By Brian Ives
When we last spoke to Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page in May of this year, the mercurial guitarist was preparing for the release of the reissues of Zep’s first three albums: 1969’s Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II and 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. Those were the albums that put the band on the map (I), established them as one of the loudest and best rock bands in the world (II), and then showed that they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed, and turned down the volume and create beautiful acoustic music (III).
This time when we spoke to Page, the subjects were 1971’s untitled fourth album (known as Led Zeppelin IV) and 1973’s Houses of the Holy. Zeppelin IV was where they combined their acoustic and electric sides to great effect. It’s the third-best selling album in U.S. history and houses, not coincidentally, “Stairway to Heaven,” the song which has probably been played on classic rock radio more than any other. But beyond that, rock fans have memorized most of the LP, which also includes “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog” and “Going to California.”
On the follow-up, Houses of the Holy, all bets were off, with the band incorporating funk and reggae and also expanding on the epic feel of “Stairway” on songs like “No Quarter” and “The Rain Song.”
As always, Page speaks of Zeppelin’s output with absolute confidence, saying of their songs “They’re all pretty special,” referring to “Stairway to Heaven” as “groundbreaking,” but is happy to heap praise on his onetime bandmate Robert Plant‘s vocals on “The Crunge,” and give props to James Brown for inspiring the song.
While remaining as mysterious as you’d expect him to, he also addressed what his next move may be. And soon after that, our all-too-short phone conversation came to and end.
Radio.com: You’ve spent a lot of time working on Led Zeppelin projects in the past few years. Do you have a favorite Zeppelin album?
Jimmy Page: I guess I’ve got to say the first album is the favorite, isn’t it? Because without the first album, all the others wouldn’t have come. It’s a tricky question for me, all of the songs have all got their own particular character. Which was all very intentional, that they would be different, sound different, be performed differently. Consequently, when you had an album, a collection of songs at any given point in time, they’re all pretty special.
Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is the third best-selling record in U.S. history, having sold over 23 million copies. Does it surprise you that that’s the one that became the biggest hit?
I don’t really know anything about sales figures, to be honest with you. I can tell you what the work ethic was for Led Zeppelin IV. There was a remote country house, that actually had a few bands that rehearsed there, but not recorded. It was called Headley Grange. I wanted to ask the band to make a commitment to stay at this house, and not only to rehearse the album there, but also record it. We had a mobile truck to do that. I wanted everyone to commit to go to Headley Grange, eat there, sleep there, make music there and record there. It was a really concentrated effort. It was 1971, the band had been going for a few years at that point. The work ethic really shows. The fourth album encapsulated some remarkable music that was really groundbreaking. We were able to have something like “When the Levee Breaks,” which, sonically, was very menacing. But then you had the flip side: something like “Going to California,” which is really intimate. And all of this was able to be achieved at this remote house.
Did it surprise you that “Stairway to Heaven” became the song that got the most radio play?
Well at the time, I knew that that was really groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking as far as starting off with this really fragile guitar, then there’s this area where it really starts to unravel, and then as it continues, there’s more that gets exposed, and more layers, more textures and more colors. The intensity of the song kept building, into this momentum. By the time the song finishes, it’s at a totally different tempo than how it opened. It was tricky to do. I knew it was really good, but I wasn’t sure… I didn’t expect it to be the real standout track from the first four albums. I wouldn’t have thought that was going to happen.
The fourth album and Houses of the Holy have had a lot of riffs that have been sampled often. When the Beastie Boys put out Licensed to Ill, it referenced those two albums a lot. What did you think of it when you first heard artists sampling your music?
Well, I guess I felt it was a compliment. Without being specific. I know the Beastie Boys used quite a bit of our stuff, really, didn’t they? I can tell you one thing, to go back to “Whole Lotta Love.” I’ve seen the riff of that song show up in mashups on YouTube, that riff got people to the point where they were inspired to do their own thing, that’s really cool. I’m not going to complain about that. But the Beastie Boys, that was almost as long ago as Led Zeppelin!
Going through the bonus tracks…
They’re not “bonus tracks!” The idea of the companion volumes is to get away from the idea of “bonus tracks.” And to have something that is actually in the reflection of, or the shadow of, the original album. You get running orders that are very similar to the original album. So it’s nothing like a “bonus” thing at all. As far as something like “Stairway” goes, the whole perspective of the mix is quite different.