In the days when guitar gods ruled the Earth, Jimmy Page commanded his own celestial body. As the lead guitarist in the Yardbirds, he had inherited the mantle once worn by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. But his ambition was ultimately grander, his focus more keen and determined.
After the Yardbirds went their separate ways, Page founded, fronted and produced the New Yardbirds — soon to be known as Led Zeppelin — which managed to eclipse the rock royalty of the day right out of the gate, even if the quartet, including Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, didn’t win over the rock cognoscenti. It wasn’t until 1975, when they were effectively in decline, that Zeppelin made the cover of Rolling Stone, which trashed their first two LPs. And yet the group’s impact on the medium, not to mention its enormous legacy, cannot be overemphasized.
Those heady days are the focus of “Jimmy Page” (Genesis), a kind of dream scrapbook for Page fanatics, chock-full of photos from his choirboy days through his extensive session work in the ’60s, his meteoric rise with Led Zeppelin and beyond.
Anybody interested in what girl Page was seeing or what bad habits he was falling into won’t find them here — for good or bad. But within the sparse entries are true nuggets, such as the fact that the first Led Zeppelin album took all of 30 hours to record “with vision, improvisation, attitude and a bulletproof blueprint.” Page also writes about recording the group’s nameless fourth album at an English country manor in Headley, Hampshire, “to lock in and condense the creative energy.”
There was a kind of duality to each band member that could devolve into Jekyll and Hyde at times. Bonham, whose appetite for destruction rivaled that of another hard-partying rock drummer, Keith Moon, could be a cuddly teddy bear one minute, a raging bull the next. Page, too, exhibited light and dark sides. But his facility on guitar, and as a producer, was unparalleled, even when Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend and Beck were at their height. When asked what set Zeppelin apart, Page cuts to the chase.
“Some of these other musicians were the superstar players,” says the 70-year-old Page, who is promoting the 507-page book, which retails for $60. “Take the Jimi Hendrix Experience for example; they were really good musicians. But in Led Zeppelin, it’s quite healthy to say that everyone was a musical equal. You heard this counterpoint that was so sympathetic to the overall that they played as a band, and it’s quite magical. You’re not just listening to one person, although you could listen to any single one of the entities and it’s a remarkable textbook.”
Christened with the cryptic “ZoSo” emblem that somehow conjures the guitarist’s fascination with Celtic myth and the occult, “Jimmy Page” is a less lavish but updated edition of a book that initially sold out on the day of its publication in 2010. The penultimate image of Page features the guitarist receiving an honorary doctorate for music at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in May.
The book, due to be released Oct. 14, is coming out at a time when deluxe editions of the first five albums in Zeppelin’s catalog are being released — and hailed as models of what remastered, bonus-track editions of classic albums should be.
The reissues start out with the kind of big bang Bonham was known for as a drummer, with an electrifying live set from the Olympia in Paris circa 1969 accompanying that epochal first album.
For those whose memories need to be jogged — or who need an introduction — the first two albums by Led Zeppelin were among the top five bestsellers of 1969, the year of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and the Stones’ “Let It Bleed.” Led Zeppelin pioneered stadium rock, helped guide listeners away from Top 40 pop to album-oriented rock, presaged metal mania and epitomized bloated superstar excess.
The group touted a mystique that seemed almost untouchable, aided and abetted by their burly manager Peter Grant, who largely kept them away from the press. For millions of teenage boys, they represented the bacchanalian lifestyle of their dreams, and for groupies, the ultimate conquest. There was something of the forbidden fruit in their appeal, from the X-rated lyrics of “The Lemon Song” to the pre-pubescent nudes who grace the cover of “Houses of the Holy.”
Those weaned on iTunes downloads and guileless file-sharing can’t imagine the kind of riches mined by Zeppelin in their heyday. In the early ’70s, their savvy lawyer, Steve Weiss, negotiated a 90/10 split with concert promoters when 60/40 was the norm.
In author Barney Hoskyns’ addictive “Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band,” Mike Appleton, producer of the BBC2’s “Old Grey Whistle Test,” described the period as a time when “there was so much money sloshing around the record business that people referred to Dom Perignon as ‘rock ’n’ roll mouthwash.’ ”
Page paid his dues on his way to becoming one of the top guitar players in rock history, despite the temptations tossed in his path like so much confetti.
“When Hendrix first came to London, and when Jeff was in the Yardbirds and Eric was (in) Cream, I was doing studio work,” Page tells Variety. “I actually had ended up in the academic side of things, and reading music and producing, too. But I was learning my trade, if you like. When I had a chance, I started to go for the more abstract.”
He speaks in an almost impish voice that doesn’t quite match the image of the man onstage with the pursed lips and the double-neck guitar swagger. One can imagine Russell Brand nailing the inflections, if not the unruly bramble of espresso-colored locks. Like Keith Richards, another prolific musician who fought his demons and won, Page is a survivor. In the 2009 documentary “It Might Get Loud,” he easily projects the most gravitas next to co-subjects Jack White and U2’s the Edge. As he plays air guitar to Link Ray’s “Rumble” in the film, you get the sense that music courses through his veins, keeping him forever young.
“I know you’ll enjoy it,” Page assures his interviewer, encapsulating book, remastered albums and memories of the era in one sweep. “It’s just going to put a smile on everyone’s faces.”