There’s this notable passage in It Might Get Loud. Released in 2008, a year after the Led Zeppelin reunion honoring Ahmet Ertegun at London’s O2 Arena, the film is something of a meeting of three generations of guitarists captured on celluloid. There’s The Edge, U2’s effects-loving pragmatist and sonic architect whose influence on contemporary rock and pop guitar is bigger than he’s given credit for in the guitar world. On the other hand, Jack White, the analog purist, blues chronicler of postmodern rock, who focuses on image and legend building for the longest stretch of the film. And third: Jimmy Page, the grand seigneur of the big riff and of rock’n’roll guitar in general, with a long, silver mane, and who is chauffeured to the summit in a vintage car, relaxed, in a good mood and smiling.
In said scene, we are in his music library, Page puts on the vinyl single of the piece that was decisive for his musical cosmos (and for that of so many others): Link Wray’s “Rumble ‘, an instrumental piece released in 1958, which is wrongly credited with inventing the so-called “power chord” (i.e. the guitar chord consisting only of primes and fifths that is essential for the rhythm guitar in rock). Page’s face shows far more unbroken enthusiasm than nostalgia; how he can’t help but grin, plays along with his hands and comments on the piece, the vibrato of which increases bit by bit in his nonchalance and cool negligence. Later on, towards the middle of the film, you can see a similar enthusiasm on the faces of his two guitar colleagues White and The Edge: namely when Jimmy Page picks up the Les Paul and “Whole Lotta Love”, that behemoth of a riff, downright careless and casual shakes out of his sleeve.
About detours to the Yardbirds
James Patrick Page was born on January 9, 1944 in the West London suburb of Heston, the son of a human resources manager and a secretary. Page started playing at the age of 13 because there was a guitar lying around the house that nobody knew who owned it. A few years later, as a young man, he was already on stage with various formations, including that of the legendary Marquee Club on London’s 165 Street – where Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton often jammed with him on stage. He was also discovered there by John Gibb, who brought him into the studio for the Columbia Graphophone Company (one of the UK’s first record companies) to record a few singles before his first permanent engagement with Decca Records. Page has appeared on countless sessions and albums, playing guitar for The Who and The Kinks, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithful.
He only came to the Yardbirds in a roundabout way, initially rejecting the original offer to replace his friend Eric Clapton, and even after Clapton’s official departure he doesn’t want to trade his successful existence as a studio musician against that of one touring musicians exchange. In 1969 he did, playing alongside his friend Jeff Beck, whom he had suggested as Clapton’s successor and after whose departure Page took over the sole guitar scepter for the Yardbirds. Because after a rather unsuccessful album, two other members, Keith Relf and Jim McCarthy, left during ongoing engagements, but Page wanted to play the data under the name “New Yardbirds”, he hired a singer named Robert Plant and a drummer named John Bonham, as well joined John Paul Jones on bass. Page doesn’t think “New Yardbirds” is that great anymore and calls the whole thing Led Zeppelin, after a running gag with Keith Moon and John Entwistle from an earlier jam session. Page has had a vision of what that should sound like for some time, and with this cast, it’s now becoming a reality.
People like to abbreviate places like this with the phrase “the rest is history”, and in the case of Led Zeppelin this is a story about a few years of unique chemistry between the individual characters, a story about the interaction of Pages catchy like rough playing, influences pulled from the past and maniacally played into the present, and Bonham’s unique, animalistic way of playing the drums, John Paul Jones’ versatile bass playing and Robert Plant’s howling voice of the century. A story of songs and albums that sound just as exciting, relevant and fresh today and will probably continue to do so for decades to come. A tale of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and epochal riffs, of an over-ballad, a double-necked Gibson SG, of myths and the death of Bonham.
Jimmy Page easily leaves the myth behind
You have to give Page and Led Zeppelin credit for having planned their comeback in 2007 with great care, in very good shape and with a lot of respect for their own myth. And after that – despite all the rumors – it seems that they will really let it be. When it comes to such larger-than-life dimensions, revivals often unintentionally rewrite narratives in a different, often disillusioning direction. Page seems to be aware of this larger-than-life size today, at almost 80 years old, more than in the 1990s – and for that very reason, with a gentlemanly wink towards the past, easily leaves the myth behind, both musically and personally.
Whether you see his relevance as a guitarist in his riffs, in his use of open tunings, in his use of alternate picking or his solos, in his smooth playing flexibility, or wherever, there will still be people ahead in 79 years and beyond sitting on their Zeppelin vinyls and grinning enthusiastically and gesticulating along with his riffs like Page did in that scene on “Rumble”.
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David Redfern Redferns