Jimmy Page: 'Robert and I went to see the Damned. He'd probably run a mile from that now'

As we near the end of Led Zeppelin’s exhaustive reissue programme, the band’s leader and curator discusses their legacy and their difficult final years

What have you learned about Led Zeppelin from putting together the reissues of the entire catalogue?

I just reinforced what I already knew. That it is four master musicians. The alchemy of it was just so very, very special, it was unique, and the scope of what we could do individually or collectively was just unparalleled. If you say Led Zeppelin to somebody, then something is going to come into their mind – riffs or a vocal line or whatever it is. Everything that I tried to do was to present a portal into the time when these things were recorded. It’s the recorded music that has kept Led Zeppelin at the forefront of things, and made it vital listening to young musicians: it’s a great textbook.

Has the public response gratified you, with so many of those albums going high in the charts?

Again! It’s terrific, isn’t it? It’s really wonderful. The response to it, right from the first three releases, was just so strong in every area, from the vinyl through to the extra content – far more than I even imagined. It brings a lot of joy to people’s lives and that’s great.

Has there been anything that’s surprised you having gone through the Zeppelin archives, stuff that you’d forgotten ?

Do you know what’s pretty surprising about it? My memory recall on it was just so clear that I knew what it was I was looking for and what I wanted to hear – it was just a question of making sure I could locate it. I started to get quite obsessive about it – I wanted to know exactly what might be there on bootleg in case the system that I had malfunctioned at some point and something might have got copied.

You were insistent about not using anything that had been widely bootlegged. But people like me – who aren’t obsessive bootleg collectors – would have loved official, high-quality versions of that stuff …

When they came out, they were the definitive versions. They were the definitive summing up of the body of work. But it didn’t mean to say that some of the other versions of things weren’t interesting – a version of Stairway is really, really interesting relative to the one we all know. With When the Levee Breaks, there was the version that was done in London, but the one from Sunset Sound was really dense, it was dark, it was ominous and that was it. That was going to be the version. I might have yet had another version of When the Levee Breaks but it won’t be as good as the original version, or the one that’s in the companion disc. That illustrated the sort of work that went into the compiling and the selection and rejection of things along the way to make a companion disc. So, as best as possible, I made sure there wasn’t anything that just already replicated what was out there on the bootlegs. I think what you’re getting at is earlier versions of things. I did have an idea after the live DVD whereby we could have done rehearsal tapes and things like that, but nobody could understand it – when I say nobody, I mean the management, but that was fair enough. It wasn’t anywhere near as ambitious as this project was, because this was going to be so thorough and so searching that it was going to just really cover everything.

What are your favourites among the previously unreleased material?

There are highlights going through from the alternate version of Whole Lotta Love – that’s superb. The alternate version of Since I’ve Been Loving You is superb. The alternate version of Stairway (1) … you can go on and on and on and on. Everything that’s out there is out there for a reason. There are just so many gems that are out there – Key to the Highway was superb, that was always going to be something that people never expected, nobody had heard it, and it had never been bootlegged, yet it illustrates that when Led Zeppelin did blues it was a totally different version to how other people approached it.

Are the Zeppelin archives now closed?

As far as that side of the recording world of Led Zeppelin [goes], yeah. I’ve done a really thorough job.

On to these final three albums – Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda. Would it be fair to say that these cover the most trying times in Zeppelin’s career? (2)

I suppose you could say that, couldn’t you?

Did you ever fear the events might diminish Zeppelin? Presence, of course, was recorded with Robert Plant in a wheelchair after his car crash …

Robert was really keen to do the recording, and we all were, because there wasn’t anything else that we could do. There was a unified will to do this album – I mean, he’s singing his heart out and that’s all there is to it. We weren’t thinking about tomorrow, we were thinking about that immediate point in time, collectively.

And then, in 1977, Robert’s son died. That must have had a colossal effect on the band.

Certainly. I can’t even into get into discussing what everyone else thought. I don’t want to put words into Robert’s mouth but obviously he made the decision to go back on the road and do an album. In 1978, Robert makes a decision that he wants to reappear. We start doing some rehearsals, getting together, and John Paul Jones has got this keyboard made by Yamaha, and it was called the dream machine. So you can imagine what it was, if you’re gonna call something a dream machine – it was a state-of-the-art keyboard. John Paul Jones had been inspired by this keyboard, I guess – he had complete numbers that he’d written, you know, with verses, choruses, middles and it was fantastic, because Presence had been an electric guitar album. John Paul Jones had this writing renaissance, because he hadn’t written whole numbers before and suddenly he had. Abba’s recording studio, Polar, wanted to become an international recording studio. So they were sat thinking: “What better band to come in here to address this than Led Zeppelin?” So they got in touch with me and made a very generous offer about studio time. It was a state-of-the-art studio and you know that the album In Through the Out Door is going to sound different to anything we’ve done before, but that’s a good thing – with Led Zeppelin every album did sound different, so this is just the logical step. (3)

Between Presence and In Through the Out Door, punk came along. There’s a tendency to view this as The Event That Changed Everything, but in 1979 you were still able to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets for the Knebworth shows. Did you feel the musical landscape had changed in a way that might harm you?

Here’s where it goes with Led Zeppelin. It didn’t matter what was going on around us, because the character of Led Zeppelin’s music was so strong. I really enjoyed punk music: I went to hear the Damned, and Robert came along – the two of us went to see the Damned here in London. He’d probably run a mile from something like that now, but I’d still embrace it. I liked the Sex Pistols’ music, I thought it was superb. I liked it but that didn’t mean to say I was going to give up on the way I was going – but you do, you appreciate other music along the way. You could see the link back to Eddie Cochran, but I don’t want to take anything away from what they did, or try and link it into something else – that’s almost as annoying as people trying to link Led Zeppelin into something. It was just really good music.

There was a three-year gap between Presence and In Through the Out Door. Did you have any worries about having been away that long?

No. As far as whether we got together and played music, no.

What about how your music might be received after that gap?

No, it didn’t bother me. Not really. Because if the music you’re playing you’re playing from the heart, that’s going to translate to anyone.

You’ve previously expressed reservations about In Through the Out Door. Do you still feel unsure about it?

No, not really. It’s what it was in the space of time. I would say that out of the whole of the catalogue that one seems to date quicker than some of the others, but I don’t want to take anything away from it. It is what it is. We did some extraordinary singing and playing on it.

And finally, in 1982, came the posthumous collection Coda, often called the album for the taxman …

Well, it wasn’t for the taxman but it was a contractual album. It was a difficult album. People say: “What was the most difficult album?” and that was it. It was a posthumous album – you’re going to be using studio outtakes, because we didn’t have anything else in the can. It wasn’t like we had an album in the can to go, of course we didn’t, far from it. It was what it was, but it wouldn’t have gone out if I hadn’t thought it had a place. But it was a difficult one to do and put together. [For the reissue] I wanted to make Coda the mother of all Coda – I wanted to make it such a celebration of the group in all its quirkiness and all its directness. Well, that’s what this Coda is. It’s just got so much fun on it.

The great counterfactual of rock is what might have happened had Zeppelin continued into the 80s. What kind of direction do you think you would have taken had John Bonham not died?

John and I liked to discuss what we would like to do on the next album, and if you listen to Led Zeppelin all the way through you can hear all the things I like to do – riffs that would be quite tricky, interesting, provocative. And he loved playing this sort of stuff. So we definitely would have done some guitar-driven riff things because he loved all of that and because we’d just done a keyboard album.

Would you have been more active in the songwriting again?

No idea. I don’t know. What I do know is John Paul Jones had come up with whole numbers [for In Through the Out Door] and Robert was writing the lyrics – I wasn’t going to write the lyrics. So that seemed to be the way that was going at that point in time. Didn’t bother me at all. As far as I could see it was just the natural progression.

Did you mourn the end of Zeppelin?

Of course. Naturally. I put the guitar down for a little bit and I didn’t actually want to play. But then I did, and I used it as a therapeutic tool really.

Can you tell me something about Led Zeppelin that’s never appeared in an article?

Maybe not today. But believe me, I will. (4)

  • The remastered editions of Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda are released on Warner/Rhino on 31 July.


(1) Page dismisses talk of there being loads of usable and interesting versions of Stairway to Heaven. But if you spend five minutes on Google you can find them.

(2) In August 1975, Robert Plant and his wife Maureen were involved in a crash that seriously injured her and put him temporarily in a wheelchair. After their July 1977 show in Oakland, John Bonham and members of the band’s crew were arrested after badly beating a member of the promoter’s staff, for which they received suspended sentences. Page told me last year that he wasn’t aware of what had happened because he was onstage at the time. Which seems odd, since you’d have expected Bonham to be onstage, too. Two days later, Plant’s son Karac died of a stomach infection. Then, in September 1980, Bonham died as result of asphyxiation by vomit.

(3) The common explanation for Plant and Jones’s domination of In Through the Out Door is that Page and Bonham were knee-deep in addictions, Page to heroin and Bonham to booze. However, Page has always pointed out, he was perfectly capable of getting the album recorded in three weeks.

(4) I bet he won’t.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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