“If I was off the road I was writing songs for the next album. I wasn’t somebody who was sort of producing other bands and making hay while the sun shined. I didn’t want to do that. I was more into seeing how far I could personally push myself. I just wanted to keep coming up with new things that would inspire the others, and they were all the same way. It didn’t stop, especially as far as the studio went.”
It’s the fourth time in 14 months that I’ve sat down with Page, as part of the promotional juggernaut that saw each of Led Zeppelin’s nine core albums released in remastered and expanded versions, complete with companion discs for each that amounted to alternate versions of each album, offering insight into the band’s creative process and more than a few gems that stand proudly alongside the Zeppelin canon proper.
The reissues have also been, not surprisingly, enormously popular, selling by the truckload all over the world to fans both old and new.
When we first spoke, in May of 2014, just prior to the release of the reissues of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III, Page was cagey.
While he was charming and clearly still as enamored with the band that made him a household name as the rest of us, it was obvious he had a few tricks up his sleeve that he was unwilling to share until the time was right.
With all nine releases behind him now, he seems more open, and happy to reflect and talk about the making of the final three Led Zeppelin studio albums, 1976s bluesy Presence, its keyboard driven follow-up In Through the Out Door, from 1979, and 1982’s Coda, released two years after the untimely death of drummer John Bonham.
“It’s on the Internet that it took 18 days to make,” Page begins, referring to the sessions for Presence. “It was fractionally longer. Probably 20 days. I always said it was three weeks. Anyway, we had a plan for that year, an extensive plan which involved touring, and revisiting the idea of filming the band on stage and making sure everything was covered, all the verses were covered, more detail on the instruments and all that, and then to do the album. Then Robert had a car accident in Rhodes (Greece). He was in a cast. It was obvious that we had to really consider what time we had and what we were going to do with it. But Robert was still really keen to make an album. The rest of the band were staying in Malibu. Not in the same house – we had different accommodations – but we had rehearsal rooms set up in LA, and we’d go in there, starting the process of writing. Certainly from my point of view, with Robert in a cast, the writing was being done in a really urgent way. So then we moved over en masse to Munich to record, and by that time there was a feeling of overall defiance to everything, to the situation. Robert was singing his heart out, and everyone was playing incredibly well. Not that they don’t everywhere else, but there was a certain intensity to the Presence sessions.
“There was a very live feeling to the music. Some numbers were made up in the studio. For Your Life is one that I came up with there and then. It was immediately one Robert wanted to do, and again, as I say, he was just singing his heart out. Achilles Last Stand was a number that we had rehearsed in LA. What we’d rehearsed was the running order of the song, the arrangement if you like. And I had all these ideas for the guitar overdubs, so when we got to Musicland (studios in Munich) to record the number – we probably recorded more than one number on that day, two or three songs – afterward the others went out to a club. That night I just set about putting everything that I’d heard, envisaged in my head, I just set about laying it down. It was all done in the space of one night. The guys went off having done the track and when they came in the next day I said, ‘Well, listen to this!’ And there was this great guitar orchestra. They went, ‘Wow!’ It was pretty astonishing. I’m only saying that, not to blow my own trumpet about the guitar overdubs being done in one night, but more as an example of just how intense it was, and how it was almost channeling. It was channeling. And it was channeling at that point from everybody. The drive and focus at the time we were making Presence was just really extreme.”
We break for coffee, but Page is just getting started. He’s keen to discuss 1979s In Through The Out Door, and his memories of the sessions are vivid and finely detailed.
“Should we put it in context?” he asks as we restart our interview. Of course.
“There was talk of doing another album,” Page begins. “I’d managed to get studio time offered to me by the people in ABBA at Polar Studios. They were very generous with it. I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ I knew it was going to be a state-of-the-art studio, because I’d seen all of their outboard equipment, and I was salivating at the idea of getting in there. I’m a producer at heart. So we started to do some rehearsals and John Paul Jones came in with this Yamaha Dream Machine. Stevie Wonder had one of them, and I think the title says it all for a keyboard player. It was really a dream machine. So he’d had it at home and had been working on it and he actually came in with some songs. That’s what he had, some songs. He’d never written complete songs before, so it was like, ‘Oh, wow! He’s really inspired.’ It was cool. I’d done all the writing on Presence, most of the stuff all the way through, actually. So to have John Paul Jones say, ‘Hey, look what I’ve done’, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ Of course, by the fourth album Robert was writing all the lyrics, so he started putting lyrics to these songs, and it seems the perfect extension for the next album to have a focus on the keyboards. Keyboards had been on the first album. Keyboards had been shown all the way through. But this was elevating them. This was John Paul Jones’ moment, really.
“So before we had an album which was really an electric guitar album, Presence, but now we had something that focused on the keyboards. We had had some keyboard things in the past, but this was even more so, with the input of his writing. So I could apply my guitar to that in a different way, for sure. And it carried on the tradition that each album sounded different to the one before. But my playing was very different, especially. It was almost like playing to a track that was already done. Then I’d start putting on the filigree work and the solos. I just thought it would be really interesting to try that approach to it. That’s how a producer has to think, but a song like Fool In the Rain, with all the overdubs on that, that sort of stuff, the solo is interesting on that because it’s got a character to the sound. You know what it is straightaway. You hear a little snapshot, and that’s the solo. That approach was applied in a different way on In the Evening, where there’s this duetting of riffs between keyboard and guitar, and you have this thing that’s almost like an explosion, like a demolition, when that guitar comes in. Again, those sessions pushed us, and that really appealed to me, to try different approaches, and led me to using the string bender on the album, and so forth, just using a totally different set of approaches.”
Page is quick to explain that the creative process was still very band-oriented, when I ask about how complete John Paul Jones’ demos were when they began rehearsing the album, but he’s also happy to give credit where credit is due.
“There were songs that I was involved with as well,” Page explains. “But the fact that John Paul Jones came in and had these sort of – a verse, a chorus, middle eight – a more traditional way of writing songs, it seemed to be a natural extension to have a keyboard focus, because the next album it would have been different again, though of course we didn’t get to another album. And, of course, that made it not as urgent as anything like the one before, or the one before that, and it just sounded totally different.”
When I ask if they ever recorded parts separately or individually, Page seems horrified.
“Oh no, never,” Page says, laughing. “We all worked together on it, recording. Everything we did, really. We all wanted to play together. We’d even have Robert doing a guide vocal. That was really necessary, so there would be a guide vocal, even if there was just something written in a draft. It might have been something to simply mark where the voices were going to come in, but it still created a different approach to how we played in the studio, with us all there together. It meant we were laying back a little bit, then pushing it a little bit harder in the breaks of it, between the vocals. That was very important.”
Page is also keen to explain why In Through The Out Door sounds so different to the other Led Zeppelin albums.
“We got to ABBA’s studio, and I knew it was a state-of-the-art studio, because I had heard recordings that were done there,” Page says, remembering the moment more than 35 years ago clearly. “They sounded quite interesting. I’d seen the outboard equipment, and it looked great. But when I got in there and clapped my hands it was totally dead (sounding). We all remember how studios got during the ’80s – really dead sounding – well, they’d already gotten there! It was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ Because we were really used to hearing the drums breathe and so forth. But it meant we had to have a totally different approach to it. And that was absolutely okay. It was cool because it meant we’d have an album out that was going to sound totally different.”
Finally, 1982s Coda wraps up the Led Zeppelin reissue campaign in grand style. At three discs, it’s triple the length of the original release, and includes “everything worth hearing” that was left in Led Zeppelin’s vaults, according to Page.
Upon its release, fans were split. Many were disappointed at Coda’s hodgepodge nature, with tracks taken from every era of the band’s career to make what Page describes as an album that was required to fulfill contractual obligations after Bonham’s death. But he also is quick to defend it.
“It was a celebration!” Page exclaims. “And the new version with the two companion discs gives you new insight into why we didn’t do certain things, why we did other things, why we explored certain avenues. When it was released it split people – some people loved it and some people really hated it – but John wasn’t with us. So it was an official bootleg, in a way. But when I decided to do it I knew we had something on the back-burner: Bonzo’s Montreux. That became the centerpiece, and gave me a focal point to create the rest of the album from multitrack tapes we had. Of course at the time people probably hoped that there was recorded music beyond the point of In Through the Out Door and outside of Polar Studios. But there wasn’t. So it was put together from the multitracks. That’s what it was. Working from the multitracks. Now, for the companion discs, we’re working from quarter-inch tapes – analog tapes – that were made at the time, right across the whole spectrum of the band’s career, and I think it’s really special and even more of a celebration of everything that Led Zeppelin was and is.”
As we wrap up I try to get Page to talk about his long-rumored solo album. He’s been writing, he says, but has been waiting to begin working in earnest on the project until the Led Zeppelin reissue campaign was completed. Now, with the final batch of reissues hitting stores last week, he says he’ll pick up his acoustic around the house and eventually, soon, head into the studio.
As for what he expects when he does hit the studio?
“I don’t know, because I haven’t recorded for a while,” Page confesses. “I’ll put myself under pressure, that’s for sure. I’d probably – I know this is going to sound very quaint – but I’ll probably want to do it on analog. The whole thing about analog is that you’ve got to make your mind up. It’s the art of creating and capturing a performance. You do get all these sorts of organic flows within the mixing, too. I really want to go in there with that attitude rather than go in there with something where you’ve got so many different options. I don’t want to play it safe. I never did play it safe. You have to be decisive. I’ve always pushed myself right onto the edge of the cliff. I won’t do it any different this time, I expect. That’s just how I do it, really.”