JIMMY PAGE STANDS, CALM AND smiling, on the pavement outside his management office in London. The Led Zeppelin guitarist is taking a fresh-air break from the most extensive interview he has ever given to ROLLING STONE — more than eight hours over two days. Page is also reflecting on a question that comes up a lot in the conversation: how he looks back at the havoc and excess — the drugs, drinking, hotel trashing and sometimes worse — for which Led Zeppelin were notorious in the Seventies.
“Would anyone still be interested in the mud shark if the music hadn’t been there?” Page replies, still smiling, when I mention the infamous never-totally-proved tale of a young woman, a fish and a Seattle motel in 1969. “Everything else was a side show. It’s part of the story. But there would be no story without the work we put into the songs, the shows we played. Without that, nobody would care about the other stuff.”
The guitarist, now 68, is speaking a few weeks before the release of Celebration Day, a film and album of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert at London’s O2 arena. The show was the band’s first full-length performance since 1980, when Zeppelin broke up following the death of drummer John Bonham. At the O2, the surviving members — Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones — were joined, brilliantly, on drums by Bonham’s son Jason.
In many ways, for Page, Zeppelin never ended. He started the group, in the late summer of 1968, with an unprecedented vision — a new heavy rock built from Fifties roots, folk and psychedelia, charged by crushing, hypnotic guitar riffs — and produced its eight classic studio albums. Since they split, Zeppelin have remained one of rock’s biggest bands ever — to date, they have sold an estimated 300 million albums worldwide. And Page is still the reigning steward of their work, overseeing reissues of the catalog and new archival releases such as 2003’s Led Zeppelin DVD. He is now preparing deluxe editions of each original album; they will start arriving next year and have, as Page promises, “added sonic and visual thrills.”
Compared to Plant and Jones, who have had long, productive solo careers, Page has made new music in fits and starts since 1980: a 1982 soundtrack, Death Wish II; the 1988 solo album Outrider; and occasional collaborations with Plant, the British singers Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale, and the American band the Black Crowes. Asked if he misses the creative momentum he had with Zeppelin in the Seventies, Page says, “Not on the level people would probably assume.” He feels his primary job now is guardian of the Zeppelin legacy. “It was important to do that,” he insists. “And that’s proved to be the right decision.”
James Patrick Page was born on January 9th, 1944. An only child, he grew up in Epsom, a town southwest of London, and swiftly became a prodigy on guitar. In his midteens, he was touring with a prominent band, Neil Christian and the Crusaders. Page was soon one of the youngest and busiest session musicians in London, playing on records by the Who, the Kinks, Them and Donovan, before giving that up in late ’66 to join, then replace, his boyhood friend Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds. Two years later, on the day after Christmas 1968, Led Zeppelin played their first U.S. show, in Denver.
Dressed in shades of gray and black, with his snow-white hair pulled back in a short ponytail, Page is lively, engaged and cheerful when he talks about his youth, sessions, the Yardbirds and Zeppelin’s rapid ascent. He talks at length about his recent book — a lavish photo history, Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page — and his website, where he shares rare audio and video clips from his entire career, and where you can now purchase an independently released LP of his legendary unissued soundtrack to the film Lucifer Rising. Page is fully engaged in current music; he enthuses about recent London shows he’s seen by Muse and a young American blues-rock combo, Rival Sons. He makes no promises about future solo efforts but insists he is an active musician, playing at home, planning projects: “I’m still playing the guitar. I’m just not seen playing the guitar. That’s the essence of it.”
Page, who has three children with his second wife, Jimena, and two more by previous relationships, does not dodge questions about his personal life or darker matter, such as substance abuse or his well-known interest in the occult philosopher Aleister Crowley. At times, Page’s response is simple and decisive: “I’m not telling you.” More often, he challenges the query, denouncing gossip and lurid Zeppelin biographies — then replies after a long pause, during which he seems to be deciding exactly what and how much he cares to divulge.
Even in this interview, one of the most revealing he has ever given, Page guards his life, dreams and intentions the way he looks after the records and reputation of Led Zeppelin: with care, no apologies and an iron belief that the answer to everything, ultimately, is in the music.
After the O2 concert, fans expected a reunion tour. They didn’t get it. What happened?
Some of us thought we would be continuing, that there were going to be more concerts in the not-too-distant future. Because there was a lot of work being put into one show. I know that Jason, who was playing with Foreigner, resigned from that band.
But Robert was busy. He was doing his Alison Krauss project. I wasn’t fully aware that it was going to be launched at the same time. So what do you do in a situation like that? I’d been working with the other two guys for the percentage of the rehearsals for the O2. We were connecting well. The weakness was that none of us sang.
So we concentrated on our strengths. We came up with some really good material. We were on a roll. Maybe we should have taken that material straight into the studio.
How long did you, Jones and Jason rehearse together?
Weeks — across a space of time. We didn’t do any professional recording. We just had a little digital recorder. I thought it was good. I wasn’t going to walk away from it. But the weakness came up again. It was said, “We gotta have a singer.”
Now, none of us said that. It was suggested. Yeah, we would need a singer — not necessarily at that point. The first thing is to have material. If you’re all getting on and playing well, why bring in a juggernaut of politics with a singer? [Pauses] I won’t go into who actually came in to sing.
The name mentioned most at the time was an American singer, Myles Kennedy of the band Alter Bridge. How did that sound?
It sounded premature. I could see what way it was going. Various people thought we should go out on tour. I thought we needed a good, credible album, not do something that sounded like we were trying to milk the O2.
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith told us he came by as well.
Did he say that he sang? Well, then, he did [grins]. The timing wasn’t the best. We had put so much time toward the O2. And the three of us were coming up with stuff. It was very good, seriously promising. But there was this other thing going on. [Pauses] And that’s it. You went through this once before, when Led Zeppelin broke up after John Bonham’s death in 1980. You nearly formed a band with two members of Yes. There was an approach from a mediator [laughs], which involved playing with [drummer] Alan White and [bassist] Chris Squire. I had great respect for the music of Yes, how precise it was. We got together; they had some interesting stuff. It was challenging for me, but I got there. I had some material I brought to them. It was good synchronicity.
Chris had this wonderful name for it: XYZ, because it was ex-Yes and ex-Zeppelin. Then it was clear that the person who was mediating was approaching Robert as to whether he would like to come down and have a listen. Of course, he wasn’t interested at all. Chris and Alan had a Yes tour come up, so they did that. But I’ll tell you, the material was good. I have the multi-tracks. I hope they see the light of day.
Are you frustrated by Robert’s refusal to do more reunion shows?He performs Zeppelin songs on his own tours, but it’s as if he doesn’t want the rest of his life defined by that band. Whereas you don’t mind at all.
Well, I don’t pretend it didn’t happen. I’m not saying that he’s just taking a leaf out of the Zeppelin book. But it’s apparent that the third album [1970’s Led Zeppelin III], where you have this emphasis on the acoustic, was more attractive to him as time went on, rather than the more hardcore elements of Zeppelin. Whereas I’d jump off a roof into that — naked.
It was interesting getting together with Robert again for [the 1994 MTV performance] Unledded. I was working with David Coverdale. We had an album out [1993’s Coverdale-Page]. We were rehearsing to go to Japan. And I was asked to go see Robert.
He had these loops. It was, “Let’s see if Jimmy can come up with anything. Or is he about to get in the limousine with David Coverdale?” No. I’m fine with a challenge. On the first day, we came up with two of the [new] things on that project. It was good to recon- nect. It might have upset other people. [John Paul Jones was not asked to participate in the Unledded show or subsequent tour.] But that’s all we did — we got together.
What is it about Robert, as a collaborator, that still attracts you?
What is the quality in me that attracts him? Maybe there isn’t one. Because we’re not working together [laughs]. We had an empathy. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” [on 1969’s Led Zeppelin] — I knew exactly how that was going to shape up. I set the mood with the acoustic guitar and that flamenco-like section. But Robert embraced it. He came up with an incredible, plaintive vocal. When you’re in a group, you’re trying to bring out the best of each member, in that moment. We managed to bring something good out of each other.
Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980, essentially because of Bonham’s drinking. [The drummer died of asphyxiation on the eve of a U.S. tour, after drinking 40 shots of vodka.] How did it feel to have the band you started suddenly taken away from you?
It was unimaginable, what I was going through at the time. I mean, he died in my house, for Christ’s sake.
What is that like?
I can’t really say now what I was going through. I know it was hell. But it was for everybody else around me, his family. It was tough all around.
You did not officially announce the end of the band until three months after Bonham’s passing. Did you even briefly consider replacing him?
You can’t imagine the calls and suggestions — not from our side or [manager] Peter Grant, but from other people who were saying, “Oh, so-and-so might be good.” You take a deep breath and think, “Even if you were to play with somebody else, where’s your starting point?”
It was metamorphosis on the move. “Here’s the album track. In 1975, on this bootleg, we’re doing this. But in ’77, we’re doing that. Can you do all that?” I thought that if it had been any one of us — myself, Robert or John [Paul Jones] — the same decision would have been made.
Did Bonham’s drinking ever impede his performance?
No. His focus was extraordinary. I’m not saying I didn’t know he was drinking. But we were doing long tours, a lot of concerts into each week, and they were three-hour sets. He managed to do extraordinarily well. Anyone would have had a drink at the end of a three-hour set. There wasn’t any one of us who didn’t.
Bonham’s nicknames — Bonzo, the Beast — derived from his reputation for excessive havoc on tour. Was there a different, private side to him?
When I met him, he was already the family man. He and Pat were married; Jason was born. John was very conscious of providing for the family. But people wouldn’t know. Because it wasnt anybody’s business. It was their business — family business.
What was people’s business was listening to what he did, how hard he pushed himself to be able to deliver that bass-drum roll in “Good Times Bad Times” [on Led Zeppelin]. I haven’t met anybody who can play that all the way through, with that swing and approach. That’s what one should be listening to: the inspiration he had on other drummers, on this and that movement in rock, not the fact that he drank too much.
How bad was your drinking? There are iconic photos of you on Zeppelin tours with a Jack Daniel’s bottle.
I was drinking to excess by today’s standards — because now it’s nil. But it was what it was. I was enjoying myself. I was determined not to be miserable. I wanted to take it all on board — this lifestyle and the party aspect that went with it.
How much did you experiment with LSD during your psychedelic period in the Yardbirds?
To the minimum, more than the maximum. I had already heard of some terrible casualties. I witnessed someone who was spiked. It was enough to make me recoil from my experiments. It was not the best way to see whether you could be making music at the end of it. Although there were other things, like mescaline. I had to try them.
How would you characterize your drug use during and after Zeppelin?
There wasn’t a period when I thought I was in too deep. In retrospect, yeah, I’d consider it. But I’m still about. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, because we lost some amazing people along the way. But as far as feeling I was out of my depth on drugs, no, I didn’t. I’m not going to make any further comment on that.
When did you stop?
Drinking? Doing certain areas? Years and years and years ago.
As in, the Nineties?
As in, years ago. As in, it doesn’t matter when it was. It was a long while ago. There were decades of decadence, then not-quite-decades of sobriety. As far as things that I could see were seriously dangerous, I flirted with them. There was an intoxication. And that was it. It was a romance that passed.
Did your guitar playing improve when you stopped?
I don’t know. It takes on another persona.
A sober persona — sober but not particularly clearheaded. Because it’s still filled with wonderful, crazy thoughts.
What are your earliest rock & roll memories? Britain was still recovering from World War II when the music landed there in the Fifties.
I haven’t read Keith Richards’ book. But from how other people have described it, my experience was exactly the same: listening to these records, learning from them. This was the first generation that wasn’t being conscripted into the army. It was a generation that was going to shape things with this freedom.
You had the freedom but not the prosperity.
We didn’t need it, apart from the fact that we needed some to acquire a guitar. Getting a guitar was like dreaming about a Cadillac. It was something you would see on albums by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and Buddy Holly.
Buddy Holly came over here [in 1958]. I couldn’t afford to see him. I would have learned so much, in one evening. I did see Jerry Lee Lewis. That was tribal. He wasn’t a guitarist — he was a pianist. But it was what he represented.
You are an only child. Your father was a personnel manager, and your mother was a secretary. What were their ambitions for you?
I investigated biochemistry. But I had a voracious appetite for all things guitar. When we moved to Epsom, there was one in the house. It was like divine intervention. There weren’t that many guitarists in the area, but there was one guy at school who said, “Bring it along. I’ll tune it up and show you some chords.” I probably played three chords for the next year. I took over my parents’ living room as my music studio. At 15, I was playing in a band. I had been headhunted out of Epsom and was playing gigs in London.
It’s amazing that Britain’s founding guitar heroes — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and yourself — grew up at the same time in the same London suburb, Surrey, and played, at different times, in the same band, the Yardbirds.
I didn’t meet Eric until later, when I was doing sessions. Jeffs sister was going to art college and heard about this freak playing guitar. Her brother was a freak playing guitar as well. She thought they should get together, and she was right. Jeff came ’round with a homemade guitar, and we had all sorts of discussions about the solo on “My Babe.” [Roy Buchanan played the break on Dale Hawkins’ 1958 single.]
Later, you produced Claptons great 1965 single with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, “I’m Your Witchdoctor.” What impressed you about Clapton?
His solo in [the Yardbirds’] “I Ain’t Got You” is something else. And he got the feeling of tremolo before anyone else over here. He had such an understanding of the blues. It was paramount — he was a purist. But he did it so well — beautiful, lyrical.
Do you have any idea how many records you played on as a session guitarist in the mid-Sixties?
No. When it was a novelty, I’d pick up the singles. I’ve got copies of the very early stuff I did. But after a while, it wasn’t cost-effective. I’d be pulled in to play with bands or other session musicians who were trying to re-create what was on the charts, especially when people started doing Chess-R&B-style records. I’d been playing and living that.
What do you play on the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”?
I don’t know, really, why I was brought in. I’m playing the riff, in the background — behind Pete Townshend. I didn’t need to be there. You can barely hear me. But it was magical to be in the control room, listening back. You can’t be more privileged than that.
You played on a rare solo project by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones — his soundtrack to the 1967 film “A Degree of Murder.” How well did you know the Stones then?
I met Mick [Jagger] and Keith in the back of a van, going to a blues festival in Birmingham. I went because I really wanted to see John Lee Hooker. We ended up at a blues collector’s house, who had the Howlin’ Wolf record with the rocking chair on the cover [1962’s Howlin Wolf]. It had just been imported.
I didn’t know Mick and Keith as well as I knew Jeff. But I’d seen Brian at the Ealing Jazz Club. I saw him play bottleneck guitar. I was struggling with the Elmore James stuff. Suddenly, it clicked. It was in the tuning. He was doing it.
What state was Jones in at that session? It was only a couple of years before his death.
It might have been Stu [Stones roadie-pianist Ian Stewart] who called me. Brian knew what he was doing. It was quite beautiful. Some of it was made up at the time; some of it was stuff I was augmenting with him. I know I was definitely playing with the [violin] bow. Brian had this guitar that had a volume pedal — he could get gunshots with it. There was a Mellotron there. He was moving forward with ideas.
I was surprised when you mentioned, the other day, that you never met Jimi Hendrix or saw him perform. You must be the only British guitarist who didn’t see Hendrix — and get blown away — after he got there in 1966.
It wasn’t a lack of will. I wanted to see him. But I was doing studio dates and touring with the Yardbirds. Jeff came ’round and was telling me about how this guy got up at London Polytechnic, jammed and taken them all by surprise. I remember I was back in London after a Zeppelin tour, and Hendrix was playing the next night at the Royal Albert Hall. I was pretty shot and thought, “I’d really like to see him.” But I’d heard all these wonderful stories of him playing in clubs: “I’ll wait and see him next time ’round.” For me, there wasn’t going to be a next time.
The only time I actually saw him was at a club called Salvation in New York. He was across the room from where I was sitting with some friends. I was going to go over and say, “I’m sorry I missed the London concert.” Then he was leaving with the people who were with him. And he looked a little worse for wear. I thought, “There will be a more favorable time.” In the end, there wasn’t.
One of your rarest records is “Live Yard-birds!” a 1971 release of a ’68 performance by the Yardbirds in New York. You forced the label to withdraw it. Will you ever reissue it?
I’ve been going through my personal archives over the last few years. And I found the tapes. At the time, I was looking forward to going into the studio and doing proper recording with the Yardbirds. We were moving in the right direction, in some of the things we were doing in our live set.
But the label made this recording, and overdubbed this stuff that sounded like people at a cocktail bar, cheers you get when someone hits a home run. Then once Led Zeppelin became popular, they put it out. It would be good to put it out again. It would certainly involve a remix, to get rid of the cocktail bar noise. Because it wasn’t there. If you think of the responses to some of Led Zeppelin’s early concerts, like the applause on the Danish TV footage, people weren’t screaming and shouting. It was a polite, respectful applause. You can hear people reacting to things.
How much was your time in the Yardbirds — with Beck, then after he left — a trial run for the ideas you eventually pursued with Led Zeppelin? There’s a 1968 Yardbirds B side, “Think About It,” that sounds like an outtake from the first Zeppelin album.
The solo from that is almost identical to the ones in “Dazed and Confused” and “Communication Breakdown.” That’s just the way I played — this ferocious episode, real fast.
What I did in the Yardbirds was bring out some of the ideas and textures that I hadn’t been able to do in sessions. Some of it was successful. Some of it wasn’t. We had one song, “Drinking Muddy Water” [on 1967’s Little Games]. I asked Stu to play piano with us. We figured out an arrangement, got one complete take, and [producer] Mickie Most said, “Next!” Stu was in shock — the Stones took a lot longer than that. And attention was paid to every track.
I learned a lot in those days, how to approach recording. It wasn’t looking at your watch but investing your time well. That’s quite clear by the time you get to the first Zeppelin album, because you’ve got the musicians to do it.
In fact, the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, came up with the name Led Zeppelin at a 1966 session you produced for Jeff Beck, “Beck’s Bolero.” And it was supposed to be for an entirely different band.
The band was John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and myself and Jeff on guitars. This session was absolutely magnificent, like a force of nature. Keith was having troubles in the Who. He’s going, “We should form a band with this.” Singers were put forth. Steve Winwood was one.
It might have been Keith who approached Steve Marriott of the Small Faces. That filtered back to [that band’s fearsome manager] Don Arden. The response, to Keith, was “How would you like to play in a band with broken fingers?” The enthusiasm dissolved overnight.
Keith came up with the name: “We can call it Led Zeppelin, because it can only go down, like a lead balloon.” I thought it was a great name, and I didn’t forget it. Jeff could just as easily have called his band Led Zeppelin. We could have called ours Carrots, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It still would have done what it did.
Let’s talk about riffs.
I like talking about riffs [laughs].
One of my favorites is “Black Dog” [on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album], because it is so irregular — the way it spills across the drumming. It should not work. But it does.
That’s one I didn’t come up with. John Paul Jones had that riff. It was not easy to play. The drums had to play 4/4 through it. But “Black Dog” is more than a riff. You have the call-and-response of the vocal and riff, then the bridge and other parts to move the song along.
The guitar is the lead instrument in most Zeppelin songs. But in “Celebration Day,”you can hear the way the bass plays countermelodies under the guitar. There was so much action, on different levels, in those songs.
This is the thing. There’s a riff. What are you going to do with it? That’s where you shape things. The opening of “No Quarter” [on 1973’s Houses of the Holy] — that was a keyboard thing. But mainly the song was coming from the guitar. “Heart-breaker” is one where John was involved in the writing as well. The opening is guitar-led, then John’s [bass] pattern becomes the verse.
What makes a great Zeppelin riff?
A riff ought to be quite hypnotic, because it will be played over and over again.
Do you test it — play it over and over — to make sure it works?
You just have something that feels instinctively right. And it doesn’t have to be guitar-led. In the Zeppelin era, a lot of the music was riff-led. But there was this other, more acoustic element. “Ten Years Gone” [on the 1975 double album Physical Graffiti] was totally different, with an orchestrated-guitar element.
That’s what was so good about having a band with longevity — the touring, the albums. Nothing, theoretically, should have been beyond our grasp. We should have been able to take anything on board — if it was credible, if it had legs.
Your fingerpicking introduction in “Stairway to Heaven”is a riff- it has that repetitive hypnosis. But it is also much more than a riff. There is a lot of melody and layering in there.
That was written on an acoustic guitar. I was trying things at home, shunting this piece up with that piece. I had the idea of the verses, the link into the solo and the last part. It was this idea of something that would keep building and building. I didn’t have any of Robert’s lyrics, only a sort of melody that related to the guitar parts I had.
The amazing thing about that building is how the song actually ends with just Plant’s voice. The band has left the room. He has the last word.
He didn’t have the last word. Originally, there was another guitar part that I had done for the ending. It was like the opening, a bit different. But I never tagged it on. The statement was there. I thought, “Leave it all there with Robert.”
Led Zeppelin started hard and fast. The first album was recorded in 36 hours; “Led Zeppelin II” was made on the run, while you were touring. How did you, as the leader and producer, maintain that momentum? The first album was done methodically, with ruthless efficiency. The second — the plan was to capture the energy of the band on the road. There was no messing around. I knew instinctively what the music should be doing. I wanted to touch everything: the acoustic, fingerpicking thing; then blues and rock — mainly riffing, which I had learned from the Chicago blues players. “Good Times Bad Times” — John Paul Jones came up with the riff. I had the chorus. John Bonham applied the bass-drum pattern. That one really shaped our writing process. It was like, “Wow, everybody’s erupting at once.”
You formed the group and picked the players. Would you say Led Zeppelin was your band?
There was no doubt about that. At that time, absolutely. I’m the one presenting the material and giving the ideas, how these things should be done.
But the ruthless efficiency — everybody went into the first album with that. Everybody knew how good we were. And we were strict in that if we were writing something and it sounded like something else we’d done, we’d immediately drop it. There was one tipping of the hat: “Tea for One,” which was like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” [on Led Zeppelin III]. That was intentional, to apply a different feel to that blues.
Were you hurt by the initial, negative critical reaction?
I was hoping you would ask that, writing for ROLLING STONE [laughs]. There was a certain amount of acid poured on us. I could see it as venomous then. How I see it now? It went over their heads. I will give the reviewers the benefit of the doubt -each album was so different to the others. After Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, you get III: “What’s this about? Acoustic guitars?” There were crazy conclusions: “They’re doing a Crosby, Stills and Nash.” That’s because your ears weren’t open to the first album, when there was quite a bit of acoustic guitar too.
Did the reviews make you mad?
It made me more determined. I knew what we had. We obliterated them in San Francisco on the first tour. [Led Zeppelin opened for Country Joe and the Fish at the Fillmore West for three nights in January 1969]- By the time we were moving on, through these other territories, everybody wanted to see what had come from the ashes of the Yardbirds.
Was it your ambition to make Led Zeppelin the biggest band in the world?
I wanted it to be an influential band. The biggest band? That’s the business, the corporate way of looking at it. As far as people coming to see us, we always sold out. We did Tampa, Florida — more than 55,000 people — in 1973. We also did 50,000 in Atlanta on that tour. As far as the largest listening audience, the most amount of people that want to go to a concert — yeah, we were successful.
Were the Rolling Stones your main competition, in ticket and record sales, in the Seventies?
I’m not a person who, when an album comes out, is constantly finding out what the sale is. It’s gone out. That’s it. As far as touring, the Stones were another band doing the stadiums. I liked the Rolling Stones. Charlie [Watts] and Bill [Wyman] were an incredible rhythm section, the other side of the landscape to John Bonham and John Paul Jones.
There was the time in Munich when I poached two days in the studio off the Stones, when we did [1976’s] Presence. We’d been there for three weeks. Everyone else had gone home; I was doing overdubs and mixing. The Stones were due to come in to do Black and Blue. I contacted Mick: “Can I have two days to finish what we’re doing?” He said, “Fine.”
We were staying at the same hotel. He said, “How did you get on?” I said, “It sounds really good.” I had a copy of what we’d done, took it to his room and put it on. He says, “Is that what you managed to do over the three weeks?” I said, “No, we’ve got a whole album.” He said, “You mean the basic tracks?” I said, “No, we’re done, finished. Thanks for the two days.”
That focus — it was all up here [points to his head]. I’m not blowing my own trumpet. It’s an absolute fact.
You have finally released an album of the soundtrack you created for Kenneth Anger’s notorious occult film “Lucifer Rising” — music that Anger then cut out of the movie. What went wrong?
Kenneth Anger was brought to my house when I was living in Plumpton. I had a studio there where I had been doing a lot of work, sketch-pad stuff. I had seen [Anger’s 1963 movie] Scorpio Rising in an art house. He said he was working on this film — he had more or less completed the first 31 minutes — and I said I had some music, this experimental piece where I processed the instruments. I didn’t want guitar to be on it at all.
He laid that music on the footage. It was quite extraordinary how some of the highlights in the mix fitted so well. There is one scene where Marianne Faithfull is stumbling, trying to ascend an iron staircase, and just as she does that, this processed tabla comes in, like divine providence.
Interesting phrase, considering the subject.
Absolutely. Anger was thrilled to bits.
And then he wasn’t.
I had a three-screen film-editing machine stored in the basement of my [other] house in London. I thought it would be good to give him the opportunity to use it. I had someone looking after the house, and she found him and a whole party of people upstairs, wandering around. She said, “Kindly leave.” There was an almighty row. I wasn’t around. But he’d stepped over the line and taken advantage of my hospitality. He went away, and Jimmy Page’s music was taken off the film.
I was on tour with Led Zeppelin, staying at the Plaza in New York, when everything was still hunky-dory. I had a copy of the first part of the film, and I got the other members of the band together: “Have a look at this, listen to this.” I got complaints from five floors down about the volume. It was quite successful in that case.
You became notorious yourself for your interest in the occult, particularly the English mystic Aleister Crowley. You lived in Crowley’s house in Loch Ness, Scotland, and were a serious collector of Crowley literature and memorabilia. What was the attraction for you?
What attracted me to [the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter] Dante Gabriel Rossetti? You won’t be asking me questions on that. But you would ask me about Crowley. And everyone is going to prick up their ears and wait for great revelations. The essence of this is I read a book called The Great Beast: The Life of Aleister Crowley, by John Symonds [first published in 1951]. I could have been 14, 15. It was intended as a defamatory book. But there was a bibliography, and I was curious enough to read some of the books Crowley had written. It wasn’t the only thing that I was tracking down as source material.
But Crowley became more than a casual interest.
It’s taken out of all proportion. There was a balance to it. I wouldn’t be here now if there hadn’t been.
You’ve used the word “magic” to describe Led Zeppelin. Were you trying to create something in the music that was stronger than notes and chords?
That is open to ridicule or to be misinterpreted. I know what it means to me. There is no doubt that the music was evocative. That isn’t just with me and Led Zeppelin. That can be true with classical music. Whatever interest I had, still have, in anything I do — it seems as though people will be hanging on it, trying to make something out of it that it wasn’t. I don’t feel, at this point, I need to spell it out.
The reason why Led Zeppelin still has an audience — and a new audience coming to it — is not the written word. It’s music. It’s not, “Did they wreck a hotel room here or throw a television out the window there?” It’s the music that keeps the band buoyant, rather than the myth. When the myth fades, the music will still be there.
Kenneth Anger is still alive. Have you reconciled with him?
When it was announced on my website that my soundtrack was coming out, curiously enough there was a request, suggesting that Lucifer Rising should come out again with my music on. I ignored it.
What is the greatest Zeppelin riff of all?
It’s difficult to be asked, “What’s your favorite Zeppelin track?” They all were. They were all intended to be on those albums. [Pause] I suppose “Kashmir” has to be the one. I knew that this wasn’t just something guitar-based. All of the guitar parts would be on there. But the orchestra needed to sit there, reflecting those other parts, doing what the guitars were but with the colors of a symphony. John Paul Jones scored that. But I said, “John, this is what it’s got to be.” I knew it, and I heard it.
How did Jeff Beck and I learn in those days, when we could barely play the solo on “My Babe”? We learned by being taken in through those speakers, into the room with those players. It was seductive, to feel like you were learning as they did it. What we did was naturally extend the spirit of that music into our own interpretations — me, Jeff and Eric. You access it, and you grab it. It’s great to hear that in your own work. You feel like you’ve done a good job.
Do you still write riffs now?
Yeah, I do. Riffs come out of the ether, out of nowhere. Will you tell me where that is? Because no one knows. One minute I’m playing one thing. The next minute, I’ve got that. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.
When you play a new riff, do you ask yourself, “Is this as good as ‘Whole Lotta Love’?”
No. Because it probably won’t be [laughs]. The only proof of the pudding is the eating. Maybe the important thing is to do an album of the various pieces that I’ve got. It will be a summing up — where I’m at, whenever that is. Because that’s all it’s ever been in the past anyway.
What do you play when you pick up a guitar at home?
I primarily play acoustic. One thing I didn’t do at any point is play scales. If I pick up a guitar, I’ll play something I know. Usually I’ll have something new out of that. What I can do, when I get into a situation with musicians, is come up with stuff on the spot. That was the situation with John and Jason [after the O2 concert]. Jason would have an idea, and I would be straight on it. I can do that tomorrow. Thank God I’ve got that.
Do you miss being in Led Zeppelin now — to be able to play new riffs with that band?
I had some amazing times. This was the sort of band musicians dream of being in. And I was in it. To be on the spearhead of making music without compromises — do I miss that? I miss that for everybody. Bands today don’t have the freedom we had. It was a time when you could envision forming a band and being in it for a long time, where you could really develop your music. You felt, instinctively, not only was it something that could be done but should be done.
Does the new rock you hear sound less ambitious?
There is more restriction. The bands that are creative and forward-thinking — I know there are more confines on them that wouldn’t allow them to go into the areas we did.
As if the rules you broke have all come back around.
When I was in Neil Christian and the Crusaders, we got a recording contact, but we didn’t play on the tracks. Session musicians did. Record companies had staff producers who would supply songs written by their pals. There would be a deal on the publishing. It was a shut-down situation.
Then the Beatles came along. Suddenly, the companies were looking everywhere for bands writing their own material. That’s really what the Beatles did, as much as anything else. Now it seems there’s a return to what the business was like before that. People are groomed to fill a role. But music is alive and kicking at live gigs. There are some fine bands. That’s our hope for the future, before they get taken and shaped.
There is another problem: Zeppelin itself. How does a new heavy rock band eclipse that legacy? Did Zeppelin set standards that even you find impossible to match now?
One of the times I really felt it was when I was asked to do the  ARMS tour with Eric and Jeff. That’s when I realized that, unlike Jeff or Eric, I didn’t have a solo career. The Death Wish II soundtrack  was the only new music I had then. Apart from that, I had Zeppelin stuff. There was no point in getting someone else to sing “Stairway to Heaven.” I just did it instrumentally.
In a sense, Led Zeppelin was your solo career. You started it as a vehicle for your ideas about the future of rock, blues and riffing.
It was. But that would upset some members of the band [laughs]. I gave it everything I had. I wasn’t holding back something for this or that. Everything I had, I put into Zeppelin, in every way. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how it was.
How is the Jimmy Page who played those songs at the 02 in 2007 different from, or better than, the one who performed them in the Seventies?
You are going to change. Your core principles should not. The Jimmy Page of 2007 was celebrating life as equally as the one in 1957, 1967 and absolutely 1977. People go, “Why didn’t he go out there afterwards, hammer it and collect on it?” Because I didn’t want to. I did things that I thought were credible, and that was enough. No member of Led Zeppelin — especially me — was going to be bigger than Led Zeppelin itself.
Is it strange to have Led Zeppelin still guide your life so much even now?
It does feel like the band still exists.
You are still the lead guitarist in the biggest band in the world.
I hope I can still do Jimmy Page better than anybody else. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? As long as I can still be the best Jimmy Page there is, that’s all right.