Jimmy Page, right, with John-Paul Jones, John Bonham and Robert Plant, early '70s.
Over the years, Led Zeppelin have released a number of live albums, including this year's slick Grammy winner, Celebration Day (from a 2007 tribute concert) and the earnest The Song Remains the Same, but the best snippets of the nascent band usually have been found on bootleg.
"Wild, just wild," says Jimmy Page, the 70-year-old Led Zeppelin founder, producer and guitarist, reflecting on the band's early performances. "It was great to come across something that caught that."
Page's discovery – a French radio station's 1969 recording of a concert in Paris that he first heard while in a bootleg record store in Japan – is an integral part of a package of re-mastered Led Zeppelin studio albums and accompanying discs that include dozens of new songs and alternative takes of some of the band's most cherished material.
Jimmy Page on guitar and Robert Plant on vocals perform in Led Zeppelin during filming in 1973 of The Song Remains The Same. Photo: David Redfern/Redferns
The first three albums (Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III) and their respective companion recordings will be released in all formats - vinyl, CD and digital - on June 6. Over the next two years the band will roll out the remaining revamped studio albums in chronological order, with options including photos and memorabilia selected by Page.
It took the guitar idol more than two years to re-master the catalogue and "hundreds of hours" to review every tape from the band's vault in search of unreleased material. Zeppelin singer Robert Plant contributed "a few little things", although Page says he had nearly every studio recording stored away.
"If it was to be done, it wasn't just going to be thrown away with a couple of bloody bonus tracks – this had to be something authoritative," he said in New York.
With few studio out-takes available from the band's swiftly recorded eponymous first album, Page opted for the 1969 live recording, a nine-song set from Zeppelin that crackles with the verve and intensity you'd expect of a rough-hewn punk band while exuding the mindboggling technical skills of four emerging rock gods.
Led Zeppelin 1969. Photo: Atlantic Records
The new studio material includes intriguing versions of Whole Lotta Love and The Immigrant Song, among others, and never-released songs such as the keyboard-led, acoustic guitar strummer La La and a version of blues classics Keys to the Highway and Trouble in Mind.
"It's good, isn't it?" Page says, settling in for an exuberant chat about his life's work, his enduring love of the blues, personal challenges and what lies ahead.
"You can hear the individual performances and get the essence of what it was. I mean, Since I've Been Loving You– it's serious; it really is an awesome foursome. Who could actually top that as a performance? Nobody, because we had been in a league of our own."
These days: (From left) John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, pictured for the Celebration Day film.
Page's conspicuous, almost childlike enthusiasm for his band, dilutes conceit. Decades beyond respectable rock-star retirement age, he remains a charismatic package. His snow-white hair in a pony tail, the Englishman wears a slim-fit black suit with sartorial flair. He has a distinct sparkle in the eye: "I did give up drinking, that's the key to why I'm still here." Occasionally, he leans forward in his seat to ensure you get the message.
"There has always been one aim, right from the start," he says. "It's got to have a knockout punch, an emotional knockout punch."
Led Zeppelin, having sold more than 300 million records, have been among the biggest hitters in the business since Page put the band together in 1968 after parting ways with the Yardbirds. He paid for the recording of their first album "so we could dictate" to record companies and was the primary architect of the group's sound, songwriting and musical direction, both in the studio and on stage, until they split in 1980.
Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and the gone but never forgotten drummer John Bonham are rightfully revered, but Page has always been the driver of the Led Zeppelin bus and isn't about to let go of the wheel.
"I sort of knew what I was doing all the way through the whole of Led Zeppelin, definitely, to be honest," he says, adding the decision to re-master the catalogue is part of that vision. "It was important to do this epic project. I did [a re-master] 20 years ago but technology has improved, so I've done this in the highest definition. It's ready for whatever comes along.
"It's great to think of this as a textbook ... We're passing on the baton."
Led Zeppelin not only re-wrote the book on riffing rock music, they have been both celebrated and condemned for representing the very definition of rock-star excess: sex, drugs, alcohol and wrecked hotel rooms. It was after a booze binge that Bonham died, choking on his own vomit in Page's home in 1980. It broke up the band.
"It is what it is and it was what it was, and it'll be whatever it's going to be" Page says when asked whether he has any regrets.
Over subsequent decades Page has been an active collaborator with other artists but has released only one solo album, fueling speculation he lost his way for a time through drug use. Some critics have also suggested that was a reason later Zeppelin albums were less guitar-led and featured John Paul Jones-penned keyboard riffs more prominently.
"No," Page scoffs. "He had this machine and he'd been writing stuff on it and it was like, ‘Yeah, go ahead, John.' "
The guitarist hints the public's access to his own post-Zeppelin output might have been restricted by other personal quirks – conceding he is a perfectionist who can be especially hard on himself.
"It's tricky when you're a guitarist," he says. "Listening [to old recordings] was difficult, actually. Hearing everyone else was great but hearing yourself over hundreds and thousands of times, it's tough. Everything could be better in my world. You can always strive for perfection even though you may not achieve it."
The pending releases sparked speculation that Led Zeppelin might reunite for live performances with Bonham's son Jason on drums, as he was on Celebration Day. However, in London earlier this month Plant crankily dismissed the suggestion a tour was upcoming. Page has indicated in the past he's open to the idea but seems to be growing exasperated with his long-time collaborator.
"I don't know who it'll be with [but] when I come back playing music, hopefully, concert-wise next year, I'll still be really pushing myself to the upmost."
Page adds he'd love to perform again in Australia, where he toured with Zeppelin all those years ago, and with Plant in the mid-'90s. "I have very firm recollections ... walking through King's Cross and all."
At the conclusion of the interview, Page kindly suggests it would be good to catch up again at his next gig. When asked if that will be a Zeppelin concert, he remained closed mouth but raised an eyebrow that seemed to indicate, at least, a ‘‘maybe".
The "deluxe versions" of Led Zeppelin's first three albums will be out June 6.