Jimmy Page: The Criteria Was Always Quality
The first time I meet with Jimmy Page to discuss the ongoing reissue project of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums, he starts things off by offering to make me a coffee.
“I need a caffeine injection,” Page says, jumping up from the couch in the living room of his SoHo hotel room in New York City. Coffee in hand, we begin, sitting knee-to-knee.
It’s disarming, of course, but charming as well. And what shows through vividly is Page’s passion for the current remastering project.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he says, “but you know, I like doing things that nobody else has done, to at least be reflected back on and say, ‘Nobody’s done that before.’”
Pages admits there was a slight amount of frustration that the entire catalogue needed to be redone.
“Twenty years ago we did it for CD, and of course, it’s analogue tapes that were originally intended for vinyl, so you’ve got all this catching up to do. Things change – within five years things are changing. So you’ve got to have your material mastered to that format to the way that you see it and hear it; otherwise, they’ll do it for you, and they’ll fuck it up. That’s what happened when Atlantic put out the first set of CDs. They were horrible! Absolutely appalling. And it was insulting because for Led Zeppelin, the criteria of it was always – and still is – quality.
He also knew he was the right man – perhaps the only man – for the job.
“So in so much as that, I was thinking, ‘Well, what would somebody else do if I weren’t doing this? How would they approach it?’ Because I know the music; I was there more times than the others. I’ve got all of these points of reference, and I know how to counterbalance the “Immigrant Song” with another version. I know how to do this. I’m in the best position to do this, so let’s do it. Because if you do this, and if you manage to accomplish all of these companion discs, nobody’s done it. It’s unique. And I like that sort of challenge.”
Over the course of our several conversations, Page shows himself to be not only a fan of his former band’s music, but with a keen memory for the details of the recording sessions and a genuine admiration for the talents of his former bandmates, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.
“It’s just a wonderful band, isn’t it?” Page asks me. “No one else ever played like us. It’s so exhilarating to listen to. Everybody’s performance is wonderful, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. When the band was set up, I wanted it to be that first album, a guitar tour de force album. It’s not how records are done now. It was all live performance. On all of our albums, everyone was playing, and most of the time Robert would do a vocal as well.
“So this has been a really fun project to do, revisiting that, and because I know what’s coming,” Page continues. “There are some great surprises, even for fans who think they have everything. I knew all of the material was really great, but it was really important to set the scene right from the beginning and explain the fact that you’re not only getting the original albums in the best quality possible, but that we are including companion discs that really give you a sense of the time and place and where we were creatively. So I want people to understand that this isn’t just a few bonus tracks or something. It was a substantial project, and a lot of work went into it.”
The latest installment in the series, is a deluxe, expanded version of Led’s 1975 masterpiece Physical Graffiti.
On top of the skillful remaster of the original LP, the release includes an early mix of “Trampled Under Foot” entitled “Brandy & Coke,” a rough orchestra mix of “Kashmir” called “Driving Through Kasmir,” and a markedly different version of “In the Light,” from mixes made when the song was still called “Everybody Makes It Through.”
“These versions show how hugely creative we were at the time,” Page tells me of the companion discs included with each new reissue. “Everyone was really shining. I’m so happy to be able to share these mixes. They were all made at the time we were making the albums – they’re things I had, because I was the producer of the sessions so I had all the tapes – and you can see the bare bones of the songs in most cases, but you also know what the songs eventually become.”
In earnest, he stresses to me how these are not gimmicky bonus discs, but important companions to enrich the definitive LPs.
“I wanted it to be absolutely contemporaneous,” he says. “That was the whole object of the exercise. People could get a feel for the work that was going on. I’ve purposely laced it where it gives you the insight of what was going on in making these albums. Each companion disc – and that’s really what they are – is a really good illustration of why I’m so proud of the whole series. ”
Even for diehard fans, these sets will be a revelation, Page says. He’s well aware of the burgeoning bootleg market, and was careful not to include anything that was circulating amongst collectors.
“Heavens, the bootleg industry has been going on the strength of Led Zeppelin for ages,” he says. “But I wanted to do it properly and in context. What we’re going for with the rerelease of the catalogue from Zeppelin II onwards is all rare studio outtakes and various different versions and mixes.”
He continues, “It’s the one thing that’s been missing, really, if you think about the releases from Led Zeppelin over the last few years, because it’s all been live stuff. So now we’ve got something that’s from the studio, of course apart from the live show from the companion disc that comes with Led Zeppelin I, because we didn’t have anything left over really to make a companion disc.”
Page has been painstaking in assuring the exceptional merit of the material included.
“In the hundreds of hours of listening, I was also checking out all those things that were out there on bootleg,” he says, “I wanted to make sure that what we had was as best as possible. It was quite a relief, because the gems we had were really the best. But I had to do it, because if I didn’t, it might just be a compilation of the stuff that was already out there. It might have been good and better quality, but I wanted to do things in a way that would make people go, ‘Crikey, this is something else!’ That’s what we did, and it worked.”
“The only problem was the first album,” Page says, picking up on his earlier point, referring to the companion disc for Led Zeppelin I, which includes a 1969 Paris concert rather than alternate studio versions from the time.
“I had heard, in a bootleg shop in Japan, the Paris concert, and I went, ‘What’s this?’ And it had turned out to be a Paris show that had been re-broadcast at around the time that we did the O2 concert in 2007. So I was able to get ahold of the original files from the radio station that recorded it, and that’s what makes up the companion disc for that set, because we only had a couple of things for outtakes that we’d released on an earlier box set.”
One of the most sought after, and astonishing, alternate versions in the series is the infamous Sunset Sound mix of “Stairway To Heaven” included on Led Zeppelin IV.
“It’s still the sum of the parts to a great degree, but very different,” Page says. “’Stairway’ comes in almost like an audiophile mix, because you’ve got these natural echo chambers that they’ve got [at Sunset Sound], and you get this ambience and headroom. These layers just come in and unfold, and it’s almost like a 3D mix.
“I knew it was great at the time. But we held it back because when we played it back later at Olympic, the system was very middle-y, and it was like, ‘Oh crikey, what’s happened?’ Nothing had happened to the mix, but there was some concern. The rest of the band weren’t into it. I knew it was really good, but there were a couple of bits and pieces that we wanted to change in the overall mix.
“The mix of ‘Misty Mountain’ is different, the vocals and things are different,” Page continues, explaining more about the sessions for Zeppelin’s best-selling album, which is also the second best-selling album of all time in the United States. “We hadn’t completed ‘Battle of Evermore’ either, in the version on the companion discs. That was still being completed. There were other things mixed at Sunset, too. ‘Night Flight’, ‘Down by the Seaside’, and ‘Boogie with Stu’. If you think about it, they should have been in the running order for IV.”
As a fan of one of the unsung heroes from the inner circle of the Rolling Stones, I ask Page about Ian Stewart, the Stones’ early keyboardist who later acted as Led Zeppelin’s road manager.
He tells me how, during the recording of Physical Graffiti at Headley Grange in Hampshire, England – “we’d been so productive there during the making of the fourth album I couldn’t wait to get back there,” Page says – Stewart visited and inspired the album’s “Boogie with Stu.”
“There was a baby grand [piano] there,” Page recalls. “It was in the main sitting room. John Paul Jones hoped it was going to be a sort of great, old concert grand, but it was in terrible shape. It probably hadn’t been tuned for 20 years and it was dusty – really dirty, actually. But Stu sat down and started playing this wonderful boogie-woogie. He was a master of boogie-woogie. He had an incredible feel for it. I knew he would never make a [solo] album, so I just recorded him, right then and there, because it was just such fun.”
In person, Page is dapper and quick-witted. During each of our chats he’s decked out in black, with an elegant vest and long scarf over a crisp shirt. He’s lean and healthy looking, and his eyes sparkle as we talk about his favorite subject: His beloved band.
He’s rightfully proud of what Zeppelin accomplished, but also clear about why he is so well-placed to be the leader of this project.
“I was the producer, so I was in the studio more than everybody else,” he tells me. “Plus, I did all the mixing. Often, especially as we got to 8-tracks for the second album and 16-tracks later, there wouldn’t just be the engineer’s hands on the mixing desk. I was there, too. Especially on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, there were more channels and more effects channels, and it wasn’t programmed, like you would do today. So you’d have all these hands sometimes on these mixing consoles doing these things.”
“But I had a real vision of where I wanted to take this project. Remastering them wasn’t going to be enough. I mean everyone is doing that. So I thought, ‘Let’s do something to make this really special.’ So, for instance, the numbers from Led Zeppelin III are substantially different, but it gives you a window – I’ve said this before – it’s like a portal into when each album was recorded, and that’s how it will be right through to Coda.”
The ultimate goal of this project was to preserve the grandeur of the Led Zeppelin phenomenon for the rest of history.
As Page stated earlier, “the criteria of it was always – and still is – quality.”
“We did this so that our catalogue can now be out there in whatever format people are listening to music on – and I’ve also done super high resolution versions for whatever comes next – and in the process I found I could hear things that I hadn’t heard in years and certainly not on previous versions. I mean, the best way to hear these would be for you to hear the original master tapes, but I can’t have everyone round to my house to hear them, so I think this is as good as it gets.”
Page says there are plenty more gems to come on Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda.
In fact, he tells me he recently discovered a complete, alternate mix of Presence that fans can expect to hear on the reissue of that album later this year. But he is particularly proud of the current reissue of Physical Graffitti.
“We wanted to put out an album that was going to knock everybody’s socks off,” Page tells me. “It’s another tour de force, the whole of it.”
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles.
(Header Image: Jim Summaria; changes made)
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