Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues

15th May 2014 | 10:50

Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues

Sitting in Jimmy Page’s Soho hotel suite is disarming enough, but when the Led Zeppelin guitarist, warm and energetic in a way that belies his 70 years, offers to make me a coffee, it’s a moment to savor.

And for anyone who has listened to Led Zeppelin for as long as they can remember, to be able to sit down one-on-one with Page to discuss the band’s storied catalogue and upcoming reissues – the guitarist even searched through bootleg stores for lost gems and sought the council of uber-fans to make sure he didn’t replicate pirate recordings – and the companion discs included in the deluxe versions of the band’s first three albums that hit stores in almost every conceivable format on June 3, it’s an almost indescribable experience.

But here I am, knee-to-knee with the legendary guitarist. He’s decked out in black, with an elegant vest and long scarf over a crisp white shirt. He’s lean and healthy looking, and his eyes sparkle as we talk about his favorite subject: his beloved band. We’ve just listened to an eight-song sampling of the songs that comprise those companion discs, and Page is keen to talk about the process of not only remastering the existing Zeppelin catalogue for the first time in nearly 25 years, but how he came to choose the session outtakes that essentially amount to alternate versions of the existing albums.

Did you approach the albums in chronological order? It’s a huge undertaking.

“It’s a huge undertaking, but you know, I like doing things that nobody else has done, to at least be reflected back on and say, ‘Nobody’s done that before.’ When the Led Zeppelin DVD came out, that was quite honestly a benchmark in the music industry. People from other labels would come up and say, up to that point, ‘No one has done that.’ No one had gotten old footage and had this really, really big surround sound to it – or even really good, hefty mixes. It sort of worked on every level, audible and visual.

“That was a compilation of performance – film. With something like this, there was a slight amount of frustration that we needed to redo the catalogue. Twenty years ago we did it for CD, and of course, it’s analogue tapes that were originally intended for vinyl, so you’ve got all this catching up to do. I almost feel as though you need to reassess how things are being listened to if you’re doing sonic stuff."

Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Led Zeppelin, 1969 (from left): John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones

“Things change – within five years things are changing. So you’ve got to have your material mastered to that format to the way that you see it and hear it; otherwise, they’ll do it for you, and they’ll fuck it up. That’s what happened when Atlantic put out the first set of CDs. They were horrible! Absolutely appalling. And it was insulting because for Led Zeppelin, the criteria of it was always – and still is – quality.

“So here we are – we’re remastering the whole catalogue. Now, I know other people who are always going on about their remastering, but I don’t think it’s to the same degree that we are on this, all in one go. And we’re prepared for anything that’s to come, which is even higher resolution.

“But to make it into something that was quite sexy, if you like – you know, really attractive – because of the amount of live material that had come out, I could see a whole vision. I could see the journey, a beginning and an end. But I knew that if I started it – first of all, you’re convincing the other two, and at what point do you do that? How much time and effort do you even put in? So I thought, ‘You know, I’m just gonna do it.’ But it wasn’t daunting because I knew what the music was. It would have been daunting if I had been taking on somebody else’s catalogue or whatever.

“So in so much as that, I was thinking, ‘Well, what would somebody else do if I weren’t doing this? How would they approach it?’ I’m the one who’s got all the taste because I know the music; I was there more times than the others. I’ve got all of these points of reference, and I know how to counterbalance the Immigrant Song with another version. I know how to do this. I’m in the best position to do this, so let’s do it. Because if you do this, and if you manage to accomplish all of these companion discs, nobody’s done it. It’s unique. And I like that sort of challenge.”

The remarkable thing for me, based on what I’ve heard, is that it’s nothing I’ve heard before. I’ve heard the bootlegs; I know what’s out there.

“I wanted to make sure that what’s on the bootlegs that are out there, as best as possible, wasn’t going to appear on our stuff.”

It wasn’t anything that I recognized.

“No, you wouldn’t. You see how thorough the job is. You’ve got to get it right.”

In trying to find things that nobody’s ever heard, especially on the first album, were there any revelations? You have the live show, but I assume there weren’t any outtakes.

“No, there was just Baby Come On Home, which came out… “

Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Led Zeppelin, 1969 (from left): John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, John Bonham and Jimmy Page

On the box set.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But then you couldn’t really do a companion disc with just one and a second track that was sort of crappy. But I wasn’t going to fold on the first hurdle. It was like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ And I had heard, in a bootleg shop in Japan, the Paris concert [included on the companion disc for Led Zeppelin’s debut album], and I went, ‘What’s this?’ And it had turned out to be a Paris show [from 1969] that had been re-broadcast at around the time that we did the O2 concert in 2007. Apparently – you can’t always believe bootleggers.”

But it sounds amazing.

“Yeah, it’s better than the bootleg. Everything else is analogue. Apart from that, which was the digital files they sent from Europe 1, the French radio station. I think it was called RTL or something to begin with; now it’s called Europe 1. It was gobbled up. [Laughs] But anyway, that’s what they sent and that’s what I had to work with.”

For the second album, and especially on the third album, the alternate versions are really revelatory.

“Aren’t they?”

As the producer who was also in the room, what do you remember? What sparks off when you hear those things?

“I’ve got different memories for each song. That’s the whole thing, and I haven’t sort of laid all of that down. Do you know what I mean? It’s not documented. With the second album, on the first set of recordings, we rehearsed it at my house, the first few numbers. Basically, it’s Whole Lotta Love and What Is And What Should Never Be – we recorded in London, and that’s the sum total of that sort of recording at that time. It was only a couple of days that we would go in there. There were more overdubs on What Is And What Should Never Be. The whole complete package is on there, the solos and everything. The vocal is slightly different from the final one – yeah, it is.

“But Whole Lotta Love, that’s really superb. The way that it was laced in for you to hear it [at the listening session], even that was done with a sort of plan in mind.”

You produced it for me. [Laughs]

“Yeah, yeah. And you can hear Heartbreaker – well, that’s interesting, ‘cause it is different from the final one. You’ve got the guitar in the middle section, which is the original from when we were all playing together; that’s the original break that’s in there. And it’s got a few guitar overdubs. But nonetheless, it’s different from the final one. That’s what you heard. But when it comes to Whole Lotta Love, you see, it’s got you kind of set up. You’re going to hear it and go, ‘Well, it’s different.’ The vocal might be different against the chorus. You know what to expect, but then there’s nothing there; there’s just this voodoo rhythm going.

“That’s how I approached the whole thing. I always did, all the way through, but now it’s going to be apparent is what was going on during those times.”

Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page, 1968

The versions of the songs on Led Zeppelin III are very different.

“Well, here’s the thing: I’ve purposely laced it where it gives you the insight of what was going on in making these albums.”

These aren’t subtle differences, though.

“No, they’re not. Because if you’re going to have a companion to the original track, it’s got to be sufficiently interesting. And also, the album’s got to hold up on its own.”

Did you have any a-ha! moments when you were doing the companion discs? Or did you just really know it all so well?

“No, I just really know it. I really honestly knew it. Even with Keys To The Highway [Ed: a thrilling, previously unheard track featured on the Led Zeppelin III companion disc], it didn’t say ‘Keys To the Highway.’ It just said ‘Blues.’ But the minute I heard it, I went [snaps his fingers], ‘This is Keys To the Highway.’ I’ve got an extraordinary memory recall on this stuff. It’s lucky that I do.

“What we’re going for is the rerelease of the catalogue, but each of the albums has its companion disc, which from Zeppelin II onwards is all rare studio outtakes and various different versions and mixes. It’s the one thing that’s been missing, really, if you think about the releases from Led Zeppelin over the last few years, because it’s all been live stuff. So now we’ve got something that’s from the studio, of course apart from the live show from the companion disc that comes with Zeppelin I, because, as I said before, we didn’t have anything left over really to make a companion disc.”

What did going back to the tapes feel like?

“I had a huge collection of quarter-inch tapes from the sessions, because I was the producer of the band. So, consequently, I had far more tapes than the others – although Robert contributed some things he had as well, because he’d sometimes have tapes of backing tracks to take home to listen to.

“So I just collected all those tapes – some tracks might have only had half a dozen, while others might have had 15 or 16 – and then I’d listen to them and make notes. It was quite a long process, and a lot of memorizing even though I was taking copious notes, but as I said I do have a great memory for this stuff and I quite enjoyed the process."

Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
Jimmy Page talks Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition reissues
"I could see the journey," Page says of the Zeppelin reissues, "a beginning and an end."

“But I had a real vision of where I wanted to take this project. Remastering them wasn’t going to be enough – I mean, everyone is doing that. So I thought, ‘Let’s do something to make this really special.’ So, for instance, the numbers from Led Zeppelin III are substantially different, but it gives you a window – I’ve said this before – it’s like a portal into when each album was recorded, and that’s how it will be right through to Coda.”

It was interesting hearing the first three albums back to back. Each one has a different sound from the others. Can you talk about going from using a Tele with a Supro to your ’59 Les Paul and then to the Harmony-based acoustic sound on Zeppelin III?

“Well, everything was supposed to sound different, all the way through, from the beginning to the end of all the albums. So I tried all different styles of guitar, you know – acoustics, 12-strings. I was always looking for new sounds, but we all were. As you can hear now better than ever. Each one of us was a master at what we did. I mean, just listen to Robert on the companion discs. He was at the top of his game all the time, wasn’t he?”

Absolutely. Do you think these companion discs will have people assessing Led Zeppelin any differently?

“Well, obviously the versions on the original albums, which do sound better than ever, were always going to be the best versions of the songs. But the versions on the companion discs are fascinating, and they have an intrinsic and historical value. I was trying to match the running order on the companion discs, so, for instance, on Zeppelin III, which ends with Hats Off To Harper, I was trying to match up the running order, and the version of Keys To The Highway was on the same reel. We’d gone in the studio one night and – very unlike us – we’d had a ‘blues’ night. And there was just the one take on there, but that also helped shape things.

“But really, we did this so that our catalogue can now be out there in whatever format people are listening to music on, and I’ve also done super-high resolution versions for whatever comes next. And in the process I found I could hear things that I hadn’t heard in years – and certainly not on previous versions. I mean, the best way to hear these would be for you to hear the original master tapes, but I can’t have everyone round to my house to hear them. So I think this is as good as it gets and that the fans will be really happy with these first three albums… and what’s to come.”

To pre-order the Deluxe Editions of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III (Super Deluxe Edition box sets are also available), visit the official Led Zeppelin website.

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