Led Zeppelin killed Coldplay on my computer. I was listening to a digital download of the new Coldplay album, Ghost Stories, when a stream of remastered Zeppelin popped up in my inbox and I accidentally hit play. The effect was electrifying. There was the 21st century's biggest rock band tremulously emoting amid a sensuous wash of effects-laden guitars and electronica, when my speakers exploded into life.
Bam-bam! It was as if John Bonham had come back from the dead and smashed his snare drum over Chris Martin's head. Bam-bam! Guitar, bass and drums compressed into a massive two-note announcement of intent, like Godzilla emerging from the depths to crush the puny mortals into dust. Bam-bam! Good Times Bad Times, track one, side one, of Led Zeppelin I, roared into life, impaling Coldplay on the end of an unwinding electric guitar riff, sweeping their tentative rhythms aside with a cowbell, bass drum and and snare-rattling groove, Robert Plant's voice rising up to declare with eerie prescience at the ancient age of 20, "In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man ..."
It was really quite stunning, giving me an extraordinary sense of the kind of impact this must have made when it was first released, in 1969, at the very birth of heavy rock. By the time Jimmy Page was delivering the world's first shredded solo, I had put Coldplay out of their misery and was sitting with my head melting between the speakers, listening in rapture to the first three Zeppelin albums, one after the other in all their swashbuckling glory. They are being re-released next week in remastered editions with extra tracks. Do you really need me to tell you how good they are? We've been listening to this music for more than 40 years and it never gets old.
"It's wonderful stuff to listen to, whether you were the producer of it or whether you just bought an album down the road somewhere," says Page, who seems positively gleeful and energised at 70, having spent more than a year personally overseeing what he believes is the definitive package of the band he assembled in 1968. "I'd learnt a lot by then and I was determined to form my own band with a radical way of looking at things. I wanted to make it a guitar tour de force." With a reputation as the most gifted guitarist on the thriving London session scene, Page had briefly replaced Jeff Beck in blues rockers The Yardbirds.
When that group disbanded, Page tried to form a new line-up, recruiting the best musicians around. First choice was a colleague from the session world, multi-instrumentalist and arranger John Paul Jones, to play bass.
The as-yet-unknown young vocalist Robert Plant was recommended by blues singer Terry Reid, and Plant brought along a friend from the Birmingham scene, drummer John Bonham.
"I knew the dynamics, I had the overall plot, the construction of the songs, but nobody could have prepared us for this," recalls Page. "Nobody could have predicted the effect of John Bonham's drum introduction on Good Times Bad Times, because no matter what he'd played in before, he'd never had the chance to flex his muscles and play like John Bonham. That was true of all of us -- it was the perfect vehicle for musicianship. From the first rehearsal, each and every one of us knew there had never been a band that sounded like that. We were all master musicians but we just went up so many notches because of the support system of the others."
With Led Zeppelin, the key 20th-century musical form of blues-based electric rock music achieved its most full-blooded, swaggering and awe-inspiring incarnation, with a sexy grooviness to the rhythmic flow and fluid folk, jazz and world music elements tempering the warrior ferocity with sensuous and sensitive qualities, stretching towards epic, dreamy fantasy. Zeppelin represent a rock peak that will never again be conquered.
These recordings still sound so crisp, vivid and present, every instrument sharp and separated and occupying its own space. Page has remastered this material before but this time, he says, he has future-proofed it. "Zeppelin vinyl is quite revered in audiophile circles," according to Page. "But if you are in the business of making music to be heard you've got to assess how it is being listened to. In all that time span, there's so many new formats, so much new technology, so I thought the most sensible thing to do was be prepared with super-high-resolution files for whatever may come."
The debut album sets it all out, from that fantastic high-impact opening, to the acoustic folk flavours and shifting dynamics of Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, the hypnotic spell of Dazed and Confused, the weird and wonky eastern chordal shifts of Black Mountain Side and the startling, prescient punk blast of Communication Breakdown. It's all there, a vision of the future of rock that still rings true even now that rock's future itself seems in doubt. If the album were released this year by a band of young gunslingers, although perhaps not expressing anything new, it would certainly still make an impact because it is just too good not to.
The second Zeppelin album is even better, kicking off with the ultimate riff of Whole Lotta Love, refining the vision without sacrificing anything. The third album deepens and expands on the folk flavours and other sonic dimensions, weaving a very different spell, finding space for the mind-blowing Since I've Been Loving You, perhaps the most gorgeous, soulful rock ballad ever recorded. There's an early take of that among the extra tracks, a raw mix that lays bare the incredible interaction of the players, as they hold back and wait each other out, building tension in the spaces, vocals stretching over Jones's sinuous organ parts, until everyone comes in around Bonham's explosive drums as if united by some kind of psychic bond. "It was never gladiatorial," says Page. "This band was really listening intently to each other, improvising and moving things around -- it was always interesting."
Although there was no leftover material at all from sessions for the original album, which was recorded and mixed in just 30 hours, Page has unearthed a fantastic live recording of a 1969 show at the Paris Olympia. This is Led Zeppelin in their primal majesty, completely locked together, performing with none of the loops, sequencers, choral effects and pre-recorded triggers that buoy the sound of almost every band of the modern era: just four fantastic musicians on a mission. You can't help but wonder what they might sound like today, although it is a question the band members have understandably tired of since their one-off reunion at the O2 in 2007, with drummer Jason Bonham deputising for his late father. Robert Plant has made it clear he doesn't see a future for Zeppelin, and I have always respected his position, born of the idea that he wants to develop as a singer and musician, not be trapped in the postures of his youth. Yet he plays Zeppelin songs with his quirky post-blues outfit the Sensational Spaceshifters, staffed by jazz and world musicians, much to the bemusement of Zeppelin manager Bill Curbishley, who walked out of a gig with the classic line, "It's like watching Shergar pull a milk cart."
"If we could present such a good picture of ourselves at the O2, and that was just one concert, no warm-ups, I think there's no doubt we could have gone on making music that would be interesting, let's just say that," says Page. "However it's hypothetical. The problem with Robert Plant is that one minute he's doing it, the next he's not, and I am quite honestly fed up with all of that. So I don't think about what music we could be making.
"Who's we? F*** we! It's time for me to be out there playing again. I've got music, various different sorts of constructions and colours. But it doesn't matter what I've done at home. I've been involved in all the Led Zeppelin stuff and it's whetted my appetite. I've got to be seen and heard. I'm looking forward to it."
Who: Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin guitarist
What: The reissues of the band first three albums
When: Out now
- TimeOut / The Daily Telegraph