For Led Zeppelin, third time was the charm

JIMMY PAGE was an incredibly insightful musician and very little happened by accident. Photo by Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Photo Agency

Another older song reinvented for the Bron-Yr-Aur vibe was the country-tinged “Tangerine,” with its stuttering, low-key intro: from an abandoned Yardbirds demo called “My Baby.” There were also a number of tunes begun now that would not become fully-formed Zeppelin tracks until much later, including fragmentary early sketches of “Stairway To Heaven,” “Over The Hills And Far Away,” “Down By The Seaside,” “The Rover,” “Poor Tom” and “Bron-Y-Aur.”

The song that best summed up the casual mood though was “That’s The Way,” which came from a ramble Page and Plant took one afternoon through the surrounding hills. Pausing while Robert rolled a joint, Jimmy – who’d carried his guitar on his back – began strumming some chords, extemporizing on a traditional folk song called “The Waggoners Lad.” With Robert singing along in a much quieter voice than usual, within minutes they had an arrangement they dubbed “The Boy Next Door” – renamed later, “That’s The Way.” Taking a cassette recorder from a knapsack, they recorded what they had then celebrated by sharing some cake, the sun beaming down on their peacefully stoned, upturned faces.

“We wrote those songs and walked and talked and thought and went off to the Abbey where they hid the Grail,” Plant would smilingly recall. “No matter how cute and comical it might be now to look back at that, it gave us so much energy, because we were really close to something. We believed. It was absolutely wonderful, and my heart was so light and happy. At that time, at that age, 1970 was like the biggest blue sky I ever saw.”

Returning to London, time was booked at Olympic Studios where Jones and Bonham joined them to record the ideas. The vibe was so different from that at Bron-Yr-Aur though they decamped once again – this time en masse – to a rundown mansion just outside London called Headley Grange, bringing the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio with them. Originally known as Headley Workhouse, it was a three-storey stone manor built in 1795 to “shelter the infirm, aged paupers, orphans or illegitimate children of Headley.”

While Jones found the reputedly haunted house “fairly horrible” and Bonham was simply “bored out of my mind” – that is, until he discovered the nearby pub – both Page and Plant were taken by the bleak mansion, soaking up the atmosphere as they had done in Wales. “It really looked to me as if it had hardly been lived in,” Page recalled. “It was quite interesting considering the tests we were going to put it to.” Plant: “We were living in this falling down mansion in the country. The mood was incredible.”

Paul Rodgers, whose band, Bad Company, would record their debut album at Headley a couple of years later, recalled a similar feeling. “It was definitely haunted,” he said, “All kinds of weird things going on. I remember this painting on the stairs. One day it would be of sheep, the next day you’d look and it would be wolves.”

To the acoustic-based material they had returned from Wales with were added some more amped-up numbers. The first, “Immigrant Song,” came about when the band temporarily broke off recording to play two shows in Iceland, in June, performing in a college gymnasium in Reykjavic. As Plant related, with the usual staff away on strike, “the students took over, and got the whole thing going and it was just amazing. When we played there it really did feel like we were inhabiting a parallel universe, quite apart from everything else, including the rock world of the times.”

The following weekend they headlined the Saturday night spot at the weekend-long Bath festival, in England. It was here Page first met folk troubadour and poetic roisterer Roy Harper. A typical English hippie-eccentric who would become firm friends with both Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (appearing on the latter’s “Wish You Were Here” album). Jimmy had been much taken by Harper’s debut album, “Blackpool.” When he spotted him wandering around at Bath he introduced himself. They hit it off immediately – Page would guest later that year on Harper’s “Stormcock” album – and when Zeppelin returned to Headley to continue work on the album they did so with the bones of another new song: “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” – a spontaneous jam piece initiated by Page one night channelling the febrile slide guitar of Bukka White’s “Shake ’Em On Down” (credited on the album sleeve to Charles Obscure),.

Harper recalls how, when, some months later, Page presented him with a finished copy of the album, he merely tucked it under his arm without paying too much attention. “Well, look at it then!” Page told him. “Very nice and all that,” said Roy. “So he went, ‘Look at it!’ Then I discovered “Hats off to Harper.” I was very touched.” As Jimmy would later tell me, “As far as I’m concerned, hats off to anybody who does what they think is right and refuses to sell out.”

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