Do you remember the first time you heard a recording by Led Zeppelin. If you are my vintage it would have been in the late 60’s, and it would have been either on radio (AM only – this was well before the advent of FM in Australia), or on vinyl LP (it was also way before cassette, CD, Mini-Disc etc.)
Earlier this year, under the watchful eye of Jimmy Page, the first three Zeppelin albums were remastered and re-released. However this time round the formats of choice are a little more varied, with a variety of packages available encompassing Vinyl (high quality 180gram pressing), CD and High-Definition download. This was the first release of the entire nine studio albums which will be re-released over time (the next two are due in October), and which also includes a considerable repertoire of previously unreleased material.
The fact that Vinyl features so heavily in this release is probably not surprising to many, the return of vinyl as a format has been well documented by the press in recent times. What is significant is that irrespective of how cherished the memories of your first introduction to Zeppelin is, you now have the opportunity to revisit their music at performance levels never available before. Before you correctly surmise that given the march of technology this should be expected you need to remember that ours is an industry that insists on striving for increased convenience at the expense of performance. The claims that CD was an inferior format to vinyl are justified. Cassette was a further step backwards, but nowhere near the giant leap backwards in performance with the ultra-popular MP3 formats championed by Apple etc. (We also managed to do the same for TV, blundering from Plasma to LCD to LED/LCD).
The resurgence of vinyl is as much about the backlash to the performance limitations of MP3 as it being ‘retro and cool’. There is an entire generation of people who are discovering what it is like to hear music that is well recorded and faithfully reproduced (a considerable proportion of people investing in new turntables were not even born when CD was released.) It was interesting to read that Jack Whites recent release Lazaretto was the biggest selling LP of the last 20 years, and that the LP accounted for an astounding 25% of the total sales of the album (the vinyl offering sold 40,000 copies in the first week!)
But it is the third format mentioned above that will have greatest impact in the future. The Digital Download option has little in common with more traditional MP3 ‘iTunes’ style offerings, other than the method of delivery. There are still some legal ‘copyright’ issues to get out of the way before High-Resolution downloads become commonplace in Australia (although many are finding ways to circumnavigate this annoyance), and the range is music is still somewhat limited. At the same time there is no doubt that this will become the music medium of the future. Hi-Res downloads offer resolutions in excess of CD, and rival the performance of Vinyl. The convenience of the delivery and storage format will ultimately make it a more appealing format than LP’s.
For the first time in a couple of decades there appears to be revival in ‘listening’. We have been spoiled in recent years with almost unlimited access to more music than we could even hope to consume. The downside has been that the performance offered limited any real emotional involvement, and in most cases this music simply became background noise. A growing number of people are once again ‘connecting’ with their music. They are actively listening, be it on Vinyl, CD or increasingly from Hi-Resolution downloads. There is a worldwide resurgence in ‘Hi-Fi’. No longer content with iPod based devices and Bluetooth speakers consumers are once again going out and purchasing good quality component systems. In other cases this may simply be a high performance pair of headphones, with a good quality Headphone Amplifier/DAC. Many are hearing, for the first time, to what the artist intended to be conveyed at the time the recording was made.
Obviously as a speciality retailer this is music to my ears (sorry!). However – and possibly more importantly – it takes me back to why I became involved in this industry in the first place – simply a love for music.
By Len Wallis
Australian Guitar’s Craig White goes behind the curtain for a unique look at the life and legacy of Led Zeppelin immortal guitar genius, Jimmy Page.
The story of Led Zeppelin and ace guitarist Jimmy Page has been recounted so often that we have to assume anyone reading a guitar magazine is familiar with at least the basic details. Formed in the wake of the Yardbirds, and for a short period billed as the New Yardbirds, the band would come to be called Led Zeppelin, which was a jokey name attributed to Keith Moon that compared their imagined reception to the fate of a lead balloon, though on a much grander scale. The spelling was altered at the suggestion of manager Peter Grant so that Americans would not pronounce it as if it rhymed with ‘feed’.
Page and bassist John Paul Jones were accomplished London session hands, while vocalist Robert Plant and stickman John Bonham were from the West Midlands and had played together previously. The chemistry was there from the first moment, and the band would go on to record six era-defining albums in as many years, each of which the All Music Guide rates as a five-star effort. The band is widely regarded as the prime progenitor of modern hard rock music and the myriad genres that have derived from it.
Page produced the recordings and devised recording techniques that lent Led Zeppelin albums a unique vibe that has rarely been emulated successfully. He insisted on regularly switching recording engineers so that it would be clear that Page alone was responsible for the signature sound.
His influence on subsequent generations of electric guitarists is without equal, as Led Zeppelin have resisted any attempts to assign them to the margins of history and each new generation of long-haired teenagers discovers the band for themselves. If there is still a generation gap (and I assume there is), it is not apparent whenever you see headbangers of different vintages discussing the relative merits of their favourite Led Zeppelin album.
We felt it was high time we took a fresh look at the man and his music, his instruments, not to mention his influence and influences. Plus, we remember Led Zeppelin’s only ever Australasian tour.
ON THE RECORD
There are a number of compilations that collect Page’s pre-Zeppelin work as a member of other groups and a session musician. While many have gone out-of-print, the two-disc Jimmy Page And His Heavy Friends: Hip Young Guitar Slinger was re-issued in 2007 and is a great selection. Of the out-of-print stuff, Session Man Vol. 1 and Session Man Vol. 2 are worth tracking down and, while there is some overlap with the previously mentioned compilation, contain a significant amount of unique material.
1967’s Little Games was recorded after Jeff Beck’s departure and is the only Yardbirds studio album that features Page. The short-lived dual guitar line-up with Page and Beck recorded very little. ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ was released as a single in October 1966 and featured both Page and Beck playing guitar, while the B-side ‘Psycho Daisies’- had Page on bass. In September 1971 Epic Records released Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page, a recording of a March 1968 concert in New York that quickly went out of print. Against the band’s wishes the record company had overdubbed extra crowd noise onto the release, which may well be the source of Page’s antipathy towards the album, the CD release of which he has taken legal action to block on several occasions. Even so, CD versions of varying legality have been available at different times, and it seems to be currently available in Europe on the Lost Diamonds label. It is a great live document, so get it while you can!
The nine studio albums are essential listening for any rock guitarist, and if you are unfamiliar with any of them you should make haste and redress that unfortunate situation immediately. If the later albums (Presence, In Through The Out Door and the posthumous Coda) are not as consistently amazing as the first six, they still have considerably more to offer than the best albums of most bands. Once you have familiarised yourself with the studio-derived canon, one should probably first turn their attention to the sole live album officially released during their career, the soundtrack to the film The Song Remains The Same, if only to develop a context in which to consider further live recordings. If that one is a little underwhelming, 1997’s BBC Sessions and 2003’s How The West Was Won are much more successful in communicating the band’s live power. 2003 also saw the two-disc DVD release Led Zeppelin, which is an equally compelling compilation of live sound and images spanning their entire career.
If all that hasn’t sated your appetite for classic period material, you can take comfort in knowing that Led Zeppelin is possibly the most bootlegged band of all time and that there are no shortage of studio outtakes and landmark shows for you to discover. Of course, such releases are not sanctioned by the band, and as often as not will contain sub-standard sound, but once you have been bitten by the bug, what are you going to do?
Page’s first post-Zeppelin effort was the soundtrack for Death Wish II. The film starred Charles Bronson and was helmed by British director Michael Winner, who was Page’s neighbour at the time. 1984 was the year that Page and Plant first reunited, releasing The Honeydrippers: Volume One, an EP of oldies recorded with Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers that produced the hit “Sea Of Love”.
1985 saw Page team up with Roy Harper for Whatever Happened To Jugula?, which although the pair had worked together before is the only album credited to them both. The Firm, Page’s short-lived project with Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, also released its eponymous debut album in 1985. The Firm did well, cracking the top twenty in both the US and Britain on the back of the single “Radioactive”, while the following year’s Mean Business met a slightly cooler reception and the band folded soon after.
Outrider was the long awaited solo album from Page, and it was released in 1988 to great excitement. It featured guest appearances by Plant and Bonham’s son Jason, however it was ultimately disappointing and remains his only true solo album. The decades since have seen him embrace his role as perhaps rock’s greatest sideman, starting with Coverdale And Page (1993), which teamed him with former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale. In 1994 he once again paired with Robert Plant for the live No Quarter, which they followed in 1998 with a studio album, Walking Into Clarksdale. Finally, in 2000 Page paired with the Black Crowes for Live At The Greek.
CANDY STORE ROCK
Page is reported to own over a thousand guitars, however there are a significant few that have shaped his sound. Early on, Page used a ’58 Telecaster extensively; it is his main guitar on Led Zeppelin I, he used it live in ’68 and ’69, and it was pulled out again for the solo on ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The Tele was given to Page by Jeff Beck and has been repainted several times by Page himself. Another Yardbirds-era instrument that would play a significant role during the Led Zeppelin years is the Danelectro 3021, which Page used live for songs such as ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and ‘In My Time Of Dying’.
Of course, Page is most readily associated with Gibson Les Pauls, particularly a pair of late-‘50s sunburst Standards, however his first Les Paul was a 1960 Custom Black Beauty that was his main instrument from 1963 until 1966. He took the Black Beauty out on tour in the early-’70s, and it was stolen in September 1971. It has never been recovered.
His Number 1 Les Paul Standard was purchased in 1969 from Joe Walsh. The neck had already been shaved, which was a not uncommon modification in those days, and Page obviously liked the enhanced profile, as he replicated it when he purchased Number 2 in 1973. The ‘80s saw Page modify both instruments further, with Number 1 receiving a push-pull pot to facilitate pickup phasing, while Number 2 got not only switching pots (for coil-splitting), but also a pair of buttons beneath the pickguard that allowed pickup phasing and switching between series and parallel modes of operation.
The other Gibson guitar with which Page is often indentified is the double neck SG EDS-1275. Page began to use the guitar live in 1971 for ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and has also used it for ‘The Song Remains The Same’, ‘The Rain Song’, ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Celebration Day’. Page has also used it occasionally in the studio, including sections of ‘Carouselambra’ from ‘In Through The Out Door’.
Page has used a number of amplifiers over the years, however his live rig has most often been based on a pair of Marshall SLP-1959 100W amps, which had been modded with different tubes for a higher output. In the studio the guitarist used a number of different amplifiers, including Vox, Fender and Orange models, and most famously, a low-powered Supro combo that he teamed with his ’58 Telecaster for Led Zeppelin I and the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ solo.
It is hard to describe Page’s sound, much less emulate it, as it changed significantly over the years and the guitarist was always notoriously cagey when questioned about it. Broadly speaking, in the early years he was more likely to use fuzz boxes to achieve a distorted sound live, while in later years he generally opted for amp overdrive, though this could still range from relatively clean to quite crunchy.
The influence of Page on modern rock guitar is so enormous as to almost suggest it all starts with him, though of course that is not the case and the young Page had his heroes like anybody else.
Willie Dixon wrote electric blues for any number of artists, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. So it is really no wonder that Led Zeppelin I features two of his tunes, and that another two co-writes were eventually credited to him for material derived from his original compositions.
Elmore James was the King Of The Slide Guitar and a massive influence on many sixties blues-rock guitarists. In 1965, Page and Eric Clapton recorded a track titled ‘Blues For Elmore’ that made the connection explicit. Page’s appearances with The Black Crowes have usually included James’ ‘Shake Your Money Maker’.
As a teenager in the ‘50s, Page was not surprisingly a fan of Elvis Presley. When he picked up the guitar at the age of 12, some of the first licks he taught himself were cribbed from Elvis records. Rockabilly pickers such as the incomparable Elvis sideman Scotty Moore mixed rock’n’roll, blues and country music in a way that would be very familiar to Led Zeppelin.
Bert Jansch was a leading British folkie, whose arrangement of the traditional ‘Blackwaterside’ would be taught to Page by Al Stewart during the sessions for his first album, on which the guitarist was playing. Page appropriated the accompaniment for the instrumental ‘Black Mountain Side’ on Led Zeppelin I.
Renbourn was another prominent British folkie. He recorded a 1966 album with Bert Jansch and the two would form the seminal folk-rock band Pentangle the following year. Along with bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, they created the climate for Led Zeppelin to incorporate British folk influence alongside American blues.
While there are obviously a number of Page imitators who approximate the authentic sound, the truth of the matter is that his influence extends much further than you might expect.
Queen was originally dismissed as Led Zeppelin wannabes, and on those first couple of albums) May’s debt to Page is far more apparent than it would be later, when his unique tone and technique had developed fully. May has said of Page that he is “one of the great brains of rock music”.
His look probably owes more to Page’s fellow Yardbird Jeff Beck, and Perry himself claims Beck as a major influence, however to my ear there is a little more Page in Perry’s performance. Either way, Aerosmith owes the Yardbirds a huge debt, which they acknowledge whenever they trot out ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’.
The stabbing rhythm guitar of ‘Communication Breakdown’, from Led Zeppelin II, would prove to be seminal for a generation of punks who thought they were reacting against dinosaur rockers like Led Zeppelin. In the early days, Johnny Ramone played the song repeatedly to improve his rhythm technique.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie saw Led Zeppelin play in 1971, taking inspiration from Page’s ‘Heartbreaker’ solo to develop his own two-handed approach to tapping. What’s more, the members of Van Halen were huge fans of the Kinks, and while it is disputed as to just how much he played, Page played a number of Kinks sessions.
Steve Vai is another hugely inventive guitarist who has radically advanced the cause of the electric guitar under the influence of Page’s ‘Heartbreaker’ solo. He told Guitar World in 1988, ‘Heartbreaker’ had the biggest influence on me as a youth. It was defiant, bold and edgier than hell. It really is the definitive rock guitar solo”.
GOING DOWN UNDER LIKE A LEAD BALLOON
Starting in Perth, at Subiaco Oval, on the 16th February, and concluding at Brisbane’s Festival Hall, on the 29th of that month, Led Zeppelin’s only Australasian tour encompassed half-a-dozen dates, visiting all five mainland state capitals and including a mid-tour swing across the Tasman to play Auckland on the 24th.
The original itinerary had a Valentine’s Day show planned for Singapore, however it was cancelled when the band was refused entry due to local laws that forbade men wearing long hair. This may have been on Page’s mind when he decided to shave his beard mid-tour, adopting the clean-shaven look he would maintain for the rest of the band’s career.
2003’s Led Zeppelin DVD included a few choice nuggets from the Sydney show on the 27th February, including colour silent footage of the band doing ‘Immigrant Song’ (synced with audio from a 1972 Long Beach Arena performance) and black and white sound footage of ‘Rock And Roll’. Also included is a short interview of John Bonham by Germaine Greer.
Unfortunately, one of the highlights of the Sydney show was not included on the DVD, and has made bootlegs of that performance highly sought after for as long as they have circulated. During a medley structured around ‘Whole Lotta Love’, Page inserted a series of instrumental themes from a piece the band had been working on that would first be recorded during the Houses Of The Holy sessions, though it would not be finished and released for several years further, finally surfacing on as ‘The Rover’.
Forty five years after the release of Led Zeppelin I, some elements still stand out. There’s a sense of urgency and danger bouncing off a compelling mix of disciplined experience and nervous sloppiness. “The first album is really roaring, the four members came together and created this fifth monster!” Jimmy Page told Uncut magazine in May 2005.
Page always had a strong vision for Led Zeppelin – the music, the approach, even marketing ideas like no official singles. Years of doing sessions had taught him the right and wrong ways of making great music. It was to be a heavy blues trio, with a powerful drummer and a singer who used his voice as another instrument.
But what made Zeppelin I compelling was that the lineup that made it was a far cry from the experienced players that Page initially considered. Page had considered singers as Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott (the Small Faces’ manager Don Arden reportedly sent a message back asking how Page would feel about playing guitar with some of his fingers broken), drummers like Keith Moon and Aynsley Dubar, and bassists as The Who’s John Entwistle and Chris Dreja of The Yardbirds.
Page was enchanted with Terry Reid’s voice on his River album. But he turned down the offer and suggested an unknown teenager Robert Plant from Birmingham. Page, Dreja and manager Peter Grant journeyed up to see him with his band Hobstweedle. They knocked on the backstage door. A big made teenager in a University of Toronto sweatshirt let them in. Page whispered to his manager, “Crikey, they got a big roadie!” It turned out to be Plant.
There’s no doubt that 19-year old Plant was mesmerized by Page. The guitarist had recorded with US bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
Three years before, Plant went to see Williamson at Birmingham Town Hall and sneaked backstage afterwards to steal one of his harmonicas. Plant wanted his buddy John Bonham in. Bonzo was reluctant as he was making £35 a week playing with folk singer Tim Rose. But Page dug him as soon as he checked him out “He plays so loud, promoters won’t want to book him!” Page cackled. Page knew John Paul Jones distantly from the session circuit, when he played on Rod Stewart and Lulu records and arranged the strings for The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’.
Jones recalled Zeppelin’s first rehearsal in August 1968, in a small room in London’s Soho filled with dusty old amps. Page asked Jones, “Do you know ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ He didn’t. Page said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A.” Jones remembered, “He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’ And we just sort of built it up from there.”
So what Led Zeppelin I had through its nine songs lasting 44 minutes and 26 seconds was a group that locked in, and lucked in, in sheer chemistry. Page said, “The thing about Zeppelin (I) was that we always played as a band.”
They’d already worked in the song list and arrangements during a tour of Scandinavia in September 1968 as The New Yardbirds. As soon as they returned, they changed their name and went into Olympic Studios.
The sessions took 36 hours over a six week period. Page’s and Jones’ discipline from sessions meant recording went quickly. They had still not signed a record deal, so Page had to pay the studio costs of £1,782 himself.
Page: “The first album is a live album, it really is, and it’s done intentionally in that way. It’s got overdubs on it, but the original tracks are live.”
Plant and Bonham were at that stage no more than country bumpkins. Plant remembers being “petrified” in the studio, overwhelmed by the size of the control room and the volume of the music booming out over the huge speakers. But it was also an exhilarating experienced for him. “When we listened to playbacks, it was unbelievable, fantastic, to hear what we’d done in the rehearsal room develop a different perspective and sound, like we know it sounds. It was the most amazing sensation.”
By Led Zeppelin II, he’d start to work on what he’d call the “blue shadow stated” effect. Bonham on the other hand was providing some great work at this early stage, admittedly precise but without the imagination that went into the later records.
Page was in control, using sound innovations as backward echo on ‘You Shook Me’. He used the ambience of the studio room and used techniques as placing additional mics as far as 20 feet from the instruments rather than the traditional approach of putting them right in front.
He drew on an array of guitars for the wide array of styles. Much of the record was done on a Telecaster which Beck gave him. He liked it because it sounded like a Les Paul; with proper mic placings and different amps (in particular the Supro amp) he found that he could get more tones than most. That’s a Leslie on the solo for ‘Good Times Bad Times’. For the acoustic sounds on ‘Black Mountain Side’ and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ he borrowed a Gibson J-200 from English bluesman Big Jim Sullivan.
“It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy-gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.” ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ features an out-of-tune Fender 10-string steel guitar.
For ‘Communication Breakdown’, he opted for a small room and miked the guitar from a distance. He agrees that the solo on
‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is sloppy. “There are mistakes in it, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll always leave the mistakes in. I can’t help it. The timing bits on the A and Bb parts are right, though it might sound wrong. The timing just sounds off. But there are some wrong notes.”
Peter Grant was in the meantime negotiating with record companies. The British ones like Pye and EMI laughed him out of their offices when he asked for an advance of £17,500. But Atlantic Records in America, who had Cream on their books and knew that audiences were turning for heavier sounds, trumped up $100,000, the highest amount ever given to an unknown act.
Led Zeppelin I was released in the US on January 12, and in the UK two months later. It initially got bad reviews, especially in America where critics accused the band of ripping off Beck’s Truth from six months before. Both albums shared ‘You Shook Me’. There was also annoyance that Page claimed writing credits for ‘Black Mountain Side’ when it was similar to Brit folkie Bert Jansch’s version of the traditional folk song ‘Black Water Side’.
But audiences lapped up the album, especially after Led Zeppeln began touring behind its release. The shows stretched out some songs to epics, much to the crowd’s delight. ‘Dazed And Confused’ crept up to 20 minutes, incorporating the violin bow and a call’n’response between Plant and Page.
‘Communication Breakdown’ had a lengthy jam midway while ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ clearly was a crowd favourite. Little wonder that Zeppelin became the most bootlegged act in the world. Of the bootlegs from shows around that first album, Live On Blueberry Hill, Twinnight/Fillmore West 1969, Plays Pure Blues and Intimidator are recommended.
The cover of Led Zeppelin I, of an exploding zeppelin, also brought attention to the album. It went Top 10 in America, the UK and Australia (where it was certified double platinum) and worked through Europe and Japan. In financial terms, Page’s £1,782 investment made a heavy return. The record grossed US$7million by the mid-70s.
Since then, Led Zeppelin I has gone through appraisal by critics. They now appreciate how good the arrangements were, the subtle inventiveness of Page’s production, and how the playing complemented the style. In 2003 it ranked #29 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time (and #7 on Uncut’s 2006 list of great debut albums).
It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. It is also remembered for being the first record to be described as “heavy metal.” A US critic used the line “heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ to convey to his readers the atmospherics of the heavy blues and rock fusion of Led Zeppelin I.
By Christie Eliezer