Jimmy Page gave a talk at The Oxford Union on October 23 which included a lengthy on-stage interview. The full video of the talk was published online, and LedZepNews transcribed the entire speech and interview. You can read it below, interspersed with photographs from the night and followed by the full video.
Oxford Union President Chris Zabilowicz: …a former member of The Yardbirds, Jimmy performed with prominent industry figures in his studio years, which shaped the distinct sound of the later Led Zeppelin. With six albums at number one on the US Billboard album chart, his spot at third in the 100 greatest artists of all time is irrefutable. Please join me in welcoming Jimmy Page.
— Oxford Union (@OxfordUnion) October 23, 2017
Jimmy Page: Well, good evening. I can’t begin to really tell you what a thrill it is to be here this evening because I actually was here before when I was 16 years old. There was a poet called Royston Ellis who actually was hanging out with The Beatles at some point and actually as he was a sort of beat poet to some description, he was a beat poet from over here, and he encouraged The Beatles to change their … they were The Silver Beetles at one time with two ‘e’s and he said ‘why don’t you make it like the beat poets?’ Well, basically, he was a poet and he came here to give a talk and I was accompanying him on guitar for a couple of his poems. So it’s very interesting that here I am after all of these years.
I should give you some idea of how I became a musician. In the 1950s I heard the music that was coming from America which at that time it was rock and roll, and obviously Elvis Presley having birthed this whole thing for everybody else and also, actually, coming in under the radar in America, I would say, with Elvis because he was singing black music of country blues artists and I don’t think they really knew that that was the case. And certainly with Little Richard and other black artists that he was covering.
A number of musicians at that time were seduced, I’d say, not just by what was coming through the airwaves and what they could play with records, but with this, well, really, an iconic figure from over here called Lonnie Donegan. He, again, was doing American music. He was doing the music of Lead Belly but doing what they called skiffle which was playing acoustic guitar and he had like a little ensemble with him: Electric guitar and a bass player. But suddenly this whole possibility of, OK, you could hear all this complicated music, because of course it was. You sounded like it was coming from Mars or somewhere being beamed in, a beacon from Mars.
But there was this fellow playing very passionately these old blue songs. Well, Lead Belly, more country blues songs, and you could see a portal with this acoustic guitar and all of the guitarists from that sort of period, whether they were in The Beatles, or whatever band they were, everyone had the same story about Lonnie Donegan. I’m the same one. I came into the same way with this portal by Lonnie Donegan and seeing the acoustic guitar and seeing there was a possibility that it was possible to do this. And, well, I did that. I started to learn to play and I traded up guitars and sort of eventually got to the electric guitar.
I think the electric guitar is something which is pretty phenomenal, really, because it comes from America, it’s a six-string electric instrument so it doesn’t have any acoustic resonance to it apart from within itself. And when you think what the electric guitar meant to those people in the fifties, certainly in the sixties, it started a whole youth revolution.
It could even be said, from what I heard about what was going on in Russia, that it could even have brought down the wall because the whole politics of what was going on and the west trying to be filtered out in the east. People were buying bootleg records… well, actually, not even bootleg records, but for them it was actually a penalty of a jail sentence if they got caught with the music of the sixties. I know that Led Zeppelin played a big part in all of that and I found that to be quite moving when I was told that by the mayor in Poland, one of the mayors. Rock and roll mayor, he called himself.
So anyway, I was here when I was 16, I was also here with a friend of mine Jeff Beck to see The Yardbirds play here in the university. I just happened to be there the night that the band imploded and the bass player left. I’d been a studio musician at this point. I was a studio musician for three years. But at that point I came out and they had the Marquee Club to play in London and they didn’t have a bass player so I said ‘right, I’ll tell you what, I’ll just fill in for the night and see how it goes.’ Jeff and I had spoken prior to that about starting a band, anyway. Well, not starting, yeah, actually, starting a band. But actually joining in with The Yardbirds, and there was the opportunity.
— Oxford Union (@OxfordUnion) October 23, 2017
I think with these things in life, these opportunities come along and you see them. Sometimes you think an opportunity’s there but the timing isn’t right, you haven’t got all the pieces of the puzzle together. But at that point, for me it was, because I’d done a three-year term, if you like, as a studio musician. And that was working five, six days a week. But it really became an apprenticeship for me because I’ve said I started to play the guitar from looking at somebody on a television and listening to records.
By the time I’d finished being a studio musician, I learnt a lot. I made it my business to learn how to read music, also how to record, with the microphone placing, the whole science of microphone placing, and also being a musical arranger and a producer. So by the time all of that apprenticeship had been served and suddenly the opportunity came up to join The Yardbirds, I knew that was the time to go because the thing that happened prior to going to see the band play with my friend Jeff, because I’d seen a few other concerts as well with them.
But I’d become such an accepted part of the musical tradition and one of the backroom boys, that I was getting these big sheafs of music. Well actually, when I first started doing sessions, they just said ‘play what you like,’ because I had the same roots as the bands that were around like The Stones and The Beatles. I could just put in riffs, and this was great fun.
But just prior to this hiatus with the session world, there was these huge scores of reading music. And basically what it was was what they called muzak, which is lift shaft music and it was just hell. I’d introduced the distortion box into the world of music and I was playing the guitar with a bow and I had all these ideas that I wanted to do, and I’m playing muzak. No, there’s something wrong with that story.
So then there was The Yardbirds, and eventually there was Led Zeppelin. They imploded a second time, this time I wanted to start a band. This is, again, the opportunity was there. You either go down another route altogether or you follow what you believe is your passion and what you’ve managed to understand with the climate of where you were as a musician. I could see that there was an underground network of dates in America, venue in major cities. You know, San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit etc. There was a form of radio that had nothing whatsoever to do with pop music, really. It was underground music.
These venues I was talking about in those cities were underground venues in the sixties, and this is the late sixties. We’re getting onto about ‘68, ‘69, that the people then, they really had their music in America. That’s exactly what they enjoyed going to concerts, and they enjoyed if a band splintered up, they would follow the various members and see what incarnations they would come up with. They were very loyal and true.
When The Yardbirds folded, I could see that that was a route and I knew that we’d already played these underground venues, and that the underground radio was waiting. It just needed the product to go on there and whereas the pop music ones, the AM, would just play singles records, they were going to play on FM whole sides of albums, so that’s 20 minutes a shot. I figured that if you were to have quite a variety of music, one track basically following up the next, and you had quite a diversity within that music, that you would get people really listening in and buying into the whole idea of what you were doing if it was quite experimental.
Anyway, the legacy that I’ve had over the years is from, not so many people know my early work as a studio musician or possibly that much for The Yardbirds. But certainly with Led Zeppelin, with the crafting of Led Zeppelin and finding these musicians whereby Robert Plant was just a local singer in Birmingham. John Bonham was a drummer who’d just about started to move out of Birmingham. John Paul Jones I’d known as a studio musician.
But we had a rehearsal and the rehearsal was just, it changed everybody’s life from the first song that we played because the intensity of these four master musicians coming together was something that none of us had ever experienced before. From that first rehearsal I managed to basically mentor the band because none of the others had been to America, however I had in this underground circuit. I was very clear about the music that I wanted to do with Led Zeppelin and have something, a vehicle, which if the first album was going to take off and it was actually quite a complex arrangement of ideas in there that hadn’t been done by other people. And the band could just keep growing and growing and continuing to make very unusual music in various fields as well and various roots. And that’s basically what was accomplished.
As I say, the lifetime achievement of this is here I am now talking to you guys and there have been a number of re-releases of Led Zeppelin, but from day one there’s been people, musicians, coming to listen to Led Zeppelin and through the decades and whether it’s from the guitar playing and the performance aspect of that, whether it’s songwriting, or whether it’s the production, it’s been inspiring to young musicians and I feel that really is my lifetime achievement to do something which was initially my hobby, turn that into something which was a very professional process but still a very creative one, not closed down and just something which is constantly reinventing itself. To inspire young musicians is something which is really wonderful because you pass the baton further on, thanks very much.
CZ: Great. Firstly, Jimmy, thank you so much for taking the time to join us this evening. It’s such a wonderful privilege to have you here. I wanted to start on picking up on a few things that you said. You talked about your early days and how that influenced you creatively. One of those amazing facts about you is the fact that you predominantly taught yourself guitar and I wanted to ask how you think that influenced the unique sound and style of your guitar playing and Led Zeppelin in the end result.
JP: OK, yes. Well I was self-taught. I was talking about this fellow Lonnie Donegan and seeing him on the television and my parents had moved house and it’s some sort of two and a half years later after this move but what was notable about the move was that the previous owners had left a guitar behind, an acoustic guitar like a campfire guitar. Now this is the really odd thing, there was an intervention of the guitar. Even though I didn’t know what it was, I made the connection between having this thing that nobody had ever played in the house, none of my relations that I knew of played music, and seeing this portal with this guy playing the acoustic guitar.
Once I started playing or appreciating guitar, it was this whole aspect of six strings, and whether it was acoustic music, whether it was classical music, whether it was rock and roll music, whether it was blues music, country blues music, I just had a voracious appetite for all of it. And so that’s the six strings, but then I was also, as a teenager this is, I was starting to listen as well and to absorb classical music and Indian music and by the time I was 18 I’d just really like a sponge soaking it all in. And so with my own playing I was able to create music. This is why I was a session musician and so much in demand that there was this young, I was seven years younger than any of the session musicians when I first went in there, and they would just ask you to come up with ideas. I was basically just inventing things along the way. I’d always been able to create music and then the writing process started to develop then I got more material. But it was coming from all various styles of music. Does that answer the question?
CZ: What did being a session guitarist, as you say, teach you about the music industry?
JP: OK, well one of the things was that even though I was sort of self-taught, obviously somebody showed me how to tune the guitar and a couple of chords. And there was a book called ‘Play In a Day’ which was rather interesting. It was written by an old-school guitarist even then called Bert Weedon. And Bert Weedon’s ‘Play In a Day’ had these silly songs. They were all public domain songs like ‘Bobby Shafto.’ And it would show you the chords and there were charts. And curiously enough, I came across that book when I was about 12 or 13. When I was a studio player, they were using exactly the same charts with the names of the chords. We hadn’t got to the point of having to read music at this point.
I went in there and it wasn’t difficult for me to be able to just either play the chords or make something up around what was going on around me. I had been very interested in the recording processes of the records that I’d listened to, certainly in the areas of blues and well actually across all of it. Very good.
I could listen to records and I felt as though I was almost in the room with them because you could, the sort of recording that was done at the time was with a limited amount of mics and in these very early recordings it relies a lot upon the sound of the room for the acoustics. I felt like I was in there and I could hear reverb situations. By the time I got into the world of professional recording, I would ask the engineers ‘well, how was this done?’ I’d actually take records along and play them for engineers and ask them how they’d actually managed to record an acoustic guitar with such a wide sound and it was how less compression.
I’d learn, and as I said before, the microphone placing techniques. I just made it my business to learn as much as I could just so much as then eventually they gave me the musical notation to have to read and I had to read music very, very quickly. I had to learn to read music. It was an apprenticeship, that’s exactly how I viewed it. But I’ve still been self-taught if you see what I mean. I was still absorbing like the sponge of the teenage boy listening to those early records.
CZ: It was interesting there where you sort of pointed out that it wasn’t just your guitar playing you cared about but even when you were recording things there was noticing how far the mics should be, the acoustics of the room. Do you think that really is something that sets you apart?
JP: Well, one of the things that I learnt as a studio musician, just being a hired hand and just witnessing everything that was going on, was how to do things, certainly not how to do things as well. I’d been in sessions where you’d see people really enthusiastic and then by one means or another you’d find a producer who just didn’t have a clue about what was going on trying to bully a drummer and then the whole session would just come in on itself.
I learnt a lot about, for example, one of the things that was very clear to me. There were musical instruments, a percentage of them, outside of electric instruments, were acoustic. If it was acoustic, you would need to have microphones not necessarily right on top of it to allow the space so that the instrument would sing. This is the same with the drums.
— Oxford Union (@OxfordUnion) October 23, 2017
As I say, I’d been a studio musician for three years and I can remember at least three of those years of drummers being put into little booths which were sound absorbent booths so they would hit the drum and it would just go ‘tk’ — just thud. There wouldn’t be any ambience or ring to it because a drum is actually tuned and you’ve got a number of them as well when the drummer’s playing.
I could tell how despondent some of these drummers would be. They’d say ‘well, I played really well on that.’ I just heard the playback, which was rare that you’d even hear a playback, actually, and I said the drums sounded terrible. Well it was the fact that you couldn’t hear them breathe. If you put microphones above them, you’re going to get more of a, well, if somebody who plays the drums properly and tuned the drums properly, then you’re going to get a much better effect.
It’s just things that I picked up along the way and they stood me in good stead as a producer when I was a staff producer, but certainly when it came to the point of The Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin.
CZ: With your actual songwriting, when you came to sit down and write your songs, did you try and write them for a market, per se, or did you write them so you would just personally like them whether or not those who listened to them did?
JP: Well the one thing that, do you mean in Led Zeppelin? It’s easier to say that.
CZ: In Led Zeppelin, yeah.
JP: Yeah, well the idea with Led Zeppelin was, you see, we had this vehicle of the FM radio where they would play whole sides of records. It seemed that if you had the variety of music from one track to another and that they were totally different sound pictures, but they would lead onto each other. I could see the possibility of that, basically with my writing it was I was trying to do all manner of things from blues, traditional instead of Chicago blues, more than the country blues. There was a whole sort of electric movement that goes on in the fifties in Chicago where you get all this wonderful harmonica playing and really fine electric playing and all this sort of riff music which was the thing that I was so taken by, really. So there was that, there was also the acoustic guitar from the folk scene and I wanted to make a blend between the electric guitars, the acoustic guitars by overlaying and then employing that within a band and having music that would be quite different to the ways that other people had approached it.
So, for example, I’ll give you an example: Once I had found Robert Plant I said ‘will you come to my house and we’ll discuss this idea of maybe doing a group together?’ One of the songs I played him was something that we did with The Yardbirds and that was called ‘Dazed and Confused.’ But another one that I played him was an album by Joan Baez, it was an in concert album and it had a track on it called ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.’ On that particular record it didn’t say who the writer was. Some of the others did, but this one just had a blank. I thought this was probably a traditional song. She had this very interesting rippling guitar and a very haunting melody over it.
I said to Robert ‘look, I’ve got an idea for this. In fact I’d already worked out what my guitar part is going to be. It was nothing like the Joan Baez version. And if you just get this top line, if you start singing this top line, then I’ll show you what it is.’ So what the idea of this having the gel of the two things and, of course, it’s one of the most important tracks, I think, on the first album because it goes to show all this layering of the various guitars and the aspect where you can have the fragility of the voice and the guitar and then the power of the rest of the band coming in on the choruses. That was the sort of way that was I was thinking about things. Of course, that was really successful in its end product.
CZ: Obviously the industry as a whole is really difficult to break into and it’s even more competitive nowadays. With your own success, how much do you pin that down to luck or talent?
JP: Well can I tell you, this is really interesting, I’m pleased you’ve asked this question because…
CZ: You’re really lucky?
JP: Well no, the thing is when The Yardbirds folded, if I’d have gone to a record company and said ‘well, look, I was in a band called The Yardbirds over here, for example, that’s been very popular in America because we’ve got cult audience and I’d like to have an advance for an album.’ Well, they probably wouldn’t take you very seriously.
What I did on the first album was to make sure that it was financed internally. So in other words, I paid for it. Now, if therefore if you could now go to the record company as opposed to going cap in hand, you could actually play them the record and this is the point where certain stipulations were made like no singles because we’d didn’t want to get… I’d had a history beforehand of singles with, well, being a studio musician, but certainly in The Yardbirds. I would say that having had to be a singles band with The Yardbirds almost broke the spirit of the band.
I could see that at that time the climate was ripe, and it was, LPs, that what it was. Vinyl LPs. And so I didn’t want the band to get caught up in singles for radio, singles for radio, because I really just wanted to develop the ideas of the band as a band without keep being anchored back ‘where’s the single on this on this new album? Where’s the single?’ ‘Look, well there isn’t a single.’ As they had to be two or three minutes long, I thought ‘well, the best way to deal with that is making the numbers five minutes long so they can’t be played on radio.’ Literally, that’s how it was. I could pull the punches because the first album was paid for.
CZ: And that philosophy of, when you’re producing these albums, of not wanting necessarily to just aim for a single, did that continue throughout? Were you just building albums as a whole or were you thinking ‘oh, I do hope that one, that’s going to be the single.’
JP: No, no, no. The thing about the albums, they were designed… well, certainly our ones were designed. But this wasn’t unique because this was the character of what was going on in those days with these other bands. But you would put an album together.
Some people would call them concept albums. I think these are concept albums because of the way that they run from one track to another, it doesn’t appear but it’s not like you pull the things out of a hat, write the titles down, pull them out of a hat. You actually know exactly what you’ve got, the full expanse of the album material, sometimes things get left off, and then you sort of piece them together in such a way that on vinyl on those days it would be 20 minutes, they’d play the whole side and that would even lead into turning it over and playing the next side. It was very calculated, in a way, but it was with artistic integrity.
CZ: One of the things I personally think is special about music is how songs can associate with certain memories from your past like, without going too personal and being cliched, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ for me takes me back to when England won The Ashes and my brother was in the background learning ‘Stairway To Heaven.’
JP: That’s great.
CZ: Do you have any… do your songs from Led Zeppelin have any particular memories that take you back to maybe a particular performance or maybe when you were listening back to your own music?
JP: Well, yeah, actually, the whole ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ one is a good example because that’s something that is pre-the band, even. It’s just before the band was actually sort of coming together. Each and every one… I’ve had to, sort of, revisit… part of the projects that I’ve been doing more recently over the last few years is to revisit the whole of the analogue tape library that I had of Led Zeppelin and I put out a whole sequence of records, there were nine studio albums and so what I did was to remaster them, get them ready for vinyl, current vinyl, and in all different formats: CD and digital. But to also make for each of those nine albums a companion album, and so that involved listening to all of the outtakes and different versions and all the rest of it.
So you would literally have, as I say, a companion album to the original one. I thought that was a really, really interesting thing to do. Because of that I guess I jumped back into the pool of it all and had a good chance to be able to be listen to everything. It all had to be listened to it in real time. There were many, many hours put into listening to all these different versions and things. They all had, each and every one of those songs had a memory. I could remember the way that they were recorded, I could remember the circumstances of why they were recorded. It was interesting, really, because we were just talking about lots of analogue tapes you take off and put on a tape reel. As we were playing back, I could remember exactly at what point this was done and at what stage. I’d know what overdubs I was going to hear. It’s pretty amazing because of course for each song there may be quite a number of various reference mixes. Each of those songs has a different story, really.
CZ: Great. I think now might be a good time to open up to the audience for questions. So if you have a question, raise your hand nice and high and wait for…
JP: You can choose.
CZ: Thank you. Wait until the microphone comes to you. So let’s start with you in the patterned shirt here.
Audience: Hi. Quite a few Led Zeppelin songs reference the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m thinking of things things like ‘Ramble On,’ ‘Battle of Evermore.’ Why did Tolkien and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ have such an influence on Led Zeppelin?
JP: Well, I think to be fair here, it was that the lyrics certainly of ‘Battle of Evermore’ and ‘Ramble On’ were primarily Robert’s lyrics on those. And Robert had read Tolkien and I guess in so much as if you’re doing lyrics, everything that’s of a word goes in and it comes out another way just as much as it does with a musician hearing all things musical. It was Robert who wrote the lyrics of them.
CZ: Fair enough. Let’s go to you on the end with the yellow jumper.
Audience: Hi. I read that when you were a studio musician, you once played rhythm guitar for an 18-year-old David Bowie. I was wondering what it’s been like for you and your peers to have known each other from such a young age and watch each other grow and evolve as artists.
JP: OK. It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned David Bowie because not many people know that I even did play with David Bowie. I had, it was very early days of being a studio musician. I was on, he had the same producer. This isn’t the one that you necessarily know, this was a guy called Shel Talmy, in the early days. But he had one was called Davy Jones’ Locker, David Jones & The Lower Third, The Mannish Boys. So that’s three different incarnations that I was playing the electric guitar on those things.
And then, of course, he made an album on Deram, I believe it was called. I wasn’t on any of the ones after that. But it was only in those earlier ones. I actually, what happened in those days, because I can give you a really good example of this because everyone knows The Beatles and I think that most people have heard that there was a session drummer and not Ringo on the very early sessions. Why that was was because the producers at the time, and certainly the engineers, would prefer to have the drummers that they knew could just set up their drums and it was instant as opposed to somebody who was new coming in. They’d never met before and probably had a very odd way of tuning the drums and every second counts as money in the studio. So they wouldn’t really want to be able to have to spend a lot of time getting a drum sound.
The two weak links would be the drums and then also guitarists. So that’s why I was brought in on all these various sessions like the Mannish Boys and Davy Jones’ Locker. OK.
CZ: Thank you for that question. Let’s go to you in the greeny-turquoise.
Audience: Hi. A lot of your songs are quite spiritual like ‘Stairway To Heaven’ which is the best song ever written and I wondered if you could tell us about your involvement in The Golden Dawn?
JP: Oh my involvement in The Golden Dawn is in so much as I was pretty, I was very interested actually, in the eastern and western mysticism and I spent time reading and researching when I was younger. Yeah, I guess that’s it. There were some very eminent characters in The Golden Dawn and I found it very interesting to see the history of those that had been in it and the sort of esoteric movement. And also what went on, the offshoots of it, of that sort of love of all things mystical and magical, all things bright and beautiful, really.
Audience: Do you think that’s why people did that thing where they played ‘Stairway To Heaven’ backwards and said that you were talking about Satan?
JP: Yeah. Well, you know, I’m going to go straight back to The Beatles here because there was a time when somebody wrote a thesis about Paul McCartney being dead and ‘Paul is dead’ and if you played back the records, I’m being serious here — it’s crazy, but if you played back the records there was something which said ‘Paul is dead.’ And so then they started to play back all manner of records and of course we were going to be main candidates for it. Somebody said ‘oh it says my sweet Satan in it’ and I thought ‘oh gosh, it’s hard enough writing the music one way round rather than backwards.’
CZ: Thank you for that question.
JP: Thank you.
CZ: Let’s go to you with the long hair, yep.
Audience: Hi. We’ve talked a lot about songwriting and composing, but Led Zeppelin was also quite known for, in a live setting, kind of stretching things out, using improvisation. I was wondering, did you find improvisation rather than composing, did you find one more rewarding than the other or did you find them two sides of the same coin?
JP: OK, so it’s an interesting question because I can take it right back to when I was a studio musician. Because then I was improvising then. In actual fact, I was improvising from the very first band that I joined. I was always trying to change the guitar solos and make things work for you. The Yardbirds was a band that was very much into improvisation.
But the archetype of all is Led Zeppelin because what I can say there is that, say for example if we had a… well actually I’ve just been listening to something which was recorded in January 1973 and there’s a version of ‘Dazed and Confused’ which in July of 1973 it’s recorded and becomes part of ‘The Song Remains the Same’ film but it’s so different.
— Oxford Union (@OxfordUnion) October 23, 2017
The reason why is because every night we were pushing it. We paid a lot of attention to each other. We could hear each other, so consequently if somebody’s taking… I know it’s very guitar-lead, but if Robert was to sort of sing anything at any point, we’d be right on it like that. And so it was such fun, it was incredible fun. When you walked up those steps to go on stage, you didn’t know what was going to be happening all the way through that concert and what would evolve and what would come out of nowhere by the time you walked off and so that was a remarkable band of… everyone was on an equal level, you see.
It was superb. Four master musicians, I’d say, that were able to have this communion year after year after year. And so that’s really why we could keep pushing the horizons even further. If there was a hill we were gonna go over it to see the next hill and go over that because we were so good that we owed it to ourselves to do that, to keep growing and make the music so interesting and challenging not just for us but for other people who heard it. Thanks.
CZ: Thank you for that question. Yeah let’s go to you in the stripy red and blue top. Yeah, you. Towards the front, there we go.
Audience: Hi, I was just wondering about my favourite Led Zeppelin album which is Physical Graffiti. At what stage did you realise that this was going to be a bigger album than a single LP and also what’s the story behind ‘In The Light’ which, for me, is the most intriguing Led Zeppelin track.
JP: OK, OK, I’m going to start off, let’s hope I can remember the ‘In The Light’ bit because I’d like to talk about that as well. Basically, after the fourth album which we’d actually made the fourth on location. This was a radical move. It was recorded at a house called Headley Grange. Curiously enough, Headley Grange was an old workhouse, Victorian workhouse. But it was in the countryside in Hampshire and we’d heard that Fleetwood Mac had rehearsed there. Nobody had recorded there. Fleetwood Mac had rehearsed there and that meant straight away, well, there’s no noise problems.
You could actually stay in this place. You could be in residence there. I thought it would be really novel to take a mobile recording studio there with multi-tracks and actually stay in the location and actually use it as a workshop to actually make music, record music, and commit it to tape and etc.
Relative to the fourth album, there was quite a number of songs that were left over, as it had been from, well, the third album as well but from the fourth album there’s quite a number of songs left over and then we went back to Headley Grange to begin to do the next set of recordings and basically what happens is from the fourth album and Houses of the Holy, by the time we get to the point of Physical Graffiti, we’ve already got a few songs left over.
Given any point that we actually had recording space to record at our own leisure etc, which is basically what we did from the first album onwards, certainly after the first album, it was a creative cauldron really. There was just so much coming out of it that even though we went in to do a single album, I could see straight away that we could extend it and then incorporate some of these other tracks that were left over from other previous recording sessions and make a double album.
You could go from a song which actually was recorded on the fourth album like ‘Boogie With Stu’ but wouldn’t have fitted on the fourth album, but actually we had the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording to be able to record with and Ian Stewart who was like their road manager, he was originally in the band playing piano. A genius of blues and boogie woogie piano, he came down to see how we were getting on on the fourth album and just sat in and started playing. But we couldn’t put that on the fourth album, but we jolly well could on a double album. And suddenly the whole thing just seemed to be from the huge climax of ‘Kashmir’ to the sort of things which were quite fun and the ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ instrumental which is just the guitar. You could go through all these various moods and textures and colours and journeys and stories that it seemed to be the best way to go.
‘In The Light,’ that starts off as a sort off… most of these things started off as, well they all started off with the musical content and then Robert would supply the, you know, he would come in on scat singing and then he’d come up with lyrics and things. With ‘In The Light,’ it was one song and actually, you know I was talking about the albums and their companion discs, the original version of it comes out on one of those companion discs. It’s called ‘Everyone Makes It Through,’ I think.
But we had this thing, Robert went away and he came back with these block vocals where it opens up which is very much like the music of Bulgaria. If you’ve ever heard of any of that choral stuff, it’s very much into that sort of idea. And the opening of ‘In The Light,’ it has a drone, it starts with a guitar drone which is bowed in a chord and then built up to a big texture and then John Paul Jones comes in with this most incredible keyboard line which sounds like a shehnai from India, which is a reeded instrument. But the whole construction of this was building and building and building. It’s really rather beautiful, I think.
CZ: Thank you for that question. Yeah, let’s go to you in the red top just here, yeah. At the very front row, Adam, red top.
Audience: Thanks. So I’m really interested in how obviously one of the core parts of Led Zeppelin’s music is guitar riffs. So like ‘The Ocean’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ what was your personal creative process behind that? Did you just think these things up? Because I’ve often, I mean, I’ve listened to them hundreds of times, but I’ve often just thought how amazing it would be to just suddenly think of something like that. But was that your creative process? Or did it take a long period of time and improvisation?
JP: Well there’s a variety of ways that the creative process would work. I guess 80% of it would be at home playing acoustic guitar. I would come out with the ideas on the acoustic guitar.
However, a good example of something which comes out of nowhere is the song ‘Rock And Roll.’ Because we were recording something else and we’re in various parts of Headley Grange, we’re not all in the same room at this point. And John Bonham plays this drum introduction and I just start playing what you know as ‘Rock And Roll,’ that opening 12-bar thing. And it was like ‘oh, let’s stop what we’re doing, let’s do this.’ So that’s literally something that just comes out of thin air. It’s just hearing the opening, it’s like a Little Richard drum intro actually, and I recognised what it was and where it came from. It’s from ‘Keep A-Knockin’’ by Little Richard. Then I’m playing the guitar, I’m following on immediately in the way that I would hear like a brass section like in Little Richard’s band. So that riff is like that, in my mind. And it’s being played as a 12-bar. We just stopped and we just had fun doing that.
Other songs were written, as I say, at home and I’d have from just simple riffs and things to present to the band or I’d have complete songs like ‘Ten Years Gone,’ that’s the other set extreme to things. If we weren’t touring I would be at home and I’d be thinking about the next album and writing for it.
CZ: Great, thank for you for that question. Let’s go to you with the red on the black.
Audience: Hi, so since John Bonham died and Led Zeppelin broke up, you’ve collaborated a little bit with the remaining members of Led Zeppelin and you’ve done some reunion gigs but generally there doesn’t seem to have been much enthusiasm from any of you, you haven’t done very much together. So I’m just wondering why that is and also if John Bonham hadn’t died, do you think that Led Zeppelin would still be going today or do you think that something else would have broken the band up by now?
JP: The last part of your question is a difficult one. I know that before he died we’d already discussed what the next album was going to be like, what the approach was going to be like after… because we’d had a very guitar, well Presence was all guitar. There were no keyboards on it whatsoever which gave the ground to be able to do a keyboard album because there had been keyboards on the rest of the albums, not on Presence but on the album called In Through The Out Door, the keyboards were really featured on that because John Paul Jones had bought this amazing synthesiser outfit called The Dream Machine so I think that says it all really. He had actually started to write some full songs so that was really good. But we’d discussed, John Bonham and I had discussed that we were gonna go more back into the guitar power aspect of things.
It’s hard to say. I know we had a really amazing connection, an incredible connection between the two of us, John Bonham and I. There’s just no doubt about that. So I’m sure whoever, somebody would have gone off to do their solo projects, but we still would have been coming back together again because we really enjoyed playing together so much and I know that John Bonham loved Led Zeppelin music and played it at home nearly most of the time. So that’s really interesting.
As far as getting together, I mean, I did two projects with Robert. I did one that involved recording in Morocco and it actually involved a bit of this and a bit of that, a bit of recording in Morocco with some Gnawa musicians who were quite shamanistic players and also in the studio with an audience by the side of the Thames here in London and in Wales. This whole thing was a very kaleidoscopic bunch of images, really of music that was sort of our past and also what we were channeling into the present. I thought that was quite a good project.
We did another project as well called Walking Into Clarksdale which was a really stripped down version of the band with no overdubs really, hardly any. Well there weren’t any overdubs, really. Maybe two on the whole of the album. But it was an idea to try and do something that was really fast. So anyway, those are the two projects we did. We had a couple of disastrous reunions for Live Aid. That was a bit of a shambles to say the least because we had two drummers. We had two hours rehearsal and two drummers and neither of them knew the songs. It was really unbelievable. And so we were going out on a wing and a prayer. It was an absolute disaster. It was horrible.
What we did do so many years later was to play, and it’s 10 years ago almost, this December. In 2007 at the O2 and that was really just absolutely marvellous because it showed us… because many people had heard about what Led Zeppelin was and, well, we don’t really know whether we’d like them or what.
We went out there and did exactly what we should have done which was to play really standing on the precipice, ready to fall at any moment. And still improvising and not playing anything safe whatsoever. It was also wonderful to do that with John Bonham’s son and to do as much rehearsal so that he felt part of a band as opposed to a novelty in it. It was cool. I thought we did so well with that. It was good. But it’s 10 years ago.
CZ: Great, thank you for that question. We have time for one more so yeah, you who’s doing that with the… yeah, you.
Audience: What’s your most cherished memory of you being in Led Zeppelin with regards to the lifestyle and the 1970s experience?
JP: Well, I was creating an art form. That’s what I was doing. I mean, I was, from day one I was developing a whole persona but I was living it. It wasn’t anything that was false or sham. I was living it every inch of the way. And that was the determination of it because I was so committed to the whole aspect of writing new music and presenting views on music that other people hadn’t really got to yet. I mean, they probably would do, but to be able to do that, I just really… each and every one of us in that band, as I said, it was a communion and that was just something which was such a buzz to be playing in a band like that and certainly a band that, initially from Led Zeppelin 1 I knew exactly the whole of the textures that I wanted to present to people so that they would go ‘wow, that’s really interesting. I haven’t heard so many things approached in one go.’ Just the ethos of keep moving and moving and moving forward with these ideas. That was just intoxicating.
CZ: Great. I’m afraid that is all we have time for.
CZ: So please join me in thanking Jimmy Page.
Here’s the full video from The Oxford Union of Page’s talk and on-stage interview:
And here’s a link to the video posted on Facebook which we used to transcribe part of the President of The Oxford Union’s introduction.