Jimmy Page: Page in History

Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2008

While billions of viewers around the globe watched, Jimmy Page
performed at the Beijing Olympics to mark the historic handover to
London, host of the 2012 Olympic Games.

When Jimmy Page was asked to perform Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” at the concluding ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing this past August, he invited me along. The ceremonies would include the handing over of the Olympic flag to London’s mayor, as London is next in line to host the Olympics, in 2012. Jimmy was one of a few select people chosen to represent the U.K. at the handover. While he wasn’t going to be performing with Zeppelin—vocal duties for the performance were handled by Leona Lewis, winner of the U.K.’s popular talent show program The X Factor—it was a huge event and an opportunity for me to photograph Jimmy on a historic occasion.

We flew out a week before to rehearse and get acclimated. The flight arrived at 5:30 a.m. into a super-modern terminal that made all our Western airports look antiquated. We were met by a student holding up a sign and told to follow him to immigration and customs—a bit like a European school trip.

(from left) Page with David Beckham at a brunch reception for the
Olympic handover; entering Beijing's "Bird's Nest" National Stadium

Outside, the heat blasted us—it was already 90 degrees. We drove an hour into central Beijing, the odd thing being that there was no traffic on the road. We arrived at our hotel, the Grand, which was surrounded by barricades, barbed wire and what looked like half of the Chinese police force. We all had to line up again and go through lots of airport-type security far more stringent than going through JFK or LAX. We eventually got into our hotel, and the odd thing was that there appeared to be no one in it except for us and a few Olympic people. It was literally like something out of The Twilight Zone. Unlike the ultramodern airport terminal, the hotel looked like it hadn’t been updated since 1970.

I decided to go for a walk back through the two lots of security into huge empty streets. I walked about a mile and came to more barricades, with armored cars, tank traps and so on. On the other side was normal China: people shopping, eating, drinking and doing everyday things. It was like we were trapped in an Olympic bubble.

Rehearsals for the handover show were held in an old airfield past the Great Wall, an hour away. For each of the next four days, Jimmy and I drove out and spent the whole day there, all so he could do about five minutes’ worth of work each time. We went out a couple of times in the evening, but it was so tedious going through security that we tended to stay in the empty hotel. On one of my walks out of our luxury prison, I found the Grand Hyatt. It was a normal hotel with Chinese people and none of the crap attached to it. I told Jimmy and we immediately transferred, much to the chagrin of the Olympic committee.

Page performing "Whole Lotta Love" with Leona Lewis

On the day of the event, Jimmy and I, along with Leona and footballer David Beckham (who brought along an entourage of apparently several thousand bodyguards), squeezed onto a bus and headed to Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the ceremony. It was 110 degrees outside and there was no air conditioning in the bus. We stopped three times on the way to the stadium, and then went through the usual two rounds of security and walked half a mile to a compound where there was one final rehearsal. We were inside the complex and at least a 30-minute walk from the stadium. No toilets, no catering, no nothing. The Olympic people really do know how to look after you!

After hanging around for another half a day, we were eventually led into the bowels of the stadium. Finally, at 8:30 p.m., Jimmy, Leona and David got on the “Magic Bus”—a traditional London red doubledecker bus that drove them out onto the stadium field. The audience went ballistic as the bus arrived, and Jimmy launched into the opening riff of “Whole Lotta Love.” Leona did an excellent job, and I found photographing the show from the field quite nice and easier than shooting a gig. Hard as it is to believe, the music of Led Zeppelin has reached a larger audience—the whole event was apparently watched by a staggering two billion people.

Page on a Chinese limousine at the Pedaling Aerodrome

At the after-show soirée at London House, a very trendy club hired by the British Embassy, Jimmy and I seemed to be the only two sober people in the building. One of the guests cornered Jimmy and told him that his all-time favorite Zeppelin song was “Smoke on the Water.” I asked him to name Zeppelin’s first album, since he was such a fan. “It’s slipped my mind,” he said. He spent the whole reception hovering nearby with his mouth half open, staring.

Due to heavy demand on flights out of China, Jimmy and I decided to stay a couple more days. It turned out to be the best part of the trip. Everywhere we went, everyone recognized Jimmy—old and young, all of them playing imaginary guitars. One morning we went to the Forbidden City at 7 a.m. It was packed, and Jimmy was mobbed.

(from left) Page with a pair of "bodyguards"; holding up a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book"

Even leaving China was a pleasurable experience. There was no hassle at the airport; all the immigration and customs people wanted was a picture and autograph from their new guitar god. Jimmy was most willing to indulge them. Let me give you a useful tip: If you want an autograph from Mr. Page, be polite, sober, preferably female, and not clutching a guitar expecting it to be signed. Unless you’re Chinese, in which case I’m sure he will be happy to oblige you.

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