Excerpt from Brad Tolinski's 'Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page': Recording 'Led Zeppelin'
Brad Tolinski, editorial director of Guitar World, Revolver and Guitar Aficionado magazines, has interviewed Jimmy Page more than any other journalist in the world.
Those interviews have led to his new book, Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page, which was published today, October 23, by Crown Publishing.
Light & Shade is drawn from the best of more than 50 hours worth of conversations that touch on everything from the music scene of the '60s; Page's early years as England's top session guitarist working with The Who, The Kinks and Eric Clapton; his time with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin and his post-Zep projects. The book provides readers with the most complete picture of the media-shy guitarist ever published.
Below is an excerpt from the book, where Page discusses the work that went into recording Led Zeppelin's self-titled 1969 debut album. For another excerpt that focuses on Page's time in The Yardbirds, check out the December 2012 issue of Guitar World. It's available on newsstands now and at the Guitar World Online Store.
“I WANTED ARTISTIC CONTROL IN A VISE GRIP…”
Page leaves the Yardbirds, forms Led Zeppelin and records their first two albums.
BRAD TOLINSKI: Right from the beginning, you were able to translate the extreme dynamism of Led Zeppelin’s live act into a dynamic studio recording: What was your secret?
JIMMY PAGE: That is interesting, isn’t it? One usually thinks of a dynamic album being translated into a dynamic live performance, but in the early days, it was the other way around for us.
I think part of the key was that we miked John Bonham’s drums like a proper acoustic instrument in a good acoustic environment. The drums had to sound good because they were going to be the backbone of the band. So I worked hard on microphone placement. But then again, you see, when you have someone who is as powerful as John Bonham going for you, the battle is all but won.
So the way to capture a dynamic performance is, essentially, to capture the natural sound of the instruments.
PAGE: Sure. You shouldn’t really have to use EQ in the studio if the instruments sound good. It should all be done with microphones and microphone placement. The instruments that bleed into each other are what creates the ambience. Once you start cleaning everything up, you lose it. You lose that sort of halo that bleeding creates. Then if you eliminate the halo, you have to go back and put in some artificial reverb, which is never as good.
That’s particularly true of the blues. Playing the blues is not a cerebral experience. Its often said that musicians try to summon the spirit of the blues when they play. But how can that be done when there is no room, no space? And space is also essential if If you want to capture the mojo created by musicians playing together, live.
PAGE: And that’s probably the biggest difference between the music made in the Fifties and music made from the Seventies on—everything suddenly had to be cleaned up. You do that and you take that whole punch out of the track.
Along with that strong musical vision you had in those early days, you also took a unique approach to handling the business aspect of the band. By producing the first album and tour yourself, was it your intention to keep record company interference to a minimum and maximize the band’s artistic control?
PAGE: That’s true. I wanted artistic control in a vise grip, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the band. In fact, I financed and completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic. It wasn’t your typical story where you get an advance to make an album—we arrived at Atlantic with tapes in hand. The other advantage to having such a clear vision of what I wanted the band to be was that it kept recording costs to a minimum. We recorded the whole first album in a matter of 30 hours. That’s the truth. I know, because I paid the bill. [laughs] But it wasn’t all that difficult because we were well rehearsed, having just finished a tour of Scandinavia, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do in every respect. I knew where all the guitars were going to go and how it was going to sound—everything.
The stereo mixes on the first two albums were very innovative. Was this planned before you entered the studio, as well?
PAGE: I wouldn’t go that far. Certainly, though, after the overdubs were completed I had an idea of the stereo picture and where the echo returns would be. For example, on “How Many More Times,” you’ll notice there are instances where the guitar is on one side and the echo return is on the other. Those things were my ideas. I would say the only real problem we had with the first album was leakage from the vocals. Robert’s voice was extremely powerful and, as a result, would get on some of the other tracks. But oddly, the leakage sounds intentional. I was very good at salvaging things that went wrong.
For example, the rhythm track in the beginning of “Celebration Day” [from Led Zeppelin III was completely wiped by an engineer. I forget what we were recording, but I was listening through the headphones and nothing was coming through. I started yelling, “What the hell is going on?” Then I noticed that the red recording light was on what used to be the drums. The engineer had accidentally recorded over Bonzo! And that is why you have that synthesizer drone from the end of “Friends” going into “Celebration Day,” until the rhythm track catches up. We put that on to compensate for the missing drum track. That’s called “salvaging.”
The idea of having a grand vision and sticking to it is more characteristic of the fine arts than of rock music. Did your having attended art school influence your thinking?
PAGE: No doubt about it. One thing I discovered was that most of the abstract painters that I admired were also very good technical draftsman. Each had spent long periods of time being an apprentice and learning the fundamentals of classical composition and painting before they went off to do their own thing.
This made an impact on me because I could see I was running on a parallel path with my music. Playing in my early bands, working as a studio musician, producing and going to art school was, in retrospect, my apprenticeship. I was learning and creating a solid foundation of ideas, but I wasn’t really playing music. Then I joined the Yardbirds, and suddenly—bang!—all that I had learned began to fall into place, and I was off and ready to do something interesting. I had a voracious appetite for this new feeling of confidence.