“All the way through this, it’s turned out to be everything that I’d hoped it would be,” Jimmy Page tells me of the 14-month-long reissue campaign of Led Zeppelin’s nine studio albums that he’s just completed. “The core catalog is what’s kept us going all the way through. The quality of that has kept us buoyant.”
Forty-six years after Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut, Page doesn’t seem as astonished as some of his classic rock brethren do that his catalog is still a staple of radio, and generates a steady stream of revenue for him and for the other former members of Led Zeppelin, singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, and the estate of drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980, effectively putting an end to the band’s career.
“Each member of the band was a musical force,” Page explains, looking bright-eyed and fit in all black, sitting on a green Victorian-style couch in his suite near Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. “I chose everyone for exactly that reason, and there was almost instantly this amazing chemistry and really unique sound. So I’m not surprised that the music stands up, actually.”
Not only was Page the band’s guiding force musically, as its lead guitarist and producer, but he founded the band based on a vision he’d had of where to go next after leaving a lucrative career as one of London’s top session-guitarists during the mid-1960s, and a stint as the bassist then lead guitarist in the R&B-rock group The Yardbirds. He chose his collaborators for Led Zeppelin carefully, co-wrote most of the band’s songs with Plant, and was in the recording studio seemingly every minute the band was there, shaping the songs that have sold well in excess of 135 million albums worldwide, and continue to find newer, younger audiences with each new generation. In fact, the reissues of Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy last fall outsold Taylor Swift’s 1989 during their first week of release. (Swift’s was the overall top-selling album of 2014.)
“It’s remarkable,” Page says, as much a fan of his former band as any of us. “But it’s a testament to the musicianship, I think, and the songs. We worked very hard at creating something special and different with each album, and I think the new versions, with all of the extra tracks on the companion discs, bear that out.”
Those companion discs, which Page designed to go along with the newly remastered versions of the originals as almost alternate versions of each of Led Zeppelin’s albums, feature rough mixes, works-in-progress, alternate takes, and forgotten gems.
“The best part is, there was no jiggery pokery,” Page says with a smile. “Every mix I used was from the original sessions, from the time the recordings were made. These aren’t newly created. They’re very much of-the-moment.”
That immediacy offers listeners a remarkable glimpse into the band’s creative process. It took Page several years in the studio to remaster the band’s nine albums and put the ten (1982’s Coda has two companion discs) together, but it was a project he dove into with apparent abandon.
“I’d done the Led Zeppelin DVD, and the live album [How The West Was Won (2003)] and then we did the O2 reunion show, which was nice, because it shows us as we are now. But I hadn’t looked into the state of our original albums in quite some time,” Page tells me. Surprised by Robert Plant’s lack of interest in continuing with a tour after the band’s O2 show, Page found himself with time on his hands.
“The idea of this project, to actually have the companion discs to complement each album, and thereby being able to put all these great tracks that deserve to be heard out there, was just for me,” Page says, enthusiastically. “It was the right, honest thing to do. There was a dignity to it. The whole thing was in context, and it gave the Led Zeppelin audience and the fans so much more to be able to digest.”
“It’s cool and I’m quite proud of it,” he adds, “And happy now that it’s reached the end, so people can fully understand what I was trying to do, which I don’t think was clear when we released the first three albums last year, as no one had ever done anything like this before. But, of course, that was what was exciting about it for me. Now everyone knows what the picture is, and they understand what it’s all about, that it’s not just a bit of vinyl or bonus tracks on a CD. This is a really substantial project. It was meant to be that, and it’s wonderful that it has manifested. Not only that, the feedback’s been phenomenal on it, absolutely.”
More than anyone within Led Zeppelin’s universe, Page has been the caretaker of the band’s legacy. But it’s not simply a business for him.
“It was an artistic endeavor,” he admits of the reissue campaign. “It was planned, sure. I had the blueprint of it. I knew it was going to take a while to come out, obviously, because it’s nine albums. And I’m delighted at the way the releases have been scheduled, three of them, two of them, one, and now three again. I’m delighted with that.”
“The only business part of it for me was to actually present all of this studio information to people,” he remarks. “In effect, the equation, when it adds up, it equals twice as much material as was out there in the first place. That can only be good, because in context, if you say Led Zeppelin to somebody, if they’ve heard it, they’re going to get a sound-byte of a riff in their head, and that’s going to be from the original recorded music, for sure. That’s what’s kept us going. But this, for anyone wanting to learn more, and really dig in to what we were doing, this creates almost a whole other universe for them to explore.”
As Page describes, though, the companion discs are practically whole new albums unto themselves. They’re not just a few scattered bonus tracks tacked onto the end of the albums proper, as has become the norm in the music business these days. Instead, they are presented as new, alternate versions of the albums, and full listening experiences, separate and apart from the, admittedly, more fully formed siblings.
“The way that I saw it, they had to stand on their own,” Page notes. “I knew pretty much every tape that existed—as the producer—so from the beginning I knew exactly what I wanted to offer, and I’m glad I took my time and did it that way rather than rushing it or letting someone else, who didn’t know what might work or not work or what was even available, do it.”
As he talks in detail about the albums, and even the sessions that all took place more than 35 years ago, it’s clear that Page’s memory is sharp, regardless of the wild days and wilder rumors that swirled around Zeppelin, perhaps more than any other band.
Does he really remember it all that clearly?
“Oh, good lord, yeah,” Page says, slapping his knee and smiling broadly. “I think I do because I was living it so intensely. To be frank with you, though, even I was thinking, while we were putting this all together, ‘Wow, you really can remember all of this!’ That’s quite astonishing, really. But they were astonishing times.”
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