NEW YORK (USATODAY.com) — When Jimmy Page set about to fine-tune and expand Led Zeppelin's hammer-of-the-gods recording legacy, he employed a producer's technical expertise and a historian's diligence.
"I knew what I was doing and where I was going with it,'' says Page of the more than two years spent remastering the band's nine studio albums and supplementing each with a disc of previously unreleased material. The first three albums are out Tuesday on Atlantic/Swan Song, with the rest to be released in stages over the next year.
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But the guitarist also opened himself to wonder as he pored over several hundred hours of tapes that would form the foundation for hard rock from 1968 to 1980, yield albums that have sold some 300 million copies worldwide, and make superstars of him, vocalist Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and the late drummer John Bonham.
Combing through the archives yielded such treasures as formative versions of Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker, the never-released acoustic instrumental La La and a spooky, informal medley of the country-blues standards Keys to the Highway andTrouble In Mind.In some instances, Page hadn't heard the material since the day it was recorded.
"I was listening to the performance and the passion that's contained in the playing from everybody in the band,'' says Page, 70, as he sips tea to soothe a soft voice wearing thin from a series of promotional events and a graduation speech he delivered at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
"That just brings so much joy. Not nostalgia or sadness,'' he says. "Quite the opposite. It was just wonderful to hear John Bonham's playing. The celebration of his playing was infectious. It was a good experience but it was a long experience.''
The band's revered catalog was last remastered 20 years ago, but never for today's digital platforms, nor to this extent. Page's production of the band's albums was as important to the sound as his otherworldly guitar playing, and he had the ear, knowledge — and tape archives — for the remastering task.
Plant contributed some tapes to the project, and some material resided with the record company, but the bulk of the rarities for the companion discs came from Page's collection.
"I was the producer of the band, so consequently, I was in the studio far more time than the others,'' he says. "I was always keen to have a reference of what I'd been working on. I had to go through everything and make sure no stone was unturned and no tape box unheard.''
The intent of the companion discs included with the deluxe versions of the remastered albums is to provide "interesting perspectives'' on how those iconic works came to be. "They're the working mixes of the time. That's the key to it. That's why I can actually say it's a window, a portal into the time capsule of the recording, whichever album it is.''
Little extra material existed for the hurriedly assembled Led Zeppelin debut released in January 1969, so that companion disc consists of live tracks from a Paris concert recorded in October of that year, a few weeks before the release of Led Zeppelin II. "I knew (the Paris show) was out on bootleg and we requested tapes and they sent files. What you hear now is better than any of the boots that are out there.''
With the project behind him, Page says he's ready to play regularly in public again. "It will take me a little time to get that together, but I fully intend to be doing shows next year. There's a lot of music, some new and some old favorites people would like to hear.''
That, of course, raises the issue of a Led Zeppelin tour, a contentious topic that last flared following the band's one-off reunion concert (with Bonham's son Jason on drums) in London in 2007, captured magnificently on the live album/documentary/DVD Celebration Day, released in 2012. Page says the possibility of a tour "clearly falls on his shoulders,'' referring to Plant, who has consistently resisted the idea. ("I'm not part of a jukebox,'' he told Rolling Stone last month.)
Page remains philosophical about the situation. "Who knows? It depends on people's attitudes, to be honest. I'm more easygoing. As far as the honesty of the music, I'm quite strict about it, quite passionate about it. And quite disciplined about it.''