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Jimmy Page: Why Led Zeppelin’s Guitarist Deserves A Whole Lotta Love
Michael Brito
In Depth

Jimmy Page: Why Led Zeppelin’s Guitarist Deserves A Whole Lotta Love

A masterful guitarist curious about the power of magic, Jimmy Page cast a lasting spell with Led Zeppelin’s brand of rock’n’roll sorcery.

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Just like there are stories of blues hero Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, so too are there suspicions that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and his near-supernatural abilities were the result of some Faustian pact. Page himself has enjoyed playing into this myth: it’s simply too hard to believe that a musician could be so talented that he created the magisterial guitar solo to Stairway To Heaven or the swirling splendour of Kashmir.

It’s also often recounted that Jimmy Page was a longtime admirer of philosopher-king Aleister Crowley, the amoral occultist who practiced “magick” and allegedly partook in satanic ceremonies. Page even took his idol-worship far enough in the early 70s to buy Crowley’s home, Boleskine House, a place where the controversial magician would purportedly practice black mass. The question of whether Led Zeppelin conjured similarly dark forces to bewitch us with their music still raises a few eyebrows.

Tellingly, shortly before Jimmy Page founded Led Zeppelin, the guitarist visited a palm-reader who told him his life was about to change forever. As a keen believer in astrology, it seems Page had more than raw talent going for him – his success, if the story is true, was written in the stars. Or is the answer more complicated than that? Is it time we woke up and smelled the tea leaves? There is much more to Jimmy Page than mere hocus pocus…

In The Days Of My Youth: A Child Prodigy

Born in Heston on 9 January 1944, James Patrick Page had all the signs of becoming a musical prodigy from a very young age. After singing as a choirboy in St Barnabas Church, his true Damascene moment came when he heard guitarist Scotty Moore’s guitar work on Elvis Presley’s Baby, Let’s Play House. “His character guitar playing on those early Elvis Sun recordings, and later at RCA, was monumental,” Jimmy Page would later recall.

Page wouldn’t learn how to play guitar himself until his early teens, but once he did he mastered the instrument incredibly quickly. Forming his own band, The James Page Skiffle Group, at just 13 years old, a young Page appeared on a BBC TV show for children in 1957. Playing a Lead Belly cover, the teenage guitarist told host Huw Weldon he wanted to find a cure for cancer when he grew up.

Clearly not shy of ambition, Jimmy Page’s musical interests were – like most young boys of his generation – piqued by early rock’n’roll hits from Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. The budding talent’s ability to play Chuck Berry guitar solos is what resulted in him being invited to join Red E Lewis And The Red Caps as their new guitarist – quite remarkable considering he was just 15 years old and still at school at the time.

Your Time Is Gonna Come: Early Years As A Guitarist

After telling his headteacher he now wanted to be pop star, Jimmy Page left school with four GCE O levels under a cloud of disappointment, but his prospects were far from gloomy. Going by the name Nelson Storm, his talent on guitar continued to evolve as Red E Lewis’ band rechristened themselves Neil Christian And The Crusaders.

At 18, however, Page quit the group to enrol at Sutton Art College. It was here he studied painting, but his love of music was kept aflame by delving deeply into the blues. He formed a close friendship with fellow-student and guitarist Jeff Beck, and together both boys bonded over their shared love of rock’n’roll. They remain close friends to this day.

Jimmy Page continued to play guitar in the early 60s at various late-night music venues in London. When producer Mike Leander saw him perform one evening, he offered Page a job as a session musician. “I was really surprised,” Page remembers. “Before this I thought session work was a closed shop.” This would prove to be the big break into the music industry the young Page was dreaming of.

It’s Time To Ramble On: Session Work

For the next several years, Jimmy Page would receive unparalleled experience as a young musician. Finding himself working in a busy recording studio, not only did he learn the ins and outs of music production, but he also adapted his guitar style to songs from a wide range of genres. From vocal jazz-oriented pop (Shirley Bassey’s James Bond theme song Goldfinger) to slow country ballads (Val Doonican’s Walk Tall), Jimmy Page mastered every single guitar style he could possibly learn.

Following a period of Beatlemania, when the British music scene was flowering like a springtime burst, Jimmy Page was as happy as a bee bringing pollen to the hive. He found himself lending his skills to those at the vanguard of the British Invasion, playing guitar with The Rolling Stones (Heart Of Stone), The Kinks (I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter), The Who (Bald Headed Woman) and even David Bowie’s early group The Manish Boys (I Pity The Fool).

As the best (and youngest) session guitarist working in the industry, Jimmy Page was given a chance to join The Yardbirds after their guitarist Eric Clapton left the band following the release of the group’s debut album, Five Live Yardbirds. As it happens, Page had already said no to another band, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the same band Eric Clapton had quit The Yardbirds to join. Clearly showing how in-demand he was, Page also said no to The Yardbirds, recommending they offer the job to his friend Jeff Beck instead.

Shortly thereafter, The Yardbirds line-up which featured Jeff Beck saw the group become one of the foremost UK rock acts, shifting as they did from mod-inspired beat music to British psychedelia. Jimmy Page remained close friends with the band and, after growing sick of sessions recording elevator muzak, he decided to join them as their new bassist.

Blowing Up: Blowing Up The Yardbirds

For a short period, Page and Beck would play together in The Yardbirds, most notably performing the song Stroll On in the 1966 movie Blow-Up. This experience wasn’t to last, however, as within a few months Page took over the role of lead guitarist after Beck flaked out and quit the band during a US tour.

For the next year, Jimmy Page indulged his love of wah-wah and fuzz boxes, adding new FX pedals and distortion to The Yardbirds’ sound – though by this point the band were facing declining commercial fortunes. With a taste for being in a band of his own and developing a new musical vision, Jimmy Page knew fronting a “supergroup” of formidable musicians would be the next logical step.

When The Yardbirds eventually split, in 1968, Jimmy Page set out to create The New Yardbirds, enlisted fellow session man and bass player John Paul Jones, as well as a young 19-year-old singer called Robert Plant. It was Plant who recommended John “Bonzo” Bonham on drums; Page would later describe him as “the greatest rock drummer ever, as far as I’m concerned”.

The only problem was the band’s name. Recalling when he and Jeff Beck had played with The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle during a recording of Beck’s Bolero, back in 1966, Jimmy Page remembered Moon saying how the idea of being in a supergroup would “go over like a lead balloon”. Entwistle concurred: “Yeah, like a lead zeppelin.” And with that, the name Led Zeppelin was born.

Lord, How They Hypnotise: Led Zeppelin Take Flight

From early on, it was clear this new band would be a vessel for Jimmy Page’s untapped vein of musical alchemy. “I wanted artistic control in a vice-like grip, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the band,” Jimmy Page remembered. “I knew precisely what I was after and how to get it.” His vision – as would soon become apparent – would help spread the gospel of hard rock and popularise the blues for generations to come.

Robert Plant, in particular, was enamoured with the sound Jimmy Page was eager to champion. “When I heard him play, it was such a celebration,” Plant later said. “It was very much learned in art school, that kind of attitude, that kind of aggressive angular thing.” Unlike other bands who stuck to a rigid blues formula in rather staid and conservative ways, Led Zeppelin made the blues sound totally new, refreshing and progressive.

As if to prove his point, Jimmy Page completely self-financed production on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album. His guitar work on the record is exemplary – whether you dug the aggressive downstrokes of Communication Breakdown or were hip to his delicate arpeggios on Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, the album set the blueprint for the next several years of Led Zeppelin’s hard rock dominance. The die had been cast and it was time to rock’n’roll.

Way Down Inside: Finding Fame

It was arguably on the group’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, that everything Jimmy Page had hoped for the band came true. The songs crossed the whole spectrum across multiple styles, from hard rock to the blues, with improvisational solos and flashes of acoustic folk, building on the framework they successfully piloted on their debut. That year, Led Zeppelin II even outsold The Beatles’ Abbey Road to become the best-selling album of 1969.

The sound of Led Zeppelin II proved that Jimmy Page’s years as a seasoned session musician had transformed him into an exceptionally diverse guitarist, boasting not just melodic technique but also technical know-how. His sonic understanding even extended to engineering and production, advising John Bonham on how to position microphones to get the most out of his drum sound.

Musically, Led Zeppelin II’s highlight, Whole Lotta Love, remains a rock’n’roll masterclass, with Page mixing in delay, pre-echo and reverb like a potion master throwing ingredients into a cauldron. “We felt the riff was addictive,” Page remembered of the song. “Like a forbidden thing.” Elsewhere, the divine Heartbreaker saw Page’s nimble fingers leap from fuzz-laden tremolo to tackling a 46-second guitar solo, with all the imagination of a wizard conjuring thunder from the sky.

A New Day Will Dawn: Expanding Their Sound

After forging a new sound thanks to his use of a Tone Bender fuzz pedal, the group’s third album, Led Zeppelin III, was a surprising departure for the new songwriting partnership of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. A cottage retreat to Snowdonia in Wales saw the duo fuse acoustic-based folk-rock with Anglo-Saxon lore: raucous riffs evoked the brutality of a Viking invasion (Immigrant Song), while a medieval-inspired folk song focused on a condemned maiden imploring an executioner to free her (Gallows Pole).

Jimmy Page couldn’t resist the urge to have Aleister Crowley’s dictum, “Do What Thou Wilt”, etched in the vinyl run-off grooves, giving the impression that Led Zeppelin’s music channelled the mystical vibrations of otherworldly spirits. It was almost as if both Page and Plant were using rock’n’roll as a means of reaching further back into the annals of English history, giving voice to the mythical sound of ghosts long since past.

Widely considered to be Led Zeppelin’s true masterpiece, the group’s fourth album – officially untitled, but known various as “Led Zeppelin IV”, “Four Symbols” and “Zoso” – doubled down on the quasi-ancient admixture of Robert Plant’s Celtic-infused lyricism and Jimmy Page’s blues-derived musicianship, with Page’s guitar work on Black Dog baring all the snarling electric blues bite of Howlin’ Wolf evoking thoughts of a supernatural hellhound.

Then there’s Stairway To Heaven, a timeless song that requires no introduction. Jimmy Page’s baroque-sounding arpeggiated riff gives way to an angelic flute accompaniment like a lost broadside ballad, before rising to the empyrean and erupting in an epic hard rock solo. To this day, “Led Zeppelin IV” continues to top lists as the greatest album of all time, owing much of its reputation to Jimmy Page’s groundbreaking style of guitar playing.

Coming after such a monolithic work, Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, Houses Of The Holy, is somewhat overlooked, but it contains more of Jimmy Page’s ambitious musical impulses as he spreads his wings to find new climes. As made clear from its more prog rock-inspired album cover, designed by the iconic Hipgnosis team and featuring Giant’s Causeway – according to Gaelic legend, an area built by prehistoric giant Finn MacCool – Jimmy Page was keen to diversify as much as possible. Album opener The Song Remains the Same was perhaps Led Zeppelin’s most ambitiously stormy rocker, showcasing Page at his most dextrous, with jangly guitar tones so sharp they could light up synapses.

At just 29 years old at the time of Houses Of The Holy‘s release, Jimmy Page, a remarkably able and skilful musician in his own right, had plenty of room to grow. He embraced more jazz-inspired elements on No Quarter, while a reggae influence found its way onto D’yer Mak’er. Even The Rain Song was written after the band was set a challenge to write a ballad by none other than Beatles legend George Harrison.

Traveller Of Both Time And Space: Later Years, Disbanding Led Zeppelin

Widely considered to be the final masterpiece of the band’s golden period, Physical Graffiti was a double-album which saw Jimmy Page lay guitar tracks on a diverse yet quintessentially Zeppelin-esque array of songs, throwing them together like a mad-eyed runic fortune teller. As each bandmate plays with almost psychic synchronicity, Physical Graffiti took on the vibe of a divination ritual and was the near-perfect crystallisation of everything the band stood for.

The heavy blues-rock of Custard Pie and The Rover leaped giddily into the spiralling blues riff on In My Time Of Dying, an 11-minute masterpiece based on an obscure gospel blues cut from the 1920s. Trampled Under Foot gave Led Zeppelin a surprising disco twist, with Jimmy Page showing he can write floor-thumping groove riffs as good as any.

The album’s defining moment, Kashmir, stands out as one of Led Zeppelin’s all-time greatest songs, a grandiose epic of exotic mysticism which Jimmy Page described as having “one of those real hypnotic riffs”. Fusing John Bonham’s deafening snare hits with Middle Eastern-inspired orchestral swells, Jimmy Page’s use of alternate tuning on the song demonstrated the unassailable mastery he had over his guitar at this high point of his career.

Led Zeppelin would go on to make two more albums, Presence and In Through The Out Door, but after the untimely demise of John Bonham, in 1980, the band decided to call it a day. In the 12 years Led Zeppelin had been together, Jimmy Page was the embodiment of everything a rock’n’roll guitarist should be: an indomitable riff monster, lashing out with virtuosity and posing with a mercurial pout of his lips.

Jimmy Page was the band’s driving force, a man who foresaw the future and showed the way in a maelstrom of ear-piercing noise, unison bends, echo, vibrato and reverb. Frankly, if you love rock’n’roll, it’s Jimmy Page who deserves a whole lotta that love. The greatest thing about Led Zeppelin is that they were more than the sum of their parts, but Jimmy Page was the chief architect who saw how all those parts could come together. Without him, the machine itself would not exist.

It’s Been A Long Time: Led Zeppelin Reunions

Following an attempt to repair that machine and reform Led Zeppelin in 1985 for Live Aid, it seemed unlikely the band would ever reunite again. However, against all odds, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones surprised music fans the world over by playing a one-off show at London’s O2 Arena in 2007, in memory of Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Artegun, with John Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums.

The reunion was one last act of redemption for the group, proving that the essence of the hard rock sound Jimmy Page had conjured from his bandmates was as everlasting as he had hoped. Despite being in his 60s at the time, Page was still every inch the master: a wise old warlock, just as capable as the younger mage who wove his spell all those years ago in the 70s.

Now bound for immortality, it is perhaps for the best that Led Zeppelin did not reunite for a world tour. They captured lightning in a bottle on that night, as evidenced by the award-winning concert film Celebration Day, which gave the band the fitting epitaph they so truly deserved. With one triumphant performance, Jimmy Page had performed Led Zeppelin’s last rites. There was never a better time to let the dust settle on their historic achievements.

What Is And What Should Never Be: Jimmy Page’s Influence And Legacy

Unlike many rock guitarists who find great success in their lifetimes, Jimmy Page has resisted the temptation to pick up from where Led Zeppelin left off. Though he has continued to play music – both with and without Robert Plant – it’s as if he feels he simply has nothing left to prove. His body of work speaks for itself, and he is wise to avoid tampering with its legacy.

It’s still tempting to buy into all the myths about Jimmy Page as rock music’s greatest necromancer – the Aleister Crowley acolyte who smuggled black magic into music to beguile his audiences as if they were members of a congregation. The truth, however, is even more miraculous and otherworldly. Simply put, Jimmy Page is a man of immense talent who went from child prodigy to hard-working guitarist and subsequently climbed his way to the top of the mountain.

Through the heights he ascended with Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page rewrote rock’n’roll history, but he didn’t need to recite hexes to get there. All he really needed was Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham and his guitar. Call it fate, destiny or karma – that’s how it is.

Perhaps the last word should go to Robert Plant: “Any tribute that flows in,” he has said, “must go to Jimmy and his riffs.” Amen to that. After all, that is the best kind of magic there is.

Check out our 20 best Led Zeppelin songs

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