Jimmy Page: Master of excess

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The Independent Online

It is one of the most instantly recognisable guitars in the history of rock'n'pop, up there with Paul McCartney's long, slender bass and the bulky acoustic with which Elvis Presley cavorted on many of his early hits. Aficionados know it as the Gibson EDS-1275. To the rest of us, it is the outlandish double-neck guitar made famous by the musician widely regarded as without equal among exponents of the instrument – Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

With its 12-string neck above and its six-string neck below – the product, it seemed, of a particularly preposterous exercise in customisation – Page's guitar was paraded as much as an item of military hardware as something to pick tunes out of: a double-barrelled weapon that summed up everything that was over-the-top about Led Zep and the often bludgeoning music with which they excavated an entire new realm of rock in the early 1970s.

For Page, an art-college drop-out from Epsom in Surrey who worked his passage as a session player before the glory years of Led Zep, the discovery of the instrument was, he said in 2006, "almost a calling". But then Led Zep were like that. In no way formally religious, their music none the less dealt in myth and deeper powers and sacred relics and strange symbolism, and it stirred the souls of adolescent males like nothing before or since.

The concept of the "stadium" rock band really began with Led Zeppelin. With their albums selling by the multi-million, they bestrode the world's biggest concert venues with music that overwhelmed the listener. And because it was guitars-and-drums massively amplified, and the riffs seemed to travel via Valhalla, it got labelled heavy metal when, as any Led Zep fan will tell you, there was far more to it than that. And the dark heart of Led Zep was Jimmy Page, a man who acquired notoriety through his fascination with the occult (he was a follower of Aleister Crowley and even bought the house that the early 20th-century mystic once lived in) and who, in the band's heyday, found that strong drugs were an indispensable part of the creative process.

Now Page and Led Zep's other surviving members are back – the latest in an ever-growing list of rock gods who, once content to remain tucked away on one of Mount Olympus's high pastures and sleep off the years of excess, have found the lure of the reunion gig is just too strong to resist. The performance – at London's O2 Arena at the end of November – will be the band's first of any substance for 27 years, part of a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the revered boss of Atlantic Records who died last December.

The announcement of the concert this week provoked a surge of interest extraordinary even by reunion-gig standards. Websites crashed under the weight of two million hits and it was decided to put all the applications for tickets into a ballot. At £125 a pop, the price is clearly not the slightest deterrent to a fan base which is now well into middle age and whose career trajectories are probably at their peak.

Page himself is now 63. Of Led Zep's three other original members, only vocalist Robert Plant, 59, and bassist John Paul Jones, 61, will be there to join him on stage. The original drummer, John Bonham, drank himself to death in 1980 at the age of 32 (prompting the immediate dissolution of the band) and his place will be taken by his son, Jason.

Fans lucky enough to be there on the night will need no convincing that they are in the presence of genius. If Plant was the voice of Led Zep, then Page was its guiding light instrumentally and compositionally – a virtuoso who constructed cathedrals of sound that combined both grandeur and intimacy and whose finger technique has always been regarded with awe in rock circles. Both a guitarists' guitarist and idolised by fans, Page was placed at No 9 in a 2003 Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Jimi Hendrix was at No 1 and the only Briton above Page was Eric Clapton at No 4.

But music writer Mark Ellen, editor of The Word magazine, still thinks that Page's brilliance goes under-appreciated. "The whole Led Zeppelin story is so overshadowed by all that clichéd old bollocks about 'the rampaging rock Visigoths looting and plundering their way through the stadiums of the universe' that people forget the astonishing technical virtuosity of the whole escapade," he says. "Jimmy Page's guitar playing on 'Since I've Been Loving You' is one of the single greatest performances I've ever heard in my life – as good as John Coltrane, Eric Clapton, Miles Davis or anyone. I still listen to it once a week. It manages to combine all that rock'*'roll flash and sizzle with the most howling and soulful expression of the blues – and nearly all of it off the beat."

Page and Clapton go back a long way, to when they were both forging their careers in London in the mid-1960s. Page, whose father worked in personnel and whose mother was a doctor's secretary, had begun playing the guitar at the age of 12, influenced by Elvis's guitarist Scotty Moore, and by his mid-teens was recording with artists who ranged from Marianne Faithfull to the Kinks. He really established himself in the Yardbirds – of whom Clapton had recently ceased to be a member – before Led Zeppelin were formed in 1968.

The music scene was in a state of convulsion. "Pop" was giving way to "rock". The Rolling Stones were entering one of their darkest phases. The Beatles, themselves deeply troubled, had just followed Sgt Pepper with the "White Album". Hippie idealism had soured. At the same time, new studio techniques were opening up hitherto unimaginable sonic possibilities, and all these forces seemed to come together in Led Zeppelin.

What followed over the next few years was a succession of albums – Led Zeppelins I, II, III, and (unofficially) IV, the titles all styled with somewhat portentous Roman numerals – that made no concession to commercialism but instead reached a vast audience that was open to rock music of a much more serious kind than had been available before and was looking beyond the singles chart for its musical nourishment. (Led Zep hardly bothered with singles).

Danger was in the air, never more so than on what many regard as Led Zep's masterpiece, the 1975 double album, Physical Graffiti. Heavy metal and prog rock were at their height, and Led Zep were both of these things and more. "One of the reasons their music is so rich and colourful," says Ellen, "is all the different influences that fed into it – from Elmore James or rhythm and blues right across the scale to Davy Graham or Pentangle. I interviewed Page once and he constantly emphasised the 'light and shade' of Led Zeppelin and all its gradations of volume and texture. The problem for the majority of the rock bands in their shadow is that they only listened to Led Zeppelin and consequently produced music that was virtually one-dimensional."

Page was a master of studio techniques who played around with microphones, fuzz boxes and guitars to achieve astonishing effects. Like a lot of great artists, he stayed one step ahead of his audience's expectations, to the extent that Led Zeppelin III – a high-point of English pastoralism, heavily influenced by the country's folk traditions – confounded listeners who were still getting off on dense, violent, and head-banging tracks like Led Zeppelin II's "Whole Lotta Love".

Page's finest hour – or rather, finest eight minutes and one second – came on Led Zeppelin IV with "Stairway to Heaven", probably the band's most celebrated track. Co-written with Plant, as most of the band's tracks were, "Stairway" is an epic that perfectly encapsulates Page's "light and shade" approach to composition, starting slowly and delicately before heading off into much darker musical territory, where it is embellished by a Page solo that has been voted the greatest guitar solo of all time. It was for "Stairway", more than any other track, that Page needed his double-neck Gibson EDS-1275. If Led Zeppelin don't perform the song at the O2, punters will probably demand their £125 back. But they might have to settle for a cut-down version. The band have agreed to just a 30-minute set, but also to perform "all their hits".

Said to be the most requested song on American radio, "Stairway to Heaven" for many people came to symbolise the worst excesses of mid-1970s "pomp" rock – overblown, pretentious nonsense – and therefore deserving of the obliteration that the arrival of punk rock almost instantly conferred upon it. Certainly by the late 1970s, groups like Led Zeppelin had gone cripplingly out of fashion but, 30 years later, nothing in music is beyond reappraisal, and the last few days show that the band's hold over people's imaginations is still very powerful. But beyond that? "The only significance," says Mark Ellen, "is that it's their first step towards doing what everyone else is doing: capitalising on the fact that – like The Police, like anyone with any world profile – if you split up in the 1980s and reform in the 21st century, you discover your audience is 10 times as big as it was."

Page has remained active in music throughout the years since Led Zep broke up. Twice the surviving members briefly got together – for the Live Aid concert in 1985 and for an Atlantic Records show in 1988 – and Plant and Page formed a successful duo in the 1990s.

Through his wife Jimena's organisation Action for Brazil's Children, Page has been heavily involved in charity work, for which he received an OBE in 2005. He is also an honorary citizen of Rio de Janeiro. He has a photographer daughter, Scarlet, from a previous relationship.

During his career, Page has built up a collection of some 1,500 guitars. And now the moment has come to dust a few off and remind people what he can do with them.

A Life in Brief

Born James Patrick Page, 9 January 1944, Heston, Middlesex.

Education First picked up a guitar at 12 and tried to mimic Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis Presley. Two years later, Page appeared on Huw Wheldon's All Your Own talent contest in a skiffle band. He left school at 14 to pursue his music career, joining the band Neil Christian & the Crusaders.

Career He soon became one of the most prolific session musicians in England, playing with bands such as the Who and the Kinks. In 1966, he joined the Yardbirds, first as bassist and then as a guitarist alongside Jeff Beck. A reshuffle saw Page link up with Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones to form a group initially called the New Yardbirds, but they soon opted for Led Zeppelin. The band, who split in 1980 after Bonham's death, have sold 300 million albums worldwide.

He says "Everyone went over the top a few times. To be honest with you, I don't really remember much of what happened."

They Say "One of the great pioneers of rock" – John Lord, former member of Deep Purple.