Thanks to the unexpected intervention of a discarded acoustic guitar, James Patrick Page found himself perfectly equipped to deal with rock’n’roll’s ‘youth explosion’ as it irresistibly infected his formative 1950s.
Graduating from skiffle through rockabilly to blues by duplicating riffs on records, he taught himself to improvise, honing his craft with The Paramounts and Red E Lewis and The Redcaps, before becoming the hottest young guitar slinger on the burgeoning 60s session scene.
Jimmy Page gravitated from studio anonymity to pop stardom when he joined The Yardbirds in ’66. Two years later, upon the band’s ultimate dissolution, he formed Led Zeppelin, with whom he rapidly conquered the world.
A half-century later, Jimmy Page – arguably rock’s greatest and most celebrated guitarist – is in lockdown. Just like the rest of us. He’s been busy: putting the finishing touches to his second autobiographical work, Jimmy Page: The Anthology, a weighty tome from Genesis Publications that concentrates on the ‘details behind the details’ of his extraordinary life; and playing again.
Lockdown has “given me an opportunity to reconnect properly with the guitar,” Page says down the telephone line. No hotel suite get-together in this new normal, just 105 minutes of revelatory chat, during the course of which he admits he’s had “a bit of a charmed life, there’s no doubt about that”, and talks himself hoarse. Here’s what he said.
The first image in Anthology is a photograph of you singing in the choir at St. Barnabas Church in Epsom, presumably your first experience of public performance. Were you a willing chorister, or did you need coercion from your parents?
No, not at all from my parents. I voluntarily went to the church and joined up with the choir. I was compelled to. One reason why I would do that is because in those days rock’n’roll appeared on the airwaves and then it was stamped on by the BBC, et cetera, so you would find ways to actually hear music.
We were lucky in Epsom, because there was an external swimming baths, and it had an area where there were amusements – pinball machines and a jukebox. It was like a pilgrimage to the jukebox, but the big boys used to go there, and I was quite young at that point. The church had a youth club where there’d be a dance and they’d play records, but to be in the youth club, you had to be in the choir. And I enjoyed being a choirboy, actually. I really did.
And you got to wear the surplice [the white linen vestment worn by choristers]. It must have been your first excuse to wear fancy clothes.
Absolutely. You’re right. You can see a connection, can’t you? Decking oneself out for the performance [laughs].
As a child you experienced hi-fi sound for the first time thanks to your neighbour’s stereo. It seems that from the very beginning you weren’t entranced just by music but also by the process of capturing sound, because, in many ways, therein lies the magic.
Yes. Thinking back to write the book, I thought about pivotal points. And when I lived in Feltham [Page’s home prior to Epsom], my parents and I were invited to someone’s house just down the road, and he had this stereo set-up.
What he played at the time were some sound-effects records, the classic one being of the train going across the speakers, that sort of thing. And for a young boy this was pretty amazing stuff. I was probably about eight. And he played some classical music, and you really felt the depth of it. There’s absolutely no doubt that had a serious effect on me.
What is interesting in the equation is that there wasn’t anybody in my family who played guitar. I had an uncle who played pub piano. He could play various songs, but he never taught me anything. He wasn’t willing to teach, but when we moved from Feltham to Miles Road, in Epsom, there was a guitar left behind in our new house by the previous owners. And that was like a really weird intervention, where the guitar sort of found me.
That is such a great Excalibur story.
It honestly is. It’s like, whether I wanted to be a musician or not, I was going to be one. But yes, I was fascinated by the whole process of being enveloped by sound and being part of it. And also, being in a choir, there’s the whole ambience of it. It’s funny how I was picking it up as a kid. And once it came to the point of hearing rock’n’roll coming from America, it was just a youth explosion of music.
I’m so fortunate to have been born at that time, to witness that moment. It was like a line: on one side of it everything is very quaint and old-fashioned, and suddenly there’s this whole explosion of adrenaline, music and attitude. So you’re listening to all this stuff, and it’s like it came from another planet. And I had a guitar sitting in the house – untuned; nobody had ever played it. And then there was a connection I made with this friend Rod at school, who showed me a few chords.
And that was it. Once I heard rock’n’roll I was infected by it, really, and there wasn’t going to be a cure. I didn’t wanna be cured.
When your ‘Excalibur’ guitar outlived its usefulness, your parents bought you your first proper guitar, your Hofner. They appear to have supported your musical endeavours from day one.
They certainly did. I always had to do my schoolwork as well, but they could see that all of the rest of the time I was obsessed with the guitar. And when I started playing songs that they’d heard on the radio, they were like, wait a minute, he’s really getting into this seriously!
I don’t know where it ever went, but that original guitar wasn’t the easiest to play. The strings were miles away from the fingerboard – not too far away that they would inhibit one from wanting to play it, but my parents said: “We’d like to get you a better guitar,” and the Hofner was the particular one they agreed to get. My dad could understand that, suddenly, his son’s playing the guitar that was left behind in the house, and Christmas is coming, and my birthday wasn’t far away, so the Hofner came as a multiple present. [Page was born on January 9, 1944.]
And boy, oh boy, I was really thrilled to bits to have that. But then it got to the point where all the music I was listening to was being played on solid-bodied guitars, so I said: “I need to trade in my guitar.” And their attitude was: “You can do that, but you’re going to have to pay for it.” In those days, up to the age of twenty-one your parents had to sign for you to pay on an instalment plan.
So my dad said: “I’ll be the guarantor, but you’ll have to pay for it.” And that was fine.
Equipped with your solid-bodied Futurama, you graduated through The Paramounts to Red E Lewis and the Redcaps at the age of just fifteen. Both groups seem very much based in rock’n’roll and rockabilly.
At that point I hadn’t really come across the blues; all those early sets with The Paramounts were definitely rock’n’roll, and not skiffle. I was playing with a band as an opening act on a Friday or Saturday night, and I got head hunted by Red E Lewis to go and play in London. Which was pretty amazing for somebody who was still at school. And then I was asked to join Neil Christian And The Crusaders. And there’s quite a lot that goes on at that point, because by then I’d found the [Gibson Les Paul Custom] Black Beauty.
You went to the American Folk Blues Festival in Manchester in 1962, which seems to have been a pivotal moment. [The event featured Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker and many others.] Blues seemed to usurp rock’n’roll in your affections, and indirectly led you to art school in 1963.
In the Neil Christian And The Crusaders set-list, we were doing Train Kept A-Rollin’, Honey Hush and that sort of thing, but we were also doing Chuck Berry’s No Money Down and Elmore James’s Dust My Broom. But when you were playing dance halls, which we were, they just wanted Top 20 material. But I was really keen to play the blues. And when I say “the blues”, definitely the Chess catalogue, and it was in advance of everything that was going to come.
And down south, obviously, it was the Stones who really brought that into the spotlight. But we were in advance of that. At the Manchester festival, I met Mick and Keith. They didn’t have the Stones then, they were just blues enthusiasts on a pilgrimage, like all of us.
And we were in a house where the guy had just got the Howlin’ Wolf album with the rocking chair on the cover [Wolf’s self-titled second album of 1962, a collection of 12 previously released Chess Records singles]. Nobody had heard it up until then, but we all heard it that day. So yes, that was one life-changing thing.
With music changing so rapidly in the early to mid-sixties, I imagine you were unique in the session world for your ability to speak this new musical language. You had the blues in your vocabulary, while your contemporary veteran players were essentially products of Tin Pan Alley.
Yes, I could fit in right across the board in the session world, and I was really, really in there. There’s no doubt about it – I was officially in.
And your tastes stretched into areas that were exotic for the early sixties. You had a sitar very early on. You listened to Alan Lomax’s field recordings, flamenco, and Indian and Arabic music, elements of which you would later incorporate into your recordings with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.
I’d listened to Indian music. I’d accessed that on the radio. And this was way in advance of The Beatles. My father worked in a factory near Heathrow where they made wire and cables. Not guitar cables, big industrial stuff. He was the personnel manager. There were a lot of Asians working there, and I said: “Dad, would you ask around and see if anyone there knows anything about sitars? See if anyone can access one from over there.”
And there was a guy who said he’s going to get one sent over. and it arrived in this makeshift plywood box. In those days you could freight things, and people would take care. Now it would probably be smashed to pieces. It had loads of straw in the box, and I took out the sitar, and there was this beautiful thing.
I had absolutely no idea how to play it. There are all these sympathetic strings on a sitar, so as I plucked one string the whole thing started to resonate. And I thought: “Oh my God!” Sonically, all my learning was from listening to things and making my own interpretations of what I heard, but this was something else!
Of course, later I got to meet Ravi Shankar at a concert in London – my friend and I were the only two young people there – and he gave me the tuning for the sitar.
Of course, as far as the 1960s went, your work with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin is just the tip of the iceberg. Presumably you could have subsisted very comfortably on session and production work alone, whether you’d joined a band or not?
Yeah, but when I’m in the Yardbirds I’m still having to do sessions at that time. For example, I did the Joe Cocker With A Little Help From My Friends album [recorded early 1968 and released in 1969]. But once it gets to the point of Led Zeppelin and I know what I want to do as far as production goes, I don’t do any more sessions. And I don’t want to do any more productions for anybody else. What I want to do is have everything that I can possibly bring to the party totally in-house.
You played on a succession of historic sessions with everyone from Tom Jones through The Who, the Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard to David Bowie. What was the most valuable lesson you learned during that period?
Whenever I listened to recordings, whether they be classical or electronic, Little Richard or Howlin’ Wolf or Johnny Burnette, I’d always been interested in listening to the ambience of the room and how people would record.
So I would listen to Les Paul and get a real master class in how things are done there. I’d done home recordings, but after a while, once I got into the studio, I could talk to the engineers in between sessions and ask: “How’s this done?” “How’s that done?” After a year or two, it eventually got to the point where I could play them records and ask: “How is that literally done?”
I’d have my own idea of how it was done, but I would learn how it was done technically. So, bit by bit, I was learning that aspect of it during what I would call my self-taught apprenticeship of being a studio musician. I learned the whole studio discipline of how quickly and efficiently you could do things and still be able to keep making things up on the spot, instantly.
But I also learned how to record and produce sessions, and how not to record and produce things. So it really was a great apprenticeship.
With all that studio experience you’d picked up, might The Yardbirds have lasted longer with you in the production chair rather than [British pop producer] Mickie Most?
Well, look, Mickie Most was really, really good in his field. He knew how to do singles. We could list so many artists that he was really marvellous for. But when there was this break within The Yardbirds, he was given a package of Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds [Beck and the Yardbirds split in 1966, leaving Page as the group’s sole guitarist].
So he had two artists that he needed material for. He clearly saw Jeff on an instrumental path, which was right, but for The Yardbirds the singles started to grate. Up to this point, The Yardbirds had had such a wonderful catalog. When Jeff and I were in the band, we did Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, which was pretty cool. But when we did an album, it was really telling, because Mickie wasn’t interested in albums, he was only interested in doing singles.
So, bit by bit, we started to record tracks which we should never have done. The Yardbirds had done all of this magical stuff, and then to do things like Ten Little Indians, it was just absolutely wrong. I’m just really annoyed that they’re even out there. It was said that they wouldn’t be released, and they were. I don’t think that helped the spirit of the band. I did help put things together on the Little Games album, because Mickie wasn’t there a lot of the time, but I wasn’t officially in a production role.
In 1965, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham asked you to produce a single with Nico. You bumped into her again later with The Velvet Underground. How profound an influence was hearing the Velvets?
I went to the Scene Club [in New York], which was decorated by Andy Warhol, and it was decorated with Bacofoil on the walls, because he said that was the colour of speed. And suddenly you hear this band doing this drone stuff, and Lou Reed’s writing was just out of this world. They were just phenomenal, and they sounded just like that first album.
I only saw them when I was going through New York with The Yardbirds. Everyone talks about The Velvet Underground, but at the time people did not go to see them, and I found that odd. I loved The Velvet Underground, and it was such a thrill to have done that single with Nico, having written something with Andrew Oldham and going in there and just doing The Last Mile, which was really cool.
During The Yardbirds era and onward, you’re increasingly dressing like a rock star: your ex-Navy frock coat, your badge jacket… When did you first realise that clothes maketh the musician?
I was definitely dressing the part of how I was seeing things at the time. It’s almost like a new romantic before there’s new romantics. The aesthetic was: ‘If Byron played guitar, or Shelley or Keats, what would they have worn?’ It was that sort of crazy logic. But as far as the sort of clothes that I wore, when Robert [Plant] and I went to the cottage in Wales there was no electricity there. There was a log fire and a battery cassette recorder, and that was it. There was gas lighting.
And the beards started to grow, and then it grew and grew, and it got to the point where it got rather unkempt. I thought, well, everybody is starting to look the same, with long hair and beards, right across the music scene. So I thought: “I’m going to go back to my more aesthetic look.”
And suddenly you’re ten years younger.
Yeah [laughs]. And the funny thing about a beard, when you actually shave it off you can go through all of these sort of incarnations: a D’Artagnan, sideboards, all the way back to clean-shaven. So off it came.
I expect you still try your vintage wardrobe on for size every now and again?
I can’t get the dragon suit trousers on. Or the poppy suit. The thing with those is that you can see where the button gets moved across, because doing three-hour sets in that, and it’s all a workout, five nights a week, you start losing whatever weight you’ve gained at home, and the buttons get moved across. Looking at it, it’s pretty scary.
The more I listen to Led Zeppelin, the more I think that the heaviness of those recordings isn’t about volume, but the richness of the guitar tones and the method of recording the drums, especially on the recordings made at Headley Grange. As the band’s producer, what influenced you when you were mapping out the Zeppelin sound?
I would say the first album has got so many ideas in it, and you can hear that those ideas develop through the second album, the third album and all the rest of it. So it becomes a point where I’ve tried with Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, with the power of John Bonham, to build the drama of the song. I was using the same aspect with things like Ramble On, with What Is And What Should Never Be and that sort of thing, where you have these choruses which are not really super-loud, but it’s really the intensity that gives it the drive.
So you can start playing with the dynamics of everything. I got this right from the early days of the first album. It seemed to be ahead of the game of what others were doing, and that’s always good, because you’re turning people on, musicians as well as the listening public.
In 1967 you worked with the Stones’ Brian Jones on the A Degree Of Murder soundtrack, with its bowed guitar and The Mel-O-Bar. It seems Brian was a musician who was similarly open-minded to cross-cultural experimentation as you were.
Brian Jones was very special. I had this blues collector, Dave Williams, who lived down the road, which was where I first heard Howlin’ Wolf and slide or bottleneck guitar, and he told me they’d break the end off of a bottle and use it. And I thought: “Oh Christ, I’m not going to cut my fingers off trying to do that.” Then I heard about this guy who played bottleneck guitar, and I went over to the Ealing Jazz Club.
And lo and behold, Brian Jones got up and he had a jam, and it was like listening to Elmore James. I went to talk to Brian afterwards, and I said to him: “What are you using?” And he told me immediately, he said: “Have you got a car mechanics near you? Go and ask them for a bush. That’s what this is. They’ll bring you a variety of them.”
So I went down and asked, and there it was, the first slide steel for me to play. But this guy was so generous. He would tell you how things were done. Other people would keep their tricks to themselves, but he was very much like that, and he was somebody who was super eclectic.
You’d been in the orbit of the Rolling Stones since the very beginning, and you became great friends with their piano player Ian Stewart. He recorded with The Yardbirds, and later with Led Zeppelin on Rock And Roll and Boogie With Stu. If you’d thought he’d have said yes would you have taken him on tour?
The thing is, he was in the Stones. He was the extra member. But Andrew [Oldham, Stones manager] didn’t necessarily want him to be in the Stones. So what happened was, he was still in the Stones, but he was tour manager, and also playing on the records as well.
Then Nicky Hopkins came along. But Stu was phenomenal. He was a master of the piano. He was so cool, and a lovely man. So would I have toured with him? Well, he was always with the Stones, but I did do a Rocket 88 thing with him. We played up in Northampton once, jammed up there with Rocket 88, and that was great.
Recording Scarlet with the Stones in 1974 [recently released with the Goats Head Soup reissue], did it occur to you that they might have been courting you to replace Mick Taylor?
No, because I thought Ronnie was probably a good contender. I know when we did Presence in Musicland [Studios, Munich] they followed us in. We’d done the whole of the Presence album, and I asked Mick if I could have an extra couple of days to finish, because we’d been in there for three weeks to do the whole darn thing and deliver it. And he graciously did that.
I think at that time they were still thinking about who they were going to get to be their guitarist, because they were trying various guitarists there. At that time I was firmly entrenched in Led Zeppelin, that’s what it was, so I probably didn’t come into the equation, really. But it was fun to do the Scarlet session.
It was lovely to work with Keith, because we’d played together on some of the Chris Farlowe stuff – I think we’re both on the Out Of Time record, and Midnight Hour – but this was really good to do something from scratch. We did the session, and Stu was there that night, and the following day they were going to do a bit more stuff on it. Stu put the keyboards and organ on it, and I said: “I’ll come along and put the guitar solos on it.”
And so the following night I went in on the early part of the session and put a couple of solos on, so it was great. It was a really nice memory, though I never thought it would come out.
One thing that says a lot about your character is how you dealt with the tendon injury you suffered in 1973. Psychologically, the pressure must have been huge. But physically, rather than let it beat you, you simply decided to modify your style to play with three fingers.
Yeah. That came as a nasty shock on the West Coast and whatever it was – let’s say it was a tendon thing, because I never found out – when I pushed down on the ring finger of the left hand it sent like electric shocks up the arm. At the end of that leg of the tour – we were working from West Coast to East Coast – what was looming was the recording of the film The Song Remains The Same, so it was only over the course of a few concerts that we had before that, that I’m actually using all of the fingers again.
So yeah, there were two tours where I had to muck about with trying to play with less fingers than you should. It was pretty tricky.
When John Bonham died, Zeppelin were about to begin rehearsals for an upcoming American tour. Obviously, the tour never took place. But what were your feelings leading up to those fateful rehearsals at Bray Studios? Would Led Zeppelin have continued to make albums, or were you already itching for fresh challenges?
John Bonham and I discussed what sort of shape the next album should be, because each album was different to the last. It just so happened that Presence was basically a guitar album, so as John Paul Jones had his Dream Machine [a Yamaha GX-1 synthesiser, used extensively on In Through the Out Door], it was only right to do a keyboard album. So we had been discussing what we’d do for the next one, and there were definite ideas of what we could do.
In 1981, you, Chris Squire and Alan White teamed up as XYZ. The recording sessions seemed to bear significant fruit, yet the music remains unreleased. Do you have you any plans to return to the recordings any time soon?
It was the very first thing that I did after a break of not playing the guitar after losing John. I got the guitar from storage and started playing it again, and it was an instant connection. I had a studio, and because I’d been very friendly with Chris Squire, he said: “We’ve got some stuff. Let’s come together and see what we can do.”
And he had this novel name: because there were two former members of Yes, he thought it should be XYZ, as in ex-Yes and Zeppelin. Which was a bit of fun. They were such great musicians that it really did me a world of good. I had to be on exactly the same level as they were, so the level of concentration and commitment to it was really great. But what I don’t know is what bits and pieces they brought to the party that may have ended up on Yes records.
One that we did there as an instrumental eventually came out as Fortune Hunter with The Firm [Pages’s band with former Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers]. But those guys were just in a league of their own.
So it’s really good music. I haven’t actually returned to it yet. I will, because I know how darn good it is, and then I suppose one would just have to speak to those that were involved, and families and stuff, and see whether it could come out one day. I hope it does. There is a cassette version of it that is terrible quality, and it’s out there on the internet. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to listen to.
In Anthology you talk about going out on the ARMS tour of 1983 [a series of charity gigs in aid of Multiple Sclerosis research, with many big names involved], of your trepidation before going out on stage, but conclude by saying the tour was great fun “when I got over my nerves”. Without Zeppelin at your back, was playing live a daunting prospect?
It was by the time I went to America, because at least the Albert Hall, where they had the initial concerts, was like an old friend. But when we went to America… We played in the Reunion Center in Dallas. I thought: “That’s gonna be good”, because we’d played it with Led Zeppelin. But when I went on there for the soundcheck it was absolutely huge, vast, and I got pretty nervous about it!
But I volunteered straight away when Stu asked me to do it for Ronnie Lane, because everybody who met Ronnie Lane loved him. It was leave your egos outside, so everybody just came together to do everything they could for this thing at the Royal Albert Hall. And I realised that everyone involved had solo careers. I didn’t. I only had a career via The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, and I’d just done the Death Wish soundtrack, so I just did stuff from that.
It’s a bit odd, but it was really great to be out there and playing again. Then when we went to the States, Steve Winwood didn’t want to go as he had some project that he was going to be doing in the UK. So I got hold of Paul Rodgers, because he’s fantastic. He’s such a master craftsman, he’s wonderful. And we started writing stuff together. He was playing guitar as well as me and that was cool.
We just had a great time with what we were doing, and then at the end of it I said: “What are you doing when you get back?” He said: “I’m not doing anything. What are you doing?” “Well, I’m not doing anything yet, but we could.” And he said: “Yeah, let’s do it.” And that’s how we did The Firm. It was a wonderful way to birth that creative partnership.
While putting The Firm together, prior to bringing in Chris Slade, you auditioned Rat Scabies as a potential drummer for the band. Many of your peers were unnerved by punk, but really it was just skiffle in a different guise. An entry point for young musicians.
Yeah. I heard The Damned at The Roxy Club in Covent Garden, I went down there with Robert. We went down there and stood at the back, and they sort of shambled on, but ‘one-two-three-four’ and then, my God, the intensity of it, that more or less pushed you back against the wall. And I loved that. They were phenomenal.
I more recently saw them at The Palladium. When I saw them the first time around, the Captain was on bass then, and Brian James on guitar, New Rose and all of that stuff. I thought it was amazing. For me it was like real hard-arsed rock.
When I saw them at The Palladium it was phenomenal. I thought, bless your hearts, it’s fantastic. Dave Vanian shaving his head during intermission and coming back on as Nosferatu? I mean, that’s real devotion to your art. And he’s such a good singer.
It was one of those concerts where you say: “Gosh, I wish you could have seen that. That would have woken you up."
You worked in tandem with David Coverdale and later The Black Crowes, even your Outrider solo album was toured around a four-piece core unit. Do you enjoy the band dynamic, rather than placing yourself as a solo artist?
The thing is, I was always used to being in a three-piece. Going right back to Red E Lewis. It’s a three-piece behind a singer. So that goes all the way through. Yardbirds is slightly different, like with Jeff [Beck], and that was great playing with Jeff. We’ve got this great stuff that we did together, but then it reverts back to the three-piece. What I wanted to do was to be able to make the one guitar take the place of two guitars, really.
Looking at this four-piece band dynamic that you prefer to fit into, could you – in another life – have been a singer in a band?
No, not really. I mean, I could sing, I did a single [1965’s She Just Satisfies b/w Keep Moving], but you only had to listen to my record collection to know whether I was a singer or not. I could sing enough to be able to illustrate the top lines of the songs that I wrote, or do backing vocals, or on Thank You on Zep II I’m doing a duet with Robert on part of that.
But I was more into the mechanics of what actually makes three instruments tick, or two instruments tick, or an orchestra tick. What is it? Why does this overdub work only on this song, and that overdub can’t work on that song? How can you marry those guitars up to make a texture that maybe no one has ever had before? It’s all about that sort of stuff. How about hearing the drums in the hall… I just hear it and know what to do, just doing something that nobody had done before.
And that’s what I like to do. I’m blessed to have had a life where I was able to make my living out of my passion. Not only that, but to have been able to have made some important musical statements in various genres, but also have made people happy along the way and inspired people in the way that I was inspired. And that passes on the baton.
Hooking back up with Robert Plant in 1994 for Unledded saw you working again with North African grooves, with Moroccan and Egyptian musicians.
When we were in the States with that, we had all these different textures. We had the western orchestra with the Egyptian overtones, with their string variants and quarter-tones and the percussion, so they had tonal elements that people hadn’t heard.
I remember saying to somebody after the concert: “The hurdy-gurdy solo was great tonight.” They said: “What was that?” I said: “It was that bit before Gallows Pole,” or whatever it was, and they said: “Oh, I thought that was an organ.” So we were turning people on to sounds they hadn’t heard.
Did you find a kindred spirit in engineer Steve Albini, with whom you worked on the Page & Plant follow-up Walking Into Clarksdale?
Yes. He’s a guitarist, and I liked him very much. He was really good to work with. It was an interesting album that we did after all the bells and whistles that we had employed on the Unledded project. The whole writing process was fun, doing that with Robert.
I think that the Walking Into Clarksdale album, fifty per cent of that is really, really, really good. I’m super-critical about stuff I listen back to, but I think there’s some superb stuff on there… He’s singing great, I’m playing well, the band’s gelling and we’ve got some good ideas on it.
Led Zeppelin reunited in 2007 for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute show at London’s O2. In Anthology you reveal that you would like to have done two nights instead of just the one.
Initially there were going to be two nights, with us on one night, along with other Atlantic artists. The idea was that we would do a half-hour set. But I said: “I’m not rehearsing to do a half-hour set! We’ve got Live Aid to correct, and the Atlantic fortieth. [Led Zeppelin’s reunion performance at the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid on July 13, 1985 was marred by a lack of rehearsals, Page’s out-of-tune guitar and Plant’s hoarse vocals. Their Atlantic 40th Anniversary performance on May 14, 1988 suffered from a disagreement between Page and Plant as they walked to the stage about performing Stairway To Heaven, and John Paul Jones’s keyboards were missing from the live television feed.]
I thought: “We’re gonna go out there and stand proud,” you know? So that means we’ve got to do a proper set. And that’s what we did. So yeah, a second night would have been really, really good. In fact, the following day, I started to get really jittery at seven o’clock, and I thought, I know what it is, it’s because I’d paced myself toward doing the O2, and now there isn’t an O2 to do!
With Led Zeppelin being such an instinctively improvisational beast, I’d imagine that when it’s roused into full wakefulness it’s not easy to put it back to sleep.
I think that’s true. We’d had a lot of fun up to that point in the rehearsals, because mainly it was the three of us. There’d be Jason [Bonham], John Paul Jones and myself playing together, so that Jason felt really part of the band, as opposed to like he’s there because he’s John’s son.
He was there because he was a damn good drummer, and it was right that he should be sitting in that seat. But he needed to know that. And yeah, a lot of rehearsals went into it. We were ready for it. It had been said that there was going to be a tour. There weren’t any dates put in, but obviously we had honed ourselves to the point where we were ready.
But then there has not been any discussion about any tour ever since – nor will there be. So there you go. It’s just one of those weird, odd things in the world of Led Zeppelin, really, another part of the Led Zeppelin phenomenon.
You have an enormous reputation as a musician. Are you intimidated by your own reputation? Do you feel a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to your past?
[Long pause] Erm, no… No. No I don’t. In the context of that, doing the Outrider tour [in 1988] that came after a few years of not doing anything, and I knew exactly what to do. So I did an album that pleased me as far as what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to go out as the current statement. I had the beauty of having John Miles, who was phenomenal, because he could sing the Chris Farlowe parts, he could sing the Robert Plant parts, he could sing the Paul Rodgers parts and he could sing the John Miles parts, so what did I do?
And if I ever went out again – and I’m not saying that I ever would – but if I did I would obviously do things from my past. Each aspect is all part of my musical growth, of what I’ve done, of what I’ve managed to pioneer or achieve. I wouldn’t be intimidated by it, not at all. No, I’d be inspired by it… There’s a good one for you.
Pausing for thought, and looking back at your life while researching Anthology, did you discover that you harboured any regrets?
Regrets can grow into resentments, can’t they? And I try not to hold resentments. Processing them makes life more like a load. The thing about life is that it isn’t all wine and roses. Well it certainly isn’t wine for me any more [Page has been sober for a number of years], it’s a rocky road and a topographical landscape that’s sometimes difficult to navigate.
Sometimes things don’t go quite the way you wished they would. So what do you have to do? You have to rethink it. You think of ways around things. And the thing that I have found is that if you come up against an obstacle, then I can think of numerous ways of getting around it. And whether that’s musically or not, I think it’s good to be able to think in a more positive way than a negative way.
So what is it like being Jimmy Page in 2020, an era when you can’t walk outside your front door without someone waving their phone at you?
If you’re connected to media in any shape or form, nobody can go anywhere without somebody running up for a selfie. If you did that to people in any other walk of life during the course of their normal day you’d most probably be arrested. So it can be a bit tiresome.
It depends on people’s attitude when they come up to you, but I’m polite to people so people are usually polite to me. But you run the gauntlet, that’s for sure. But at least I’m not one of these Hollywood A-list stars. They’re pretty much in lockdown all the time.
What’s next? Are you working on any projects at present?
One of the things I was complaining about before we all had to lock down was that I wasn’t having enough time to play guitar. I was able to actually say: “Well, this is it. You can do it every day now.” So it’s given me an opportunity to reconnect properly with the guitar.
Anything solid you can tell us about, the ideas you’re playing with?
No, not really, but obviously I’m never not doing something, and I’m never not doing something that’s going to surprise people. It’s like when I did a spoken word project with my girlfriend [2019’s Catalyst, with poet Scarlett Sabet]. Nobody was expecting me to do that, because nobody had done that before. It was really wonderful to do. But I’ve always got ideas, and the day that I wake up and haven’t got any ideas of what to do and how to do it, that for me will be a very sad day. And that day looks like it’s some way off yet.
Ronnie Wood once told me that every time he bumps into Jeff Beck, Jeff takes him aside and shows him something that he’s only just discovered he can do. Do you still pick up a guitar of an evening and surprise yourself?
If I play the guitar, I don’t practise scales and things like that, and I never ever did. But if I’m playing, before I even know where I am it’s shifting into something that I haven’t played before, and that’s it.
That’s another one of the things that I don’t want to wake up and not do. It’s pretty mantric, and almost trance-like, but that’s what happens. And that takes us right back to all the Dazed And Confused stuff. But that’s how it goes, though probably not quite as fluently as those days, but nevertheless that thing is still there.
So yeah, I can come up with new stuff, and I do, and I make notes of what I do, and why not?
Deep down, are you still that enthusiastic young lad who’s curious to unlock every new possibility that lies within your guitar?
No. But I’m his great-grandfather.