In 1998, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant released Walking Into Clarksdale. Although well-received and selling well, it’s since slipped under the radar of even many Zep lovers. It’s a shame, as it’s an album full of good songs, playing and singing. As 'Zeppelin's' last stand, it remains impressive.
Page and Plant had first reunited for No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded in 1994.
Based around an MTV project – with the album recorded in Morocco, Wales, and London. Plant was excited. “The will and the eagerness with Unledded was fantastic and Jimmy was really creative. Jimmy and I went in a room and it was back. His riffs were spectacular. To take it as far as we did, and the tour we did - it's one of the most ambitious and mind altering experiences.”
Although No Quarter was largely reworked Zeppelin tunes with a Middle-Eastern and Moroccan-influence, the two kept writing on these new riffs and songs. And a few years later, Walking into Clarksdale was the result…
Something traditional Led Zeppelin fans were certainly surprised by was the choice of Steve Albini as ‘producer’. Albini doesn’t call himself a ‘producer’, but a ‘recorder’ – and his past works with Nirvana (In Utero), the Pixies and his then-current band Rapeman certainly raised eyebrows. Although a controversial figure, Albini appealed to Page for simply sonic reasons.
Page told this author on Walking into Clarksdale’s release, “Albini wasn’t there to make us sound like we didn’t want to. We had a meeting with him. What I immediately liked is that he understands the science of microphone placement.
“On the Led Zeppelin records I produced, it was always important. Steve understood that. He understands ambient mic’ing of amps and how to get the best guitar tones in a studio.”
In Zeppelin, Page was quite geeky about recording amps – that’s why the recordings sound good. Page explained how his “ambient” mic’ing techniques worked. Yes, there would be a (likely) Shure SM58 microphone close up to one of his amp’s cones. But he also liked to capture the “back end” of an open cab by placing a microphone sometimes 20 feet away to the rear of an open cabinet. Allied to a good studio – “not too bright-sounding, but large” – and Page gets the tone he likes. With Albini understanding this – nearly all the acts Albini records are asked to work 100% live – Page could leave the technicalities/logistics to Albini and get on with playing.
The totem track of Walking into Clarksdale was single “Most High.” It sounded like “Kashmir v2”, and largely because it was inspired by DADGAD tuning, just like “Kashmir.” Though actually, “Most High” is in CGEGCE, a full tone down on some strings, but higher on others. But Page said he always found variants of the tuning inspirational.
“I call DADGAD my C.I.A tuning – Celtic/Indian/Arabic. I was well aware of a lot of ‘exotic’ music in the late ‘60s. I had a sitar and got interested in modal tunings and Arabic music. Jeff Beck would come round and listen. I wasn’t just listening to blues, I was trying to find all sorts of new ways for my playing.”
On the clip above, Page is playing his TransPerformance-fitted Gibson Les Paul. This was an early incarnation of “robot guitars” – the Transperformance’s tuning could be changed at the push of a button, so Page could play in DADGAD or CGEGCE, then push a button back to standard tuning for solos, if wanted.
“For the sliding sound on the end of “Sons of Freedom,” I used the Transperformance guitar,” he said back in 1998. “I’m really happy with that guitar.” That said, Page’s fabled “guitar army” did not march as strong on Walking into Clarksdale. In seeking a twangier, more retro-influenced tone he used quite a few Gretsches, Fenders and others.
“But I used my #1 Les Paul that I always use – it’s somewhere on the whole record. I used just the Les Paul on “Burning Up,” which is one guitar take all the way through, and then I whacked the phasing on at the very end.”
Is Walking into Clarksdale up there with Led Zeppelin’s first four albums? For impact, no. But for songcraft, singing and playing, it warrants another listen.
As Page himself said at the time on Walking into Clarksdale: “It’s a performance album. And I’m really pleased with it.”
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