It is, Jimmy Page declares proudly, "the mother of all Codas – an absolute celebration of Led Zeppelin, all things bright and beautiful, all of the curios." The Led Zeppelin guitarist pauses and grins. "It's cool."
Over his morning coffee in a New York hotel suite, Page is marking the end of his year-long reissue of Zeppelin's studio catalog, in deluxe editions with previously unreleased material, with a rare, extended look back at "the most difficult album I had to approach" – Coda, a half-hour of outtakes compiled by Page and released in 1982, two years after he, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones quietly disbanded following the death of drummer John Bonham. "It was put to me that there was another album due," Page recalls. "It was contractual. I was like, 'Oh my God, no.'"
The weight of obligation showed on the original LP; three of the eight tracks were left-behind songs from Zeppelin's last, least compelling studio album, 1979's In Through the Out Door. But that was then. Reissued on July 31st along with new editions of In Through the Out Door and 1976's Presence, the deluxe Coda is now essential Zeppelin, a three-disc, 23-track account of the band's studio life in illuminating rarities, including the 1970 B-side "Hey, Hey What Can I Do"; "Sugar Mama," a bluesy grenade from the 1968 sessions for Led Zeppelin; two exotic jewels from Page and Plant's 1972 evening in a Bombay studio with members of an Indian orchestra; and a revelatory test run of "When the Levee Breaks" from Led Zeppelin IV.
The '82 Coda was, Page now admits, "an attempt to make something out of very little – or nothing." The reboot, in turn, "has all of the quirkiness, the totally unexpected aspect of things" that characterized Zeppelin's ascent on record throughout the Seventies. In a story in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Page also speaks about his immediate plans as a solo artist – "To pick up the guitar, and I won't stop from that point on" – and remembers the crushing helplessness he felt after Bonham's death: "I didn't want to play the guitar . . . It was going to bring up too much."
In these additional excerpts from that conversation, Page goes long on Coda, especially that Indian sojourn, and his short-lived spell as a composer for films, anthologized in Page's recent, independently released four-disc set, Soundtracks. He also drops a hint about a future archival mission: his 1967-'68 work with the Yardbirds. "I've got enough recordings of the Yardbirds to make it interesting," Page claims. "Now that I'm finished with Led Zeppelin, I have a chance to talk to them – as long as it doesn't get in the way of my guitar project."
How much of your heart did you put into compiling the original Coda? It was only two years after Bonham's death.
It didn't feel like two years. It still felt like yesterday. That was the most difficult album I had to approach. I knew that it was just going to be things that were left over. It couldn't be current. We'd lost John. We couldn't do another album. It sold really well under the circumstances. But it was a compromise.
What was the first outtake that came to mind, that got you started?
It didn't take long for the light to come on. We had "Bonzo's Montreux." The other members didn't know what it was, because I'd done it with John in Montreux [in September 1976], between the recording of Presence and In Through the Out Door. For me, "Bonzo's Montreux" was the backbone of Coda.
I had the multi-tracks of it and started working on the mixing, making sense of what was originally laid down. I also had this other mix [now a bonus track on the deluxe Coda] of John's drums without the top-line steel-drum effect which I got through a harmonizer at the time. That one's great for people who love Bonham, just to feel those drums.
One of the most striking outtakes now in the deluxe Coda is "If It Keeps on Raining" – a true, alternate reading from 1970 of "When the Levee Breaks," eventually released on Led Zeppelin IV.
It might be a tail-end thing to III. But it's months before we go into Headley Grange [to record IV], before we heard that drum sound in the stairwell. By then, it was probably "Remember that thing we did? Let's revisit that."
There is lot more blues nuance in Robert's singing in that first version. There is more North Africa in your guitar too.
It's like a mantra, the whole thing. It's a cool version. Most bands would have stopped there. "That's good enough for the next album." I wanted to think about it further. I'd always give anything a reasonable try.
It was all exploration, right from the first album [Led Zeppelin, 1969]. As time went on, we had more time to go into the studio. We could do different attempts at songs. And as the producer, I was in the studio more than the others. I had quite an encyclopedic knowledge of what was there. It got to the point that when I played the companion disc for [the reissue of] III to Robert and John [Paul Jones], they were really surprised at what they heard. Robert, after a certain length of time into [the previously unissued cover] "Key to the Highway," he went, "Oh, I remember that now." John didn't even know it existed, because it was something I did with Robert. There were a lot of surprises in this project – not just for the listening public, but for the band.
What would have caused you to put "If It Keeps on Raining" to the side in 1970?
Because it's not complete. There is a whole section in the middle where there would have been another vocal. It doesn't get to that. It was a test run. I wanted to get this riff going.
I'm surprised that "Sugar Mama" is an outtake from the first album. It sounds a lot more like Led Zeppelin II in its textures and dynamics.
I know what you mean. The thing is "Sugar Mama" got mixed later. That's not the original mix that was done at the time of the album. It was done for Coda. I had the song going into "Poor Tom" in the original lineup. But I thought, "I don't know. I'll not put this out now." It's short, sweet and sappy. Now everybody goes, ‘Great, play it on the radio."
That's probably why I wasn't so keen to put it on the first album. I didn't think it was heavyweight enough. A really concise statement on a shorter scale is "Good Times Bad Times." "Sugar Mama" couldn't follow that. And it wasn't going to go next to "Dazed and Confused." The intent of that first album was its intensity. The sequencing was very important, the way everything sets up the next number.
A Passage to India
You have finally released the Indian versions of "Friends" and "Four Hands" [a.k.a "Four Sticks"], which you recorded with Robert in what was then Bombay in 1972. Those tracks are unusual in two ways. It's the only time you and Robert formally recorded away from the band during its lifetime. And it's the only time, in those years, that you recut previously released songs.
I'd been affected by Indian music in my teens. When I was a session musician, I was paying attention to a lot of it – not the film music but the North and South Indian classical music. But I wanted to work with the source. I had visited Bombay after touring Australia with the Yardbirds. And I'd used a tabla player on the first album (on "Black Mountain Side").
I was keen to see if it was possible to go in with an acoustic guitar and have a conversation, a communion, with musicians there. When I originally wrote the structure of "Friends" [on Led Zeppelin III], I was thinking of Indian music – those string lines we allude to. I knew that song was the most immediate thing that would work.
Was that trip a stopover for you and Robert during a vacation?
No, it was a setup. I requested a tabla player and a mridingam, a double-headed drum. Also a shenai, a sarangai and the [classical] string players. It was a challenge. There was no arranger, apart from me. I had a translator. I'd be like, "Gentlemen, it goes like this." I'd play it for them, then tell the sarangai player to start it off. Then I'd go through the stops and starts in the song, the changes, illustrating to the strings where they played. Then it got the point where Robert could have a sing-along.
By that point, the whole experience was a success – the possibility of working with musicians who have never heard you, don't know your music.
And building to that moment.
Absolutely. We did two takes, and one of them is that one you've heard. But I didn't want to let the moment go. We only have an evening. So I thought, "These percussionists are good. We'll do 'Four Sticks' [from Led Zeppelin IV]." That was trickier. They played in unusual time signatures, but what they didn't do was swap things around. Something might be in 16 beats, but there would be four, complete rounds of that. This swaps over. Robert wasn't singing on this – he's sitting there quietly in the corner. And I don't play guitar either. I just wanted the beauty of what they're doing. It was absolutely wonderful.
If the recordings were such a success, why didn't you release them at the time?
Because it was an experiment, to see how possible it was to work with these musicians. The master plan was that if we were going to Australia or Japan to tour, it might be interesting to stop in Cairo, record with an orchestra there, then move to India and do something there. It was rather ambitious. Peter Grant, the manager, tried to work it out. There was some talk of the Indian air force flying the equipment around. But it didn't get to be.
That's the way things are. You come up with ideas. And sometimes they're not so successful. But I thought that recording was a real success – in the space of an evening.
Designed to Disturb
You recently issued a four-disc set of your Seventies and Eighties film music – the scores to Lucifer Rising and Death Wish II with extra material. That was an experimental area that you ultimately did not pursue.
Lucifer Rising was basically a solo project. I'm playing all of the instruments, like keyboards. That's something that didn't involve somebody else.
My work then was basically Led Zeppelin. If I wasn't touring, I was writing stuff, thinking of the next album. Once I had a home studio, I wanted to experiment with textures and sound. Was it going to be run of the mill or experimental? [Laughs] Sure as hell, it was going to be experimental.
The sheer quirkiness of it – you put that on and turn the lights out. You might get white knuckles after awhile. It's designed to disturb. But isn't that the same mindset that I have applied to all of it? I've always tried to push beyond what I've already done, all the way through.
Death Wish II was your first commercial film project. Did you feel like a beginner?
Not really. [Director] Michael Winner put two and two together. His next-door neighbor was this guy in Led Zeppelin. "Wouldn't it be a good idea if I had him do the music in this film?" He thought I was just going to give a few melodies, a few top lines for someone else to put together. I did 45 minutes of music for a 90-minute film – too much really. But I love a challenge, to manifest something out of nothing.
Why didn't you do any more film work?
I'd already done it. It was a challenge – I was done. Why did I only put out one solo single in 1965 ["She Just Satisfies"}? Why did I only do one solo album in 1988 [Outrider]? Well, that's all that was necessary. I didn't want to milk it [laughs].
After working on the Zeppelin reissues, is there anything you have learned – about the music, yourself, your life in the band – that you didn't know before? That may come in handy as you finally start new solo work?
Basically . . . [Pauses]. It's an affirmation, really – how you thought, how you put things together, how you do it now.
You believe you made all of the right choices at the time. That's what affirmation means.
It is [smiles].
You can say, "I was right."
I certainly didn't get it wrong. That's for sure. There might be certain areas where it's questionable. I can say, "Maybe I wasn't right, but I certainly wasn't wrong."
And I'm ready to have another go.