Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Having already got acclaimed biographies of Bob Marley and Joe Strummer under his belt, Chris Salewicz (a mate of mine from the NME of the 1970s) tackles the mystery that is the enigmatic Jimmy Page, creator of Led Zeppelin, around whom swirls a cloud of rumours. The task cannot have been easy. 
Firstly there is a heap of books about the Zeps including Page's 'photographic biography'. The best known is 'Hammer of the Gods' written by Stephen Davis - a prolific rock biographer in his own right - which was based partly on his experiences on tour with the band for two weeks in 1975 but mainly on  the salacious recollections of Zeps' road manger Richard Cole, which the band have dismissed as utter tosh. More substantial is 'Trampled Under Foot' an extensive oral biography by music journalist Barney Hopkins, which The Generalist reviewed at length when it was published in 2012. This post also contains my own small personal recollections of the band and can be found here.

Chris has interviewed Page in the past and includes two of these pieces in the book, but didn't do so for this unauthorised bio. He brings something new to the party methinks in a number of ways. The whole 500-page epic has a insightful narrative arc presented in a sophisticated manner by someone who is extremely knowledgeable and able to extract previously unrecorded stories. Strikingly, he quickly tunes in to the astrological/magical seam that runs through the band and the music because he understands the importance of that and where it was coming from. 

Jimmy Page (born in 1944) discovered Aleister Crowley when he was 15, as did many others of that generation at a time when the occult and the sacred were being revisited. Salewicz suggests that Page was one of a very few who took Crowley to heart and used his vision and concepts to create something astonishing. Page also lived in a house where Crowley had lived and became one of the top collectors of his work and that of the occult artist Austin Osman Spare. He also loves the PreRaphaelites and currently lives in an extraordinary gothic revival Tower House in Kensington, London, a Victorian castle designed by the architect William Burges. [Robert Plant brought his own spiritual dimension to the band with his deep affection for the landscape of the Welsh hills, folk music, Tolkein, Viking culture and the music of Morocco.]

Original ticket for the London premiere of 'The Song Remains The Same'
[The Generalist Archive]
This a book about Jimmy Page rather than Led Zeppelin but LZ in all its aspects was created by Jimmy Page almost as an art project. He was certainly the architect. He assembled the group - an experienced multi-instrumentalist session player and two lads from Birmingham - Plantie, the inexperienced wailer with curls and Bonham, the drummer from Hell. By playing together, the four of them - whose identity was later to be condensed into four magic icons - produced an alchemical reaction that created a fifth dimension - the loudest, most powerful, thundering Visigoth band the world had seen. Driven by Page - a slim immaculate figure, especially in his velvet dragon suit, wearing his double-necked guitar, with cascading locks and androgonous features, playing with unearthly dexterity, exuding an odour of mystique. Not since Paganini, who played the fiddle like the devil... Page was scary but strangely alluring.

The explosive dark power of  the Zeps cauterised major stadiums and blazed a trail across America before capturing the rest of the world. The cliché is that the same dark power destroyed the band. Common sense would quickly suggest that the LZ space plane was bound to implode given their velocity and the industrial amount of white powders that increasingly interfered with the making of the music. It is clear Plant was severely out of it for a long stretch, barely functioning. Now at the age of 73, he gives speeches at the Oxford Union, has been awarded an OBE and has completed a massive remastering of all Led Zeps work.

Chris takes us through the early years: discovering a guitar by chance, appearing on a BBC tv talent show with his skiffle band aged 13, leaving school at 15 when he went on tour for two years with the Crusaders before then going to art college. From early 1963 he was picked up and became the youngest top session guitarist on the scene - he was Lil' Jim Pea to the other top player Big Jim Sullivan.

Jimmy was totally devoted to understanding every aspect of guitar work and studio practice, as was the young John Paul Jones, also working as a session player on the circuit. By the time he formed Led Zeppelin, Jimmy had played so many sessions on so many hit records, a lot of which he wrote the B-sides for, that he'd earned his first million. This enabled him to pay for the recording of their first album even before they went to any record company.

Pre Led Zep he had also gained  touring experience in the US with The Yardbirds - a band which also featured Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. The three of them lived within a 10-mile radius of each other. [The band's first guitarist was Top Topham who The Generalist interviewed in 2012 ]

Chris takes us on the Zeps' wild ride and the after-show shenanigans which regularly got out of hand. These are delicate matters  but it seems that the damage and sleaze was driven by Bonham and Cole with Page and Plant dipping in and out of the chaos. Page's answer to the pressure turned into a problem with drugs. Not unknown in the music business or any other part of the entertainment field. The book does not avoid talking about the bad taste salaciousness of those wild times but neither does it lay down a heavy judgment call. Many girls involved have their say.

The post-Zep period is by its nature anti-climatic but Plant and Page had major success in the 1990s with the Unledded MTV show and further acclaim came with the one-off 2007 Led Zep reunion. it was fascinating to read of Page and Plant's epic world tour with Moroccan musicians and a Western orchestra. They now have a more equal relationship it seems, particularly since Plant's Grammy award with Alison Krauss.

Chris concludes that: 'Page has emerged as the most revered and respected of all classic rock artists. Despite all the odds, Jimmy Page has become the greatest treasure of British popular music.' His book, a fresh and valuable addition to the existing literature, is now top of the heap.

[Good interview with Chris Salewicz  by Robert Elms on Radio London well worth a listen]

Jimmy Page | Full Address and Q&A at The Oxford Union
Interestingly, 35 minutes in a girl asks him about his involvement with the Golden Dawn. He shuts the subject down quite quickly.

Incidentally it's the 50th anniversary of the first Led Zeppelin rehearsal this month.

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