Jimmy Page is in Venice to promote “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” the feature-length authorised documentary charting the beginning of the band.
Page took part in a press conference with director Bernard MacMahon and producer and screenwriter Allison McGourty to promote the film the day after its first screening. Here’s our full transcript of it.
To watch the video of the press conference, check out this YouTube video. It begins at 52:45.
Read our full transcript below:
Q: Why choose to make a film about Led Zeppelin?
Bernard: [Microphone issues] what I thought was the next most important period in music, culturally and technologically, and Led Zeppelin in 1969 were in the centre of that hurricane. I loved the story since I was a child hearing the records and it just felt like the most exciting story to tell. It reminded me of all the legendary stories I’d read like the ‘Labours of Hercules’ and ‘The Odyssey.’
Q: Can you talk about the way you approached the band?
Bernard: I wanted to know the film would work and so Allison and I scripted the film, we researched and studied the story of the group. We were big fans of the group already and maybe Allison you can continue here. We made a storyboard.
Allison: Bernard did a lot of research into the history of the group and we scripted it and then Bernard and our editor Dan Gitlin made a beautiful storyboard of the whole story from start to finish of the movie as we envisaged it and created a beautiful leatherbound book which we then presented to Jimmy and talked him through it and miraculously to this day, what you see on the screen, in the movie, is exactly what we presented to him when we first met.
Bernard: Jimmy, we met didn’t we in the Winter of 2017, didn’t we?
Jimmy: Yes, we certainly did meet then. We’ve heard about the storyboard and I guess the two of us, when we first met we were probably a little nervous of each other. But the conduit was the storyboard and certainly for me because it was so accurate and the research had obviously been so deep that I could see all these milestones appearing as we turned the storyboard through. And I thought ‘well, they’ve really got it. They really understand what it was about.’
I just couldn’t wait to see whether it was all going to happen and it did and it was a wonderful experience to do. And as they say, yeah, it’s absolutely true and faithful to the storyboard, as you see it on the screen.
Q: Tell us about previous requests you had to make films about Led Zeppelin
Jimmy: Well there sort of had been but they were pretty miserable. Yes, miserable and also to the point where they would want to be concentrating on anything but the music. And the thing is … so, consequently I would immediately recoil from that sort of thing.
But with this one, it’s everything about the music and what made the music tick and the performances and complete versions of songs. That’s the other thing. It’s not just a little sample of it and then a talking head. This is something in a totally different genre.
Q: It’s a counterintuitive approach to documentary, a script, a storyboard.
Allison: It is an unusual way of making a documentary but it’s more like a feature film way of making documentaries and that’s probably what we would like to do next after this, would be a feature.
After the research, we wrote it and Bernard do you want to take it from there?
Bernard: We looked at it and I talked to Jimmy, we looked at it like a musical, like the story was a musical and there was dialogue in between the music but you could take the journey musically. The idea was to try for you to understand and feel what Led Zeppelin’s music is and the influences it had and where it came from. So you could hopefully see, when they appear, why the group made the impact it did.
Jimmy: The thing is, of course it’s four members that are musicians. But it’s this sort of thing that the stars literally aligned for these four people to come together. So as you hear the story, you can see that they all had different sort of careers, if you like, and different ways of approaching things.
But once it comes together like that, there’s like this explosion that doesn’t stop and the momentum of that explosion is carried on through touring and it’s carried on through recording and the fact that the first album comes out in January 1970 [Sic – Led Zeppelin’s first album was released in January 1969] but so does the second album come out in 1970 [Sic – Led Zeppelin’s second album was released in October 1969].
So with all the touring between America and England and recording and doing all these various sort of bits of footage here and there, the momentum of it was absolutely … I was going at like a million miles per hour. But that’s what they’ve managed to capture and I’m sure you will agree when you see it.
Q: Can you talk about the independence you had with Led Zeppelin? What most concerned you with the legacy of Led Zeppelin? How do you see Led Zeppelin’s place in music history today?
Jimmy: Right, OK. So the very first part of this was I was in a band called The Yardbirds that was really known on the underground scene and the underground venues in America. By this time, there had been five members of The Yardbirds and Jeff Beck and I had been in the band as the two guitarists but then Jeff went on to do a solo career and so that left me with putting my ideas into the band.
Basically, then that band split up. However, during the … the Boston Tea Party was one of the gigs that we used to do and Thee Image Club in Miami and … let’s see. There are many, many, many, I’m not going to try and list them all because you’ve got other questions you want to ask.
But basically when the band folded, the four-member band folded, I had a choice of what to do next and the thing that I wanted to do next was form a group. I knew exactly what was going on with underground radio in America, that they played stereo records and they were starting to play full sides of records as opposed to just three-minute singles. It was two different markets altogether.
So there was an underground radio, there was underground concerts, but in England nobody knew what we were doing but we were really quite a cult band.
So here comes the second part of the story then, is are you going to go to a record company and say ‘well I was in a band called The Yardbirds that has now split.’ ‘Were you on any of the hit records?’ ‘No I wasn’t on any of the hit records but we’ve got a really big following in America, it’s a guitar-based band.’
The best way to do that was not to say ‘can we have an advance to make an album?’ The way to do it was to actually make the album and then present it.
So as far as Led Zeppelin today, I think the whole of the work of Led Zeppelin is an incredible textbook for musicians, that’s what I do believe and I’m really happy that it is so.
I’m a self-taught musician as well, it’s not something that I learned in an academy. I would like to encourage all musicians, whether they do go to an academy, classically trained or whatever or self taught. Because to play an instrument, it’s such a wonderful thing to have a connection with an instrument.
Allison: That was one of the things that tempted us to do the film was the fact that this is a life lesson in the way they work in that anybody, so long as you work hard at your craft, and persevere, your dreams can come true.
And we do like to have a higher purpose in the films that we make and we felt that this was a very inspirational story for young people, young men and women and children all over the world, that they can work hard and whatever they want to accomplish and their dreams will come true.
Q: I have spent hours practicing your licks, Mr Page. I know the story and the licks by heart. What do we really learn in this new documentary?
Jimmy: Everything will be answered. I promise you, I promise you. Because somebody who has really understood what these riffs are about and how this music gels together, you’re just going to have a wonderful time. I think that’s the easiest way to describe it because you already understand quite a lot of what it is and now you’re going to see what it was.
Q: In the film we hear about how you bypassed the music industry that pushed you to release singles. Since then, the industry has changed a lot and with streaming there’s a greater push to release hit singles. Are you optimistic that the form of the album is something that will stay with us in the longer term?
Jimmy: The thing about albums and the groups that were involved in that sort of pre-Led Zeppelin and post-Led Zeppelin, is that people considered albums to be like a body of work. It was a summing up of where you were at that point of time or that year because everything else surrounding it would be doing concerts. That would be a sort of statement of where you are.
I knew in America that there was this underground radio that weren’t playing singles so the way that I was thinking about it, say for example The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones would always be putting out singles with albums. And the singles were a very important market but the problem being that if you want to be doing these sort of albums that have, where each song leads into another, the whole thing is really crafted in that way, you don’t want to be bogged down, say after the second album with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on it, you don’t want somebody saying to you on the third album ‘well, where’s the ‘Whole Lotta Love’?’
You see? I didn’t want to get caught up with a ball and chain of having to present the single, having to present the single. The thing to do was to present an album which was really, really quality.
Allison: It was an interesting coincidence when we filmed the band, it was the exact same week 50 years to the day that they met. 50 years, the planets aligned, when Jimmy, Robert and John Paul Jones came to the shoot.
[Question in Italian]
Jimmy: As far as young musicians go, and as I said earlier on, I was self-taught and it was almost like a pilgrimage to find new information. There were no computers so you couldn’t go online and work out how to play, oh, I don’t know, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or any sort of song that you want. By this, you had to learn from records and it was a very deliberate, OCD process to do that. And all of the guitarists from the sixties, they all did the same thing. That’s the way that they learned.
What I would say to young guitarists, well of course now there’s just a lexicon of information out there. And I know people who learn from online. You may find one song and you may find that actually there are about a number of different versions and actually none of them sound like the one you want to hear off the record. But there are ways of approaching it.
I would say to young musicians, just to put the work in, to keep putting the work in to something that you love because the connection with the instrument is something which is so rewarding and it’s something that can be, like me, it can be a hobby that I managed to turn into a career which then again makes people happy which is absolutely terrific.
Or it could be somebody who is a university student who is doing all this intense learning and getting ready for their exams but it’s nice to have an instrument just to be able to play and go into that world. So it’s therapeutic and it’s just a wonderful thing to be able to do and I would encourage musicians in those two areas that I’ve just described there.
Bernard: It’s a film about apprenticeship, in many ways. It’s about how you learn your craft, if you’re wanting to do something ambitious and how you go about that process and so really it’s half a musical and it’s half a how-to guide about if you’ve got a really ambitious dream, how you might go about it.
Jimmy: The question about the internet, though. I met a group at one of these musical academies in Brighton in England and they’d won that year’s best group, so there was the singers, musicians. And I said ‘what are you doing now?’ and they said ‘well, we’re going to Vietnam.’ I said ‘well, that’s really interesting, how did you get that?’ They said ‘well actually, we’ve had a hit in Southeast Asia already because somebody picked our music up off of the streaming and they put it to an advert and this is the second time that we’re going to Southeast Asia.’ And I thought ‘wow, it really can work but you have to be really lucky for that to happen.’ But that wasn’t done by a record company, that was done by themselves.
Q: I loved your outfits, where did they come from? Charlie Watts recently passed but the Stones aren’t giving up like you guys did when John Bonham died.
Jimmy: Well it’s a totally different concept of the bands. I love the Stones, I’ve got to tell you that. And I love Charlie’s playing and the way that he locked in with Bill Wyman and Keith is just something else, the way that they could group.
But the difference with Led Zeppelin and many of the other bands that were … most of the other bands, was that Led Zeppelin would go on the stage and it would be improvising all the way through the set. So if you can imagine, from 1968 when we start all the way through to the point where we lose John Bonham, there’d been a lot of concerts with a lot of improvising and riffs sort of just come out on the night and just disappear into the ether. But we had that ESP about us.
Now, the thing is that when we lost John, it was inconceivable to be able to get somebody and well what were you going to do, teach them the improvising? No. So for us, it was a very easy decision.
My outfits? Well I did design those. It was as my confidence grew and my character grew, then also I was reflecting that in the clothes that I was wearing on stage but also off stage. It was things that were actually made or things that I managed to find in second hand shops or whatever.
Q: Bernard, how hard was it to find a tape with John Bonham’s voice?
Bernard: Very hard. When we started, most people haven’t heard John Bonham speak. And I tracked down two or three bootlegs of interviews done by journalists but they were like in a pub with drinks clashing and waiters coming up and I thought ‘we can’t use this.’
And then I came across this bootleg and it was a short interview with John talking. It was on an old vinyl record but I could hear this had been made to a quarter inch tape and the journalist was Australian and I went to every Australian journalist that we knew from that era saying ‘do you recognise this voice?’ Because the journalist didn’t identify himself. And eventually I tracked down someone that said ‘we know who he was’ but he died.
And fortunately, the Sound Archive in Canberra in Australia had put on an American Epic festival, our previous film. So I called the head of it and I said ‘do you have an archive of old radio tapes?’ And he went ‘yeah.’ He looked through, didn’t have it. But they had 30,000 unmarked reels and he went through all of them and he eventually found one with ‘Slade’ written on the box, the group, opened it up, put it on and it was John and that’s the interview you hear.
Allison: How long did that take for him to find it?
Bernard: It took a year.
Jimmy: They were so thorough with their research. But the thing about John is that he’s living it at the time. He’s still alive, obviously with this and he’s discussing various topics, just really, really enthusiastic and you feel the love in that band.
Bernard: We tried to make it feel like you’re there. It was like only having the group telling you the story because they’ve never done it. So it’s in their own words. But we’d checked, we’d spoken and Jimmy had opened up his diary and given us the numbers of his childhood friends and the other band members had so we went to all those places researching it and meeting the people and hearing the stories and so we could understand when Jimmy was talking, what he was referring to if he made a little reference to something.
Allison: Robert said to us early on as well, he said ‘I don’t know how you’re going to be able to tell this story because Peter Grant didn’t allow people to film the concerts and we didn’t do any media interviews so what are you going to do? How are you going to tell this?’
And so it was a huge archeological dig and thanks to some fans and bootleggers, we managed to find little bits of concerts from the period and Bernard came up with this incredible technique that we call the Fantasia technique inspired by ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and with a lot of layering to recreate the feeling of the concerts.
Bernard: Of being on the road. The other thing we did as well was where there were clips that had been seen before, we would go to the companies that filmed them and then we would go into their basements and search all the reels and in almost every case we found other camera reels shot from that thing that hadn’t been seen so all the clips are recut, so if there’s a performance you’ve seen, there are all different camera angles in that performance.
And all the sound is from the original source, so the first generation original source. All the film is like original print or negative or if it was recorded to tape, it’s the original tape.
Q: For the director, what is your favourite Led Zeppelin song and why? For Jimmy Page, is there a particular use of Led Zeppelin music in movies that you like?
Bernard: It’s hard to say. I probably have, on this film, I have my favourite is probably ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ because when it starts, that’s the point that you know you’re hearing something you haven’t heard before. The way that the band is playing together.
And then I’ve also fallen in love with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ because we were able to illustrate that song for almost six minutes on screen with unseen footage. As Jimmy says, I see them as albums rather than songs. They’re complete things.
Jimmy: With ‘Good Times, Bad Times,’ it’s the first track on the first album. So that was the one you expected people to buy, that’s what they’re going to put on. And the thing is it’s virtually unplayable. You won’t find another drummer who can actually play that drum pattern for any length of time and John Bonham could do it for like half an hour.
So they’re just hit with like a riff and the vocals and the guitar solos and the overall thing. That would be it, it’s a wonderful opening a portal to that first album.
Where music of Led Zeppelin has been used in films, where for example they’ve used something like ‘When The Levee Breaks,’ to hear it in the cinema, it’s just so awesome. And it always works whenever it’s been used. I’ve always enjoyed hearing that.
Q: How was ‘Stairway To Heaven’ created and can you explain why it became such a cult success?
Jimmy: Alright, well it was a number of sections that I’d written on guitar that I sort of basically assembled and then I rehearsed it with John Paul Jones and John Bonham at a place called Headley Grange, that’s a whole story unto itself. But it was an old country house and we had a recording studio, a mobile one.
So basically I’m laying this thing out and we’re getting everybody to remember what sections are coming next and Robert had been sitting down and he was writing in his book and then by about the third, fourth run through he comes up and starts singing ninety percent of the lyrics.
So you know ‘Stairway To Heaven,’ you understand the lyrics for that and I’m saying that this was such an inspired time in this place, in this place called Headley Grange and that’s such a good example of it and the whole idea of that song was to have something which was anthemic and something that had a slow reveal and just kept building and building and actually increased in the tempo. That was something that, again, hadn’t really been done. It had been done in classic music but not necessarily in rock and roll.