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I am ushered into a private room in a London hotel near Kensington Gardens to meet Jimmy Page. Hotel rooms loom large in the Led Zeppelin mythology, the scene of wild debauches involving any combination of groupies, drugs and necromancy. But all that lies long ago in the past, way back in the band’s 1970s pomp. Today the Led Zeppelin guitarist sits on a sofa with a glass of sparkling water in front of him, dressed entirely in black from scarf to shoes, his long white hair tied in a ponytail.
He looks good: exactly how you’d hope a rock god who turned 70 this year to look. About a mile or so away is his London home, The Tower House, one of the masterpieces of 19th-century Gothic Revival domestic architecture. The hotel’s heavy wood-panelled room with old prints on the wall is a minor echo of the style. Page loves high Victorian culture.
I’ve joined him to discuss the new digital reissues of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and the fifth, Houses of the Holy. Originally released in 1971 and 1973 respectively, they are the latest in the band’s catalogue to be remastered, a process overseen by Page. The new editions sound crisp and punchy. Each comes with previously unreleased versions of the songs. But an awkward question nags at me. Why can’t this remarkable guitarist escape Led Zeppelin’s heritage?
He formed the band in 1968 from the ashes of The Yardbirds. Before that came several years of session work when he established himself as one of London’s top jobbing musicians. Another crack session musician, John Paul Jones, joined him in Led Zeppelin. The Midlands duo of Robert Plant and John Bonham made up the rest of the foursome.
Their debut album came out in 1969 and was an instant hit; especially in the US where their technically sophisticated but viscerally powerful blending of blues, hard rock and folk rock struck a chord. They dominated the 1970s as The Beatles had the previous decade.
“The first album was without doubt the best guitar playing that I’d played up to that point,” Page says. “I wanted to make it a guitar tour de force that covered acoustic guitar, finger-style guitar and blues guitar, slide guitar and what could be sort of trance rhythms, which people call rock.”
The ex-session man insisted on full control, producing the albums, resisting record label interference, refusing to release singles. “Because I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says, “I didn’t want anyone else, like an A&R man or whatever, getting in the way and saying: ‘“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” isn’t a good idea.’ No, no, no, no. So there was serious focus and clarity of thought in all of this.”
Page’s desire to be in charge gave him a sinister reputation in Led Zeppelin’s peak as a puppet master, a paranoid and shadowy figure. But he insists the band was a marriage of equals.
“You’ve got four people that are really, really good musicians, superfine master musicians in fact. During that time you’d find bands that might have one superb player and not necessarily all the rest were on the same level. I was very keen to get something whereby everybody was really strong in character and playing. I really believe that the four of us coming together, we never played like we did in Led Zeppelin.”
So they became like a single organism, a single personality? “Absolutely. These four individual artists come together and play superbly as a band. And that’s the fifth element of it,” he says.
The “fifth element” in medieval alchemy is ether. “I cling unto the burning Aethyr like Lucifer that fell through the Abyss,” wrote the occultist Aleister Crowley, a strong influence on Page. But there were other, less lurid influences at play too, such as the font used for the song titles in Led Zeppelin IV’s sleevenotes, a tribute to William Morris’s 19th-century arts and crafts movement.
“Absolutely! At one point it was said that every major country house in Britain had a William Morris piece [of furniture] in it. Whether that was true or not I don’t know. Good PR job for Morris,” says Page with a laugh.
Led Zeppelin IV was recorded in a Victorian stately home in Hampshire. “It was really productive,” Page says. “There were numbers that came basically out of thin air, the aura of spontaneity. I remember Robert [Plant] was really channelling his lyrics there. And we were able to come up with things to the degree of ‘When the Levee Breaks’, which is really dark and ominous, and then something really caressing, super-caressing really, like ‘Going to California’.”
Houses of the Holy was even more stylistically varied, going from reggae to funk. I quote a comically wrong 1973 review to Page that unfavourably compared the album to the “ferocious” Slade. He doesn’t see the funny side. Led Zeppelin suffered at the hands of the critics. “They weren’t ready for these radical departures that were going on,” Page says.
Remastering all nine Zeppelin albums has been “a lengthy process. It involved hundreds of hours of listening to tapes”. Has he encountered new ideas and themes in the LPs? Plant’s lyrics about the “two paths you can go by” in “Stairway to Heaven” might represent a young man’s sense of possibilities but come to mean something quite different 40 years later.
“It’s a good question,” says Page – but he doesn’t supply an answer. “I could really think about that for ages . . . You’d better go to the next question because I can ponder that one from this angle” – he clicks his finger – “and that angle.”
The passage of time doesn’t appear to have robbed him of his guitar skills. I recall seeing him play at a show by his old friend the folk-rocker Roy Harper three years ago and being amazed by the power and expressiveness of his cameo.
“Really?” Page says when I tell him, in a surprised tone. “Thank you so much.”
He is dogged by questions about whether Led Zeppelin will reunite again following their one-off show at London’s O2 Arena in 2007, an increasingly unlikely possibility. (“Basically there isn’t a band,” John Paul Jones told the FT in 2012.) But the question is a red herring, for the real mystery lies elsewhere. Page’s last studio album was released in 1998, a collaboration with Plant. Why does he find it harder to work outside Led Zeppelin than Plant or Jones, both of whom have active solo careers?
“It’s the time,” he says. “I’ve been involved in quite a number of projects on the run. It sort of goes back to the ‘Celebration Day’ at the O2, getting that together. I did a website and a book [the photographic autobiography Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page]. I’ve done all the preparation for these releases. I thought all of it was really important, essential really, to setting up a situation whereby then I could play live.”
Has he got there? “Well, I’ve got new music,” he says, somewhat cagily. He hopes to record it next year, but has no concrete plans as yet. “No, not as yet. The only concrete plan is to do it. What I’m thinking of doing is a solo project, which involves all the areas of guitar that I’ve been into, but with new music, so there’s more of everything. With some surprises, that’s the key to it.”
So the archival part of his work is over? “I know that I’ve completed that area of things.” So he now can move on to the next? “Yes, that’s right.” At the risk of impertinence, I ask what it was like turning 70, arriving at the threshold of old age. “That’s not impertinent,” he says with amusement. “That’s pertinent. Well, it’s not like turning 60. You go: ‘Oh my goodness, I’m in my 70s now’.”
A numerological significance comes to mind. “Maybe I did my best work in the 1970s, so maybe I’ve got work to be done now, in my 70s,” he says, with a teasing smile. There’s still time for new magic from the old conjuror.
The remastered ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ and ‘Houses of the Holy’ are out now on Rhino/Atlantic
Photographs: Anna Huix; Richard E Aaron/Redferns