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Bonham

[Band Of The Year] The Q Interview

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Here is an interview from Q magazine that I've just spent 2 hours writing up on here, lmao. So I hope you enjoy it!

THE Q INTERVIEW

The return of Led Zeppelin was the music event of the year. On the eve of their comeback show at London's O2 arena, here for the first time they tell the inside story of rock's least likely second act.

WORDS: ROBERT SANDALL|PICTURES: SØREN SOLKÆR STARBIRD

The rumour mill is in uproar. Two more dates at Wembley Stadium next year have been provisionally booked; supposedly. Word is the band are at one another's throats; oh, and the singer's voice is shot. As the temperature rises ahead of Led Zeppelin's first proper concert since disbanding in 1980, the three surviving members have adopted three distinct strategies to deal with the pressure.

As befits the man who first produced and later remastered Zeppelin's entire catalogue all by himself, Jimmy Page has leapt into sonic obsessive mode. Ever since it opened for business in June, he's been making regular undercover trips to concerts at London's O2 arena - the Millenium Dome as was - checking out the acoustics of a venue where, on 10 December 2007, Led Zeppelin top the bill at a charity gig for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund (the original show, on 26 November, was put back after Page broke the little finger of his left hand after a fall in his garden).

With less than a month to go, the sound in the O2 arena is Page's principal worry. Speaking to Q in the west End office of Zeppelin's UK publicist, Page frets about how "the Stones sounded terrible, Prince wasn't great, Snow Patrol was just this great monolithic noise." Page shakes his head, gently agitating a bush of bright white curls that would not look out of place on an in-store Father Christmas. "The only guy who sounded OK in there was Elton John, so I may talk to his sound man."

After what were widely regarded as poor appearances at 1988's Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert, Led Zeppelin do indeed have something to prove here. To that end, John Paul Jones, the unassuming bassist, has been brushing up on his multi-instrumental technique. Jones's passion these days is playing acoustic roots music on the mandolin at festivals such as Bonnaroo Tennessee where he spent several days jamming in June. Not for years has Jones been seen on a stage activating his bass with foot pedals while simultaneously knocking out chords at the keyboard. Since it's largely down to him to hold together the competing time signatures in Kashmir, to lead the band through Mo Quarter and to perform the tricky twin-recorder intro to Stairway to Heaven, Jones is relieved to inform Q that thus far "everything is sounding great. Quite authentic!"

The voice of the group, meanwhile, has kept it firmly shut. Robert Plant has approached the Zeppelin reunion with monumental insouciance, as if pretending that it isn't really happening. Not only has he declined to speak about it in public since the concert was announced on 12 September, Plant has carried on full speed ahead with his solo career. At the end of October, he released an album with bluegrass musician Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, and that's all he's prepared to tal kabout before performing what will be the biggest gig he's headlined since Zeppelin played Knebworth in 1979.

Curiously enough, it was Plant's support that put the long-awaited reunion into play in the first place. Following the death in December 2006 of Ahmet Ertegun - the legendary co-founder of Led Zeppelin's label Atlantic, and a man to whom Plant has referred as "a friend and a sidekick... another member of the Zeppelin entourage" - Ertegun's widow, Micam approached him in February with a request. Would Led Zeppelin re-form for a one-off gig to raise money for Ertegun's Education Fund, a charity that provides scholarships for musicians to study at colleges in the US, Britain and also in the country of his birth, Turkey? If so, a 40-minute set would be fine.

Well, it never hurts to ask. The idea had previously come up at a meeting of the charity's board of trustees, which is headed by Mica Ertegun and includes the promoter Harvey Goldsmith and Plant's manager Bill Curbishley. Goldsmith later admitted that he was keen to emulate Bob Geldoff's feat of persuading Pink Floyd to reconvene for Live 8. Curbishley thought that Plant's respect for Ertegun, and fondness for Mica, might be enough to tempt his client into a move Plant had resisted in the past, on the grounds that he prefers to keep his eyes on the road ahead.

LedZep-1.jpg

Having obtained Plant's consent, Curbishley contacted the managers of Page and Jones, and in March a summit was arranged at a London hotel. In attendance were the same cast that meets at least once a year to talk to Zeppelin business: the three members of the band, their managers(Curbishley, the American Peter Mensch for Page, Richard Chadwick for Jones), the band's accountant and trustee of the John Bonham estate, Joan Hudson, and Zeppelin's US lawyer, George Fearon.

The matter of the reunion was raised but not really discussed around the table. All communication thus far on the subject had been conducted through their managers. According to Chadwick, "Nothing was decided at the first meeting. Everybody said they would go away and think about it and then come back in a month's time."

In the interim, a private memorial concert for Ertegun took place at the Lincoln Centre in New York in April at which Jones performed in one of the evening's all-star pick-up bands. Page and Plant were among the guests but despite being asked, they didn't play that night, and made no social contact with Jones either. A couple of weeks later, however, back in another London hotel, it was agreed that the three would meet to rehearse, see how they got along and decide wether or not to proceed. Jason Bonham, son of Zeppelin's drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980, was the unanimous first choice to make up the foursome. Not only had he previously drummed for both Page and Plant, he was already signed up to play for Foreigner as part of the Ertegun benefit.

Woth the final decision still pending, the two rehearsals that sealed the deal needed to be swathed in secrecy. At an undisclosed studio in West London, the band met initially for four more in September; after which the lights flashed green, the world went mad and one million Zeppelin fans - excitedly reported as 120 million - applied for 18,000 tickets online.

Before returning to the same studio for a further three weeks of rehearsal prior to the show, Page and Jones have agreed to talk seperately to Q about the momentous reunion. This proves tricky. Like many sexagenarians, their memories tend to be sharper recalling the exploits of 30 or 40 years ago than what happened last week, or earlier this year. Most of the above timeline has been reconstructed in consultation with managers, publicists and their diaries. Page and Jones either can't remember stuff or their recollections contradict each other. Jimmy Page seems additionally plagued with anxieties about saying anything that might (a) upset his bandmates, particularly Plant, or (B) give away what's going to be played on the night. Though his manner is cheery and friendly, and he looks in pretty good nick for 63, Page often appears nervous or defensive. Wether he's tugging at his hair or rummaging under his black sweatshirt, he can't sit still, and his answers have a tendency to jitter about, too.

jimmy_page_1TpIJ.jpg

How does this reunion feel different from the other times the three of you have got back together onstage?

Oh, there's no comparison. Live Aid was a shambles, playing with two different drummers [Phil Collins and Chic's Tony Thompson]who didn't know the songs, and with no rehearsal. It all went wrong from the first bar. It was the same at the Atlantic party and the [Rock and Roll]Hall of Fame [induction in 1995]. Again no rehearsal and just shambling on. We didn't wanna do that again. It was always understood that if we came back together we would do it properly so that people who hadn't heard it would say, "Well, I might not have liked them, but at least now I understand what it was about."

Any "musical differences" to report so far?

No. People always go on about the bad blood between us, but we wouldn't be in the room together if there was that much bad blood. Who would wanna be around that negative energy? We're always joking and laughing.

So how was the first rehearsal?

As soon as we got into the room it was instantaneous. The musical bond was there, we still had the chemistry and we all got along pretty well, which was actually more important. Whenever we get together for business meetings we get on really well. Yes. Anyway, I can't remember what song we played first, one of the old Zeppelin favourites. We actually played half a dozen on day one, and they were all really good...

What were they?

Aah, sorry, I really don't wanna get into that.

What's your relationship with Robert Plant like these days?

I don't know what it is... Aah, we've had a lot of good times together, a lot of travelling, which is reflected in the music and the lyrics over the years. There was a lot of spontaneous combustion. We fired off each other. I don't know many frontmen in bands that have had the chance to do that.

Why isn't Robert talking about the O2 gig?

You'll have to ask Robert. He doesn't want to, I didn't know about his autumn press schedule when we started working together on this. I knew about the Alison Krauss album, but everybody was working on something else at the time. I was finishing remastering the DVD of [1976's live film] The Song Remains The Same.

I would guess the last time you and Robert worked together would have been when you recorded Walking Into Clarksdale as Page and Plant back in 1998...

Yes, but I'm not gonna compare anything to anything because before you know it people will be asking how this compares to the '70s.

OK. How does this compare to the last time you two worked on old Zeppelin numbers for the MTV unledded session in 1994?

When we did Unledded we totally changed the format of the songs, like that ambient acoustic thing with the hurdy-gurdy on In My Time Of Dying. It was revisiting, but it wasn't a facsimile reproduction the way it was when I played Heartbreaker, with all the guitar parts, with The Black Crowes [Page toured the US and released a live album with the band in 2000]. That was a short reincarnation unfortunately. But it's great to be playing with this music again with the people who lived through the creative process of it's making. It's a powerful experience. It feels like the right thing to be doing.

You mention "facsimiles". Is the idea this time to play things as they sound on record?

Well, we're trying to make everything recognisable, but I never have played a song the same way twice, and that's how we approached things as a band. Every night was a challenge. When we first asked to do this, we were asked to play a 40-minute set. And we soon realised we couldn't. If we go out and play No Quarter, Moby Dick and Dazed and Confused with all the solos, you're already talking over an hour. We've gone from 75 minutes to 90, to the best part of two hours.

Back in the day that would have been a pretty short show by Zeppelin standards.

There's no way I can take on playing three-and-a-half-hour sets now, flying against the winds and the storms, because I just don't have that energy any more. But I've still got enough to get me through a two-hour set. Coming back to Led Zeppelin's music after all these years, the challenge is to post as much of it as we can, and the question is, "Which ones can we actually play?"

And which ones can you?

It's the real character numbers that we'll be doing.

Like Kashmir?

Absolutely. Kashmir actually isn't that difficult, but it helps to have a drummer who understands the part and a bass player who can play bass with his feet. Sometimes it sounds like John's got three feet. It's intense.

Have your solo careers changed the dynamic within the band?

Well, they've both been really active in their solo capacities. John Paul Jones, these days, likes travelling around with just a mandolin case and I totally understand that. Robert's had various incarnations. Everybody's grown.

Does that mean that you'll feel stronger now as a unit than you did in 1980?

Well, I wouldn't have said 1980 because that was when John [bonham]died. During the '70s I was living Led Zeppelin, we all were, but there's more maturity now. There's more of a retrospect intelligence applied this time, if you like.

Why has it taken 27 years for Led Zeppelin to regroup, to pull a proper show together?

I don't know... Aah, the time was never right, erm, other things took over. It might have been better to come back earlier. But it is what it is right now. And it's better for us to do it now than to wait for another 10 years when we really need Zimmer frames to get onstage.

You sound like you've rather missed being in Led Zeppelin.

I have, of course. I think any remaining member has missed the experience of playing with Led Zeppelin. The journey we were collectively on was unique. There has never been a band like it, and it doesn't look like there will be now, either.

Would this reunion have happened if it hadn't been for the death of Ahmet Ertegun?

I can't speculate on that.

What did he mean to the band?

He was passionate about R&B music and he built his label on that passion. He even used to come on tour with us, which was pretty much unheard of for a label boss in those days. I've stayed with him in his home in Barbados and hung out with him, holding court in these really seedy clubs, getting more and more tipsy as the night went on. He never commented on our music but I think he liked the quality of our musicianship. He had a really interesting circle of friends. At his memorial service you were hard pressed to spot musicians. ['70s US polititians]Henry Kissinger gave an address.

Are you really putting in all these weeks of rehearsal for just that one show?

We have just got one show. I must say that after our initial get-together it was exhilarating and fun that I did feel I would like to do more. I don't wanna play shows that aren't fun any more. I've gone back to my philosophy of the '70s, which was to enjoy myself.

Would you like to record some new material with Led Zeppelin?

I would like to keep this moving. I've got things that I've been working on for the past four years that I'm proud of. Some of the songs I've got ready are as good as anything I've done in my past. I wouldn't necessarily save them for my solo career.

How do you imagine you will be feeling before you go onstage on the night?

With Zeppelin I always used to get an adrenaline rush, which at first I thought was stage fright. But to be honest it's not the gig I find daunting, it's all the backstage nonsense you get at a Led Zeppelin show. All the people milling around, the security and the general madness, which are worse now Peter [Grant, late Zeppelin manager]isn't around and we've got our own manager. Music is our common denominator and we should be able to have a laugh, but... let's put it this way, it's a complicated process.

At this point Page raises his hand, narrows his crinkly eyes in a submissive grin and pleads to be spared more questions. The moment the recorder is switched off, he becomes instantly more relaxed and chatty, nattering animatedly about everything from his concerns about the O2's acoustics to his jou at the recent birth of his first granddaughter - the child of his daughter, rock photographer Scarlet Page. Off the record he's more frank roo about his hope that this one-off reunion might lead to something more extensive next year. "But at the moment it's not looking good," he concludes, sadly.

JPJLunel.jpg

The cloud of apprehension hanging over Jimmy Page is noticeably absent in the West London hotel room where, a few days earlier, Q catches up with John Paul Jones. Back in Zeppelin's glory days, the shag-haired bass and keyboard player cut a shadowy figure, lurking at the back of the stage next to John Bonham, and seldom speaking to the press. Today, he's a giggly, wizened sprite with an engagingly dishevelled air and acrooked grin that's reminiscent of Old Man Steptoe's.

Not that there's anythign cockney about this ex-public schoolboy who learned alot of his music in church and, so the story went, considered leaving Led Zeppelin in 1973 to take up a position as a choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. Still married to the same woman after 41 years - a rare feat for a rock deity that only Charlie Watts has surpassed - Jones has always seemed socially aloof from Page and Plant. This impression strengthened his snippy remark at the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995, sarcastically thanking his "friends" for inviting him along. But there's no trace of rancour in his manner now; and he appears more comfortable with himself, and with the giant role he has just taken on again, than does Jimmy.

How are you all getting along after such a long lay-off?

We get along fine. We've actually been meeting quite regularly over the years for business meetings. We'd been seeing a lot of one another before this reunion came up because of the re-release of The Song Remains The Same. The thing is, we have never socialised. As soon as we left the road we never saw each other, which I always thought contributed to the longevity and harmony of the band. We weren't friends. We weren't like a group that grew up together and made it big. Led Zeppelin wasn't manufactured exactly, but it was put together by Jimmy.

But weren't you and Jimmy friends from the days you worked together as session musicians?

Even though I'd see him in the studio every day, we never socialised. The rule with studio sessions in those days was you didn't book your mates. Anyway, Jimmy did mostly group work, I did more solo mainstream stuff. The first I knew about Zeppelin was when Mo, my wife, read in Disc Weekly that Jimmy Page was forming a new band. She got me to call him up because she knew I was going loopy with session work. So I did.

What was the first song you played when you started rehearsing again this year?

I can't remember. I can remember the first song I played with Led Zeppelin in a tiny basement room in Soho in 1968, with wall-to-wall amps. That was Train Kept A-Rollin', which I didn't know at the time. But I knew immediately, "This is fun."

Can you remember anything you've rehearsed recently?

Kashmir's been fun, providing I don't get stuck in the riff, because nobody can get out of it. For Your Life feels good, mainly because we've never played it much. It all feels quite fresh to me because I haven't played any of this stuff for years and I never listen to the records at home. Never did. Jason makes it more interesting too because he's not trying to reassemble things exactly the way his father did.

Was Jason the only drummer you considered? Dave Grohl must have been dissapointed you didn't ask him...

Him and a few hundred others probably. I love Dave and I enjoyed playing on that Foo Fighters album [Jones appeared on two tracks on 2005's In Your Honour]. But Jason was our first choice. He's fun to have around. In the '80s we didn't want to draw him into all that Zeppelin stuff. We thought he should have his own career. But he's in his 40s now. Plus he knows all the songs. Really knows them. He's always saying things like, "Do you wanna play this like the version you did it in 75?"

Can he wallop the kit as hard as his dad?

There's nothing lacking in the way Jason hits the drums.

How are things between Robert and Jimmy currently?

They seem to be having a great time. Jimmy's on form. Robert doesn't have quite the high notes that he used to.

How do you feel about him not speaking about this reunion, which he apparently set in motion?

Bastard! [Laughs]Typical bloody singers, I say. He was the one who started all this, because he was a great friend of Ahmet's. They were very close. Knowing Robert, he thought we'd get together, do a few songs, have a good time, go home and sink a few pints, and that would be it. That's how he is. He probably didn't anticipate 120 million hits [sic]on the website. I know he's comitted to what we're doing. But he's not there, is he? He's off promoting somethign else and ha left us all to do the work, the way singers do.

So if it hadn'tbeen for Ahmet's death, Robert wouldn't have got involved in this.

Probably not.

Have you personally ever wanted to re-form Led Zeppelin before?

Not really. Being in Led Zeppelin was a bit like being captive to a great beast. Once it was up and running, that was it. It took over your life. As it happened, at the time that John died I had just moved to Devon to bring up my family, so after the split I was completely out of everything, and I must say I didn't miss it.

Amazing that your marriage survived Led Zeppelin in the '70s...

As chronicled by our old roadie Richard Cole in Hammer Of The Gods. Yeah, right. There are some very funny stories in that book, but oh, so innacurate. There were other bands that were far worse than us. The Who used to blow things up! Most of the towns we played in America in those days everybody went to bed at 10:30. Everywhere closed around the time we played Whole Lotta Love. The truth is always more boring than the myth. The truth is that being in Led Zeppelin was bloody hard work. We'd play for two or three hours; sometimes four hours. We were very focused.

There must have been some huge sums offered in the past for you to re-form.

Do you want a loan? Look, I don't turn money down, but I've never been tempted. I'm notoriously fickle like that. If I don't want to do something because I won't enjoy it, then I won't do it. That's how it is for all of us. We have never had a serious dissagreement over money. Yes, we've been offered hundreds of millions of dollars to tour North America but we've never got anywhere near accepting.

How about now? Might there be more shows to follow the O2?

I have no idea. I guess the door has been left slightly ajar. We'll have to see how we feel about it afterwards. Everybody's got to really want to do it. I'm scheduled to produce an album by Sara Watkins of Nickle Creek early next year. And what I really like to play these days is old-time bluegrass music on the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. There is actually a bluegrass version of Whole Lotta Love that a band called The Ducks do.

I sense that you probably won't be getting out your old triple-neck guitar for the Zeppelin Reunion.

No, I won't. And I won't be turning up with a mellotron, either. It was great but in those days playing one of those things was a tussle. You never know what it was going to do.

John Paul Jones stands up. He's sorry but he has to go home, where he's taking a delivery of a new keyboard. Home these days is the house in West London that he and Mo moved into after their now grown-up children flew the nest in Devon. Even though Jones lives only a short drive from Page's place in Holland Park, the two men won't be meeting up before the band's next rehearsal. Outside of their musical comittments, the closest thing to a social encounter Led Zeppelin have planned over the next few weeks is a business meeting to discuss the current Best of compilation, Mothership, another timely piece of catalogue churn by those clever people at Atlantic/Warners aimed at that growing section of Zeppelin fans who were born after the band broke up.

"I must say it's flattering that people are still listening to us," Jones says, with a parting beam. "Actually, it's more than flattering. It's sweet." Q

Edited by Bonham

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I loved Q Mag and still have every copy up to and including the one where they interviewed Westlife. I hadn't bought a copy since until this one with a genuine picture of the 3 of them together on the cover.

Unfortunate that Planty got them together and then didn't do any publicity for the gig (not that it needs any!).

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Yea, I'm guessing a few Brits on the forums here have already read this interview and have the magazine - If you're a British Zeppelin fan and you see Led Zeppelin on the cover of a magazine, there's no way you can miss the chance to snatch it up!

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No problem, guys. Just doing one for the team. :P

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