By Brian Ives
When we last spoke to Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page in May of this year, the mercurial guitarist was preparing for the release of the reissues of Zep’s first three albums: 1969’s Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II and 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. Those were the albums that put the band on the map (I), established them as one of the loudest and best rock bands in the world (II), and then showed that they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed, and turned down the volume and create beautiful acoustic music (III).
This time when we spoke to Page, the subjects were 1971’s untitled fourth album (known as Led Zeppelin IV) and 1973’s Houses of the Holy. Zeppelin IV was where they combined their acoustic and electric sides to great effect. It’s the third-best selling album in U.S. history and houses, not coincidentally, “Stairway to Heaven,” the song which has probably been played on classic rock radio more than any other. But beyond that, rock fans have memorized most of the LP, which also includes “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog” and “Going to California.”
On the follow-up, Houses of the Holy, all bets were off, with the band incorporating funk and reggae and also expanding on the epic feel of “Stairway” on songs like “No Quarter” and “The Rain Song.”
As always, Page speaks of Zeppelin’s output with absolute confidence, saying of their songs “They’re all pretty special,” referring to “Stairway to Heaven” as “groundbreaking,” but is happy to heap praise on his onetime bandmate Robert Plant‘s vocals on “The Crunge,” and give props to James Brown for inspiring the song.
While remaining as mysterious as you’d expect him to, he also addressed what his next move may be. And soon after that, our all-too-short phone conversation came to and end.
Radio.com: You’ve spent a lot of time working on Led Zeppelin projects in the past few years. Do you have a favorite Zeppelin album?
Jimmy Page: I guess I’ve got to say the first album is the favorite, isn’t it? Because without the first album, all the others wouldn’t have come. It’s a tricky question for me, all of the songs have all got their own particular character. Which was all very intentional, that they would be different, sound different, be performed differently. Consequently, when you had an album, a collection of songs at any given point in time, they’re all pretty special.
Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is the third best-selling record in U.S. history, having sold over 23 million copies. Does it surprise you that that’s the one that became the biggest hit?
I don’t really know anything about sales figures, to be honest with you. I can tell you what the work ethic was for Led Zeppelin IV. There was a remote country house, that actually had a few bands that rehearsed there, but not recorded. It was called Headley Grange. I wanted to ask the band to make a commitment to stay at this house, and not only to rehearse the album there, but also record it. We had a mobile truck to do that. I wanted everyone to commit to go to Headley Grange, eat there, sleep there, make music there and record there. It was a really concentrated effort. It was 1971, the band had been going for a few years at that point. The work ethic really shows. The fourth album encapsulated some remarkable music that was really groundbreaking. We were able to have something like “When the Levee Breaks,” which, sonically, was very menacing. But then you had the flip side: something like “Going to California,” which is really intimate. And all of this was able to be achieved at this remote house.
Did it surprise you that “Stairway to Heaven” became the song that got the most radio play?
Well at the time, I knew that that was really groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking as far as starting off with this really fragile guitar, then there’s this area where it really starts to unravel, and then as it continues, there’s more that gets exposed, and more layers, more textures and more colors. The intensity of the song kept building, into this momentum. By the time the song finishes, it’s at a totally different tempo than how it opened. It was tricky to do. I knew it was really good, but I wasn’t sure… I didn’t expect it to be the real standout track from the first four albums. I wouldn’t have thought that was going to happen.
The fourth album and Houses of the Holy have had a lot of riffs that have been sampled often. When the Beastie Boys put out Licensed to Ill, it referenced those two albums a lot. What did you think of it when you first heard artists sampling your music?
Well, I guess I felt it was a compliment. Without being specific. I know the Beastie Boys used quite a bit of our stuff, really, didn’t they? I can tell you one thing, to go back to “Whole Lotta Love.” I’ve seen the riff of that song show up in mashups on YouTube, that riff got people to the point where they were inspired to do their own thing, that’s really cool. I’m not going to complain about that. But the Beastie Boys, that was almost as long ago as Led Zeppelin!
Going through the bonus tracks…
They’re not “bonus tracks!” The idea of the companion volumes is to get away from the idea of “bonus tracks.” And to have something that is actually in the reflection of, or the shadow of, the original album. You get running orders that are very similar to the original album. So it’s nothing like a “bonus” thing at all. As far as something like “Stairway” goes, the whole perspective of the mix is quite different. It has an audio “3D” quality to it, which is quite different to the main version. There’s a version of “When the Levee Breaks,” which was mixed in London on the companion disc, and the harmonica is totally different from the version that was done at Sunset Sound, on the version that everyone knows. I’m really proud of that mix, because it’s so dense and it’s ominous and it’s cool.
It’s fun to listen to these versions, but the originals still stand as the definitive versions.
Well I would hope so! [laughs]
Do you remember the moment when you came up with the riff for “The Ocean?”
Yes. I knew it was really different. It was quirky. And it was good. It was a little difficult to play straight off, and it was fun.
Was “The Crunge” your tribute to James Brown and the American funk scene of that era?
It certainly ended up that way, that’s for sure. Especially with the vocals, I mean, Robert does a fantastic job with that. The thing is, James Brown’s things were really danceable and “The Crunge” was really angular. It starts off with the three instruments, and then Robert comes in with his parts, and John Paul Jones put on some synthesizer with that as well.
I met James Brown on a couple of occasions after that, but he didn’t refer to it. I don’t know if you know this, but when you met James Brown, you had to refer to him as “Mr. Brown.” Which I was perfectly happy to do. But I didn’t want to ask “Oh by the way, did you hear ‘The Crunge?'” I thought he might have thought [the song] was disrespectful. [laughs] But it wasn’t meant to be disrespectful! Boy oh boy, did we love James Brown! I really liked him from the early days with the Famous Flames. Songs like “Please, Please, Please” were phenomenal.
I used to think “D’yer Mak’er” was pronounced “die-er maker,” and later found out that I was saying it incorrectly. Talk about the reggae influence on that song.
Well, I’ll tell you why it’s called “D’yer Mak’er” [pronounced “Jamaica”], shall I?
I don’t think you’ll get the joke. This is the sort of thing where we put a joke in, as a title, and then nobody understands it. Here’s the joke: it’s a musical joke, I don’t expect you to laugh. The first man says, “My wife went on holiday.” And the second man says, “Jamaica?” As in, the island of Jamaica. And he says, “No, she went on her own accord.” So, in other words, “Did you make her” [became “D’yer Mak’er”]. We didn’t make any other jokes in the key of G. It was a reggae thing, and that’s why it was called “D’yer Mak’er.”
I was checking out your book Jimmy Page By Jimmy Page, and there were some funny parts. There was a photo of you playing cricket with an acoustic guitar, and your caption was, “My contribution to sport.” Do you feel like you don’t get any credit for having a sense of humor?
Yeah, probably. But that was interesting because it was actually a competition with a magazine called Melody Maker. They wanted to give away a guitar as a prize – it was probably fixed. Anyway, I never knew who got it. I just thought I’d do an interesting photograph. But not everyone knows what cricket is. But for those who do, there was a sense of humor to that.
I have to ask about another photo from that book: the one where you’re jamming with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? They were playing at Wembley, and I got invited to meet up with them afterwards. It ended up that we all had a jam. I doubt that any of them would remember doing that. And if it wasn’t for the photograph (and a vague recollection), I wouldn’t remember it either! But there were, rocking away!
The companion disc to Led Zeppelin was a live concert recording from the era. Do you have plans to release more live recordings in the future after the remasters are all out?
I’ve been quite busy up ’til now, really. We’re only just about halfway through [the releases of the remastered albums]. There’s still more stuff to come, but it’s the studio stuff that’s coming out now.
But are there more live concert recordings that are of good enough quality to be released in the future?
I don’t know.
I recently interviewed Paul Rodgers for his Royal Sessions album. In the press materials, there’s a quote from you [“Paul Rodgers has created a timeless masterpiece in The Royal Sessions.”] Would you ever work with him again? [Rodgers and Page were in the Firm together in the ’80s].
Well, I’m sure at some point, down the road, somewhere. I really respect Paul. I respect him as a singer and as a person, so, yeah. One day, but I couldn’t say when.
So what does 2015 have in store for you? You’ve talked about maybe doing a tour, maybe doing some new music.
Well, everyone’s talking on my behalf! You know what it’s like on the internet. What I said was, “I’d like to be seen to be playing.” In other words, visually seen to be playing. Or visually playing. Out of my house! I wouldn’t be able to do that, currently, with everything else that’s going on. I wouldn’t be able to think about putting it together until next year. But, you know, I love playing live, that’s what I intend to do, but that’s further on down the road. It’ll be into next year, it won’t be this year.
Have you recorded any new music?
No, I haven’t recorded anything. I’ve got new music, and I purposely didn’t record it, because I wanted to save it until the time was right. Next year, the time will be right.