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Zep Lively LED ZEPPELIN look back lovingly on their loud-rock legacy


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Zep Lively: With an epic concert DVD about to drop, LED ZEPPELIN look back lovingly on their loud-rock legacy.

Author(s):Tom Sinclair.

Source:Entertainment Weekly June 6, 2003

I am eating the ham of the gods. Okay, it's actually half of a ham salad sandwich. But it's Jimmy Page's ham salad sandwich--and he's sharing it with me. As rock-critic career highlights go, chowing down with J.P. ranks up there with scoring an interview with Elvis or being asked to jam with Hendrix in the great beyond--an event so impossibly cool you hope to one day actually have grandchildren just so you can tell them about it. Valhalla, I am coming.

Pagey (as his--ahem--friends call him) and I are sitting in an oak-paneled room in England's tony Sir Christopher Wren's House Hotel, a stone's throw from Windsor Palace. Looking at him today, it's hard to believe this is the erstwhile whip-wielding, groupie-terrorizing, potions-and powders-imbibing, Aleister Crowley-worshiping Uberguitarist, who led Led Zeppelin, the four-piece he assembled in 1968, to chart-topping heights in the '70s, creating a hard-rock archetype that has yet to be equaled. Now short of hair, prim of posture, and conservative of dress, Page, 59, resembles nothing so much as a middle-aged university professor.

The rock deity is here to discuss the twin projects he has been working on for the past couple of years: a five-and-a-half-hour DVD of vintage Zeppelin concert performances and a three-CD live set, How the West Was Won (both released May 27). He feels especially pleased with the DVD (rather prosaically titled Led Zeppelin DVD), a chronological sampling of the band's live shows from 1970 to '79, when Zep broke up after the drug-related death of drummer John Bonham.

"Early on, we decided that Led Zeppelin was an ambient group and that the best way to experience us was in a concert hall," says Page. "Because we seldom appeared on television, there wasn't a lot of footage from across the years. In 1976, we did put out [the concert movie] The Song Remains the Same, but that was it as far as visual documents went."

Until now. For those who never saw Zep live, the DVD will prove conclusively that all this "Hammer of the Gods" talk wasn't just blarney. Even if you're among those who could live quite happily without ever again hearing "Stairway to Heaven," this will transport you right back to your days as a stoner school brat skulking around with "Dazed and Confused" stuck on endless replay in your addled mind. The earliest footage, from a 1970 Royal Albert Hall show, reveals a young band brimming with sass, confidence, and chops, delivering supremely potent versions of such soon-to-be classic-rock staples as "Communication Breakdown" and "What Is and What Should Never Be." Highlights abound throughout: Page's dizzying dance through "The Ocean," from a '73 Madison Square Garden show; a chill-inducing reading of "Since I Been Lovin' You," from the same show; a brain-frying rendition of the slide-guitar jamboree "In My Time of Dying," from Earls Court in 1975. And if you don't bust out laughing in glee at the expression of sheer delight on Page's face as, cigarette dangling, he rips into the mammoth stuttering riff from "Whole Lotta Love," well, you must be dead.

"I think people responded to the sort of freedom the band [exemplified]," says Page. "Whatever night it would be, the concert that preceded it would be different, and the concert that followed it would be different. We were really living on the edge and establishing ourselves as an improvisational unit."

Speaking of living on the edge, just how does the 2003-model Page look back on those heady days of drugs and debauchery that fueled so much rock mythology?

"By the time we got to '71-72, we were doing three, three-and-a-half-hour sets," he says. "If you listened to what we were playing, the power we were channeling--well, what would you have done after that sort of adrenaline rush? Gone to have a swim, or home to your slippers and a cup of cocoa? It certainly didn't occur to me to do that. It did occur to me to enjoy myself and have a damn good time. And I did."

Led Zeppelin DVD had to be cobbled together from footage and tapes gathered from widely disparate sources, including bootleggers. The three remaining Zeppelin men--singer Robert Plant, 54, and bassist John Paul Jones, 57, are the others, in case you just dropped in from Uranus--worked side by side in darkened editing rooms on the project. Yet each opts to be interviewed separately, and one gets the impression that much of the communication between them is done via middlemen and intermediaries. "I don't even have John Paul Jones' phone number," says Page.

"I'll give it to him," laughs Plant the next day at his management office in West London when Page's statement is repeated to him. With his lined, haggard features, there's no mistaking Plant for the strutting, rutting golden rock god of bygone days. Still, he retains a cocksure ease, a natural insouciance that reminds you that you're sitting before one of the few men alive who once turned grown women (and men) to mush simply by singing "Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg" in a strangled castrato.

He is refreshingly hubris-free, too. When I start going on about Zep's "erotic appeal" and the inherent sexuality of their music, he corrects my terminology with a laugh: "It was quite horny, wan'it?"

While seemingly not as stoked about the DVD as Page, Plant does allow that it captures Zeppelin at the peak of their powers. "I'm proud of the consciousness that was within us, the intention to constantly expand and develop the extremes of the music," he says.

Which brings us to the question of the hour: With all this newly minted vintage Zep product to whet fans' appetites, is there any chance of a Led Zeppelin reunion?

"Every time I read the comments of my two fellows in the press, they give a different response to that question," says Plant. "To actually compete with what we've already done is a task for the gods. For it to make any sense, it has to be considered whether or not anyone really needs it."

"Every year you hear somebody saying, 'A Led Zeppelin reunion could be the biggest tour ever!'" says a bemused Jones, lounging in a London hotel. "But nobody's discussed anything with me."

Led Zeppelin pulled the plug on itself as a direct result of losing Bonham, one of the most powerful and versatile rock drummers of all time. "There was no conceivable way anyone could replace him," says Page.

In 1985, Phil Collins, of all people, played drums at Live Aid with the three Zep-men; his ragged performance earned him Page's undying ire. "Robert told me Phil Collins wanted to play with us," says Page. "I told him that was all right if he knows the numbers. But at the end of the day, he didn't know anything. We played 'Whole Lotta Love' and he was just there bashing away cluelessly and grinning. I thought that was really a joke."

So, okay, Phil won't be getting a call if the Zep reunion ever happens. But will it ever?

"The only way I could see it happening," says Page, "would be if we could get together in a room and look each other in the eye and play and still be able to have a smile behind those eyes. Then I might think, 'Yeah, that's a good reason to consider doing something.'"

If rock history has taught us anything, it's that not reuniting is often a far better idea than getting back together only to disappoint the fans. No amount of crystal-ball gazing or palm reading will foretell if a reconstituted Led Zeppelin will rise again. Page, for one, is just happy that he has documented his band's salad days. "We were making music, both on record and in a live-performance situation, that made people happy and even inspired some of them to pick up instruments," he says. "What more can you expect from life than that?"

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"The only way I could see it happening," says Page, "would be if we could get together in a room and look each other in the eye and play and still be able to have a smile behind those eyes. Then I might think, 'Yeah, that's a good reason to consider doing something.'"

Love this quote, as that is exactly how it turned out.

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