“The best way to listen to Led Zeppelin is off of the analog tapes, but unfortunately, I can’t invite you around to listen to them.” That’s Jimmy Page, answering my question about whether vinyl was still the best way to experience the mighty Zeppelin’s music at the press conference that followed the Led Zeppelin Deluxe Editions Listening Event Page hosted at the Crosby Street Hotel Screening Room in New York on May 13. Page also confirmed that he’s done “really, really high-resolution files for whatever system comes next” and that 96kHz/24-bit files will be accessible via download cards in each of the Deluxe Edition box sets of the first three Led Zeppelin studio albums that were released by Atlantic/Swan Song on June 3. Event moderator Robin Hurley further confirmed that all of the Zeppelin studio tracks from those three album packages available on HDtracks are at 96/24. (Live tracks are at 48/24.)
In the Screening Room, I hunkered down in the sweet spot in Row 7 — dead center, in Seat 6 (of 12) — and enjoyed 36 minutes/eight tracks of previously unheard, unreleased, and mostly unbootlegged Zep material. From the Companion Audio Disc for Led Zeppelin I came two live songs from a French radio broadcast, recorded at the Olympia in Paris on October 10, 1969: “Good Times Bad Times/Communication Breakdown” and part of “You Shook Me,” which was faded after Robert Plant began his harmonica solo in order to, according to Page, “allow time [for us] to play everything else!”
The next two songs came from the Companion Audio Disc for Led Zeppelin II. “Heartbreaker” sported a twist on Page’s breakneck solo, while an early take on “Whole Lotta Love” had slightly different lyrics and guitar-line choices, plus that infamous percussive middle section boasted alternate fills from powerhouse drummer John Bonham and alternate, swirling placements of the squalls and caterwauls of Page’s theremin solo.
The last four alternate takes — clearly Page’s favorites, which he chose specifically for this session — came from the Companion Audio Disc for Led Zeppelin III. “Gallows Pole” had Plant’s vocals in the left channel and Page working differing acoustic and banjo rhythms in the right. An earlier live-off-the-floor take of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” showcased a “hard” intensity, more than the “cooler” final take (to use Page’s descriptors). You can clearly hear Page’s “one, two, three, four” count-in on “Immigrant Song,” and his more shimmery/delay-driven guitar lead. But the true gem had to be “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind,” with Page going acoustic in the left channel and Plant singing and playing harmonica through Page’s amp in the right, with a vibrato effect that was put to similar use on III’s actual closing track, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.”
The press conference that followed the listening session was surprisingly focused on audio-centric details — unlike the more general ground covered in the one held for the release of Celebration Day back on October 9, 2012. What follows in a narrative format is the best of what the ace guitarist and producer, now 70, had to say to the gathered journalistic throng about working with the original analog master tapes, finding the groove of country blues, and how the bandmembers knew early on they were part of something a whole lotta magical. [Update: Deluxe Editions for the next two albums in the mighty Zep catalog, Led Zeppelin IV and House of the Holy, are set for release on October 28.]
Jimmy Page: I had a huge collection of quarter-inch tapes from all the sessions. It’s because I was the producer of the band, so, consequently, I had far more tapes than anybody else did. The original recordings were analog tape, and they were done for vinyl. That was during the late ’60s and the ’70s. And then CDs were put out of that material from copy tapes — and they weren’t very good, to be honest with you. That’s why the original tapes were brought back out again — the master tapes — and they were remastered. And that’s 20[-plus] years ago. Since those 20 years have passed, we’ve got all these new digital formats out there, so it made sense to revisit the studio albums. That’s not unique. I mean, everybody’s doing that, so I thought, “Well, let’s see how to make this into something special.” Each of the albums has a companion disc, which, from Zeppelin II onwards, are all rare studio outtakes and various different versions and different mixes. It’s the one thing that’s been missing, really, if we think about the releases of Led Zeppelin over the last few years. This gives you a window — a portal into that time capsule of when each album was recorded. That’s how it works, all the way through to Coda. It’s all done. [Release dates for the remaining four studio albums — Physical Graffiti, Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda — have yet to be announced.]
I knew it was a huge, epic task, but I wanted to make sure it was all really superb and was going to hold up. That’s how I was driven. I don’t think [the companion material] changes any story, it just augments it. It gives more color to it. The vinyl masters of all the studio albums you know quite clearly are going to be the best ones. However, these things are fascinating and are of an intrinsic, historical value.
In the days when these albums were recorded, the [tape box] sometimes had quite detailed studio information on it, and the date. But sometimes it didn’t, and sometimes only the title. I left no stone unturned as to finding source material. I didn’t want something that sounded really good to turn up afterwards. So it took a lot of listening, and I had to get all of the tapes together relative to each song. Some of them were 7½-inch, some of them were 15. Some of them had different equalization; some were NAB, some were CCIR. Some title [i.e., song] may have only had a half-dozen tapes, another one could have 15. It was quite a big thing to memorize. It was not so difficult to put the best take up, comparable to the studio one. It was a lengthy process, but that was how it was arrived at.
All of our stuff starts off in ’68, and the condition of [the tapes] is absolutely magnificent. We didn’t have to do any sort of restoration, unless an edit came out when you replaced the tape. What happened with analog tape in ’78 or ’79 was they changed the compound of the glue in the oxide — the oxide is what it’s being recorded on, on the magnetic heads. The In Through the Out Door album  had been recorded with this new format tape. You’ve heard about tape shredding — that means the oxide comes off, so you have to bake them. Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of work that needed to be done for In Through the Out Door.
All of these mixes are of the time. Basically, that’s what it is. There’s no jiggery-pokery. [Page and the audience laugh] It’s all the real deal, man. What you hear on “Whole Lotta Love” — that’s the sum of one night’s recording, when we did it in London. That’s the original vocal on it. As far as the drums go — well, there’s extra things that go on in the middle, with the percussion and everything. That’s the same with the “Heartbreaker” [take] as well — that guitar in the middle of “Heartbreaker” is what was done on the recording, straight off.
The numbers from Led Zeppelin III are quite substantially different. Listen to, for example, “Hangman” [i.e., “Gallows Pole”]. All of that rhythmic guitar that’s underneath and sunk down in the final mixes — that’s real interesting, since we’ve been playing this stuff live. It’s interesting to hear those cross-rhythms on the final one. Hearing it come out like that was cool.
“Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a different take, a different performance altogether; a full-on take, start to finish. It’s like a few days before we did the final one, where we take it much cooler, as far as the approach to the vocal and the guitar, and all of it. That’s why we recut it — because it’s really intense, and the guitar is really hard on it there. If there had been another take of that one, the guitar would have been different. Yeah, I was exploring the whole way through. I was always trying to stretch it. But then, so was everybody else. You can tell that from Robert’s vocals — he was really on top of it on this one. The idea that night was to go in and do something that was quite radical when it came to the blues. A lot of people were just doing the blues as renditions. But I think that while Zeppelin’s approach on “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is based on the blues, then it goes into a whole extension.
The last thing you heard there was “Keys to the Highway.” I was trying to give the same running order on the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III. So when it came to the last track, which was “Hats Off to [Roy] Harper,” you can tell it has a similar vocal sound, as you could tell [Robert] is singing through the amp here — this was something on the same reel. Because I was looking for something else to use, and lo and behold, that pops out: “Oh, I remember doing that.” You know, it just sort of shaped up in that kind of way. Oh yes, one take. [chuckles] That was the only one. No comps on that. [audience laughs]
We took a whole sort of country blues approach to things, which was “Hats of to [Roy] Harper.” It just said on the box “Blues,” the one that tape was in — but it was blues all night long. When it started up, I remembered exactly what the circumstances were, and it’s only the one take. All the subtleties, and how intricate it is — that was really interesting to hear. The minute that it started up, then I sort of knew, “Yeah, yeah, we did ‘Keys to the Highway’,” and of course there it was. So you could say that was sort of a surprise, but it was pretty instant recall on pretty much what all of it was, really.
I was very keen to do something along the country blues aspect of things, and it started off that night with experiments, like double-tracking the harmonica through my amp, this thing with the vibrato where it’s really eerie. And then I just got the guitar and said, “Well, we’ll do a blues,” started the intro, and we just locked into what you hear. Just the one take. It really just goes to show how in sync Robert and I were, you know? You’ve heard it; it’s got its moments. Again, it’s that sort of approach to the blues that isn’t the way other people would do it. I was really pleased doing things through the amplifier, because it really worked. And Robert’s singing so brilliantly around the vibrato, isn’t he — singing so well around the effect.
I’ve sort of said this before, but the most important thing about Led Zeppelin is that each of us were musical equals, there’s no doubt about that. But no matter what John Bonham had done before, he never had the opportunity to play like he did in Led Zeppelin. It’s the same with all of us. I had done a bit with The Yardbirds and studio work and all of that, but this was the vehicle to be able to just go for the stratosphere. It’s exactly the same for Robert and John Paul Jones. Although we were great individual musicians, we also played so well as a band. That’s what’s reflected so well in all of this studio material.
I think it was there right from the beginning, because it was so joyous — the music, isn’t it? It was terrific listening to it all. Each individual’s performance is just great. It really shows, yet again, the opportunity to have another look and listen at everybody, every single individual performance, and find how it really gels. I played a couple of things — one of them being Zeppelin III — to the other members, and they were just knocked out.
Everything was supposed to sound different all the way through, from beginning to end of all the albums. What I recall is having lots of many different sorts of approaches to guitar playing, whether it was acoustic, 12-strings, or theremin. The different styles I was playing basically was my character.
I can tell you this much: The Yardbirds split up in July ’68, and I got the bandmembers together by something like August, from that one rehearsal that you’ve heard about — but the one thing you don’t hear about is that I had everybody at my house rehearsing the first album and the set. This is all going on late August and September, this sort of routining and working on the new material, and getting everybody in place for everything.
At the end of September we’re playing in Scandinavia, we’re doing a handful of dates. October, we record the album, then we come over here [to the States], and just after Christmas and January in California, and that’s it. By that time, the whole of the bush-telegraph spread right across the United States, because there wasn’t any Internet. I felt pretty positive about what I was doing. I knew it was these four guys. We each knew, each individual, we’d never heard anything like this before. And so that was it. Everyone came onboard, and we started working with it.
But if we came together through some kind of divine providence or whatever, I’d say that also at the same time, we were so good, and we should — and we did — push things, and just kept moving it and moving it and moving it, because we had the ability to be able to do so. I mean, who knew what was beyond the next horizon? That’s the way it went, really, wasn’t it?