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Chris Salewicz

The music writer recalls Jimmy Page, a rock god who in his time was as anti-Establishment as any punk

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Permanently clad in sensuous velvet and sexy ruffled shirts, his jawline frequently dusted with five o’clock shadow, and always with that aura of androgynous otherness, Jimmy Page looked to many women – and plenty of men too – like dirty sex on a stick. This image was as integral to his art as the 20-minute guitar solos with which he would blast his audience’s eardrums, the violin bow he employed when performing Dazed and Confused clearly doubling as a wizard’s wand.

The mystery of Led Zeppelin had been established almost entirely through the endless enigma that is Jimmy Page. Later, as the apprentice matured, Robert Plant would offer a separate sort of leadership within the group. In tandem with their extraordinarily lyrical atmospherics, Zeppelin’s complex beats were the dominant soundtrack for popular culture for a little more than a decade, from when the four-piece came together in August 1968 to the end of the 1970s.

From the very start – those first publicity pictures with his fluttering eyelashes and choirboy’s face – Page displayed a slightly smirking look of utter confidence and haughty control, with a hidden promise of something sinister cloaked beneath it. There is that very early photograph of the four Led Zeppelin musicians in 1968 clustered around the bonnet of a Jaguar mark 2 3.8, which had a reputation as a bank robber’s car. Page is encased in a then fashionable double breasted overcoat, its collar pulled rakishly up. He stares at the camera from between those curtains of crimped black hair, smouldering with self-assurance and poise. It is an image maintained in the first official promotional shot of the band, issued by Atlantic Records: the utter Capricorn control of Page leaning over the other three members – his string-pulling hands resting on the shoulders of the two Midlands neophytes, drummer John Bonham and Plant, who resembles a frightened faun caught in the headlights.

Jimmy Page: “utter confidence and haughty control”

It only gets better. This romantic dandy lives in a castle with a moat. Page does very bad drugs seemingly forever and – unlike Keith Richards, a mere also-ran in the greatest ever UK rock star stakes – never gets busted, at least until Zeppelin is over. Moreover, he is held responsible for an entire genre of music – heavy metal! – with which his group is only tangentially involved, his true focus being a blending of UK and US folk traditions with a garage band sense of hard rock.

In his renowned isolation he is like a rock’n’roll version of Howard Hughes. But in many ways, the very idea of Jimmy Page is as much a construct as any of David Bowie’s personae. Many of Page’s expenditures – the palatial residences, the vintage cars he was unable to drive (he never passed his test), the enormous collection of rare guitars – seemed designed to garner respect and support among the world’s wealthy and influential, to make people aware of him, to elevate his extraordinarily inscrutable profile, and to establish himself as one of the principal men about whichever town he found himself in.

But at the same time, here was a rebel cocking a snook at the Establishment, having what he knew he wasn’t meant to have. With Led Zeppelin there always was that sense of being resolutely underground, a card played with perfect panache by the band for most of their career. Hardly ever on television, with no singles released in their homeland, Zeppelin existed from the very beginning as their own outsider identity. In a sense the damning review of their first album by John Mendelsohn in Rolling Stone, a magazine Page came to loathe, was perfect for them. It set in motion the us-against-them agenda from which Led Zeppelin’s success soared.

By 1977, the year their myth savagely unravelled after the debacle of the Oakland stadium show and the tragedy of the death of Robert Plant’s son, they would come to be seen as the embodiment of behemoth rock, all that the new punk movement stood against. But when Led Zeppelin started out in 1968 their anti-Establishment stance was about as punk as it could be.

Chris Salewicz will be talking about his book Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography at 10am on 9 Nov at the Principal Hotel, Manchester. The event is part of Louder Than Words, a two-day festival celebrating writing about music. You can also listen to Salewicz talking to Simon Morrison, one of Louder Than Words’ organisers, at:

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