you could hear the bass and vocals, to feel the drums and the urgency of the music. It was all listening. If I was going to change something, I didn't want everyone coming in two verses later. And if anybody else changed something, I was right there with them on it. 

Given how much time you spent in front of Bonham's drum kit, what is the state of your hearing? It must have taken quite a beating.
My hearing is actually really good, considering that searing top coming at me from those cymbals. As I'm advancing in years, a lot of my friends realize how good my hearing is. I'm really blessed. Without good hearing, you're fucked in this business – especially on the details of this stuff, the subtlety of what I'm working on. I'm lucky with that.

One of the most bizarre photos in your book, from Zeppelin's Seventies peak, is a shot of you, Groucho Marx and Gloria Swanson at a 1974 party for your label, Swan Song. Did they have any idea who you were?
Probably not. But Groucho was very cool. He did these autographs – he'd put your hand down on paper, draw around it, then put "Groucho" under it. Within his advancing years, he was pretty sharp. I was sort of paraded past him, I told him how brilliant he was in those Marx Brothers films.

What was it like for you, a child of post-war Britain, to be so close to old-school Hollywood glamour? They were attending your affair.
It was the same when we got to meet Elvis Presley [in May 1974] – unbelievable. He's the one who did so much for so many. He set everyone alight. He also flew right under the radar with all of this black music, doing numbers by country blues artists like Arthur Crudup and Sleepy John Estes. At one point, we were talking with him about [Fifties singer] Ral Donner, who we knew as an Elvis imitator. Elvis was telling us that Donner had this pink Cadillac with "This is the real Ral Donner" written on the side. We were like, "Wow, this is fantastic, hearing this from Elvis." He was one of the chaps, one of us. It was remarkable.

How good were Zeppelin's last shows with John Bonham, in Europe in 1980?
They were bloody good. The material was quite different. I met somebody once who said, "I went to see you, and it didn't sound anything like the records. I was really disappointed." I said, "That's good – not that you were disappointed. At least you paid attention enough to realize it didn't sound like the records." The shows were meant to sound like something else, something more challenging.

In ending the band after Bonham's death, you missed a chance to rebuild and move on, as the Who did after losing Keith Moon. Why didn't you just take time to heal?
Led Zeppelin wasn't a corporate entity. Led Zeppelin was an affair of the heart. Each of the members was important to the sum total of what we were. I like to think that if it had been me that wasn't there, the others would have made the same decision. And what were we going to do? Create a role for somebody, say, "You have to do this, this way?" That wouldn't be honest. 

There were attempts [at reunion] that didn't work – trying to push it together in a hurry. That's why the [2007] show had to be done with such intent – rehearsing as much as we could so Jason [Bonham's son] felt he was part of the band as opposed to a novelty. He was filling big shoes, and we needed all of that.

At the press conference yesterday, you neatly dodged the inevitable question about more reunion shows.
Well, it's painful, isn't it?

Have the exchanges between you and Robert in the press gotten out of hand?
It's all right for soundbites. But I can't be bothered anymore. I'm not interested in all that silliness. I don't think it's fun. So I'll say nothing.

Have you heard Robert's new album?
I heard some of it when he did it live at Glastonbury [this year].

What do you think of his direction, the way he is pursuing the folk, country and African tangents in the music he played with Zeppelin?
It's his journey, isn't it?

You also answered a question yesterday about making new music. And you said, "Next year."
I seriously intend to be seen playing, to have a document of what I'm doing. I've been doing a lot of stuff, archiving everything on my behalf, on Led Zeppelin's behalf. That needed to be done. I enjoy playing live. I like sending people surprises as well.

Do you have an advanced idea of what that new music will be?
I've got a game plan. I'm not going to tell anybody anything [grins]. I don't want to give people ideas, where they end up going later, "Oh, I thought he was going to do this." I prefer to just get people by the jugular – when I'm ready.

What are you listening to now, besides Led Zeppelin? When we spoke in 2012, you were excited about the American band Rival Sons.
A band I saw here on Later with Jools Holland was [the hard-rock duo] Royal Blood. It just so happened that I was in New York [earlier this year] and they were playing there [at the Mercury Lounge]. I went down and was thrilled to see these two guys playing with such a connecting energy. They kept my attention all the way through their set. I could have heard another hour of them.

That's inspiring – just two people who really work hard at it. But it's also pretty intellectual the way they're doing it. I admire that. I know what they've gone through to get to that. So I'm like, "Good luck, guys." 

Why haven't you produced records by younger bands like Rival Sons or Royal Blood? You produced Zeppelin. Most bands would love a piece of that expertise.
I wasn't thinking on that type of corporate or global scale. Whatever talents I had, I wanted to keep them in house, with Led Zeppelin – in the same way that we knew we didn't have to bring in extra musicians. We could do everything ourselves. All the stuff I was writing – I only wrote it with Led Zeppelin in mind, during the duration of that band. I never thought, "How can I capitalize on this somewhere else?" It was more like a crusade.

I was thinking more of your years since Zeppelin. As a producer, you could have passed your experience and standards on to others.
Yeah, well [pauses]. I sort of did, through the records. I didn't see the necessity to do it the other way.

At the press conference, you mentioned your continuing love of buying records – vinyl, of course. Is there anything you've discovered or rediscovered recently – any old music that's new to you?
See that bookcase behind me? If you think of all the subjects covered in there, all of the categories – well, that's my record collection. It was always like that, even as a teenager. It wasn't huge then, but it covered so many different areas: classical, electronic, musique concréte, through to what is called world music now, into country blues, Chicago blues, rockabilly, It was all of these things, going off at this angle and that.

I'm in the process of getting some vinyl reissues. But I won't alert everybody to what I want to get, because when I get to the record shops, they won't be there [laughs].

Most people would think you spend your days now listening to nothing but Led Zeppelin.
That's far from the case. Anyway, I've done my share of listening to Led Zeppelin.