Jimmy Page is standing in almost the exact spot at London’s Olympic Studios where, 45 years ago, he laid down the guitar track for “Whole Lotta Love.” An assistant taps a button on a control panel, and the song’s familiar opening riff blares at punishing volume. But it doesn’t sound quite right. Robert Plant’s vocals are tentative, and the guitar solo during the instrumental breakdown is missing. Instead of crushing everything in its path, this version sounds like it could swerve off in any number of directions. “Tantalizing," Page says. "Isn't it?"
Page found the outtake in a heavily guarded, climate-controlled, super secret vault in West London, where Led Zeppelin’s master tapes sit alongside the negatives of the Harry Potter films and other priceless British artifacts. It’s one of dozens of previously unheard nuggets that will appear on an ambitious new series of reissues during the next year – deluxe versions of all nine Zeppelin albums, starting with the first three on June 3rd.
Page spent much of the past few years tucked away in a London studio, listening to every take of every Zeppelin LP and carefully picking the best rarities, alternate versions, live cuts and more – from an outtake of “Immigrant Song” to a previously unknown cover of the blues classic “Keys to the Highway” from 1970. “I left no stone unturned,” says the 70-year-old Page, sitting by a fireplace in the lobby of a posh hotel near the Royal Albert Hall. “I can’t have anyone else do it because I want it done properly. I dread to think how it could have been thrown together if I wasn’t around.”
Page has turned into a walking Zeppelin encyclopedia in recent years, rattling off obscure details of old studio sessions and the minute differences between takes of “Black Dog.” When he came across a bootleg of a 1969 Paris show that was broadcast live on radio at a Japanese record store, he scoured the planet for the original tapes. It’s now a bonus disc on the new edition of Led Zeppelin I, though the bulk of bonus material from the other deluxe editions of Zeppelin albums consists of studio material. "I see them as companion discs," says Page. "They comprise work done around the exact time of each album. They are fascinating to hear and they hold up alongside the original albums."
While assembling the bonus material, Page was careful to not unearth too many takes that have surfaced on bootlegs. "I was pretty diligent with my detection work," he says. "I didn't want to put together a compilation where ninety percent of it had been bootlegged. I asked a guy that runs one of the fanzines if he's heard any of this material before. He told me he hadn't. That was a really good feeling."
For his part, Plant has given his blessing to the project but isn’t nearly as involved. “There’s only so many hours in the day,” he says. “But Jimmy is professorial.” The singer is sitting in a private room above his favorite pub in North London, a few blocks from his home, and as he talks about Zep’s Seventies prime, there’s no doubting his enthusiasm. “That period around Led Zeppelin II was mind-altering,” he says. “It was a dream come true for me and [John] Bonham. We both came from the same part of England, and it was really like the Black Keys coming from Akron. We were much more naive than the other two guys.”
Led Zeppelin's earliest concerts are the stuff of legend, but most of them weren't taped and are completely lost to history, including a 1969 show at Boston's Tea Party where they played a nearly four-hour show that included the bulk of their set twice in a row and an impromptu set of encores featuring covers like "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Please Please Me" by the Beatles. (Ninety minutes did survive, but that's just the first set.) "I remember it well," says Plant. "I remember a guy banging his head on the stage until it bled."
Many of the bootlegs from 1968/69 were taped by audience members with rudimentary equipment and sound abysmal. "You have to understand the mechanics of professional recording shows in those days," says Jimmy Page. "You'd need a recording truck, quite a number of analog tapes and two machines. Our songs weren't three minutes long, so you needed two tapes running in case one ran out mid-song."
The deluxe editions of Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, Presence and In Through The Out Door have already been assembled, but Page is reluctant to get into details about them. "I want to surprise people," he says. "That's always been my game plan." Led Zeppelin IV will likely come out later this year. Will it feature unheard recordings from the "Stairway To Heaven" sessions? Page just smiles and offers one word: "Absolutely."
Despite spending the past few years focused almost entirely on excavating material from the Zeppelin vault, Page is unwilling to rule out the possibility of future archival releases. "There's certainly more things that can be done," he says. "But this took a lot of time and I don't want to start proposing another project because it will take me another six months or a year. I'd rather spend time practicing my guitar and going out to play."