Interviews by Roger Scott with Jimmy Page recorded 16 February, 1989 and March 9, 1989
The familiar misconception that Led Zeppelin's music was merely prototype heavy metal, derives more from the lumpen pyrotechnics of their legions of imitators than from the idiosyncratic mix of power and subtlety, electric and acoustic instruments, and rock, blues and folk styles that the group had blueprinted on their debut in 1968 and evolved to near perfection on this, their untitled fourth album.
Did the reaction to your third album hurt you?
At the time we thought we'd done a really good album. We knew we had. We knew there was some really good material on it. It got slammed because they said we'd started to play acoustic instruments because Crosby, Stills and Nash had just come through, so they could relate it to acoustic instruments, and because this was heavily acoustically featured, that was it, we were ripping off Crosby, Stills and Nash. Unfortunately they didn't realise that there was so much acoustic guitar on the first album that that made a whole nonsense of it.
And Led Zeppelin II was the classic rock album and I know the record company expected a follow-up to 'Whole Lotta Love', which obviously wasn't on III. However, we always stuck to how we were shaping at the time anyway. We never really made a point of trying to emulate something that we'd done before.
So consequently this whole thing came out about 'Led Zeppelin are a hype, blah, blah, blah,' and it came to the point where we thought, 'Well, on this next album, we'll make it an untitled album with no information on it whatsoever,' virtually saying, 'if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it for the name.
As you know, it's four symbols. Originally there was going to be nothing on it, then we said we'd have one symbol, and then we thought, 'Let's be democratic about it amid all choose our own.' So there were four symbols for the four guys.
You withdrew from the media after III, didn't you? As if you were saying, 'Well, if you can't accept what we're doing, we're not going to talk to you.'
Well, we were always getting slammed anyway. It wasn't as though it was even really worth doing press, because you were only getting slamumed in the reviews. It's a paradox really: the one thing that was going on in the press, and then the thing that was actually happening with the people that were listening to us and the following that we had.
So how did this album start?
Fleetwood Mac, I think, suggested this place, Headley Grange, in Hampshire for rehearsals - I think they may even have rehearsed there at some tinme - and we decided to go in there with a recording truck. We used the Rolling Stones' mobile. And that was the begining of the Headley period, because there was some stuff on the following albums - Houses Of The Holy and also Physical Graffiti - that was done there as well. We went back there a few times.
What was Headley Grange?
Apparently, it was a Victorian workhouse at one time. That's what I was told, anyway. It was a three-storey house with a huge open hallway with a staircase going up, amid that's where we got the classic drum sound for 'When The Levee Breaks'. I loved it. It was a pretty austere place, actually. I loved the atmosphere of it, I really did, personally. I think the others got a bit spooked out by it, especially the more times we went back there. I think the last time we went there, we had the truck there still, but everyone wanted to stay in a hotel (LAUGHS) and not stay at Headley, but I was quite happy to stay there.
When you went there, did you have the songs? Or did you write there?
A bit of each. I had quite a few bits and pieces, well, when I say bits and pieces, I mean whole constructions. For instance, 'Stairway', I had that tucked away in my cassettes. But there were numbers that came out there and then.
Whenever we got together, from about the third, fourth, fifth album, we would always say, 'What've you got?' And it was to see if Jonesy had anything, to be honest, because Robert and I were doing all of the writing really up to that point. Unless it was a number which was like a blues number, 'When The Levee Breaks' for instance, and then we'd make a split between the four of us. We were always trying to encourage him to come up with bits and pieces, so to speak. because that's usually what they were, he never came up with a complete song really until In Through The Out Door, but he had this great riff with 'Black Dog', and I added some sections as well.
And then we had this idea, actually I'll totally own up. I had this idea. Do you remember 'Oh Well' (by Fleetwood Mac)? Where you get the breaks with the vocal? That's it. I've finally owned up (LAUGHS) - because no one else will in this band. But that was the idea.
The main track was done at Headley, and to me the most important part of everything was to have a really good bass and drum sound, because I knew after that I'd be working on the guitars anyway, and I did all the guitar overdubs on this at Island, and, in fact, though they don't sound it, they're direct injection. They were put through two limiters, one playing against the other, so they just offset this distortion. It's quite a good sound actually. I remember tryimig to get that same effect again, but they must have just been two that worked that way, because these things don't always work the same when you try and do them again.
How many overdubs would you have done on a track like that?
The main riff would be double-tracked, and then when it comes to the 'Hey baby, pretty baby' bits, I think there's three there, because there's the underlying riff part and then there's a harmony to that as well on the latter part, so at least three, maybe even four there, and then of course there's the solo at the end, which is over the same set of riffs. So you could say probably about five guitars on that. And when you start talking about thigs like 'Stairway', that's not too many really. (LAUGHS)
What's the noise at the start of the track?
Oh. the jing-jing-jing-jing-jing - that's the guitars warming up. (LAUGHS) An engine. The guitar army waking up. (LAUGHS) Rise and shine.
Did you record a lot of the album live?
Yes, absolutely, that was the whole point. We had the drums in the hall sometimes, and sometimes they were in the sitting room with the fire. (LAUGHS) And when Bonzo was out in the hall, there'd be Jonesy and I out there with earphones, and the two sets of amplifiers would be in other rooms, in cupboards and things. Yeah, (LAUGHS) it's a very odd way of recording, but it certainly worked.
Why was it vital for you to do it live, when you had this multi-track facility?
That's the way we were. We were a live band. Obviously there were numerous overdubs, as you can tell, but when you've got this whole live creative process going on, that's how things like, for instance, 'Rock And Roll', would come out, because you're constantly going for it.
We'd be doing things, just playing around, doing this, that and the other, and suddenly - for instance, 'Misty Mountain Hop' - I remember coming up with the opening part of that, and then we were off into that, and Jonesy put the chords in for the chorus bit, and that would shape up. We used to work pretty fast, you know. It was pretty quick.
I think we might have been attempting 'Four Sticks', and it wasn't actually happening that day, and I remember Bonzo started this drum intro to 'Keep A Knockin'' by Little Richard. He just did that and I just played a riff automatically, and that was 'Rock And Roll'. And I think we got through the whole of the 12 bar, in other words the first verse, and said, 'Wait a minute, this is great. Forget 'Four Sticks', let's work on this.' And things would come out like that. That's one particular one that did, on the spot, literally on the spot.
How many takes would you have done on something like that?
I shouldn't think that was many takes. I should think that was maybe three or four takes. Obviously some of the other ones took a lot longer. For instance, 'Four Sticks'. We tried that on numerous occasions and it didn't come off until the day that . . . Bonzo was just playing with two sticks on it, and we tried all different things, and then one day he picked up two sets of sticks, and we did it. And that was two takes, but that was because probably it was physically impossible for him to do another. (LAUGHS) But then it suddenly happened. That was really great and that was done at Island.
The story is that you just picked up a mandolin one night and started playing it.
It was Jonesy's mandolin. We were living in the house, and some would go to bed, and I used to sit up and play quite a bit, and I picked it up and it just came out. I'd never played one before, the tuning's totally different, but there was something about that period. It was a time of great inspiration. And anyway, that came out.
Sandy Denny's singing on there.
Yes, that was an idea of Robert's. Robert had this idea to bring in Sandy Denny, and I thought that it really worked well.
Was that the only time you used anyone else on a track?
Well, there was a tabla player on the first album - Viram Jasani, I believe his name was - on 'Black Mountain Side', but, yes, I think that's it, apart from, of course, 'Kashmir', where we had strings and horns, as well as a mellotron. But we could really tackle anything between the four of us, and Jonesy was such a multi-inustrumentalist. For instance, he's doing the recorder part at the beginning of 'Stairway'. He's a brilliant musician. That was his idea to have recorders on the intro to 'Stairway'.
Did you ever say to Robert, like on 'The Battle Of Evermore', 'What's that about? What are we trying to say here?'
Oh, on certain occasions, yeah, if it wasn't self-evident, but he was doing brilliantly lyric-wise. I mean, 'Stairway' is an apex.
On the first album I was writing quite a few lyrics, and I must admit they were abysmal. (LAUGHS) In fact, the last song that 1 actually wrote all the words for was 'Tangerine', which was on the thiird album. And on the second album Robert had written 'Thank You', which he wanted to write as a tribute to his wife, and his lyrics were getting better and better and better, which was perfect for me, because I really wanted to concentrate more on the music and on the constructions.
He used to have a lyric book, and it got to the point where he was really getting to be a damn fine lyricist, and he was making notes and writing out lyrics, and if I had one of my home demo tapes, he'd go through his book and find that maybe something would be in character with the vibe of the music that was there, and then he'd make alterations. I'm not quite sure how many on the fourth album were like that, because, for instance, 'Stairway' was just a purely inspirational thing on his behalf.
'Stairway' was routined at Headley, and Robert arrived down quite late that day when I'd actually got all the musical part together from beginning to end. And he was listening to it, sitting on a stool and jotting away, and then suddenly he came out with all these lyrics. It must have been a good 70 or 80 per cent of the actual lyrics that came out there and then that particular day, and he went away and thought about a couple of other verses. But we actually recorded it at Island Studios, because I knew it was going to be a complex thing to record, and we needed a full studio facility for it really.
I had the whole construction of that prior to going in, on cassettes, I'd been working on this thing for quite some time. It was all sections that I'd married together, but the whole idea was to get this huge crescendo, starting with something that was very intimate, and bringing the power of Bonzo's drums in at a later point, so it gave it an extra kick. Musically, that was the concept, anyway. Plus it breaks all the rules as well, because it's meant to speed up, which is something you don't get on records today, because they've all got click tracks to keep them absolutely rigid.
Now that everyone's familiar with it, this may not make a lot of sense, but it was quite a complicated song to get across to everybody, and so it took its time. For instance, one of the bits that was difficult for Bonzo at the the was the 12-string fanfare into the guitar solo, so we were going over it and over it from beginning to end quite a few times, and that's when, as I say, Robert was sitting there listening. And he must have got inspiration, because he was writing these lyrics, and then he said, 'I think I've got some things for it.' And we had an old Revox that was actually recording at the time, and when we heard it back, I remember there was a good 70 or 80 per cent of the final lyrics there.
You were the producer, so when you'd done the session, everyone else went home and you sat there and mixed it and fixed it?
Well, the first thing I'd do usually was put quite a few guitars on it to build up the basic track, and then Robert would come in and do the final vocals, if the guide ones weren't right or whatever, and then I'd usually put on the final guitar solos, and then it would be ready for mixing.
When you'd finished 'Stairway', when you'd done all the overdubs and mixed it, and you sat back and listened to it, was it 100 per cent as you wanted it to be?
I suppose everything can always be better in retrospect, but at the the I was pretty happy with what we'd done, because it had such a great atmosphere about it. I had a few attempts at mixing it, mind you. I must admit the mixing took a little longer than the initial recording.
What sort of pressure was there to put 'Stairway' out as a single?
(LAUGHS) Oh dear me, I guess they must have tried everything to convince us that it should come out as a single, but we just said no. It would just destroy the whole feel of the album to do that. We just didn't want to do it.
We never wanted to put any singles out any way. Period. Probably because it was more of an album-oriented market in those days, and so we could get away with it. There were some promotional ones obviously, that went out to radio stations where they didn't have the FM play, which was the album play, just to let people know that there was something new out by the band. But I've got to tell you that they were constantly going on about it, and it was an emphatic 'No'.
But they did manage to do something which was very, very sneaky. I suddenly started to see these EPs appearing - The Acoustic Side Of Zeppelin - and there it was, there was 'Stairway' and, I think, 'Going To California', and 'Battle Of Evermore' possibly as well. I can't remember the other two tracks, because I just saw 'Stairway' and I created merry hell over it. They'd slipped it out in Australia. (LAUGHS) They'd gone to the other side of the world to do it.
Did you have all your guitars at Headley Grange? Or was there one that you favoured on this album?
I didn't have many guitars at that point. For example, everyone knows me for the double-neck, but in fact, I had to get the double-neck to handle 'Stairway', because even though I played six-string electric and 12-string on it, I couldn't do it on one or the other, and the double-neck was the only possible way of being able to handle it. So, in fact, the double-neck came after 'Stairway', even though a lot of people might have thought I'd had it before. Let's see, I had the Fender Telecaster, the old favourite Les Paul, a Gibson Firebird, a Stratocaster, and a couple of acoustics.
As I say, a guitar riff started that one off, and we were probably banging away at just that riff for a while, and then I think Jonesy put in the chord change for the 'Going to pack my bags for the Misty Mountains' part. Yes, I think a lot of that would have been made up at Headley and recorded there.
As I say, I couldn't get that to work at all. We tried to record it a few times and I just didn't know what was wrong, and I still wouldn't have known what it was, we probably would've kicked the track out, but then Bonzo - (LAUGHS) and I'm not going to repeat the language of what he said at the time - just picked up the four sticks and away we went. And that was it. So purely because of that, the whole thing changed really.
It was supposed to be really abstract - and I think it is too. (LAUGHS) Lyrically as well, we were tryinng to get something that was really abstract.
That was another late night guitar twiddle (LAUGHS) at Headley - the structure of it anyway. That was a good thing about staying at the place, and you didn't have anything like a snooker table. There were no recreational pursuits at all so it was really good for discipline and getting on with the job in hand. I suppose that's why a lot of these things, for instance, 'Going To California' - my end of it anyway - and 'Battle Of Evermore' came out.
Obviously then we got together, and it was just all round the fire, I think. It was Jonesy on the mandolin, and myself, and Robert singing away.
We went over to mix it at Sunset Sound - this is Andy Johns and myself, and Peter Grant came over as well - and on 'Going To California' you've got, 'The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake.' Well, curiously enough, when we landed - this is absolutely true - there was a slight earthquake. It wasn't slight, actually, it was quite big, because it cracked one of the dams there, I believe, in San Diego. And in the hotel room before going to the studio, I could feel the bed shake, and I thought, 'Well, I never, here we go.' (LAUGHS) I must admit, the full weight of this didn't occur to me till we actually came to mix the track, because I had so many other things on my mind. But then I thought, 'Well, I never.' So that was pretty ironic, but it's a fact.
Having worked in the studios so long as a session player, I'd been on so many sessions where the drummer was stuck in a little booth and he'd be hitting the drums for all he was worth and it would just sound as thoumgh he was hitting a cardboard box. I was just hired in to play guitar, but I knew that drums would have to breathe to get a proper soumud and have some ambience, and so consequently we were working on the ambience of the instruments all the way through our albums.
And I guess this album is the high point of it, because you've got something like 'When The Levee Breaks', which was Bonzo in this hall with staircases going up, and on the second landing was a stereo mike, and that's all there was. But that whole drum sound and all this ambience is now captured digitally on machines. And I think we set a trend with all of this. But doing it that way it was far more fun and spontaneous.
I wanted to make this song sound as ominous as possible, and as each new verse comes, there's something that happens each time. For instance, obviously after the intro you've got the vocal, but then the sound of the vocal will change on the next verse with slight phasing to it, and then by the time it came to the harp instrumentals, for instance, they were all done with backwards echo on them. Only a subtle thing may be there, but there's something new each time in every verse.
Then at the end of it, where we've got the whole works going on on this fade which doesn't actually fade, because we finish it, the whole effect starts to spiral, all the instruments are now spiralling with the voice remaining constant in the middle. It only really comes out on headphones, but you hear everything turning right round. This was very difficult to do in those days, I can assure you, with the mixinng.
You knew how it was going to sound before you started recording it?
I knew how it was going to be constructed and, as I say, I wanted to get an extremely ominous atmosphere to it, because the whole thing about a lot of the Zeppelin music is that it's so atmospheric. I think that's one of the things that has helped the longevity of it.
We had been trying it before, but it was at this point, I believe, that Bonzo's new druim kit appeared. It was ordered, and it was set up in the hall, so you had this beautiful space, and the sound was so phenonuenal, that that was going to be the drum sound for 'Levee'.
The drum sound actually fired it. As soon as they were set up, that's when we went for it, and that's when it worked. We'd made a coumple of attempts at it before, when it just didn't feel right, and it must have been in the hands of the gods really. They were saying, 'Wait until the drum kit arrives and everything's going to be fine!'
What about the writing of it? How did Memphis Minnie come to get a credit?
I came up with the guitar riff, but I'm not sure what came first here, the chicken or the egg, whether we started this as a riff and Robert said, 'I know a good one for thus - 'When The Levee Breaks',' or he just sang along. I don't remember actually, I don't remember. Shame. (LAUGHS) Disgrace.
But at the end of the day, that's what it became, and it was written by Memphis Minnie originally. Robert was inspired by the Memphis Minnie version, so we gave her a credit on it. Of course, if you heard the original Memphis Minnie version of this, you probably wouldn't recognise the two together.
Was the album's running order important?
Zeppelin was always a band of light and shade. You can see that on the first album. and in so much as the numbers themselves had light and shade to them, the runnning order, of course, was an extension of that. So it was always important how we had our running order.
Was it always in your mind that 'When The Levee Breaks' would be the last track?
Yes, because of the spiral ending on it. It's obviously something that had to be a last track. Another thing with having acoustic tracks is the fact that in those days, when you cut discs, (LAUGHS) it allowed you to employ more volume on the rock and roll tracks when you were mastering them.
In fact, I remember when we were mixing this at Sunset Sound, I was doing it with Andy Johns, and Glyn Johns, who'd done our first album, came in - they were brothers - and we'd just finished it and we said, 'Listen to this.' And I don't know if there was a little bit of rivalry there, but at the end of it he said, 'Yeah, pretty good, but you'll never cut it, you'll never be able to get it on disc.' Well, we did. (LAUGHS) But it helped, having acoustic tracks, because then you could get more balls into the rock numbers.
When you'd finished it, before you handed it over to Atlantic Records, were you all ecstatic about it? Bottle of champagne? 'This is the one, this is it, guys!'?
Oh, no. Absolutely not. No, we knew we'd done some good work on it, we knew it was a good album, as I say, in the light of all the knocking that we'd had generally all along the line from the press and all that. We thought, 'This is good, and I'm sure people who are going to hear it are going to reckon it's good too - at least, I hope so.' And, in fact, we all know what happened.
We hadn't put out an album for quite a while at that point, because we'd been touring elsewhere, we'd been to Australia and Japan, et cetera, and there was quite a lot of stiff opposition from Atlantic Records about this untitled business and no information on the sleeve, and I remember I had to go in there with the lawyers.
Nowadays you do actually have to label everything, you know, have the Atlantic logo on it and all that sort of thing, but you didn't then, and I notice on the CD we still managed to keep it off. (LAUGHS) But they wanted to put the name down the strip, or have something on it, because we hadn't had an album out for so long. They didn't have faith in it obviously, not the way that we were seeing it, anyway.
To be fair about it they would have preferred, from their marketing point of view, to have had it as a package with Led Zeppelin written on it. On the shrink wrap they managed to put on a few stickers featuring this, that and the other as time went on, but we did manage to break new ground with it. Obviously, I don't suppose they really wanted a whole load of groups putting out albums with no information as to who they were. (LAUGHS)
Why were you so determined to have none of that?
We all agreed. We were all absolutely adamant about the fact. We were all a bit fed up with the treatment we got in the press. I've got to be fair, even this album got pretty bad reviews at the time, it really did, not everywhere, but 50 per cent of them weren't that good at all. I guess that was still this sort of logic they were enmploying from the third album, they just didn't know where we were at at all, they hadn't got a clue.
As I say, it started off originally with no information whatsoever. Nothing. Then it came down to, 'Well, maybe we'll have one symbol on it,' and then it got to the point where we all chose our own symbols, and thiat was it. Everyomme was quite happy with that.
The public think of this as being Led Zeppelin IV or the Runes album. What do you think of it as?
The Four Symbols, I think, it was referred to by us at the time. I don't think we used to refer to it as the Runes album ourselves, but they were runes. This was the whole idea.
Tell me about the hermit picture.
That was actually drawn by a friend of mine, Barrington Colby. Some people have said it has allusions to Holman Hunt, who was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, but it hasn't. The idea actually comes from a tarot card, the Hermit, and the ascension to the beacon and the light of truth. And you'll see this little character on the album, and the whole thing is that he's on the top of the mountain, and there's this person who is aspiring towards him, but he's way, way down, and it's a long ascent. It's just an attitude of mind, a general philosophy, I suppose, of ever onward. If you're aspiring to things, you have to put a lot of work into them, and the analogy of that could be a hard climb. It's not just a promenade.
You'd had big albums before, but when did you realise this was going to be a classic?
Well, for a kick off, all the so-called powers that be and those in the know in America stated that we were going to commit professional suicide at this point in time by putting out an album with no information on it, and, of course, we hadn't toured there for quite a while, possibly the best part of a year.
And the album hadn't come out at the point when we were tourinng, so that was it. This was going to create our dowmfall. But, in fact, I remember we played 'Stairway' at the LA Forum, and it's a hell of a long track, and you know how difficult it is when you go to a concert and you hear a number the first time around, and that's quite a long time to concentrate on something. And I remember we got a standing ovation, and we went, 'Wow!' We knew it was good, but we didn't realise people would latch onto it.
In retrospect, is there anything you would change about the album?
Yeah, I'd do it with click tracks and synthesizers and sampling (LAUGHS) and then I'd retire. No, I've got really fond memories of those times, and the album was done with such great spirit. Everyone had a smile on their face. It was great fun. Everyone used to really enjoy recording, especially at this point in time. So purely for that reason, I'd say no.
Is it the best of the Zeppelin albums?
I don't know. No, I wouldn't say it's the best. It's a difficult question. I think we did a lot of good work.