The following is an exclusive extract from Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters, a superb new book by Daniel Rachel published this month by Picador. Inspired by Paul Zollo’s seminal Songwriters on Songwriting, Rachel has managed to bring together a truly impressive ensemble of British tunesmiths, including Ray Davies, Jarvis Cocker, Mick Jones, Robin Gibb (why the hell not!) and Johnny Marr, among others. The results are hugely enjoyable, and the mind veritably boggles imagining the kind of cajoling and legwork Rachel must have put in to coax this rich and eclectic ensemble out of their country piles—not least the notoriously taciturn, the notoriously notorious Jimmy Page…
Daniel Rachel: Do you have any introductory thoughts about songwriting?
Jimmy Page: I know what my contribution is and I know how that kicks off in the early stages. Coming from the guitarist’s point of view, I’ll start with the music first. That’s the essence of the key ideas and then I’ll work on those. Sometimes I’ve written the lyrics myself. For example, on the first Led Zeppelin album I had a number of things where I had the chorus, like ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ . . . well, that line gets repeated a number of times so there’s not a lot of lyrics in that (laughs). ‘Good Times Bad Times’ I wrote the chorus. I had the music for it and I was writing for this thing that was going to be put together for the band. The whole thing on ‘Good Times Bad Times’ is recognized by John Bonham’s bass drum, isn’t it? Initially I had a sketch for it and then Robert supplied lyrics to the verses. I was very keen on concentrating on the music, and whoever I was going to be working with, for them to be coming up with lyrics. I didn’t think that my lyrics were necessarily good enough. Maybe they were in certain cases, but I preferred that very close working relationship with whoever was singing, whether it be Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers or David Coverdale. The starting point would always be coming from the music, whether I had written that acoustically or electrically.
Daniel Rachel: It’s very noticeable in your music how song structures seem far more classical than pop in their construction.
Jimmy Page: Well, very much so, because I had very much the view that the music could set the scene. One of the things that you’ll see in the Led Zeppelin music is that every song is different to the others. Each one has its own character; musically as much as lyrically. For example, ‘Ten Years Gone’ or ‘The Rain Song’, which has got a whole orchestral piece before the vocal even comes in. So yes, it was crafted in such a way that the music was really of paramount importance to setting the scene and most probably inspired the singer, in this case Robert, to get set into the overall emotion, the ambience of the track of what was being presented, and then hopefully inspire him to the lyrics.
Often we just had working titles. A good example of this and how it would change and mutate was ‘The Song Remains The Same’ leading into ‘The Rain Song’. The original idea I had for that was an overture—as ‘Song Remains The Same’ is—leading into an orchestral part for ‘The Rain Song’. I had a mellotron and I’d worked out an idea—John Paul Jones did it much better than me—coming into the very first verse. If it’d worked that way there wouldn’t have been any vocal until the first verse, you would have had this whole overture of guitars and then into the orchestral thing that opened up into the first verse. But as it was, when we were rehearsing it then it actually became a song; the structure changed, there was another bit put in and then Robert started singing.That wasn’t a bad idea to have an overture, a whole musical segment that took you into ‘The Rain Song’, but it worked out really well as it was (laughs). Whatever it was you were constantly thinking all the time about it.
Daniel Rachel: Writing in movements was a very unusual step to take as a songwriter, considering Led Zeppelin was preceded by predominantly verse, chorus structures to suit the three-minute single format.
Jimmy Page: Although I’ve already said on the first album there were some choruses there, it got to the point where some of the things didn’t have what you’d call the hook. The reason was we weren’t actually writing music that was designed to go on the AM stations in the States at the time. You had FM, that were called the underground stations, and they would be playing whole sides of albums. Well, that’s a dream, isn’t it?—because people are going to get to hear—it’s not necessarily a concept album—the whole body of work that you’re doing on one side of an album and on the other. That was really a nice way to be able to craft the music into that. It was going to go like that anyway, but it was just really useful. The essence of the contents of these albums was going contraflow to everything else that was going on, and again this was intentional. Whereas on Zeppelin II you’ve got ‘Whole Lotta Love’, on Zeppelin III . . . with other bands it’d be something very close or reflective of if they’d got some sort of hit, and we just weren’t doing that. We were summing up the overall mood and where we were on that musical journey at each point in time.
Daniel Rachel: Did you write songs in sections and then join together collated ideas?
I worked very much in that way. I’d be working at home on various ideas and when we were working on something in a group situation I’d think, ‘Oh, I know what I’m going to put in this,’ if you hadn’t already put it together. Some things, I had them really mapped out, and other things—this is as the group goes on—would be on the spot. ‘Ramble On’ and‘What Is And What Should Never Be’: I had those structures complete.
Daniel Rachel: Can you explain how a riff comes to you?
Jimmy Page: A riff will come out of . . . this whole thing of do you practise at home and all that. Well, I play at home and before I knew where I was things would be coming out and that’s those little sections or riffs or whatever. At that stage it’s selection and rejection. It’s whether you continue with something or you go, ‘No that’s too much like something else,’ and then you move into something else. If you’ve got an idea and you think that’s quite interesting then I’d work and build on it at home. ‘Rock And Roll’ was something that came purely out of the ether. We were working on something else and John Bonham happened to play—just as you do sometimes, because we were recording—this intro from ‘Keep A-Knockin’’ from Little Richard and I went, ‘Oh, that’s it!’—I did this chord and half a riff that was in my head – ‘Let’s do this.’ It was really quick to do and we could write like that.
Get yourself a copy of Isle of Noises right here
Below, Jimmy Page gets his Chopin on at the ARMS Concert: