Led Vault: Jimmy Page Talks First Three Led Zeppelin Albums, Gibson and Harmony Guitars and More
As my taxi pulls up to Olympic Studios, located in the quiet West London suburb of Barnes, I’m a bit surprised and amused. With its red brick exterior and modest white archway entrance, the building looks more like a quaint American high school than a rock and roll landmark.
But a landmark it is. From the mid Sixties through the Nineties, Olympic was one of England’s finest recording facilities and birthplace to some of the greatest music of the 20th century, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Queen’s Night at the Opera, and large portions of Led Zeppelin I, II and III.
Olympic is now an ultra-hip movie theater/café, decorated with candid in-studio photos of rock’s finest musicians and tasteful bric-a-brac that celebrates the building’s past glories. The recording consoles and microphones are long gone, but, fortunately, some of the old spirit still remains.
It is here that Led Zeppelin’s producer and guitarist, Jimmy Page has decided to unveil the band’s latest archival project to a handful of curious journalists. As long rumored, during the course of the next year, deluxe editions of all nine Led Zeppelin studio albums will be released, three at a time, in chronological order, each remastered by Page. But the real news is that the band will also open its vaults to share dozens of unheard studio and live recordings. Each remastered studio album will have a second disc of companion material comprised entirely of unreleased music related to that album.
I’m ushered into the movie theater, which is a treat in itself. It is clean in a way that American theaters rarely are. The pristine drapes, seats and walls are matching shades of bright crimson, and for extra drama the Led Zeppelin logo has been expertly etched in black on the sides of the hall—an expensive touch for a record company event in these cash-strapped times.
After the 20 or 30 writers are settled, Page walks onstage, dressed completely in black, with his white hair providing a stark contrast to the red surroundings. He offers a brief explanation of the forthcoming reissues and describes the companion discs as “a portal to the time of the recording of Led Zeppelin…a selection of work-in-progress, with rough mixes, backing tracks, alternate versions and new material recorded at the time.” He also notes that we are sitting in what was once Olympic’s famed Studio A, where Zeppelin recorded their entire first album.
After the chills have subsided, the presentation segues into a world premiere playback of bonus disc selections culled from the band’s first three albums, Led Zeppelin (1969), Led Zeppelin II (1969) and Led Zeppelin III (1970), all which will be released in June. As the music explodes out of the theater’s sound system, it’s both entertaining and somewhat surreal to hear some of rock’s most familiar tracks so shockingly deconstructed.
“Whole Lotta Love,” from the Led Zeppelin II companion disc, allows the listener to eavesdrop on a hard rock masterpiece in progress. In this early “working version,” many of songs signature elements are yet to be recorded—the iconic solo break is missing, and so are the slide guitar punctuations and the vocal refrains that give the song it’s title. Instead, we are rewarded with a powerful alternative vocal take by singer Robert Plant, an illuminating glimpse at the foundations of the middle “freak out” section, and a clearer image of the rhythm guitars and John Bonham’s powerful drumming.
In the same vein, a stripped-down early take of “Gallows Pole,” sans banjos, mandolins and electric guitar overdubs, illustrates just how driving and focused the Zeppelin rhythm section was. If you’re looking for a stairway to heaven, just listen to Page and bassist John Paul Jones get busy as Bonham kicks the whole band into high gear and the song races to its urgent conclusion.
However, not all the bonus tracks are alternate mixes. For example, the first album is paired with a pulse-pounding live show from 1969, featuring a version of “Dazed and Confused” that rivals the studio original. The bonus disc that accompanies the third album contains a different take of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and the Led Zeppelin II companion disc offers “Heartbreaker” with an alternate guitar solo. There’s even an unreleased rarity from the Zep III sessions—a one-take improvised blues medley of “Keys to the Highway” and “Trouble in Mind,” featuring Page on acoustic guitar in a way you’ve never heard him play before. Jimmy has always taken pride in adding his own twist to the blues, but on this rendition he demonstrates his expert ability to play in a completely traditional vein.
According to Page, the first three bonus albums only scratch the surface of what lies ahead. As he explains in the following interview, the treasures get richer as the band goes deeper into its discography. No doubt, there will plenty for dedicated Zep-ologists to discuss and debate for years to come.
Immediately after the playback, I meet with the guitarist for an exclusive one-on-one chat for Guitar World. Jimmy recently turned 70, and you can’t help but be in awe of his youthful enthusiasm and the hardcore dedication that he has brought to this rather gigantic undertaking.
“I knew the only way to do this project properly was to leave no stone unturned and to listen to every Led Zeppelin tape and performance,” he says emphatically. “Additionally, I really researched what had been bootlegged and what stolen material had surfaced, and I was determined to offer things people had never heard. People will be genuinely surprised by what we have and what we have in store for these albums. We wanted to give these bootleggers a real fright! I’ve actually read reviews of the new albums by people who think they know what the extra material will be, based on bits and pieces they’ve heard online. I thought, Oh yeah, you think that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll scare the pants off you!”
He pauses for a moment and adds with a laugh, “They’ll probably do bootlegs of what we’ve just done!”
How did the general concept of adding companion discs to the remastered albums come about?
It happened in reverse order. We had been discussing the unreleased material, and decided to take the opportunity to update everything. It’s been over 10 years since the studio albums were last remastered, and the technology has gotten better since then. It didn’t make sense to have the companion albums come out with “old stock.”
It turned out to be a good decision. The new remasters definitely sound better. I hear an appreciable difference. There’s more space to them. John Davis, who remastered both Mothership and Celebration Day, did a great job.
Creating alternate versions of each album is a completely original way to release music from the vaults. In retrospect, it seems quite obvious.
Yes. As we began to collate all the material, it became more apparent to me that it was the right way to organize and choose the outtakes. I see it as creating a mirror image—or maybe, I should say a tinted image — of each album. But even though we retained the same running order, we still wanted to surprise the listener with our choice of working mixes or, in some cases, completely different takes. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is an example of a completely different take from the one you hear on Led Zeppelin III, but one that is completely undeniable and shows just how well we were playing at the time.
Was there an overall yardstick for which versions would make the cut?
Most of the selections were chosen from working mixes that chronicled the progress of a particular evening. Many of them have guide vocals, but some are purely instrumental. There were occasions when Robert would take instrumental tracks home to work on words. But the overriding criteria was that it had to reflect all the positive qualities of how we played collectively, our various contributions and just how damn good everybody was.
It’s really a terrific time capsule, because you’re hearing the creative process in action, unaltered. For example, I really like the alternate “Gallows Pole,” because you can hear the basic track very clearly without all the layers, and it’s just amazing! Don’t get me wrong, I love the final “Gallows Pole,” but the alternate version has a different sort of excitement and urgency.
I’m sure some people will think it’s a different take, but that’s what is really going on underneath everything. That’s also part of the beauty of this project. It allows people to hear things they never would on the original tracks.
Was it difficult to decide which track to use?
Yes. Each song was a gallery unto itself, and there were often 30 paintings in the room to consider. I had many options to pick from during the evolution of any given track, but the most important thing to me was to show the energy and performance of the group.
The differences on “Immigrant Song” are subtler than on some of the other tracks, but they’re still interesting. The guitars are super dry, and the reverbs on the vocals are different, but it demonstrates just how many different paths the song could have taken.
I agree that some of the changes you hear are subtle, but some are really major. I thought it was important to show some of the bigger ideas that we decided not to pursue. Toward the end of “Immigrant Song,” for example, you hear an interesting experiment with vocal harmonies that we ultimately decided against. Or on “Whole Lotta Love,” you can hear some attempts at using repeat echo that were eventually rejected.
You produced all the albums. What did that mean within the context of Led Zeppelin?
Being the producer meant that I was in charge of the overall vision of each track and the way they were shaped via the musical colors of the overdubs. I was also involved in the mixing and mastering, picking the studio, picking the engineer and, of course, writing a lot of the music. After I left the Yardbirds in 1968, I always intended to be the producer of whatever band I was going to play with. That was my thing. The advantage was I didn’t have anybody getting in the way of what I was doing or suggesting.
I assume you even decided the length of the spaces between songs. When I revisited the first album, I was struck by how the standard two-second space between songs is altered and violated on several tracks.
Yes, I worked out the crossfades on “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and “Black Mountain Side” and counted out how quickly I wanted each song to follow each other in order to create flow or excitement.
Robert Plant was extremely young and relatively new to the recording process when the band started. As producer, did you have to work with him much?
Robert was absolutely extraordinary in those days. He was so bombastic and fearless that neither the songs nor the studio intimidated him. He very quickly got to a point where no other singer could touch him.
You mentioned that you were aware of the numerous Zeppelin bootlegs floating around the internet and that you were determined to not duplicate them in this package. It begs the question: how did they get out in the first place?
I don’t know how they got out there, and it’s actually pretty aggravating to me. I know some of the tapes were actually stolen from here [Olympic], and it would be interesting to have them. Believe me, these things were not given away in some goodwill gesture. They were stolen, and they should all belong to the holding company of Led Zeppelin.
There was a reference tape of a song called “Jenning’s Farm Blues” that we had recorded for the third album sessions that got nicked from my house. Then there were tapes recorded at studios that were supposed to be returned and never were. But when you’re busy touring, writing new music and recording, the mechanics of the office sometimes aren’t as thorough as you’d like.
The version of “Whole Lotta Love” on the bonus disc is exciting but missing some key elements: the guitar solo, the chorus tag, the backward slide and some of the guitar and Theremin parts in the middle. Why did you choose this particular take?
At this point in the song’s evolution, I knew in my head how the whole arrangement was going to go, but I wanted people to hear how focused we were on creating a foundation that was intense. And it is intense! We weren’t the Beatles, so you’re not going to hear us sing “whole lotta love” together on the chorus while we were playing. [laughs] But I think Robert’s performance on this track is also a revelation. He’s just singing a guide vocal, but it’s pretty damn good, isn’t it? And even though you only hear some of the drums, little bits of the final Theremin part and some of Robert’s vocal in the middle section, it’s really atmospheric and stands on its own merits.
While we’re on the subject, how did you create the otherworldly sounds in the middle section that we hear on the final studio version of “Whole Lotta Love”?
I always envisioned the middle to be quite avant-garde. If ultimately I wasn’t able to pull it off, I might’ve had to edit the song down, but I knew what I wanted and I knew how to go about it. It was just a matter of doing it. I created most of the sounds with a Theremin and my guitar. The Theremin generates most of higher pitches and my Les Paul makes the lower sounds. I detuned it radically and just basically pulled on the strings to make an assortment of growling noises—evil sounds that you’re not suppose to hear on commercial radio. [laughs] I might’ve detuned it to a chord, but really, I’m just pulling on strings and making them howl!
And then, during the mix, with the aid of engineer Eddie Kramer, we did all the panning and added the effects, including using low-frequency oscillators on the tape machine to really pull the whole thing down and lift it back up, so the sound is moving in rhythm. It was something no one had ever done before in that context, let alone in the middle of a song. That’s how forward thinking we were, that’s how avant-garde it was, and that’s how much fun we were having.
That was the advantage of having artistic control. None of that might’ve happened if had an outside producer. They might’ve questioned, or not understood, what I was doing, or thought I was just making a bunch of noise. I was able to make sure our ideas were carried out without interference.
“Whole Lotta Love” has so many cool touches. How did you go about constructing it?
I was always good at hearing complete arrangements in my head. For example, when we rehearsed the first album at my home in Pangbourne, I was able to envision the finished arrangement of “How Many More Times” before we got into the studio. I knew what was going to be overdubbed and how I was going to use the bow as melodic counterpoint. The same is with “Whole Lotta Love.”
On the first album, the band plays two blues covers. What attracted you to choosing “I Can’t Quit You” and “You Shook Me”?
When we first started rehearsing at my house, in 1968, we were working on a live set and the material that would become our first album. At that time, there were a lot of bands playing the blues. We also enjoyed playing blues, but we felt that our collective group character was so strong and original that, instead of blending in, it would have the opposite effect. Playing our version of the blues would show just how bold and different we were.
We picked two songs that had dramatic elements that we could explore. The original Otis Rush version of “I Can’t Quit You,” has this section in the song where the chord moves up a half step, and we saw that we could turn it into a real moment. A big moment. Essentially, we put Rush’s song under a microscope and figured out how to give it a bit more dynamic suspense.
I felt the band brought a certain psychological angst and darkness to “You Shook Me” that isn’t present in the original Muddy Waters’ original version.
Hmm… I don’t know if I agree with that. You can never underestimate Muddy Waters.
What I mean, is it’s a very dark song. The singer has just had sex with a woman that was so good, it destroys his “happy home.”
Well, that’s how life goes!
The way Muddy sings the lyrics, it doesn’t sound like he’s in despair. He’s almost smirking. Robert, on the other hand, makes it into something heavier, more angst-ridden and emotional.
It was important for us to put our own spin on things and present a new attitude. I think our powerhouse rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham naturally brought a difference to everything we played. But the blues were very important to us. It was our pathway on the first album. “Dazed And Confused,” for example has a progressive arrangement, but it’s still has strong blues elements.
The first three albums fuse elements of blues, progressive acoustic folk, hard rock and world music. What was the end game?
You have all these colors on your pallet and now you can blend them to introduce new colors and textures people have not heard before. For example, playing something like “Black Mountain Side” with a tabla drummer had never been done. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” from the first album is another example. I had heard Joan Baez’s version, but if you compare ours to hers, most people would say, “How the hell did you come up with that?” They don’t really sound anything alike. The reason they are different is because we were able to fuse her acoustic approach with heavy guitars, which was something that hadn’t been done. Additionally, I was able to incorporate a flamenco-style guitar solo, as well.
You recorded “Black Mountain Side” with an Indian tabla player. What was that session like?
I had never worked with the musician before, and I didn’t have much time to waste in the studio to get it done, but I wanted to try. If it didn’t work, I would’ve tried something else. I imagine it would’ve been difficult for him to play over what was essentially Western music, but he did a fine job. I found out years later that he was also a sitar player, so perhaps that made it easier for him to understand what I was doing.
How many takes did it take you to get it right? Was it a day in the studio?
Good lord, no! We recorded the whole first album in about 35 hours. We’d do five tracks in a whole day! With overdubs, “Black Mountain Side” probably took an hour to finish.
On the photo shoot for this issue, you specifically brought two acoustic guitars with you. Could you explain the significance of each?
The Harmony guitar is quite special to me. It is what I used to write all the acoustic songs and many of the electric songs on the first three albums. I also used it to record all the acoustic tracks on the third album, and it’s the guitar I played on “Stairway to Heaven.” I pretty much used it until I started playing a Martin on Houses of the Holy.
The second guitar is a mid-Sixties Gibson J-200, similar to the one I used to record all the acoustic parts on the first album. The J-200 used on Led Zeppelin I belonged to Mickey Most, the producer of the Yardbirds, and it was an amazing-sounding instrument. He graciously let me use it for the first album but didn’t let me use it for the second album, because, I think, by then he knew he wasn’t going to be the producer. [laughs]
Mickey owned the acoustic and a great Fifties Strat with a maple neck, and he kept them in his studio. Unfortunately, many years later, someone stole them—they just took a walk. He told me, and I said, “Mickey, I’m so desperately sorry to hear that.” They were his instruments, man! That’s terrible.
So, anyway, I thought it was fair to bring the Harmony and a J-200 to the shoot. The Gibson is, of course, not the original—I wasn’t the one who stole it! But I was talking with guitar collector Perry Margouleff about Mickey’s guitar and we were able to determine the model, because the one I played had a Tune-o-matic bridge, and there weren’t many of those made. Now that I’ve said that, they’ll probably triple in price! Perry recently found one and gave it to me for my 70th birthday, and I really thank him for that.
The Harmony is a rather ordinary guitar. What did you like about it?
What did I like about it? It helped me come up with all these amazing songs! [laughs] It encouraged me. It didn’t fight back, and it didn’t go out of tune. It would say to me, “Go on, man, give me more! C’mon!”
What electric songs did you write on it?
I know I wrote “Ramble On” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” on it. But stuff like “Lemon Song” and “Moby Dick” was composed on an electric guitar.
Did you use an unwound G string on your acoustic guitar? Your tone, especially on the first album, is pretty bright.
I did sometimes. Let me think. I’m not infallible on this stuff, but that’s a good question and I should know the answer. I can tell you with certainty that I used a wound G on the first album, because I was using Mickey’s guitar and I didn’t restring it. I’d have to research the rest.
On “Ramble On,” I was wondering how you achieved that smooth, sustaining violin-like tone on the solo?
I used the neck pickup on my Les Paul and backed off on the treble knob on the guitar, and ran it through the sustainer Roger Mayer made for me years before. When I was recording it, I was thinking in terms of making a sound sort of like a string arrangement.
A debate has raged for many years on what electric guitars were used on the first album.
It’s hard for people to believe, but I just used my Fender Telecaster for the entire album, except for one track. Somebody was trying to sell me a Gibson Flying V at the time. I don’t what made them think I could afford it, because I clearly couldn’t, but I asked them if I could just try it out. I brought it into Olympic and used it on “You Shook Me.” With those big humbuckers, it was so powerful you can hear it breaking up the amp in the middle of the song. I could’ve tidied it up, but I really liked hearing the amp really struggle to get the sound out. It’s really fighting through the electronics to get out of that speaker. I’m not sure what happened to the guitar. It might’ve found its way to Keith Richards or something, but I really don’t know.
The first album was recorded in only 36 hours over a period of a few weeks. Was it because of lack of funds or did you want that urgency?
Probably more of the former. We weren’t signed to a record label yet, so everything was done with ruthless efficiency. We weren’t recording in a hurry and we were still being creative, but we were mindful of the clock. Truth is, we didn’t really need a lot of time. We had rehearsed the material and played it on the road. After that, anyone should be ready to go in and record an album, and it shouldn’t take forever to do it. When you hear “Good Times, Bad Times,” it took exactly the amount of time it should’ve taken. There’s not too much wrong with it, apart from a couple of dodgy guitar phrases at the end. It. Recording the first album was almost like when we recorded our BBC Sessions. We didn’t need countless takes of messing about. We knew how to play the songs.
Where did the live show from Paris that accompanies the first album come from? You guys are really on fire.
Ironically, I actually became aware of it from a bootleg I discovered in Japan. I listened to it and thought, We’re doing all right there. We’re doing all right at that show.” So we did some detective work and discovered it was recorded in 1969 for French radio, and we were able to locate a clean digital file of the concert.
As you have pointed out, Zeppelin’s live shows were always evolving, and no two concerts were completely the same. What is the possibility of releasing more live shows in the future? It would make a great series or box set.
Well, doing this has been a bloody long haul! I’ve put a lot of my time into two major projects over the last few years. The first was the Celebration Day reunion [the 2012 concert film documenting Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in London] and the other one is this series, and both are equally invaluable to the whole history of Led Zeppelin. There are still six more albums coming out in this series, so that’s the focus for now. Who knows what will happen in the future?
The Paris show has some of the flashiest and fastest playing of your entire recorded career. But as your career went on, it seemed you became more concerned with note choice than raw speed. Was that conscious?
I think I just got better. My playing and writing grew in leaps and bounds around that period. If you compare the initial attempt at the solo in “Heartbreaker” on the companion disc to how I’m playing it on the live Paris show, you’ll see why I had to go back and re-record it.
I thought the bow solo on the live version of “Dazed” was beautiful—really quite different than the studio version.
I was all right. Every night, I was trying to seek out something I never did before. I’d find new things and discard others until I arrived at something like the bow solo you hear on the live version on Song Remains the Same, which really holds up.
Do you see these first three albums as representing a certain chapter in the story of Led Zeppelin?
I think each album is a chapter. The first album represents the coming together of this undeniably talented band, with its extraordinary energy and an attitude that is second to none. We begin this process of fusing ideas that have never been done before, a process that would continue throughout our entire career. The second album has the fire and the energy of us on the road. I really believe you can hear that. And then the third is where, after working for two solid years, we were able to sit back and take a short breather on our home soil. And I think you can hear that as well.
Photo: Ross Halfin