We’re beyond the 500-page mark when Martin Power, the author of “No Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page,” turns his eye to one of the musician’s unremarkable post-Led Zeppelin bands. The Firm hasn’t garnered much ink in recent years, but that’s about to change. “Their early shows in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Frankfurt were reasonably well attended,” Power reports, before launching into a detailed breakdown of the group’s 1985 debut album.
When people talk about Page, the Firm doesn’t really come up: He was Zeppelin’s guitar ace — end of story. Power, though, is committed to the idea that every episode in his subject’s professional life, no matter how fleeting or fruitless, merits scrutiny. In this immense new biography, he proves to be an ardent Page fan, and like many fans who write books about their heroes, he always has one more thing to add.
“It is easy to be hagiographic about Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. Indeed,” he says of himself, “this author probably has been.” But the problem isn’t that Power is dazzled by the eminent rocker’s best work — he’s right, Zeppelin’s first four albums are awesome! No, the trouble lies with his wholesale approach, which muddles the boundaries between seminal records and bargain-bin remnants. It’s reasonable for Power to spend 10 pages on “In Through the Out Door,” the Zeppelin album that preceded drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980, which effectively ended the British group’s remarkable run. But does Page’s score for “Death Wish II” require a 10-page chunk of its own?
Power, who has published several rock-star bios, is at his most discerning in the book’s opening chapters. The highlights include a thorough portrait of Page as a session guitarist in 1960s London: “Working in three-hour blocks — two hours on the A-side of a single, one hour on the B-side — Jimmy could find himself doing up to 15 sessions a week.”
After a stint in the Yardbirds, Page formed Led Zeppelin in 1968, partnering with Woolworth’s-employee-turned-singer Robert Plant, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones and Bonham. Almost immediately, Power writes, there were questions about the band’s originality: Ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck contended that Zeppelin’s take on Muddy Waters’ “You Shook Me” sounded very similar to his version. Subsequent accusations about copyright and credits resulted in “several out-of-court settlements,” Power adds, culminating in a lawsuit claiming the group lifted components of “Stairway To Heaven” from another act. (Just this year, a jury sided with Zeppelin, declining to hold the band liable for financial damages.)
The heart of “No Quarter” focuses on the band’s 1970s hard-rock preeminence. Power celebrates the group’s blockbuster albums — the biggest of which, “Led Zeppelin IV,” has sold more than 23 million copies — and describes Page’s musicianship in majestic terms. The 1975 hit “Kashmir” takes us to “distant and unsettling lands,” he writes, “with one having to closely follow the path of Jimmy Page’s ever-circling, talismanic riff to stay safe from surrounding danger.” In Power’s breathless telling, Page’s expertise helped Zeppelin earn its “reputation as visiting deities temporarily on leave from Mount Olympus.”
Power might be too credulous when dealing with certain aspects of the group’s career. Is it plausible, as he claims, that Zeppelin’s Englishmen spent so much time “touring Stateside, they were running the legal risk of being drafted as soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War”? Nor is he at his best when discussing the band’s infamous after-hours excesses. Power notes his subject’s widely reported drug arrests and divorces, but for a biography of this length, there’s a noticeable lack of new information about Page’s life outside of music. Why? Because Power apparently didn’t get much access to his subject: Page isn’t listed among his interviewees, and in an afterword, the author thanks the guitarist “for providing over five decades of fine music” but leaves it at that.
The book’s final third covers Page’s life after Zeppelin. Power’s depiction of the push-pull Page-Plant dynamic — the former always eager to reassemble the band, the latter typically adopting a been-there-done-that stance — is about all these pages have to offer. Here, Power devotes disproportionate space to Page’s lifetime achievement awards, repetitive best-of albums and brief collaborations with Whitesnake singer David Coverdale, the Black Crowes and others. He refuses to differentiate between the interesting and the inessential. To cite one of many examples, Power prolongs an already superfluous anecdote about the Firm’s search for a drummer by quoting one candidate’s inane remarks about Page’s appearance: “He looks half-Chinese up close, and a bottle of Grecian 2000 wouldn’t go amiss either.”
Today, Power writes, the 72-year-old Page is the “guardian and gatekeeper” of Zeppelin’s legacy. In that role, he’d probably like this book just fine. “No Quarter” reveres the band that made him famous. What’s more, it documents almost every note he’s played since then.
Kevin Canfield has written for Film Comment, Bookforum and other publications.
By Martin Power
Overlook Omnibus. 698 pp. $35