Before Jimmy Page will entertain an interview, he has a question of his own: “Do you play the guitar?” The correct answer, of course, is yes. “That’s useful,” he says.
It’s early October when Page calls from the home just outside London where he and his girlfriend have been quarantining since March. “The place has a garden, and you don’t feel quite so under home arrest,” he says. “But we’ve been very, very, very cautious about who we see and who we don’t see, and it’s been just a handful of people in the last six, seven months.”
Page, now 76, has spent the Great Pause reorganizing his book and record collections, and he has started a new routine of picking up his guitar immediately after breakfast. “The minute I’d locked down, I knew I didn’t want to look back on my period and say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done this or that,'” he says. “I wanted to make sure I did it all.” He has hinted in recent years at working on a new solo album, but during this interview, the musician, who has always enjoyed keeping people guessing, simply says he has been writing new music.
The guitarist reflected on his life a decade ago in broad terms in Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page, a large-scale autobiography in photos. Now Page is holding a magnifying glass to his accomplishments — from his session work with the Who, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones to his time with the Yardbirds and, of course, his world-changing run in Led Zeppelin — with a new book, Jimmy Page: The Anthology. It emphasizes the music that inspired him, the guitars he used, the clothes he wore, and his memories of recording sessions. He includes photos of all the instruments he played on “Stairway to Heaven” and closeups of tour manifests. His cryptic Zoso symbol from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album appears everywhere. But most exciting are the detailed paragraphs reflecting on his thought processes at the time. It’s not a gritty tell-all revealing backstage lore about drugs and magick, but it is a rare entryway into the mind of one of rock’s great men of mystery.
Today, as Page pores over the book’s many photos and considers all the unexpected turns he has taken in his life of music, he beams with pride. He knows he changed the course of popular music several times, and he’s not afraid to say so. He speaks with surprising candor, often explaining how he came up with each innovation in long, thoughtful answers. “The book is quite a long haul, it’s a long read,” he says. “I hope that it would be interesting enough for people who are just interested in, say music, or guitars, or the group, or whatever. But it wouldn’t be totally baffling to somebody who wasn’t, say, like, you or me, a guitarist, that suddenly they would make sense of why there’s six strings or 12 strings or an Indian instrument in there. I hope it is educational in its way.”
You went deep into your archives for this book. What were some of the interesting things that you rediscovered?
There’s an illustration that I did, which is in pen and ink, of a skiffle group when I was in school. My point of access to playing the guitar was skiffle. It was a singing-along, campfire sort of thing, but nevertheless, that was my way in. And in a skiffle group they would have a tea-chest bass, which had a broom handle on it. So it’s got somebody playing the tea-chest bass, and then there’s the people playing guitar, sort of jumping up in the air, which you definitely didn’t do in skiffle, because skiffle was a bit more like folk music and folk audiences. I’m looking at this skiffle group with a rock & roll head, even though I didn’t really know too much about rock & roll really, apart from what I’d seen in photographs. So I thought that [illustration] was quite fun.
What else surprised you?
The session diaries. It’s interesting to see the very first days of when we go in the studio as Led Zeppelin, to start Led Zeppelin I. The times that we were, like, 10 at night, 11 at night. It’s the downtime of the studio. Because we weren’t the Led Zeppelin that we were even a year later, where we could call some shots of going in on the downtime of other people. But it’s interesting to see how efficiently it was done, and the whole journey once we hit. That was in September , and we’ve got the album finished by October, within 30 hours of recording and mixing time. But it comes out in the first week of January over there in the States, and we’re playing in L.A. and then San Francisco in January.
The record was out and it was played on the underground radio stations, and it was traveling like wildfire across the States. We’re on the West Coast traveling towards the East, and all of the underground clubs that we’re playing are pretty much full because people have now heard the record. They’ve heard reports of this band that’s gone into San Francisco, literally decimated it, and they want to see what it is. And by the end of 1969, Led Zeppelin II was out. So you contend with a debut album with all those ideas on it, and then you’ve got that second album with the energy of the road on it, because a lot of it’s recorded while we’re actually touring. It was a really good way to launch a band.
There are some great photos of Led Zeppelin’s first performance, in a town near Copenhagen, when you were going by the New Yardbirds. What was it like to see images from that gig again?
I’m not sure that I remember that particular show, but we played a university or high school, and they showed us to a room where we could sleep, and I slept in the cupboard, because I wasn’t afraid of the dark. But I remember that particularly, as far as the first concerts.
We had the chance to play in Scandinavia in front of a live audience, [and we realized we were] a band with the sort of power that’s inescapable, with dynamics to really catch them out and sort of push them back with the energy of it. Something which you couldn’t not concentrate on or listen to because it just had so many characters to it, so many different shades and dynamics and points of interest. We were able to play the new material we were going to record. We could make it live and breathe and learn by that experience, playing to an audience and see the reactions. The reaction was phenomenal. That gave extra confidence for us to go into the studio, which was what we did, more or less after that — straight into [London’s] Olympic Studios.
Coming out of the Yardbirds, how did you come up with your vision for Led Zeppelin? How did you know that covering something like Joan Baez’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” would work amid heavy blues?
One of the things, which is clear from looking at the book, is that I had eclectic tastes. I met Jeff Beck when we were about 11 or 12 — I mean it really is ridiculous how long we’ve known each other — and he said on many occasions that I had a really eclectic record collection, unlike anybody else that he had known. I had Indian music, Arabic music, classical music, avant-garde music, electronic music, and it was right across the board.
So, yeah, I started on the acoustic guitar, and I still had a love for acoustic playing and everything, really, that was done on six strings. So that could be folk music, it could be classical, or it could be blues. I could appreciate jazz; I couldn’t really necessarily play it, but more in my veins is what I heard of all that sort of riff music coming out of Chicago in the Fifties. And obviously I accessed rockabilly before listening to the blues. So I didn’t let any of these things go. I wanted to play all these different styles. When I had a chance to do an album with the Yardbirds, I was doing acoustic music as well as electric. So we were doing blues things like “Drinking Muddy Water,” and then we’d be doing avant-garde things like “Glimpses” or “White Summer.”
So, having played with the Yardbirds, having played on the whole underground circuit, I could work out what it was I wanted to do, when the band folded. I had quite a lot of the material already. The weirdest thing is I had “Tangerine” written, but I didn’t put that [out] until the third [Led Zeppelin] album. I really did have an idea of how these albums, if we were successful with the first, how they could come out. They’d each be different from the last.
But how did you put those concepts into practice?
When we got Led Zeppelin, when there was this wonderful rhythm section there, I got Robert [Plant] down to my house and we discussed the sort of stuff that I wanted to do. I played him some things. One of them being “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” because I’d already worked out what I wanted to do on the guitar. I said, “I know this sounds a bit abstract, but if you can sing that sort of melody, stick to that plaintive melody line Joan Baez is singing, you’ll see how it fits.” He does it, and he’s like, “Yeah, this is great.” It was just a joining of two minds. It was wonderful.
So by the time we went into the rehearsal, it really, really kicked, because now you’ve got four people all firing on all cylinders to the point where it’s one, two, three, four in, and from the very first bar is a life-changing experience for each and every one of us in that room. By the time we finished playing, we’re all looking at each other and smiling because we’d never played with any other musicians to arrive at that sort of chemistry. And that chemistry continued all the way through the band.
How is it that you had all of the Led Zeppelin albums mapped out conceptually?
After the first one was done, we were touring in the States. And I think we started recording the second album in April of ’69 with “Whole Lotta Love,” but I also had “What Is and What Should Never Be.” So what I’m presenting there is the riff-based song, and then something which is lighter, but I’m still employing the heavier dynamics of the drums for the power choruses [on “What Is”], if you like. But it’s the flip side of the coin from “Whole Lotta Love,” so that you’re already presenting the way that it’s going to go.
So how does that work on the third album? The two tracks that I actually present to Robert and John Bonham at the time were “Immigrant Song” and “Friends.” So there’s the hard, hypnotic riff thing with “Immigrant Song,” and John was playing the congas for “Friends” at the time. So that’s leaning towards the acoustic, established sound there. But again, when we went on the road, I was working on what ideas I was putting forward to do to the next album. That’s all there is to it.
You released box sets of the Zeppelin albums in recent years. Did you gain any new insights or new perspectives on Led Zeppelin from those?
No. Only how good it was in the first place.
Nothing surprised you?
This is a hard one to believe, but it’s true: When I had all these quarter-inch tapes, which were sort of reference tapes, I had all these different versions of things, such as different takes of when someone was doing overdubs. All I knew about each tape was the title and the date it was made. But I knew what was coming on each one. It was really weird. It was like a DNA imprint.
I didn’t get caught with something that I didn’t know, apart from the track of the John Paul Jones piano instrumental [“10 Ribs & All/Carrot Pod Pod”] on Presence. When I heard that, I remembered recording it, but I didn’t remember that I’d done so many overdubs on it because it was just done, mixed once, and that was back in 1975. But then again, I just found it reassuring that my memory recall was so precise.
Have you discovered any new recordings since completing the box-sets project?
I recently found a really early [personal demo] tape that had been missing for a long while, but it’s got the full orchestration of “Rain Song.” It goes all through to the very end, the same way that you know it, even with the bit in the middle where it goes a bit heavier, before it goes back to the light and caressing parts. It’s all in there, the Mellotron and everything. And it’s not played as well, like the John Paul Jones version, because I knew he could do a really good job on it. But it’s there, every part of it, every phrase is there, slightly different. And then you hear things that didn’t get used.
There’s a photo in the book of you with a sitar taken in 1962. The Beatles were still singing “Love Me Do” at that point. What pushed you toward Indian music and the avant-garde so early?
We had BBC World Radio and Radio Four over here. Every now and again, they would play music from around the world. That’s where I first heard [composer] Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ode to the Victims of Hiroshima, which is a serious avant-garde piece. Oh, my goodness gracious, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So, in the same way I’d heard Indian music and I’d heard sitar, and I just thought it was so beautiful. I could appreciate the way Indian musicians bent their strings because of the way blues and rockabilly musicians bend guitar strings. It seemed to be so refined, but it still seemed to be really passionate, and it still was saying so much. The thing is, with Indian music, there was a structure to it, and there was a science to it. It was mathematical, as well. I just really thought, “Well, I can try and do this on the guitar, but I think you’d probably do yourself a favor to try and access an instrument that really is a sitar.” So, that’s what I did.
I had a chance to meet Ravi Shankar at a small concert hall in London. There was a lady that had a friend who knew him. And she said, “I can introduce him to you.” I remember distinctly that we were the youngest people in that room. He was very generous. He told me what the tuning was on the sitar, because I didn’t know. And then, I went back and got the thing in tune. And all of a sudden, it was singing to me. It was marvelous.
I don’t think people realize how many avant-garde techniques you brought to rock, between your interest in Indian music, playing a theremin, using the violin bow on a guitar.
Oh, they don’t. One of the things I brought into the equation, as a session musician, was the distortion box, the overdrive box. It was called a fuzz box at the time. I met [electrical engineer] Roger Mayer at a session, and he said, “Is there something in electronic music, with the guitar, that you could think of that would be a good asset to have?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I played him music with overdriven guitar, and I said, “That’s what it needs.” I think I had this tape recorder at the time; if you plugged the guitar straight into the mic socket, you could get this really, really distorted sound. You could play a note, and you could get infinite sustain on it.
He went away, and he came back with this thing. I was doing studio work at the time, and I had this thing [he made] in the back of my amplifier. It was quite small. Normally, session producers would say, “Have you got anything for this song?” And I’d just come up with riffs. This time, I said, “Let’s see if [the fuzz box] works.” So I put it in, and the faces of the other guitarists, who were, like, seven years older than me, turned ashen white, because they thought, “Oh, my God. This little punk is really filling all the different roles of guitar playing, and now he’s got this thing.” Anyway. It got established immediately, and I was getting called up to do sessions. “Bring your own fuzz box,” et cetera.
Were you bringing your fuzz box to your sessions with the Who and the Kinks at the time?
Yes, I did. You can hear the fuzz box on the Kinks’ first album. I think on the B side of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” “Bald Headed Woman,” I think there’s a few phrases on the fuzz box that come out on that.
You once said that your idea of going into the Yardbirds was that you and Jeff Beck could replicate a big-band horn sound with your guitars.
Yes. We did that for the short time that we were all together doing it. It’s great fun. And then also I was being able to play the bow while he was playing that sort of stuff. It was like, “Wow. This is great. This is great.” But then I tried to do it all on my own [laughs].
Jeff Beck once told me the Sunday-night jam sessions that you and he would do were important, because you learned who played what on Elvis Presley’s and Gene Vincent’s records. Was it a similar epiphany for you?
The very first time I met Jeff, I said, “What’s your version of [Little Walter’s] ‘My Babe’?” to see how he played it. And I said, “Yeah, well, I’ve been doing it like this.” He just had an instant rapport with me. He had a homemade guitar at the time, and I’m sure he’d be very proud to say that. We were just two kids. We’d heard rock & roll. We’d heard these guitarists, and there was no turning back. Even at that age, in our teens, that’s it. We’re committed.
As each release came, with the Gene Vincent stuff, it was really challenging to even attempt to play it. But once you had a solid-body guitar, as opposed to a cello body, it became more doable. Nevertheless, you were fueled to do the best you could, and it’s quite right. I mean, one of the records that stopped you in your tracks was [1956’s] Johnny Burnette and the Rock n’ Roll Trio. The musical glue of that record is just absolutely phenomenal, and the guitar playing was so abstract to anything else that I’d ever heard.
It’s interesting that you guys were listening to the depth of sound and breaking out who did what. Did that inform how you produced records later?
You could hear the ambiance of the room, and go, “Oh, that’s so and so.” On Little Richard, you could hear what was done or how you thought it was done. When I became a studio musician, then I really had a chance to do a self-imposed apprenticeship, because I could learn how things were done in recording. I could see how producers went about it. I could see how the musical arrangers went about it. That was fine for me, because they’d say, “Make up your own path.” Brilliant. I don’t mind that. And then, when I got a rapport with the engineers, then I could say, “I’ve got [a record] I’d like you to hear. How do you think it’s done? I’ve got my idea about how it’s done.” It was all a learning curve. I knew how to make the whole thing work economically for everybody, because I had this discipline.
Did paying attention to the ambiance of the room on the records you listened to inspire what you did with producing John Bonham’s drums?
Well, it’s harder to do with drums. I played with the best drummers in the world of studio musicians. They had the cream of the crop. I got to see how they would put these really good drummers, who had really wonderful acoustic sounds to their drums, into these isolated booths. So now you couldn’t see them apart from through plexiglass. You couldn’t hear them because they were trying to mute down all the instruments. And you’d hear the playback, and the drummer would look so disappointed because he was playing his heart out, but the drums sounded like [they] were in a packing case. All of these harmonics in the drums were being sucked into all the muting, the sound baffles, and things. So it was losing the whole thing of an acoustic instrument.
I learned that really quickly. And when I heard John Bonham, I knew instinctively what to do. It was to mic him from above, so you could get all these harmonics coming off of his drums, because he knew how to tune his drums. Actually, his drums were tuned to the keys of our tracks. But that’s how it was to have distance, making depth with the microphones.
You can really hear the effect of the room on his drums on a song like “When the Levee Breaks.”
When we were recording at Headley [Grange, a stone house where Led Zeppelin cut their fourth album], we started off recording in the living room there, and then a second drum kit appears. We don’t see it, but it’s been set up in the great hall there. And when John Bonham starts playing it, the reverberation in this hallway, which is where the stairway goes up, like three floors, and it’s a wooden staircase, tiled floor, the reflective surfaces are magnificent. So the whole kit is literally sort of singing in this huge void. I heard the drums there and I knew exactly what we should do. We did “When the Levee Breaks,” which was something that we’d done in the studio called “If It Keeps on Raining,” and it doesn’t sound anything like that. But I just knew, and I could hear in my head what we were going to do there, what the drum sounds were with this reverberation in there. And then I did the overdubs, that were done immediately.
Once we did the run-through of the bass, guide voice, and the guitar, I went straight about putting on the backwards guitar on it. I went straight about getting Robert Plant to do the harmonica parts, because I wanted to do a backwards harmonica part with like a straightforward echo. But I knew what it was straight away, and everything was done so quickly. So I just sort of instinctively knew it from hearing the drums being set up and John just practicing on the drums.
It’s definitely evocative.
Yeah. I could hear it. I could visualize what it was. It’s not like that all the time, or else I really would be in a different league, but it is what it is.
If I’m playing guitar, which is what I’ve been doing in the lockdown, I play things which I know that I know. And then before I know where I am, I’m improvising. And then before too much time the improvising has turned into something else, which is something I haven’t played before. In other words, I’ve written something new. So it’s all part of being an unschooled musician, having learnt yourself. And I suppose you pick up these sort of habits, some good, some bad. You have your own way of going about it, whereas another musician, who’s schooled, he’d probably say play scales all day long.
On the subject of John Bonham, are you able to explain for someone who’s not a drummer why he was so important and so irreplaceable?
Well, the first track of the first album is “Good Times, Bad Times,” and that’s no accident. The reason why it’s on there is because it’s actually quite a short piece of music, but it sums up so much in so many ideas, all in one go. It’s just an explosion that hits you. But one of the key factors of it, apart from the riff, is the actual drumming, because what he does on the drums during that track just changes people’s attitude to drums overnight. That’s all there is to it.
One of the other things that he could do was a roll on the bass drum with one foot and one pedal. It wasn’t two bass drums; it was one foot. You might hear people say, “Oh, I can do that.” But the thing is, you see how long they can do it for, and they’ll soon pack up. They might do it just for a little bit, but he could do it for ages. His technique was just out of this world, but he had the imagination to go with it as well.
So, yes, John Bonham could get a lot of volume out of his drums, not by forehand smashes, but just because he knew how to tune the drums in such a way that they would project. He would have a natural balance to everything he was playing. And then he’d give a bass-drum accent that you’d feel it go into your stomach. His technique was just amazing. He was such fun to play with. But the other thing was that he loved Led Zeppelin. He really loved the band, and he used to play the music at home. So we had a lot of fun, and a lot of fun improvising onstage.
I’ve read that after you did In Through the Out Door, you and Bonham wanted to make a heavier Led Zeppelin album. What was your vision for that?
Well, yeah, we were already doing stuff in 1980. We did a tour of Europe. I think the way to put it is like this: Presence was a guitar album. After that record, John Paul Jones had acquired a “Dream Machine,” a Yamaha [synthesizer]. Stevie Wonder also had one. So it had given him a lot of inspiration. He suddenly actually wrote whole numbers, which he hadn’t done before, and I thought the way to go with this is to feature John Paul Jones on the keyboard. He’d written some stuff with Robert. I thought, “Well, that’s great.” Obviously, at that time, I thought I knew how this album [In Through the Out Door] is shaping up, but the next album is going to be a departure from the keyboard album.
After the sessions for In Through the Out Door, John Bonham and I were discussing how we wanted to do a sort of more riff-based entity, and harder and trickier. And then, of course, I know what sort of drums he liked to play. He liked to play, like, really hard; he liked to play stuff that people heard it, they’d go, “Wow, what’s that?” I like to do that as well with the guitar parts. We had a bit of an idea of what we might do, but basically, it was not going to be a keyboard album. There would be keyboards on it maybe, but it was going to go more into another vein. It would be different to anything that had been there before. We didn’t get a chance to do that, obviously, because we lost John.
What is it that has attracted you to writing heavy music?
Do you mean the sort of intensity of it or the passion of it?
I guess a lot of that comes from all the music that has been quite pivotal in one way or the other to me hearing it, or accessing something at some point of time and it making a difference, and the way that it affected me when I heard it. So then when you get the full scale of that with something like classical music, or when you’ve got so many layers and textures of it, or you’ve got something like, let’s see, Muddy Waters and “Long Distance Call,” and you’ve got Muddy Waters playing slide, and let’s say Dick Crawford on bass, and you’ve got Little Walter on electric harmonica coming through an amplifier, and you hear this spine-chilling music, all of that has an effect.
There’s a photo in the book of all the guitars that you used on “Stairway to Heaven.” Did you go into that thinking, “I’m going to write this piece that uses all these different instruments”?
Yeah, insomuch as I wrote it on the Harmony [acoustic] guitar, and I worked out how the thing was going to run for the parts that were going to be the vocal. And then I had the bit which I called “the fanfare,” which is where the 12-strings really sing out before it goes into the solo. And I had all the chords for the solo, and the solo chords were going to be the end section.
I had all of that on the acoustics, and I ran through it with the rest of the band, and then we went to record it. Just as soon as we had the whole run of the track, then I started laying on the 12-string. So I think I put the Vox 12-string on it first, and I wanted to use one 12-string on the left and one on the right, so there would be just a slight sound difference between the Vox 12-string, and the Fender 12-string. Of course, they all come together for what I call the fanfare before the guitar solo.
And then there is a solo that’s put on it, and basically that is the whole of the run for the thing. It’s mainly the acoustic, and the two 12-strings are driving it all the way through, and then there’s the solo.
How did you figure out what to do with it live?
Obviously, “Stairway” has got to be done live, because it’s quite an epic, and we haven’t done anything like that, and nor has anybody else done anything quite like that. So I thought, “How’s the way that I’m going to approach it? Six-string acoustic, 12-string? I know, I’ll get a double-neck for a 12-string and 6-string.” And I got onto Gibson, and they sent over the double-neck, which I’ve still got that, and I still play that one.
So, in actual fact, the song dictated the guitar. I couldn’t have done it on anything else. Now you see a double-neck and you think, “Oh, it’s Jimmy Page. I know. Or is it someone else?” But it probably is Jimmy Page if it’s a red one.
The Zoso sigil from the fourth album is all throughout the book in so many different ways. What does it mean to you now?
Basically, how I arrived at it is when we did the fourth album … [Pauses]. Sorry, you’re Rolling Stone, but we’d had so much bad press from people who couldn’t understand the fact that you’d do Led Zeppelin II, following it with Led Zeppelin III, which is an album with lots of acoustic guitars. Well, actually acoustic guitars were on the first album, second album, and the third albums, but they couldn’t understand that a band wanted to be so radical, to change what they were doing. Not only that, but to be onstage and then improvise like the way that we did. They couldn’t get their heads around it, nor did they want to. So by the time the fourth album came around, we wanted to put it out with no information on it whatsoever, because people was saying we were this, we were that, we were a hype, it was a con. Well, yeah, OK. Let’s see any other hype or con come out with music of this sort of caliber. Well, they can’t.
Let’s see how they wrestle with “Black Dog,” “Levee Breaks,” “Battle of Evermore,” and “Stairway to Heaven,” to name but a few. And we’ll put no information on the album whatsoever. And it’ll just go out. There’ll be no information. But then there was an idea of how craftsman of days gone by had their own stamp, sort of like a trademark, but a pictorial stamp, so you’d know it was that person. So it went from that idea of one sort of sigil, one idea, to the best idea, which was that everybody came up with their own sigil or their own symbol. So everybody did.
So I accessed my symbol or my sigil, and that is what it is. And [the record label] put it first. Then people thought, “Oh, actually, the album’s called whatever that symbol might interpret if you were to use it phonetically.” So that wasn’t the intention, but it doesn’t matter if it did, and it doesn’t matter if it didn’t. What it means to me now is that that I made a good choice [in selecting it]. It’s sort of instantly recognizable, and it’s lasted a long while, since whenever it is 16th century or whenever it was originally around, to 1971 and beyond. [Pauses] I hope that answer is as evasive as you hoped it would be.
Yes, it was. There are some great photos of your outfits in the book. I’m looking at the dragon suit, and I’m impressed by how it’s in such pristine condition.
Well, what is extraordinary about that is that I lent that suit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and I got it back and I was shocked. It looked as though it was just manufactured. There was no marks on it where the [guitar] strap had been on the shoulder. And I thought this really is a magical garment. I mean, it really is. The poppy suit is a little more beaten up than that, but it’s in extraordinary condition.
After Led Zeppelin, you recorded with some members of Yes for a group dubbed XYZ, as in Ex-Yes and Zep. Since those XYZ recordings have never come out, how did those sound?
If you know the precision of Yes, you know how technically brilliant they were. And so I was in there with Chris Squire, the extraordinary bass player, and Alan White, the drummer, and they had suggested that we go it together. Why not do that? It was the first thing that I did after we’d lost John Bonham, and I thought, “Well, if there’s ever anything like trying to jump in the deep end, this is it.” Because these guys are so good. And I mean, I’d heard the guitar playing Steve Howe would do and I thought, “Well, let’s see how it works.”
So I went in there, and we did some of the songs that they’d already worked on, and then I came up with my guitar parts for these things, and that was really interesting. And Chris was singing on them. I thought, “I’ve really had to concentrate,” because it’s things in different time signatures. I mean it was a serious workout. But it was great. It was brilliant. And then I said, “I’ve got one,” and I played them what actually becomes “Fortune Hunter” with the Firm.
And then I saw that actually they had trouble. I thought, “Oh, I see. OK. Well, they’ve really worked on what they’ve got here, which is probably all they do [with] all the Yes stuff. But it’s not just improvising.”
“Fortune Hunter” was good. I’m not that familiar with Yes music, to know whether some of the things that we played got actually used in the Yes material. Because I can say to you, “Well, yes, there was the one that became ‘Fortune Hunter,’ but it was a totally different sort of onset when it was done with Chris. And it’s more like a guitar instrumental with Chris and I.”
Will those XYZ recordings ever come out?
Unfortunately, we’ve lost Chris now. It was something that I always hoped to do, as some sort of project, to get hold of him and Alan. It’s not even worth talking about, because it’s all speculation. I haven’t had a chance to really listen to the stuff and see just exactly what we do have, and what we don’t have. I don’t have any mixdowns of it. If I did, I’m not quite sure where they are now.
In the Eighties, Bonham’s drumming became one of the foundational sounds in hip-hop. You later collaborated with Puff Daddy on a track that used music from “Kashmir.” Why is hip-hop significant to you?
You’re a product of your musical environment. I’m someone who learned the acoustic guitar and a few campfire or skiffle songs, and then bit by bit learned how to play the electric guitar and developed my own style. I wanted to investigate, like Sir Richard Burton [the 19-century British explorer], trying to find the source of the Nile. So it’s your environment. Without talking about the samples of our music, you could tell with hip-hop that they were sort of educated in so many areas, the stuff that they listened to, and they knew how to combine it and make it into another art form. Well, that’s great. Because I mean, that’s basically what happens with Led Zeppelin.
Hip-hop fascinated me, the whole culture of what it was and breakdancing and all this whole thing coming from the street. I thought it was great. It was really good and some brave stuff.
And I tell you, when Puff Daddy, as he was at the time, got in contact and said that he wanted to do this thing, I thought, “Wow. Yeah, yeah. We’ve been sampled enough. Why not do it for real?” So I thought it was great. And it was an epic thing that he did. He put two orchestras on it, for heaven’s sake [laughs]. We never had that sort of luxury. And when I did Saturday Night Live with him, it was phenomenal. He did a couple of run-throughs and then the take, and he was different on each one. He was somebody who was improvising, and I admired his work.
Did it make you hear “Kashmir” in a different way?
Well, yeah. The whole riff of “Kashmir” is like a round, and then you’ve got this cascading stuff, like you hear the brass parts on the final record. It’s just like “Whole Lotta Love.” Have you seen any of these mash-ups that’ve been on the internet, with the James Brown one and there’s Black Sabbath, and there’s this and there’s that, Snoop Doggy Dogg? There’s all these various versions with “Whole Lotta Love” because it’s a great riff.
There’s some super-clever stuff, but what it is for me, it’s like, “Great. If people think that riff is so inspiring that they want to do this with James Brown, for heaven’s sake, thank you very much. Count me in.” [Laughs]. And I’ve had great fun with seeing all these things, and what it is, is something like “Whole Lotta Love,” people sort of love that riff, and when they play [it], it brings a smile to their face, and that’s great. That’s why I play music. That’s why I want to create music.
Has all of that changed how you view your legacy?
I wanted to create music to make something that would change people’s lives and get them happy for some time. That’s what it’s all about. And if you’ve managed to do something where you’ve just learned a couple of chords to start with, and you’ve managed to turn it into your profession, and you’re being so serious about it that you’ve been able to make inroads with it, whether it was as a studio musician or with the Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin, and you’ve managed to make music that’s made a difference to people, being able to pass on the baton to young people of all I learned from James Burton and the Rock and Roll Trio, and Albert King, Freddie King, and B.B. King, and Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, and this melting pot, that, to me, is the lifetime achievement. You’ve made a difference. So, that’s really cool.