In part one last week, from a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri in 1998, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had some fun with influences, expectations of gentle middle age and being from thatband. In the second part of the interview, they reveal just what goes on backstage, get short with one question, and happily admit to not really knowing what is coming next on stage some times.
There were thoughts of more from the duo. Thoughts later of Led Zeppelin touring again. It wasn’t to be: this had been the perfect moment.
ROCK’S EMERGENCY SERVICE
THEY work well together this pair, working to each other - they know all their tics and quirks, they know all the jokes - rather than an audience, but they are not insular.
In their heyday they rarely gave interviews, and Page in particular was notorious for being cold, dismissive and quite a strange fish indeed. But nowadays he can be quite pleasant company.
He sits there with white-dough hands and fidgeting fingers matching the darting, softly beautiful eyes. His round face looks considerably healthier than the melting visage we saw in Australia in early '96 (it's rumoured he has gone under the knife; if so, it was a success) and his near shoulder-length hair is impossibly dark.
Plant is ruddier, tall and slender but more lined than Page. His famous blond, cascading locks still dominate and the light tan is ever present, but Plant wears his age nonchalantly, the cigarettes suggesting he has as little time for health warnings as he does for beauty treatments.
But age does have its markers. At the Kemper Arena the night before, as the introductions began, Page stood just off-stage bouncing up and down, skittish almost, clearly nervy and standing alone. Plant was nowhere to be seen.
"I like getting nervous before a gig, have to pump myself up before doing that, a ritual," says Page. "You build up to it, like the ritual of getting dressed so many minutes before you go on. I call it stage nervousness but in actual fact it's adrenalin. It's getting that adrenalin and using it for your own effect."
Plant explains his absence from side-stage last night with a droll: "I was having a massage. My back's been bad; it's a by-product of years and years of jumping around. The thing is, I get a good, deep tissue massage and I'm ready to go. The blood pumps more and I have a really good two hours."
Adds Page with a grin: "It's the same as if we were sportsmen; they get all that [treatment]; it's just that we have left it until pretty late in our careers."
For all their jokes about age, there is no mistaking the gut-level effect of this band on stage these days.
Few contemporary rock, metal or Prodigy-style hard techno bands can match the tectonic-plate-shifting rhythms of some of those old songs (and new ones such as Burning Up and When The World Was Young) and almost none can do it with the subtleties of mood, dynamics and melody that always marked Led Zeppelin as several cuts above the base metal crowd.
But there had been only sporadic evidence in their respective solo works between 1980 and 1995 to suggest there was enough there to sustain a third (or in the case of the once super session star of the '60s, Jimmy Page, a fourth) career.
When they sat down to write Clarksdale, you wonder whether it was still a question in the back of their minds whether there were another 10, 12, 15 songs in them as a songwriting pair.
"I thought you were going to say years, actually," says a peeved Page. "I'm disappointed you might think we've only got 10 or 15 songs in us."
As always, a little less defensive, Plant responds: "The first song was the most important when we got back together. If it had been a struggle, then everything would have been a struggle. No matter what reasons there were [for the long break apart] they all melted away.
“As soon as Yallah [a new song included on the No Quarter album] began with the drum loops, we both slipped into a kind of role-play of accompanying each other, leaving the right spaces where you might expect either one of us to respond to the other in a kind of call-and- response writing style I haven't had for 15 years because the guitarists I worked with were very capable but there was nothing primal about the way they considered their gift."
He turns to Page and says, "Like that guitarist we saw the other night who you thought was good but he was never going to make you cry because he had everything down. In his mind he knew exactly what he was going to do and I bet you every single mark of every 12 bar, he would know where he was going and so would his band. If it ever gets to that, it's time to go home."
I COMMENT that because I had never seen Led Zeppelin, what had stood out for me in seeing Page play in Sydney in February '96 was that, unlike almost every rock guitarist's solo, you felt he knew maybe no more than we did about where he was going to go until he got there.
"It's risky really," Page says. "I'm trying to change it every night, sort of within a framework. I have incredibly high standards for myself and consequently when I do a show and I don't pull it off it pisses me off for the rest of the day - I must be murder to live with in those circumstances."
A very dry Plant drops in: "We have a dividing door," sending Page off into a wheezy laugh.
But while they both express confidence about the new songs from Clarksdale, Page and Plant believe playing only five songs from the album in the set - the rest being Zeppelin standards - is appropriate, or at least appropriate for their audience.
Don't they sometimes miss the rush of playing to an audience not already primed with expectations and memories?
"Nah," dismisses Plant. "We know where we're at, we know where they're at. We have to deal with the reality of it all; we've been around for a long time. What we can do is surprise them."
Do you surprise yourselves?
In unison they reply, "Yes."
"You should see our faces halfway through songs," laughs Plant. "We're going [makes horrified/excited face]. It's a rollercoaster ride. I messed up last night - things like that happen, and you can't feel guilty about it, you just see who can retrieve it first."
Page jumps in: "The emergency services of rock."