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Jimmy Page: A Life Story

Jimmy Page

A major London radio station last year asked listeners for their favourite track of all time. The record they selected had been released 13 years ago by a band that split four years ago, and had a memorable solo played by a guitarist born 40 years ago.

It was, perhaps unbelievably, "Stairway To Heaven". Whether you rate Jimmy Page next to God or Guildford on a wet weekend, ever wondered what sort of life makes someone that sort of legend? This sort of life...

Early days, sessions. 1944-65

Born James Patrick Page, 9th January 1944, in Heston, Middlesex, just west of London. His father was a personnel officer, his mother a doctor's secretary. The family moved to Epsom, Surrey in about 1952.

Around 1957 Jimmy was given his first guitar by his parents, a Spanish-style but steel-strung acoustic; his first solid electric followed a year later, a Strat copy with the unlikely brand name of Grazioso.

"I took up the guitar at the age of 16. I was especially impressed with all the rock records which seemed to be flooded with guitar sounds. Next I moved on to the blues. I played City style mainly but I did touch on the country variety. I went to classical guitar lessons later on but I was at Art College and couldn't afford to go very often." (Beat Instrumental, July 1967)

Probably in the very late 1950s Jimmy joined his first pro group, Neil Christian and the Crusaders, who seem to have been of the constant-gigging rather than hit-making variety. Page had now taken up an orange Gretsch Chet Atkins. Constant gigging in fact hammered the poor young Page, and a bout of glandular fever finally forced him to quit in 1961. He traded his Gretsch for a Gibson Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" and drifted into the early 1960s London session world.

Jimmy was given some of his first session jobs by independent producers like Mike Leander and Mickie Most, although "Diamonds" by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan seems to have been his first session, however unsuccessful, in December 1962. He explained his involvement thus:

"What went wrong there was that they stuck a row of dots in front of me, which looked like crows on telegraph wires, which was awful. I could have played it so easily, and it was so simple when another chap came and did it – I realised what had to be done, but that wasn't the game. I'd never bothered or tried to read music, because it just didn't come into the pattern of things at that time. So they said I'd better play the acoustic bit, and when the other chap played this simple sort of riff, I gave myself hell for it. It wasn't so much a matter of lost opportunity as a matter of pride – I felt really stupid." ("Guitar Greats", Tobler & Grundy 1983)

Jimmy was still living in Epsom in 1965; in the summer he reckoned to be doing about eight or ten sessions a week. In February he had been offered a permanent job with the Yardbirds, but recommended his friend Jeff Beck instead, who easily landed the gig.

Sessions that year included work with Them and Van Morrison ("Baby Please Don't Go" and "Here Comes The Night"), rather gentler stuff with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Johnny Dankworth, and an oft-quoted involvement with The Who and The Kinks. He might have played the fuzz-feedback break on "I Need You" by the Kinks (B-side of "Set Me Free") – "I think I did that," Page muttered later. As for the Who, Jimmy was certainly in the studio for some tracks – but how much was used? On "I Can't Explain" Jimmy was in there somewhere – again, he thinks.

"OK, I was there, and I think there's a couple of phrases on the B-side, but what the heck? The next one they did on their own and obviously, as it was the same producers, Townshend must have said that he could handle it." ("Guitar Greats", Tobler & Grundy 1983)

Later in the year Page became a sort of A&R man for Andrew Oldham's Immediate record company, producing such obscurities as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Avenue, as well as more substantial artists like Nico ("I'm Not Saying"/"The Last Mile") and Eric Clapton & John Mayall ("I'm Your Witchdoctor"/"Telephone Blues").

Page also released his one and only solo single in 1965, "She Just Satisfies"/"Keep On Moving", on Fontana, playing everything himself except drums, provided by one Bobby Graham. It was not a success.

"I'm not too keen on a follow-up. If the public don't like my first record, I shouldn't think they'll want another." (Beat Instrumental, August 1965)

The short-lived Beck/Page Yardbirds line-up

Yardbirds. 1966-1967

When the second offer came, Page relented and joined the Yardbirds, initially on bass guitar, in June 1966 (Page on bass, then guitar; Keith Relf on vocals and harmonica; Jeff Beck on guitar; Chris Dreja on guitar, then bass; Jim McCarty on drums). This line-up can be seen playing "Stroll On" (a retitled version of the blues classic "Train Kept A-Rolling") in Antonioni's film "Blow Up", for which the Windsor Ricky Tick Club was reconstructed in Elstree studios.

Page continued to use his Les Paul "Black Beauty" in the studio, opting for a Telecaster on stage. In his early days with the Yardbirds he used a Wallace amplifier, given to him by Chris Farlowe, linked to a variety of cabinets.

"I was drying up as a guitarist doing those sessions. I played a lot of rhythm guitar which was very dull and left me no time to practice. Most of the musicians I know think I did the right thing in joining the Yardbirds." (NME, 8th July 1966)

"I just helped the Yardbirds out one night, it's as simple as that. They had a Marquee show on and (departing bassist) Paul Samwell-Smith said that he didn't want to do it. Jeff asked me if I could stand in and I said that I would. I had an hour's practice, that's all. If the Marquee had gone badly I would have been very worried about the future but as it happened I got by OK, and it set me up for future dates.

"Jeff and I have had quite a few work-outs at my place and they've been pretty successful. We've learned a couple of Freddie King solos note by note and when we played them in unison it sounded good. We'll be doing quite a lot of this sort of thing now I've switched to guitar again, playing in unison or harmony." (Beat Instrumental, September 196?)

"There were a lot of harmonies (between Beck and I) that I don't think anyone else had really done, not like we did. The Stones were the only ones who got into two guitars going at the same time, from old Muddy Waters records. But we were into solos rather than a rhythm thing. The point is, you've got to have the parts worked out, and I'd find that I was doing what I was supposed to do, while something totally different would be coming from Jeff. That was all right for the areas of improvisation, but there were other parts where it just did not work." (Guitar Player, July 1977)

Page went to the US for the first time in the summer of 1966 with the Yardbirds; indeed most of the energy of the Beck/Page line-up went into live performances; they only released one single, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago".

Jeff Beck left in November 1966 and the resulting four-piece continued until July 1968; Page also continued with ocasional sessions, as for Chris Farlowe's summer hit, "Out Of Time".

By 1967 Page was using Vox AC30 amplifiers with the four-piece Yardbirds and experimenting with various guitars in addition to his trusty Les Paul and Telecaster, like a Vox electric 12-string. In the live set he'd started to use the Les Paul for about two or three songs, the Telecaster still taking care of the bulk of the set.

"We've had this sort of audio-visual stage act some time. I've read that some other groups have started to use tapes on-stage for sound effects, but we've already done several tours of America with them. I think that audiences like sounds more than anything else. They don't know what a good note or a bad note is. We'll go on stage for a few numbers then we'll bring the sound effects in. All of a sudden the audience will be hearing a chant, then it seems as if a motorbike has come roaring across the stage." (Beat Instrumental, July 1967)

There were three unsuccessful singles released by the Yardbirds in 1967, and their days seemed numbered. The B-side of one of the 45s, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor", is said to feature Page's first experiment with the violin-bow effect, made famous later with Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin. 1968-1980

The Yardbirds ground to a halt, releasing one last single, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine", before splitting up in July 1968, their last gig occurring at Luton Technical College. Relf and McCarthy eventually formed Renaissance in 1969; Page found himself the owner of the name "Yardbirds" and proceded to put together a group called the New Yardbirds. Various players were considered: Terry Reid as vocalist, B J Wilson (from Procol Harum) or Paul Francis as drummer. But Reid apparently recommended an unknown singer called Robert Plant, who in turn suggested a drummer called John Bonham, on tour with Tim Rose at the time. Bassist John Paul Jones completed the new group – he'd met Page at recording sessions.

Rehearsals of the new group began in September 1968 at Jimmy's London flat, and they completed a short Scandinavian tour more or less as an extension of rehearsals. October saw two gigs in Britain, too, as the New Yardbirds, at the Marquee (18th) and Liverpool University (19th).

Also in October, the group recorded tracks for their first LP — in 15 or 30 hours, depending on whom you believe. The total cost is undisputed, however: £1782, including cover artwork. In November the group first appeared in London as Led Zeppelin, at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. They still weren't exactly earning a fortune – for a gig at Bath Pavilion in December 1968, for example, they were paid £75 – but in a year's time that would all change.

Page still played a few choice sessions, such as the strong-arm guitaring on Joe Cocker's massive hit, "With A Little Help From My Friends", and even found time to help out old chum Jeff Beck on sessions for his "Truth" LP. Arguments about originality continued, however.

"On the 'Beck's Bolero' thing I was working with that, the track was done, and then the producer just disappeared. He was never seen again, he simply didn't come back. Napier-Bell, he just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing, and I was playing in the box. And even though he says he wrote it, I wrote it. I'm playing the electric 12-string on it. Beck's doing the slide bits, and I'm basically playing around the chords. The idea was built around Ravel's Bolero. It's got a lot of drama to it, it came off right. It was a good line-up, too, with Keith Moon and everything." (Guitar Player, July 1977)

Led Zeppelin began their assault on the US with their first tour in January 1969, playing both west and east coast venues. Meanwhile, back in Britain, the first LP was eventually released in March 1969. While establishing a hard groove on tracks like "Communication Breakdown", the LP also saw an indication of the lighter acoustic moments which were to feature more strongly on later albums. And Page took other experimental paths, too:

"On 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You', which was pretty original as far as it went, and I don't think anything like that had been done before, I tried putting on a pedal steel guitar, which I'd had but never known the legitimate tuning of. So the only thing that I could really play on it was the sort of instrumental thing that Chuck Berry had done, things like 'Deep Feeling'. I'd heard those and read afterwards that they'd been done on a pedal steel that was sitting in the studio. The full extent of my knowledge on pedal steel was finding a tuning that emulated those slow blues instrumentals which Chuck Berry did; but anyhow, out it came. It was OK on 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You', but on 'Your Time Is Gonna Come', the intonation was extremely suspect, and that one tried to get a bit too ambitious." (Guitar Greats, Tobler & Grundy 1983)

As success grew from constant hard work in the US – $37,000 from one Los Angeles gig in summer '69 – so crowds at home began to grow, with the group's biggest UK audience so far of 12,000 at the Bath Festival in June 1969.

The second LP was started in the summer too, at Olympic in London, A&R studios in New York, and, it seems, virtually any room with a tape machine in it that happened to coincide with the group's north American treks. The album, "Led Zeppelin II", was released later in the year.

Meanwhile, Page continued to strum and pick a Telecaster, giving his Les Paul a well-earned if short-lived rest. But the Gibson would soon return to favour.

"I use a light string, Ernie Ball Super Slinky. I usually sort of swap around on the gauges. You know, they have these custom gauge things and I usually have it a bit heavier around the third, and sometimes a bit lighter. It depends what sort of mood you're in." (Guitar Player, June 1969)

"When I use a violin bow on guitar it's not just a gimmick as people think, it's because some great sounds come out. You can employ legitimate bowing techniques and gain new scope and depth. The only drawback is that a guitar has a flat neck, as opposed to a violin's curved neck, which is a bit limiting." (Melody Maker, 28th February 1970)

In February 1970, Page was "editing" tracks for the third LP; in June work continued at the group's Hampshire hideaway, Headley Grange. The LP was completed while on tour for the sixth time in the US, primarily at Ardent studio in Memphis. The minimum haul per date in the States was now $25,000, and at Madison Square Gardens in September they played their first gig to gross more than $100,000. Clearly, this was a very material form of success.

The third LP was released in October 1970; work on the fourth began in December at Island studio in London. Page's own favourite from "Led Zeppelin III" was "Gallows Pole", which he described as a traditional song with its roots in the 12-string blues of Leadbelly. He first came across the piece played by a Folkways guitarist called Fred Gerlac.

"We have completely rearranged 'Gallows Pole' and changed the verse. Robert wrote a set of new lyrics. That's John Paul Jones on mandolin and bass, and I'm playing the banjo, six-string acoustic, 12-string, and electric guitar." (Melody Maker, 24th October 1970)

Early 1971 saw the band playing Ireland as the Troubles brewed, but towards the end of the year they earned a well-deserved layoff, exhausted as they were after extensive touring in Japan (their first) and yet more in the US. But their touring also took in an audience of 9000 at Wembley's Empire Pool, and the exceptional "Led Zeppelin IV" LP was released in November 1971 with the anthemic "Stairway To Heaven" as its highlight.

"I was using the Supro amp for the first album, and still do. The 'Stairway To Heaven' solo was done when I pulled out the Telecaster, which I hadn't used for a long time, plugged it into the Supro, and away it went again. That's a different sound entirely from any of the first album, it was a good, versatile set-up." (Guitar Player, July 19771

"At the time, there were quite a few guitars overlaid on 'Stairway', and I must admit I thought – I knew – it was going to be difficult to do it on stage, but we had to do it, we really wanted to do it, and I got a double-necked guitar (six-string and 12-string) to approach it." (Guitar Greats, Tobler & Grundy 1983)

Page was by now relying almost totally on a few late 1950s Les Pauls for his general electric requirements, and came to favour Marshall amps – 100 tops modified with KT88 valves, and varied 4 x 12 cabinets – for his onstage backline power. By early 1972 he'd established a sizeable home studio where he spent any time he could grab between the band's mammoth touring schedules.

By November 1972 the group had completed the fifth LP, "Houses Of The Holy", which was released the following March. Page expanded his musical vocabulary by adding an ARP Odyssey synthesiser to his equipment for stage work – a 2500 model had already sat in the home studio for a year. Much of his work in his studio in 1973 was aimed at a soundtrack for a proposed (but never released) Kenneth Anger film called "Lucifer Rising".

In 1974 came the announcement of LZ's own record label, Swan Song, followed by concentrated work on a film about the group (eventually to become the 1976 film, "The Song Remains The Same") and recording for the sixth LP, "Physical Graffiti", released in March 1975. More tours and recording followed, of course – the next LP, "Presence" (1976), was recorded in a mere 18 days at Musicland Studio in Munich, and the soundtrack to "The Song Remains The Same" followed in October.

"It was really fast working on 'Presence', and I did all the guitar overdubs on that LP in one night... I didn't think I'd be able to do it in one night; I thought I'd have to do it in the course of three different nights to get the individual sections. But I was so into it that my mind was working right for a change. It sort of crystallised and everything was just pouring out. I was very happy with the guitar on that whole album as far as the maturity of the playing goes."

"'The Song Remains The Same' wasn't the best concert playing-wise at all, but it was the only one with celluloid footage, so there it was. It was all right; it was just one as-it-is performance. It wasn't one of those real magic nights, but then again it wasn't a terrible night. So, for all its mistakes and everything else, it's a very honest filmtrack. Rather than just trailing around through a tour with a recording mobile truck waiting for a magic night, it was just, 'There you are, take it or leave it.'" (Guitar Player, July 1977)

Page's equipment for the 1976 tours included three Les Pauls, his Gibson doubleneck, a Danelectro (tuned BADGAD for solo stage work), a Fender mandolin, a Strat, a Martin (possibly D18) acoustic, four Marshall 100s, four 4 x 12 cabs, and two Echoplex tape-echo units.

By the middle of 1977 Jimmy still considered his Les Pauls and his double-neck as essential road instruments, but also warmed to a Telecaster with a special Parsons/White B-bender and, in the studio, a Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic, given to him by Rolling Stone Ron Wood.

In January Page and Plant had been to The Roxy to see The Damned; later in the year they saw an $800,000 gate at Pontiac Silverdome (apparently in America somewhere). Page had also come across an interesting new guitar synthesiser, the original Roland 500 set-up.

"There are three guitar synthesisers available at the moment, and I guess you know there is this problem with getting polyphonic sound. Well, the other two only play one note at a time and you can get harmonies with the oscillators, but this one plays chords, it's just a whole new world. I haven't used it on stage yet, but we were trying to get it together just before the end of the American tour. It's definitely something to use on stage." (Melody Maker, 5th November 1977)

Things were definitely winding down on the Zeppelin front by 1978: some rehearsals took place in May and November, and three weeks at Abba's Polar studio in Stockholm produced the "In Through The Out Door" LP, released in August 1979 just after some big gigs at Knebworth in Hertfordshire with a 100,000 watt PA and 600,000 watt lighting rig.

The group essentially died with John Bonham in September 1980, although they'd been rehearsing that month for a US tour in October. A final rag-bag LP appeared in 1982, called "Coda".

Meanwhile, Page had recorded his soundtrack music for Michael Winner's film "Death Wish II", using keyboard and guitar synthesisers as his principal instrumentation (although Dave Lawson played the trickier keyboard parts).

"I had eight weeks to do 45 minutes of music – that's collectively. The longest section was two-and-a-half minutes, and most of the bits were 17 seconds or 45 seconds. I worked from videocassettes with timing on them, and realised that whatever I'd done before with films, I knew nothing whatsoever about how to really do it properly... I wrote everything from scratch that way, apart from one riff that I'd done before – the rest of it was off the cuff, and it was an absolutely incredible exercise in discipline, which was terrifying. But I just about made the deadline." (Guitar Greats, Tobler & Grundy 1983)

In January 1984 Jimmy celebrated his 40th birthday; 40 was an age he'd once told "Rolling Stone" magazine that he was unlikely to reach. Quite what he's up to now, nobody seems sure. The only recent evidence suggests that it might involve the new Roland 700 guitar synth and a lot of cigarette ash. The usual "new band and tour, definitely this year" is tipped by sources close to Page.

"We got most of our influences from the blues players and the early rock players. Well, the musicians that are coming through now have got such a great textbook to take it all from that you just know and feel that there's going to be some new and great music coming up." (Melody Maker, 20th March 1976)

Other sources: "Yardbirds" Platt/Dreja/McCarty (Sidgwick & Jackson); "Led Zeppelin" Kendall (Omnibus).

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Jimmy Page




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