Stealing a Les Paul from Jimmy Page was
something even more serious than stealing his girlfriend. That said, there was
nothing very serious about Jimmy’s life during Led Zeppelin’s decade-long
reign in the world of rock. I’m talking here about the groupies - his real
world -, not the fictitious one when he would leave his guitar behind and head
home. A girl in Los Angeles could be traded in for a younger one - criminally,
adolescently younger - on his return visit, and his fidelity to the wide-eyed
half-caste was no greater than to the other curvaceous ladies he ran his hands
over every night.
Besides the buzz of acquiring this great relic and causing its infidelity by having one’s evil way with it, there is also the fetishism of knowing that within that 3 humbuckers and Bigsby tailpiece’s Les Paul there lies an essential part of the ‘Brown Bomber’s’ soul, the guitar Page used to make ‘Led Zeppelin II’…A 1960 Gibson Les Paul is a sight to see, much like that 14-year-old ‘Black Beauty’ taking the place of the usual blonde. Perhaps because he had grown tired of her aging body, who knows? Whatever the reason, the days of the ‘Dragon Tele’ were over.
The thief, his identity a mystery since that fateful day in April 1970, was not making off with the ’61 Telecaster that made the ‘Led Zeppelin I’ sound…
Much like the soon-to-be-forgotten girls herded into satanic-sexual rituals, in those years the musicians would flit from group to group, and it was not uncommon for them to gift, swap or just steal each other’s guitars as they did so. Jeff Beck, before dying of jealousy and leaving the Yardbirds because Page could make his ladies cry better than he could, gave Page that Telecaster as a mate would pass on a telephone number of a girl he was wanting to get shut of, she’s a cracker, you’ll see, you’ll get along great guns, me? I’m after something new, looking for a different scream, know what I mean?
Having the same Les Paul that Page was strumming towards the end of 1969 was something like becoming a little bit like him, finding a little bit of ecstasy hidden in its interior. However, there is a secret unknown to the beginner, only in the hands of the virtuosos - it doesn’t matter if they steal your guitar; the notes are in your fingers.
You have to know how to make the transitive causative and vice versa. Page doesn’t play the guitar, he doesn’t strum it or pluck at it; he makes it sing, has it shout, gets it to scream for him. On playing an electric guitar, he doesn’t see what can be done with it, but rather what to do with it in order to get what he’s looking for. To do that, he studied tirelessly before going out onto the road and cutting a vinyl in the studios.
…scurrying along the airport corridors with the guitar case of this living legend in his sweaty hands, he wondered if it just might be the Danelectro 3021 that he used to play with the Yardbirds…
Jimmy Page, one of the best electric guitar players in history, reached this status having been surrounded by amps, stacks and strings for years, trying things out, listening to and trying to emulate the mystery of sound and rhythm. Asking questions, taking risks, hell-bent on understanding all the instrument’s hidden treasures. On his television debut, an acned Page with his shirt collars sticking out over his jersey played skiffle together with his hometown mates. Just a few years later, before celebrating his 20th birthday, he was already hailed as an expert musician. The Yardbirds had to knock on his door three times before he made them ‘his’ group, despite the presence of the prodigious Beck or Clapton’s slow hand.
And so Page, a man that dabbled with theremin in order to dream of being a guitar and who took a violoncello bow to one of his performances, didn’t really care how many guitars he had in his collection. The notes were inside him and his job was finding the necessary contraption that would help him get them out correctly.
Led Zeppelin also came about in the same way - when everything was ‘right’, when everything came into place: Page had learnt his newfound language perfectly, and knew exactly what he wanted to say with it. The band’s birth didn’t occur overnight. The guitarist recruited Plant, John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham and John Paul Jones after gradually confirming that each one was perfect for the sound he was looking for, how they compensated for and complemented each other, playing off each other to perfection: Robert Plant, whose blonde throat roared in harmony with Page’s powerful guitar solos. Bonzo’s frenetic hands on the drums, giving structure and depth to the base rhythm. The thoughtful punctuation given to the songs by the bass and keyboards of JPJ…
…it couldn’t be the Gibson EDS-1275 Doubleneck, either; this was an everyday case and anyway Page hadn’t as yet shown the almost sitar-like sounds that he could get from that double neck in public…
One thing is that it gets your back up to be criticised or pigeon-holed as a heavy metal group, another is not to be proud of being the founder of its birth: it was on 28th January, 1969 at the Boston Tea Party. After an hour and a half playing in a gig that was meant to last for just an hour, Page noticed that the youngsters in the front rows were all hypnotically wagging their heads up and down to the rhythm. That was indeed heavy.
With just the one record out on the streets, they could not as yet be considered the greatest rock band in the world. Or rather, the world just didn’t know it yet, as their music was a new branch that had sprouted from the musical tree, whose roots were the time-old negro blues from which had arisen r’n’b, rock’n’roll, skiffle, beat and from these, pop. Things as they were, the specialised press could only see the new hymn for a generation ‘Whole lotta love’ as a poor copy of Muddy Waters’ ‘You need love’ - something, if we disregard the negative intent for a moment, is to a large degree correct. Whatever - for their part, Page and company couldn’t care less. They kept to their way of playing - pure energy, ripping power and a subtle balance between ecstasy and tranquillity.
Between the making of ‘Led Zeppelin I’ and ‘Led Zeppelin II’, Jimmy had swapped the Telecaster for a Les Paul. And it wasn’t just the sound that had changed. The group’s identity was also another. It was now no longer ‘his’ group, but rather a group.
The process between the two albums was that of a band squeezing all the juice out of a lemon. It was time to get the music to their potential fans, many of whom had heard of the band, but little else. This was a time without Spotify, with precious few vinyl records made and badly distributed. Of these, almost none of them were singles. They scrounged minutes of studio time or stole whole hours in order to record and mix their second album while they travelled the length and breadth of the USA extolling their musical vision. Just months after releasing ‘I’, they brought out ‘II’. A few months after that, ‘Whole lotta love’ was quenching the fans’ thirst for a new sound, fans who now looked on the hairy Jimmy, Robert, Bonzo and John Paul as the new disciples of rock.
Each band has its own voice. Led Zeppelin was the personification of Page’s siren-like guitar sound. And of its style, the exquisite mixing, turning the raw power into a delicacy… A tense silence that precedes the machine gun, a long corridor with a switch at the end to turn on the heavy machinery, with an insane orchestra conductor to bring order out of the chaos, beauty from the agonic metallic screams. Within the giant zeppelin, four hairy figures sweat away in the machine-room, propelling themselves towards infernal fame and glory.
The rumour-mill never stopped turning when it came to Page. Stories were abound regarding his supposed connections to Mysticism and even Satanism. The majority of them were fanned by the guitarist himself. What is true is that by creating a sound never before heard, he played the part of Lord and Creator of the world’s greatest rock band. This new sound, the Zeppelin sound, was designed to both shock and delight, with great mood swings from absolute peace to the hellish roar of fire and brimstone.
Why follow the norm of verse, chorus, verse? I’ll do that when it’s the way I want to tell it. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of other musicians’ notes if I know that the way I’m going to play them will give them a whole new meaning? Didn’t Picasso have his own take on ‘Las Meninas’? Why talk to the press, if our music talks for itself? Why deny? Why admit? Why compromise? Are we not the gods of our own work?
…So, which one was this Les Paul? The ‘number one’, the ‘two’, the Custom 60?…Is this really one of Jimmy Page’s guitars?…
Page’s performances are said to be versatile, as is Zeppelin’s style. A heavy metal group would never have played Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. Or maybe they would have, but only after it had already been done. Led Zeppelin were not really a heavy metal, they just used it as a vehicle to express themselves. That is the difference between creating your own sound and looking for one. Between blazing your own trail and following in someone else’s.
In Page’s bible, be it satanical or not, one may start off with pre-existing musical structures, as the message in the lyrics is not supported by these notes but by the way they are played. The secret is in how the notes leave your fingers, not which ones they are or through which instrument they come from…
So, kid, keep your Les Paul, enjoy it as you would a trophy, because you went get one single note out of it like Jimmy did back in ’69.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t such an important instrument. Okay, it might have been the beast behind ‘Whole lotta Love’, but had nothing to do with the other brown bomber pieces. In fact, the Gibson Les Paul that was stolen in the Canadian airport in April 1970 was not even the guitar that gave fruit to ‘The Lemon Song’ or that sang ‘Thank you’…All that was done by Page’s ‘number one’, which has since taken on a near mythical status.
Except for Page that is, master of notes, sorcerer of sounds, lord of the guitars.