John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin's bassist and keyboard player, was quietly playing backgammon and half listening to a phone-in radio talk show on New York FM.
"I was in a club last night when someone asked me if I wanted to meet Jimmy Page," the show's host suddenly offered between calls. "You know, when I think about it, there's no one I'd rather meet less than someone as disgusting as Jimmy Page."
Jones bolted up from his game. "Let me just say that Led Slime can't play their way out of a paper bag and if you plan on seeing them tomorrow night at the Garden, those goons are ripping you off. Now don't start wasting my time defending Led Slime. If you're thinking about calling up to do that, stick your head in the toilet and flush."
Jones, normally a man of quiet reserve, strode furiously across the room. He snapped up a phone and dialed the station. After a short wait, the talk show host picked up the phone.
"What would you like to talk about?"
"Led Zeppelin," Jones answered cooly in his clipped British accent. The line went dead. Victim of an eight-second delay button, the exchange was never given air time.
It was a familiar battle, as Jones saw it. Although Led Zeppelin has managed to sell more than a million units apiece on all five of its albums and is currently working a U.S. tour that is expected to be the largest grossing undertaking in rock history, the band has been continually kicked, shoved, pummeled and kneed in the groin by critics of all stripes. "I know it's unnecessary to fight back," Jones said. True enough: The Zep's overwhelming popularity speaks for itself. "I just thought I'd defend myself one last time."
The night after that aborted defense, in the first of three concerts at Madison Square Garden, Led Zeppelin brought a standing-room-only audience to its feet with one of the finest shows of its six-year career. On Page's unexpected midset impulse, the band launched unrehearsed into a stunning 20-minute version of his tour de force, "Dazed and Confused." The tension of uncertain success was an evident and electric element in Zeppelin's performance that evening. "No question about it," lead singer Robert Plant enthused before returning to the stage for a second encore of "Communication Breakdown," "the tour has begun."
It has been a long time since Zeppelin last rock & rolled. After 18 months spent laboring over their new double album, Physical Graffiti, the band has some warming up to do. "It's unfortunate there's got to be anybody there," Plant said. "But we've got to feel our way. There's a lot of energy here this tour. Much more than the last one." The tour's official opening night, January 18th at the Minneapolis Sports Center, went surprisingly well considering the circumstances. Only a week before, Jimmy Page broke the tip of his left ring finger when it was caught in a slamming train door. With only one rehearsal to perfect what Page calls his "three-and-a-half-finger technique," the classic Zeppelin live pieces, "Dazed and Confused" and "Since I've Been Loving You," were indefinitely retired. Codeine tablets and Jack Daniel's deadened the pain enough for Page to struggle through the band's demanding three-hour set.
Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin's manager and president of Swan Song, the group's record company, found those first few dates strange: "A Led Zeppelin concert without 'Dazed and Confused' is something I'll have to get used to. In a lot of ways that number is the band at its very best. There's one point in the song where Pagey can take off and do whatever he wants to. There is always the uncertainty of whether it will be five or 35 minutes long."
Page reacted to his injury with quiet desperation. "I have no doubt the tour is going to be good, it's just, dammit, I'm disappointed that I can't do all I can do." He began beating a fist quietly into the palm of his crippled hand. "I always want to do my very best and it's frustrating to have something hold me back. You can bet that 'Dazed and Confused' will be back in the set the very second I'm able to play it. We may not be brilliant for a few nights but we'll always be good."
The tour progressed satisfactorily through three nights at the Chicago Stadium and visits to Cleveland and Indianapolis until Plant came down with the flu. A show in St. Louis was postponed until mid-February and while Plant stayed behind to convalesce, the band flew to Los Angeles for a day off.
The rest sparked a shift into second gear and subsequent concerts in Greensboro, Detroit and Pittsburgh progressively improved, leading up to Led Zeppelin's tumultuous New York victory and the first version of "Dazed and Confused" on the tour. In the meantime, there was little of the savage hotel-room-splintering road fever Zeppelin is known for. "There hasn't been much room," said drummer John (Bonzo) Bonham a little sadly. "The music has taken up most of our concerns."
It was in late 1968 that Jimmy Page first put together the band that was to become Led Zeppelin. The name was suggested by Who drummer Keith Moon, and embodies an irony that hardly needs to be commented upon. Page first approached Robert Plant, then the lead singer for a raucous Birmingham group called the Band of Joy. "His voice," said Page, "was too great to be undiscovered. All I had to do from there was find a bassist and a drummer."
The latter came easily. Plant suggested Bonham, the drummer from the Band of Joy. Bassist John Paul Jones was the last to join. "I answered a classified ad in Melody Maker," he said. "My wife made me." Jones had a sessionman's background. He had arranged some of the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request album. He also arranged albums for producer Mickey Most's stable. "I arranged albums by Jeff Beck, Lulu, Donovan and Herman's Hermits."
All four members used the word "magic" when recalling Zeppelin's first rehearsal. "I've never been so turned on in my life," says Plant. "Although we were all steeped in blues and R&B, we found out in the first hour and a half that we had our own identity."
Robert Plant, now 26, grew up in the Black Country, where the English industrial revolution began. He says he lived "a sheltered childhood" and that he began picking up on Buddy Guy, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Woody Guthrie almost as soon as he entered school. Drifting in and out of groups like the Delta Blues Band, the Crawling King Snakes and the Band of Joy, Plant became known locally as "the wild man of blues from the Black Country." He met Page in 1968, just before the formation of Led Zeppelin.
"Pagey and I are closer than ever on this tour." Plant said after the New York concert. "We've almost jelled into one person in a lot of ways."
Jimmy Page, now 31, grew up in Felton, a dreary community near London's Heathrow Airport. An only child, he had no playmates until he began school at the age of five. "That early isolation," says Page, "it probably had a lot to do with the way I turned out. A loner. A lot of people can't by on their own. They get frightened. Isolation doesn't bother me at all. It gives me a sense of security."
Page started playing guitar when he was 12. "Somebody had laid a Spanish guitar on us ... a very old one. I probably couldn't play it now if I tried. It was sitting around our living room for weeks and weeks. I wasn't interested. Then I heard a couple of records that really turned me on, the main one being Elvis's 'Baby, Let's Play House,' and I wanted to play it. I wanted to know what it was all about. This other guy at school showed me a few chords and I just went on from there."
After a stint of several years as one of England's leading session guitarists (he played on the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Van Morrison and Them's "Here Comes the Night" and "Gloria," the Who's "I Can't Explain" and several Burt Bacharach hits, among others), Page joined the Yardbirds as a second lead guitarist to Jeff Beck. Beck was soon to leave the band and Page was left alone in the spotlight for a time. When the Yardbirds finally crumbled, Page was free to form Led Zeppelin.
The following conversations with Page and Plant took place over a period of two weeks. We began over tea in Plant's suite at Chicago's Ambassador Hotel. The talk continued three days later in Page's darkened room. "It's still morning," he shivered, sitting underneath a blanket on his sofa. "We may have to talk for three hours before I make any sense." The resulting interview, from which most of this material is taken, stretched into late afternoon. Page, a soft-spoken man, apparently preferred candles to electric light.
A visit to Plant several days later provided more material and one final visit with Page on the plane flight to New York supplied the remaining details.
It wasn't until Led Zeppelin's last American tour in '73 that the media fully acknowledged the band's popularity.
Plant: We decided to hire our first publicity firm after we toured here in the summer of '72. That was the same summer that the Stones toured and we knew full well that we were doing more business than them. We were getting better gates in comparison to a lot of people who were constantly glorified in the press. So without getting too egocentric, we thought it was time that people heard something about us other than that we were eating women and throwing the bones out the window. That whole lunacy thing was all people knew about us and it was all word-of-mouth. All those times of lunacy were okay, but we aren't and never were monsters. Just good-time boys, loved by their fans and hated by their critics.
Do you feel any competition with the Stones?
Page: Naw. I don't think of it that way. I don't feel any competition at all. The Stones are great and always have been. Jagger's lyrics are just amazing. Right on the ball every time. I mean, I know all about how we're supposed to be the biggest group in the world and all, but I don't ever think about it. I don't feel that competition enters into it. It's who makes good music and who doesn't ... and who's managed to sustain themselves.
What motivates you at this point?
Page: I love playing. If it was down to just that, it would be utopia. But it's not. It's airplanes, hotel rooms, limousines and armed guards standing outside rooms. I don't get off on that part of it at all. But it's the price I'm willing to pay to get out and play. I was very restless over the last 18 months where we laid off and worked on the album.
Plant: There's a constant conflict, really, within me. As much as I really enjoy what I do at home ... I play on my own little soccer team and I've been taking part in the community and living the life of any ordinary guy, I always find myself wistful and enveloped in a feeling I can't really get out of my system. I miss this band when we aren't playing. I have to call Jimmy up or something to appease that restlessness. The other night when we played for the first time again I found the biggest smile on my mouth.
What's this rumor, Jimmy, about a solo album?
Page: Chalk that off to Keith Richards' sense of humor. I did what could possibly be the next Stones B-side. It was Rick Grech, Keith and me doing a number called "Scarlet." I can't remember the drummer. It sounded very similar in style and mood to those Blonde on Blonde tracks. It was great, really good. We stayed up all night and went down to Island Studios where Keith put some reggae guitars over one section. I just put some solos on it, but it was eight in the morning of the next day before I did that. He took the tapes to Switzerland and someone found out about them. Keith told people that it was a track from my album.
I don't need to do a solo album and neither does anybody else in the band. The chemistry is such that there's nobody in the background who's so frustrated that he has to bring out his own LPs. I don't really like doing that Townshend number of telling everybody exactly what to play. I don't like that too much. A group's a group after all, isn't it?
You've managed to continue undaunted in the midst of such criticism – especially in the early days of Zeppelin. How much do you believe in yourself?
Page: I may not believe in myself, but I believe in what I'm doing. I know where I'm going musically. I can see my pattern and I'm going much slower than I thought I'd be going. I can tell how far I ought to be going, I know how to get there, all I've got to do is keep playing. That might sound a bit weird because of all the John McLaughlins who sound like they're in outer space or something. Maybe it's the tortoise and the hare.
I'm not a guitarist as far as a technician goes, I just pick it up and play it. Technique doesn't come into it. I deal in emotions. It's the harmonic side that's important. That's the side I expected to be much further along on than I am now. That just means to say that I've got to keep at it.
There's such a wealth of arts and styles within the instrument ... flamenco, jazz, rock, blues ... you name it, it's there. In the early days my dream was to fuse all those styles. Now composing has become just as important. Hand-in-hand with that, I think it's time to travel, start gathering some real right-in-there experiences with street musicians around the world. Moroccan musicians, Indian musicians ... it could be a good time to travel around now. This year. I don't know how everyone else is gonna take that, but that's the direction I'm heading in right now. This week, I'm a gypsy. Maybe next week it'll be glitter rock.
What would you again from your travels?
Page: Are you kidding? God, you know what you can gain when you sit down with the Moroccans. As a person and as a musician. That's how you grow. Not by living like this. Ordering up room service in hotels. It's got to be the opposite end of the scale. The balance has got to swing exactly the opposite. To the point where maybe I'll have an instrument and nothing else. I used to travel like that a long while ago. There's no reason I can't do it again. There's always this time thing. You can't buy time. Everything, for me, seems to be a race against time. Especially musically. I know what I want to get down and I haven't got much time to do it in. I had another idea of getting a traveling medicine wagon with a dropdown side and traveling around England. That might sound crazy to you, but over there it's so rural you can do it. Just drop down the side and play through big battery amps and mixers and it can all be as temporary or as permanent as I want it to be. I like change and I like contrast. I don't like being stuck in one situation, day to day. Domesticity and all that isn't really for me. Sitting in this hotel for a week is no picnic. That's when the road fever starts and that's when the breakages start, but I haven't gotten to that stage yet. I've been pretty mellow so far. Mind you, we're only into the tour a week.
How well do you remember your first American tour?
Plant: Nineteen years old and never been kissed, I remember it well. It's been a long time. Nowadays we're more into staying in our rooms and reading Nietzsche. There was good fun to be had, you know, it's just that in those days there were more people to have good fun with than there are now. The States were much more fun. L.A. was L.A. It's not L.A. now. L.A. infested with jaded 12-year-olds is not the L.A. that I really dug.
It was the first place I ever landed in America: the first time I ever saw a cop with a gun, the first time I ever saw a 20-foot-long car. There were a lot of fun-loving people to crash into. People were genuinely welcoming us to the country and we started out on a path of positive enjoyment. Throwing eggs from floor to floor and really silly water battles and all the good fun that a 19-year-old boy should have. It was just the first steps of learning how to be crazy. We met a lot of people who we still know and a lot of people who have faded away. Some ODed. Some of them just grew up. I don't see the point in growing up.
You seem sincerely depressed over the matter.
Plant: Well, I am. I haven't lost my innocence particularly. I'm always ready to pretend I haven't. Yeah, it is a shame in a way. And it's a shame to see these young chicks bungle their lives away in a flurry and rush to compete with what was in the old days the goodtime relationships we had with the GTOs and people like that. When it came to looning, they could give us as much of a looning as we could give them. It's a shame, really. If you listen to "Sick Again," a track from Physical Graffiti, the words show I feel a bit sorry for them. "Clutching pages from your teenage dream in the lobby of the Hotel Paradise/Through the circus of the L.A. queen how fast you learn the downhill slide."* One minute she's 12 and the next minute she's 13 and over the top. Such a shame. They haven't got the style that they had in the old days ... way back in '68.
The last time I was in L.A. I got very bored. Boredom is a horrible thing. Boredom is the beginning of all destruction and everything that is negative. Every place is determined by the characters who are there. It's just that the character who are there. It's just that the character rating at the moment has zeroed right out.
Of course, I enjoy it all, but as a total giggle. It's funny. I miss it. All the clamor. The whole lot. It's all a big rush. From the shit holes to the classiest hotels, it's all been fun. From the Shadow-box Motel where the walls crumbled during the night seven years ago to the Plaza, where the attorney general staying one floor above complained about me playing Little Feat records too loud last night.
Do you feel you have to top yourselves with each album?
Page: No. Otherwise I would have been totally destroyed by the reviews of our last album, wouldn't I? You see, this is the point. I just don't care. I don't care what critics and other people think.
So far I've been very, very fortunate because it appears that people like to hear the music I like to play. What more fortunate position can a musician be in? But I will still carry on changing all the time. You can't expect to be the same person you were three years ago. Some people expect you to be and can't come to terms with the fact that if a year has elapsed between LPs, that means one year's worth of changes. The material consequently is affected by that, the lyrics are affected by that ... the music too. I don't feel I have to top myself at all. It took a long time for this album mainly because when we originally went in to record it, John Paul Jones wasn't well and we had to cancel the time ... everything got messed up. It took three months to sort the situation out.
How does it feel to be your own record company executives?
Page: I guess we are our own executives now, aren't we? Listen, give us time with Swan Song. You'll be surprised. We've got some good things lined up. I think the Pretty Things LP is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. We're executives and all that crap, but I'll tell you one thing, the label was never – right from the top – Led Zeppelin records. It's designed to bring in other groups and promote acts that have had raw deals in the past. It's a vehicle for them and not for us to just make a few extra pennies over the top. That's the cynical way of looking at a record company.
People have been asking me whether I'll be doing any producing for the label. I don't know. I'm just too involved with Zeppelin. I was offered a chance – a longstanding one too – to produce Freddie King, which I'd love to do. But I'd need time to work on it.
Do you feel that the music business is sagging in any way?
Page: People always say that amidst their search for The Next Big Thing. The only real woomph was when the Stones and Beatles came over. But it's always said, "The business is dying! The business is dying!" I don't think so. There's too many good musicians around for the music around for the business to be sagging. There's so many different styles and facets of the 360-degree musical sphere to listen to. From tribal to classical music, it's all there. If the bottom was to sag out of that, for God's sake, help us all.
If there was never another record made, there's enough music recorded and in the vaults everywhere for me to be happy forever. Then again, I can listen to all different sorts of music. I don't really care about The Next Big Thing. It's interesting when something new comes along, a band of dwarfs playing electronic harps or something, but I'm not searching. Look at Bad Company and the Average White Band. Those guys have all been around in one form or another for a very long time. How many of the new ones coming through have really got a lot of substance? In Britain, I'm afraid there's not much at all. We've got to deal with Suzi Quatro and Mud. It's absurd. Top Ten shouldn't be crap, but it is.
How difficult was the first Led Zeppelin album to put together?
Page: It came together really quick. It was cut very shortly after the band was formed. Our only rehearsal was a two-week tour of Scandinavia that we did as the New Yardbirds. For material, we obviously went right down to our blues roots. I still had plenty of Yardbirds riffs left over. By the time Jeff [Beck] did go, it was up to me to come up with a lot of new stuff. It was this thing where Clapton set a heavy precedent in the Yardbirds which Beck had to follow and then it was even harder for me, in a way, because the second lead guitarist had suddenly become the first. And I was under pressure to come up with my own riffs. On the first LP I was still heavily influenced by the earlier days. I think it tells a bit, too. The album was made in three weeks. It was obvious that somebody had to take the lead, otherwise we'd have all sat around jamming and doing nothing for six months. But after that, on the second LP, you can hear the real group identity coming together.
Plant: That first album was the first time that headphones meant anything to me. What I heard coming back to me over the cans while I was singing was better than the finest chick in all the land. It had so much weight, so much power, it was devastating. I had a long ways to go with my voice then, but at the same time the enthusiasm and spark of working with Jimmy's guitar shows through quite well. It was all very raunchy then. Everything was fitting together into a trademark for us. We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most, and what we knew got more people back to the hotel after the gig.
We made no money on the first tour. Nothing at all. Jimmy put in every penny that he'd gotten from the Yardbirds and that wasn't much. Until Peter Grant took them over, they didn't make the money they should have made. So we made the album and took off on a tour with a road crew of one.
Jimmy, you once told me that you thought life was a gamble. What did you mean?
Page: So many people are frightened to take a chance in life and there's so many chances you have to take. You can't just find yourself doing something and not happy doing it. If you're working at the factory and you're cursing every day that you get up, at all costs get out of it. You'll just make yourself ill. That's why I say I'm very fortunate because I love what I'm doing. Seeing people's faces, really getting off on them, makes me incredibly happy. Genuinely.
What gambles have you taken?
Page: I'll give you a gamble. I was in a band, I won't give the name because it's not worth knowing about, but it was the sort of band where we were traveling around all the time in a bus. I did that for two years after I left school, to the point where I was starting to get really good bread. But I was getting ill. So I went back to art college. And that was a total change in direction. That's why I say it's possible to do. As dedicated as I was to playing the guitar, I knew doing it that way was doing me in forever. Every two months I had glandular fever. So for the next 18 months I was living on ten dollars a week and getting my strength up. But I was still playing.
Plant: Let me tell you a little story behind the song "Ten Years Gone" on our new album. I was working my ass off before joining Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, "Right. It's me or your fans." Not that I had fans, but I said, "I can't stop, I've got to keep going." She's quite content these days, I imagine. She's got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports-car. We wouldn't have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn't relate to me. I'd be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I'm afraid. Anyway, there's a gamble for you.
Page: I'll give you another one. I was at art college and started to do sessionwork. Believe me, a lot of guys would consider that to be the apex – studio work. I left that to join the Yardbirds at a third of the bread because I wanted to play again. I didn't feel I was playing enough in the studio. I was doing three studio dates a day and I was becoming one of those sort of people that I hated.
What was the problem with session-work?
Page: Certain sessions were really a pleasure to do, but the problem was that you never knew what you were gonna do. You might have heard that I played on a Burt Bacharach record. It's true. I never knew what I was doing. You just got booked into a particular studio at the hours of two and five-thirty. Sometimes it would be somebody you were happy to see, other times it was, "What am I doing here?"
When I started doing sessions, the guitar was in vogue. I was playing solos every day. Then afterwards, when the Stax thing was going on and you got whole brass sections coming in, I ended up hardly playing anything, just a little riff here and there ... no solos. And I remember one particular occasion when I hadn't played a solo for, quite literally, a couple of months. And I was asked to play a solo on a rock & roll thing. I played it and felt that what I'd done was absolute crap. I was so disgusted with myself that I made my mind up that I had to get out of it. It was messing me right up.
And how do you look back on your days with the Yardbirds?
Page: I have really good memories. Apart from one tour which nearly killed all of us, it was so intense – apart from that, musically it was a great group to play in. I've never regretted anything I've ever done. Any musician would have jumped at the chance to play in that band. It was particularly good when Jeff and I were both doing lead guitar. It really could have been built into something exceptional at that point, but unfortunately there's precious little on wax of that particular point. There's only "Stroll On" from the Blow-Up film – that was quite funny – and "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and "Daisy." We just didn't get into the studio too much at that time.
Obviously, there were ups and downs. Everybody wants to know about the feuds and personality conflicts ... I don't think that it ever got really evil. It never got that bad. If it was presented in the right way, maybe a Yardbirds reunion album would be a good thing to do someday. Somehow I can't see Jeff doing it, though. He's a funny bloke.
You live in Aleister Crowley's home. [Crowley was a poet and magician at the turn of the century and was notorious for his Black Magic rites–Ed.]
Page: Yes, it was owned by Aleister Crowley. But there were two or three owners before Crowley moved into it. It was also a church that was burned to the ground with the congregation in it. And that's the site of the house. Strange things have happened in that house that had nothing to do with Crowley. The bad vibes were already there. A man was beheaded there and sometimes you can hear his head rolling down. I haven't actually heard it, but a friend of mine, who is extremely straight and doesn't know anything about anything like that at all, heard it. He thought it was the cats bungling about. I wasn't there at the time, but he told the help, "Why don't you let the cats out at night? They make a terrible racket, rolling about in the halls." And they said, "The cats are locked in a room every night." Then they told him the story of the house. So that sort of thing was there before Crowley got there. Of course, after Crowley there have been suicides, people carted off to mental hospitals ...
And you have no contact with any of the spirits?
Page: I didn't say that. I just said I didn't hear the head roll.
What's your attraction to the place?
Page: The unknown. I'm attracted by the unknown, but I take precautions. I don't go walking into things blind.
Do you feel safe in the house?
Page: Yeah. Well, all my houses are isolated. Many is the time I just stay home alone. I spend a lot of time near water. Crowley's house is in Loch Ness, Scotland. I have another house in Sussex, where I spend most of my time. It's quite near London. It's moated and terraces off into lakes. I mean, I could tell you things, but it might give people ideas. A few things have happened that would freak some people out, but I was surprised actually at how composed I was. I don't really want to go on about my personal beliefs or my involvement in magic. I'm not trying to do a Harrison or a Townshend. I'm not interested in turning anybody on to anybody that I'm turned on to ... if people want to find things, they find them themselves. I'm a firm believer in that.
What did you think about your portrayal in [the illustrated book] Rock Dreams? As a guitar Mafioso along with Alvin Lee, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton?
Page: There's nothing about Zeppelin in there at all. The artist spends his whole time masturbating over the Stones in that book, doesn't he? The Stones in drag and things like that. When I first saw that book, I thought, aw, this is really great. But when I really started to look at it, there were things that I just didn't like. People can laugh at this, but I didn't like to see a picture of Ray Charles driving around in the car with his arm around a chick. It's tasteless. But the guy's French, so what can we say? Ray Charles is blind. What kind of humor is that? They may be his rock dreams, but they sure aren't mine.
Out of all the guitarists to come out of the Sixties, though, Beck, Clapton, Lee, Townshend and I are still having a go. That says something. Beck, Clapton and me were sort of the Richmond/Croydon type clan, and Alvin Lee, I don't know where he came from. Lester or something like that. So he was never in with it a lot. And Townshend, Townshend was from Middlesex and he used to go down to the clubs and watch the other guitarists. I didn't meet him, though, until "I Can't Explain." I was doing the session guitar work on that. I haven't seen Townshend in years. But I suppose we've all kept going and tried to do better and better and better. I heard some stuff from Beck's solo LP recently that was fucking brilliant. Really good. But I don't know, it's all instrumental and it's a guitarist's guitar LP, I think. He's very mellow and Beck at his best can be very tasty.
Have you seen Eric Clapton with his new band?
Page: Oh, Eric. Fucking hell, Eric. Yes, I saw him with his new band and also at his Rainbow concert. At least at the Rainbow he had some people with some balls with him. He had Townshend and Ronnie Wood and Jimmy Karstein and [Jim] Capaldi. "Pearly Queen" was incredible. And I would have thought that after that, he would have said, "Right, I'm gonna get English musicians." Ever since he's been with American musicians, he's laid back further and further.
I went over to see him after he'd done his Rainbow concert and it wasn't hard to sense his total disappointment that Derek and the Dominoes were never really accepted. It must have been a big thing for him that they didn't get all the acclaim that the Cream did. But the thing is, when a band has a certain chemistry, like the Cream had . . . wow, the chances of re-creating that again are how many billion to one. It's very, very difficult.
The key to Zeppelin's longevity has been change. We put out our first LP; then a second one that was nothing like the first, then a third LP totally different from them, and on it went. I know why we got a lot of bad press on our albums. People couldn't understand, a lot of reviewers couldn't understand why we put out an LP like Zeppelin II, then followed it up with III with "That's the Way" and acoustic numbers like that on it. They just couldn't understand it. The fact was that Robert and I had gone away to Bron-Y-Aur cottage in Wales and started writing songs. Christ, that was the material we had, so we used it. It was nothing like, "We got to do some heavy rock & roll because that's what our image demands ..." Album-wise, it usually takes a year for people to catch up with what we're doing.
Why did you go to Bron-Y-Aur cottage for the third album?
Plant: It was time to step back, take stock and not get lost in it all. Zeppelin was starting to get very big and we wanted the rest of our journey to take a pretty level course. Hence, the trip into the mountains and the beginning of the ethereal Page and Plant. I thought we'd be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, Marin County blues, which we managed to do in Wales rather than San Francisco. It was a great place. "The Golden Breast" is what the name means. The place is in a little valley and the sun always moves across it. There's even a track on the new album, a little acoustic thing, that Jimmy got together up there. It typifies the days when we used to chug around the countryside in Jeeps.
It was a good idea to go there. We had written quite a bit of the second album on the road. It was a real road album, too. No matter what the critics said, the proof in the pudding was that it got a lot of people off. The reviewer for Rolling Stone, for instance, was just a frustrated musician. Maybe I'm just flying my own little ego ship, but sometimes people resent talent. I don't even remember what the criticism was, but as far as I'm concerned, it was a good, maybe even great, road album. The third album was the album of albums. If anybody had us labeled as a heavy metal group, that destroyed them.
But there were acoustic numbers on the very first album.
Page: That's it! There you go. When the third LP came out and got its reviews, Crosby, Stills and Nash had just formed. That LP had just come out and because acoustic guitars had come to the forefront, all of a sudden: Led Zeppelin Go Acoustic! I thought, Christ, where are their heads and ears? There were three acoustic songs on the first album and two on the second.
You talk of this "race against time," Jimmy. Where do you think you'll be at 40?
Page: I don't know whether I'll reach 40. I don't know whether I'll reach 35. I can't be sure about that. I am bloody serious. I am very, very serious. I didn't think I'd make 30.
Page: I just had this fear. Not fear of dying, but just . . . wait a minute, let's get this right. I just felt that . . . I wouldn't reach 30. That's all there was to it. It was something in me, something inbred. I'm over 30 now, but I didn't expect to be here. I wasn't having nightmares about it, but . . . I'm not afraid of death. That is the greatest mystery of all. That'll be it, that one. But it is all a race against time. You never know what can happen. Like breaking my finger. I could have broken my whole hand and been out of action for two years.
You've been criticized for writing "dated flower-child gibberish" lyrics.
Plant: How can anybody be a "dated flower child"? The essence of the whole trip was the desire for peace and tranquillity and an idyllic situation. That's all anybody could ever want so how could it be "dated flower-child gibberish"? If it is, then I'll just carry on being a dated flower child. I put a lot of work into my lyrics. Not all my stuff is meant to be scrutinized, though. Things like "Black Dog" are blatant let's-do-it-in-the-bath-type things, but they make their point just the same. People listen. Otherwise, you might as well sing the menu from the Continental Hyatt House.
How important was "Stairway to Heaven" to you?
Page: To me, I thought "Stairway" crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its best . . . as a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with "Stairway." Townshend probably thought that he got it with Tommy. I don't know whether I have the ability to come up with more. I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance.
I don't think there are too many people who are capable of it. Maybe one. Joni Mitchell. That's the music that I play at home all the time, Joni Mitchell. Court and Spark I love because I'd always hoped that she'd work with a band. But the main thing with Joni is that she's able to look at something that's happened to her, draw back and crystallize the whole situation, then write about it. She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It's bloody eerie. I can relate so much to what she says. "Now old friends are acting strange/They shake their heads/They say I've changed."* I'd like to know how many of her original friends she's got. I'd like to know how many of the original friends any well-known musician has got. You'd be surprised. They think – particularly that thing of change – they all assume that you've changed. For the worse. There are very few people I can call real, close friends. They're very, very precious to me.
How about you?
Plant: I live with the people I've always lived with. I'm quite content. It's like the remnants of my old Beatnik days. All my old mates, it lends to a lot of good company. There's no unusual reaction to my trip at all because I've known them so long. Now and again there will be the occasional joke about owing someone two dollars from the days in '63 when I was a broke blues singer with a washboard, but it's good. I'm happy.
Do you have any favorite American guitarists?
Page: Well, let's see, we've lost the best guitarist any of us ever had and that was Hendrix. The other guitarist I started to get into died also, Clarence White. He was absolutely brilliant. Gosh. On a totally different style – the control, the guy who played on the Maria Muldaur single, "Midnight at the Oasis." Amos Garrett. He's Les Paul oriented and Les Paul is the one, really. We wouldn't be anywhere if he hadn't invented the electric guitar. Another one is Elliot Randall, the guy who guested on the first Steely Dan album. He's great. Band-wise, Little Feat is my favorite American group.
The only term I won't accept is "genius." The term "genius" gets used far too loosely in rock & roll. When you hear the melodic structures of what classical musicians put together and you compare it to that of a rock & roll record, there's a hell of a long way rock & roll has to go. There's a certain standard in classical music that allows the application of the term "genius," but you're treading on thin ice if you start applying it to rock & rollers. The way I see it, rock & roll is folk music. Street music. It isn't taught in school. It has to be picked up. You don't find geniuses in street musicians, but that doesn't mean to say you can't be really good. You get as much out of rock & roll artistically as you put into it. There's nobody who can teach you. You're on your own and that's what I find so fascinating about it.
Last question. What did you think about President Ford's children naming Led Zeppelin as their favorite group on national television?
Plant: I think it's really a mean deal that we haven't been invited around there for tea. Perhaps Jerry thought we'd wreck the joint. Now if we'd had a publicist three tours back, he might be on the road with us now. I was pleased to hear that they like our music around the White House. It's good to know they've got taste.
Page: Just say that I'm still searching for an angel with a broken wing. It's not very easy to find them these days. Especially when you're staying at the Plaza Hotel.
*©1975, Joaneline Music Inc.
*"Both Sides Now" ©1968, Siquomb Publishing
This story is from the March 13th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone, and also appears in Rolling Stone's new collectors edition, Led Zeppelin: The Ultimate Guide to Their Music & Legend, on sale November 2nd.