no-quarter-the-three-lives-of-jimmy-page
Jimmy Page on Stage with Led Zeppelin (1972) Photo credit: Overlook Omnibus

No Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page

In this excerpt of Martin Power's biography, Jimmy Page learns guitar, thanks to the skiffle, and makes his first television appearance as a young teen.

CHAPTER 1

Mama Don’t Allow No Skiffle Round Here

Patrick Page was born on January 9, 1944 at the Grove Nursing Home in Heston, a small but verdant suburb of the London borough of Hounslow, neatly situated about ten miles from Big Ben and the political centre of England’s capital city. ‘Owned’ by King Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth in the 1500s, by the time of Page’s arrival, Heston was perhaps best known for the aerodrome that sat imposingly on the outskirts of town, expansion of which from a small air field to a major international airport began the year of Jimmy’s birth. Originally called London Airport but renamed Heathrow in 1966, it was still known as Heston Aerodrome when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich in September 1938 for appeasement talks with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Some two weeks later, Chamberlain returned to Heston clutching a piece of paper in his hand that declared ‘Peace in our time’. He was being a tad optimistic. Within a year, the Nazis invaded Poland and Great Britain was at war with Germany for the second time in as many decades. Soon, the rest of the world was involved too.

The war was still raging when Jimmy was taken from Grove Nursing Home to his parents’ house at 26 Bulstrode Road in central Hounslow a day or so after his birth. Though the awful, nightly bombing raids that defined ‘The Blitz’ of 1941 had receded somewhat, London was still a very dangerous place to be as German V1 and V2 rockets soon took up where Luftwaffe planes had left off, the new ‘doodlebugs’ targeting the city and its citizens with ruthless efficiency and deadly accuracy. Diffcult times then, especially for those raising a newborn. Thankfully, the Page family seemed to have matters in hand.

Jimmy’s father, James Page — from whom Jimmy took his name — was in his mid-twenties when his son came home. Born in 1917, James could easily trace his own family history back to his paternal great-grandfather, Thomas Page, whose thriving carpentry business had employed seven men in Banbury, Oxfordshire during the 1870s. And it was in Banbury that James’ own father, Herbert Miller Page, was born in 1879. A nurseryman by trade, Herbert had his fair share of ups and downs to contend with early in life. Soon after the Page clan moved north from Banbury to Bottesford, Nottinghamshire, Herbert lost the sight of one eye when he was struck by a rebounding air gun pellet fired by his brother John. A horrible thing to befall anyone, Herbert’s bad luck was reported in the local paper at the time. “Such a distressing accident has evoked much sympathy for the young Mr. Page and his family.” It didn’t hold Herbert back either romantically or socially. Marrying Florence Wilson — three years his junior and originally from Southampton, Hampshire — the couple had three children, Gladys, Norman, and then after a ten-year gap, Jimmy’s own father, James.

Jimmy’s mother, Patricia –– whose epithet provided the inspiration for his second name, Patrick — had an equally interesting family background. Born in Croydon in 1925, Patricia’s own parents were John and Edith Gafkin, though as her father’s Gaelic-sounding surname suggested, there was northern Irish blood in her veins. Indeed, tracing the Gafkins’ history back a generation or two, Patricia’s father, John, two of his four brothers and his own mother, Jeanie, were born in Belfast and Donaghendry, County Tyrone, respectively.

A young couple by today’s standards (though certainly not at the time), James and Patricia Elizabeth Page had been married nearly three years when Jimmy came along. They had prepared admirably well for his arrival. Like Patricia’s father, John — who sadly died before his daughter wed on April 22, 1941 — the studious James had found a promising office job in the local aircraft industry, working as a wages clerk. Soon, he would rise to the position of ‘Industrial Personnel Manager’, again an extremely respectable role. After a youthful start in the catering trade, Patricia too put her skills to excellent use, becoming a doctor’s secretary after Jimmy reached school age.

Though central Hounslow was a comfortable enough spot to put down roots, proximity to family and possible work connections may have played a hand in the Pages’ decision to leave the town and move further south to Feltham while James Jr. was an infant. Still nominally in the borough of Hounslow — if now on the other side of its rangy heath — Feltham was in essence much the same as Heston where Jimmy was born: similar transport links to central London, similar look, similar village feel and, again, once ‘owned’ by King Henry VIII. But perhaps of greater importance was the fact that Feltham was a good deal closer to James and Patricia’s relatives who lived near the town, thus creating a stronger support network for all concerned. Additionally, Feltham was the base of Menzies Aviation, which like fellow employer ‘The Heston Aircraft Company’, may well have been useful to James Page when considering his long-term career prospects.

img-25945

Another plausible reason for the Pages’ move to Feltham was the fact that the Nazis had stopped bombing it, as they had indeed stopped bombing most everywhere else by the spring of 1945. The site of Britain’s second largest railway marshalling and freight yard, Feltham had been the target of repeated air strikes but now — as throughout the rest of Europe — its residents could sleep soundly in their beds once again. Nevertheless, like the rest of Europe, the onus was very much on picking up the pieces. After years of conflict and the death of millions, towns, cities and countries had to dust themselves off, clean up the rubble and start again. For Feltham, London, England and Great Britain as a whole, this meant a decade or so of avoiding falling masonry or plunging into craters left by bombs and rockets while the process of slow re-building took place. In this oppressive, grey post-war atmosphere, money was tight and food rationing abounded. Prosperity would eventually return, but Jimmy Page was unlikely to get his first proper chocolate bar for another eight years.

It could have been worse. While Page had to wait a while to discover the joys of the cocoa bean, he at least wouldn’t have it snatched away by fellow siblings, as he was to remain an only child. The subject of much psychobabble, only children are meant to be many things, quite a few of them negative: slow to share, excessively private, over-protected, unduly sensitive and, sometimes, just plain odd. On the upside, however, such children were also said to have fine, positive traits including high levels of independence and academic achievement, good organisational skills and strong attention to detail. They also mature faster. In later life, Jimmy would display some, if not quite all of these. But like all only children, the biggest hurdle for him to overcome at the time was socialising with other kids.

Having no brother or sister there to help guide or influence “the rules of the game”, every social skill and human interaction Page learned was by observation alone, and more often than not by watching the adults around him. Not a perfect start when entering a classroom for the first time, then. But Page didn’t seem to mind. He rather liked it that way. “Until the age of five, I was totally isolated from kids my own age,” he later told archivist Howard Mylett. “That early isolation probably had a lot to do with how I turned out. A lot of people can’t be on their own. They get frightened. But it doesn’t bother me at all. It gives me a sense of security.” And as time came to show, it also gave him a formidable base of operations from which to access his own creative process.

When Jimmy was eight, the family upped sticks again and moved to Epsom, this time putting down major and more lasting roots. Again, it was the smart thing to do. Though only half an hour’s drive from their former home in Feltham, the town was neatly removed from the main flight path leading into Heathrow, then at the start of its 50-year run towards becoming Europe’s busiest airport. James Page might have earned his wages from the industry, but he didn’t want the planes it produced ruining his Sunday afternoons. “When the airport got jets, we moved away,” Jimmy recalled in 1983, “it was just so noisy.” Cannily avoiding a future price crash on their house due to constant air traffic, the Pages settled at 34 Miles Road, a pleasant ‘three up, two down’ located in a crescent close, but not too close, to Epsom High Street. Its front room would become Jimmy’s main base of operations for over a decade.

As far as the Page’s new home town was concerned, there was much to commend it, with Epsom full of local history and future promise. Named for a wealthy landowner called Ebba — Epsom literally translates as ‘Ebba’s manor’ — it was a strategic meeting place for Anglo-Saxon gentry dating back to the fifth century until the Norman invasion of 1066 called time on such activities. Meriting a mention in the Domesday book of 1086 (two churches, two mills, 38 houses and 24 acres of woodland, no less), Epsom kept mostly to itself until the 1700s, when the Georgians discovered a spring at its centre and turned it into a spa town.

Then a fashionable and, indeed, profitable enterprise, Epsom’s association with spas, flowing water, healing minerals and restful slumber made it well worth a visit, the locals soon producing ‘Epsom salts’ for ailing souls to take home after their stay. In keeping with its spa success, Epsom’s modest racecourse was duly expanded, offering residents and tourists not only the opportunity for physical restoration, but a chance to bet on the horses too.

By 1780, the now famous Epsom Derby and Oaks were off and running, their importance on the racing calendar growing exponentially over the next 100 years. Come 1910, and the Derby and Oaks were bringing over 50,000 visitors to the town for each meeting, this surge in popularity seeing off any remaining farmland in favour of shops, roads and the odd hotel. Surrounded by countryside, with a striking clock tower to mark its centre and the added oddity of having not one, but five psychiatric hospitals to confirm its borders, Epsom in the early fifties was non-threatening, more or less aircraft-free and suited the Pages well. “Most of my childhood was spent in Epsom,” Jimmy later told Howard Mylett. “It was really nice there.”

Enrolled in a local primary school on Pound Lane, Page set about making friends and finding things to do. One early success was reportedly sports, with the youngster showing an aptitude for hurdling that eventually led to him becoming school champion. According to local legend, he was also a keen cricketer. Jimmy’s efforts with brush and canvas were duly noted too, as his teachers encouraged him to focus on art as much as English or arithmetic. Though once describing himself as “a terrible draughtsman”, Page was obviously good enough to be marked out by tutors as one to watch, a useful observation on their part that would help him out of a tight spot when career troubles threatened to flare in his late teens. Away from academia, Jimmy could take full advantage of Epsom’s more leafy aspects, with the local Common, Longrove Park and Mounthill Gardens all within easy reach. In due course, his fondness for walking expanded to a love of full-blown hikes, with Page gaining access to bigger outdoor spaces such as Horton Country Park and the Surrey Hills.

Crucially, Jimmy was also gaining exposure to the pleasures of music, its essential mysteries coming to him from three distinct sources. First was his enrolment in the choir of St. Barnabas Church on Epsom’s Temple Road. Overseen by the cadaverously named Mr. Coffin, Page could be found singing every Sunday morning to the faithful while dressed in the choir robes — a black cassock, white surplus and white ruff neck — required for the role. “Yes, I was a choir boy,” he told Channel 4 some 60 years after the event, “and lots of black musicians in the States have said that their (musical inspiration) came from church. But you know, I don’t know if I could say that.” Given his later interests, this seems almost certain.

Excerpted fromNo Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page. Copyright © 2016 by Martin Power. Excerpted by permission of Overlook Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Page Appears on Huw Wheldon’s All Your Own Music TV Show

Even from his first moments on camera, it is blindingly obvious that Page was a natural at this show business malarkey.

Another less formal route from which music seeped into Jimmy’s consciousness was the radio. With no siblings to distract him, the youngster spent most nights in the company of his parents, listening to whatever songs crackled across the airwaves. Aside from a staple diet of crooners and balladeers, Page was privy to the crash, bang and wallop of British big bands, trad-jazzers, American swing and oodles of tunes specifically aligned to dance crazes then sweeping UK ballrooms: ‘The Cha Cha’, ‘The Bossa Nova’ and, maybe on a lively night, even ‘The Jitterbug’. From Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters to Jack Parnell, Ted Heath and the silky-smooth tones of singer Dennis Lotis, Jimmy would have heard the lot. “In fifties Britain,” someone once joked, “swing was king.”

The third and certainly most beguiling source of potential music for Jimmy Page had been sitting around the house since he and his parents moved to Epsom. Unsure whether it had been left by the previous owners or relatives, it seemed to simply materialise one morning in the living room. “Well,” Page would later maintain, a bit mysteriously, “nobody seemed to know where it had come from or quite why it was there.” The object in question was a Spanish acoustic guitar; fully strung and in reasonable shape, just sitting there, staring at them all from a corner. As neither of Jimmy’s parents was musical and Page himself was still a tad unsure of it, the guitar remained untouched for years. However, he always knew it was there. “Well,” he later said, “a guitar kind of makes an intervention, if you like…” A little secret to be unlocked, then.

The set of keys required to do just that landed squarely in Page’s lap with the arrival of the skiffle boom in 1956. A simple, some might even say crude, cocktail of American country blues and Appalachian bluegrass, skiffle relied on three central chords and a hollering vocal to make its musical point. But when performed well, as demonstrated by Lonnie Donegan, that simplicity of form could be as propulsive and emotionally involving as the finest classical symphony. “Lonnie,” Page later told Charles Shaar Murray, “was the first person who was really giving it some passion that we could all relate to.”

A native Scot, Anthony Donegan adopted the name Lonnie from bluesman Lonnie Johnson, and began his run at fame in the late forties, first as a member of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and then as a part of the Chris Barber Jazz Band. Originally employed to bolster Barber’s Dixieland-themed troupe on banjo, Lonnie soon found himself bashing out a “skiffle break” on guitar during the interval. Largely designed to give his fellow musicians a breather between sets, Donegan’s anarchic readings of old Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie tunes nonetheless gained real traction with audiences, keeping punters away from the bar and rooted to their seats. Backed by a duo playing washboard and tea chest bass respectively, Lonnie’s skiffle break might have reeked of novelty and upset some jazz purists, but it soon made him a star. After grinning his way through Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ on the BBC’s flagship music show 6.5 Special in 1956, he went to number eight on the UK charts, gaining the first of 31 hits both in Great Britain and the USA. “I [was] trying to sing acceptable folk music,” he later said. “I wanted to widen the audience beyond the artsy-craftsy crowd and the pseudo intellectuals, but without distorting the music itself.”

At the heart of Donegan’s skiffle sound, of course, was the acoustic guitar. Never a showy player, he seldom strayed above the first three frets. Yet, Lonnie still managed to strum the instrument within an inch of its life, his train-like chug and almost evangelical vocal delivery pulling listeners along with him until the song finally came off the tracks. For a new generation desperately trying to find their own musical hero outside their parents’ record collections, Donegan and his skiffling guitar were it. “Lonnie Donegan,” said Paul McCartney, “was the man.” Within weeks of Donegan’s appearance on 6.5 Special, legions of teenagers had formed their own skiffle groups. After all, the tools of the trade were so simple: a tea chest, a bit of wood, a length of string and a washboard stolen from the kitchen. For those with bigger ambitions, an acoustic guitar was the essential purchase.

Jimmy Page already had one.

Like many his age, Jimmy fell hard for Lonnie Donegan. A stunned witness to the skiffle king’s 6.5 Special performance, he was thrilled by Donegan’s obvious enthusiasm for his music as transmitted down the cathode tubes of the family TV set and straight into his head. But it was only when he saw a fellow pupil at Danetree secondary school, named Rod Wyatt, banging out ‘Rock Island Line’ on his own acoustic that the penny dropped. “I have a guitar at home,” was all Jimmy said. A few words. Hardly even a sentence, really. Wyatt’s reply, however, was a crucial moment for Page. “Bring it in,” said Rod. “I’ll tune for you…”

The Spanish guitar still residing in a corner of the family home was now quickly called into action. After Wyatt made good on his promise and tuned the thing, he showed Jimmy some rudimentary chords — enough certainly to play ‘Rock Island Line’, and perhaps even ‘Bring A Little Water, Sylvie’, another Donegan hit at the time. Page was off the mark and running. Bert Weedon’s immortal Play In A Day instruction book for aspiring guitarists was the next box to be ticked. Bought “more out of curiosity” than anything else, Weedon’s instruction book didn’t appeal to Jimmy who was eager to “learn more by ear” than from the page. “The tutor [books] fell a bit at when it came to the point of the dots,” Page recalled to John Tobler, “because I was far too impatient.” No doubt wanting to indulge their son’s newfound interest, but also give it formal shape, Jimmy’s parents reportedly sent him to a guitar teacher for lessons. Again, this was no great meeting of minds. Page wanted to learn hits. The teacher was offering more theory. But it did at least expand his chord vocabulary and picking technique, if not his ability to actually read music. Given later diffculties, he probably should have paid more attention.

Despite these early teething problems, Jimmy’s dedication to the instrument was absolute, a point underlined when he parted company with his mysterious Spanish gut-string and bought a Hofner President instead. A handsome beast with a single cutaway and brunette finish, the President had a deep body to maximise volume and was a real step up the guitar ladder from the Spanish box top. Even better was the fact that Jimmy could electrify its sound by installing a small, soap bar pick-up beneath the strings, giving him the chance to plug into his parents’ radio or record player and hear himself back through the speaker. Having done a milk round over several months in order to save for the Hofner, the reward of finally being ‘on the radio’ must have been immensely pleasing. And probably quite noisy.

Armed with a basic knowledge of musical theory and a reasonable guitar to test it on, Jimmy took things to the next level by forming a band, though that might be a rather grand title for it. More a collection of skiffle enthusiasts that met weekly in the front room of his parents’ house, it still constituted Page’s first real commitment towards making music with others. Regrettably, the names of all but one of the quartet — drummer David Hassall — have been lost to history. But thanks to some old film footage, which we will come to soon enough, it seems clear that the bass player — who commendably built his own instrument — later joined the Royal Air Force, while the lead singer and Jimmy’s fellow guitarist may have been called Anthony; small beer, perhaps, but all surely worth a mention for the purposes of posterity. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking the name of the band: ‘The James Page Skiffle Group’.

Like most of his peers, Jimmy’s earliest experiments with a band would probably have remained hermetically sealed forever, away from all prying eyes. But someone in or around the group — Page’s mother has been mentioned as a possible candidate — came up with the bright idea of getting them on television. Whatever the case or whoever the culprit, a letter was definitely written to the BBC, which ended up in the hands of the makers of All Your Own. A late afternoon magazine show aimed at youngsters and hosted by the unflappable Huw Wheldon, All Your Own gave a platform for kids to display their talents and discuss their hobbies while the rest of Great Britain watched at home.

It all must have seemed a bit of a long-shot for the boys until they were actually granted an audition in the spring of 1957. Fifty-one years later, Page winced at the memory. “It was in a large hall filled with children,” he confirmed to Classic Rock in 2008. “Then, in walks Huw Wheldon who says ‘All right, where are these bloody kids, then?’” Quaking in their boots, the James Page Ski e Group still impressed Wheldon enough for him to offer them a spot on the show, thus setting in motion one of the more curious and, it has to be said, genuinely funny episodes in pop and rock folklore.

Now but an internet click away (though worth dwelling on at some length here), Jimmy Page’s turn on All Your Own in the spring of 1957 provides a near perfect snapshot of the future rock star in his early teens. All neat hair, jumper and britches, he looks unbelievably young, fresh-faced, carefree and delightfully unaware of where the years would take him. But even from his first moments on camera, it is blindingly obvious that Page was a natural at this show business malarkey. Wearing his Hofner President with pride, the youngster smiled and strummed his way through ‘Mama Don’t Allow No Skiffle Round Here’ with the rest of the band before breaking for a brief interview with Wheldon. Asked whether he played anything other than these skiffle tunes, Page’s easy, almost eager reply “Yes, Spanish and dance”, deftly set him up for further enquiry by the host. And that’s when things got interesting.

Perhaps sensing some fun for himself, and indeed, older viewers, Wheldon ribbed Jimmy as to whether he wanted to take up skiffle after school. Page’s deadpan reply remains justly famous. “No, I want to do biological research.” Causing his host to giggle, then mumble “I do that already, as a matter of fact” under his breath, Wheldon recovered sufficiently to enquire what exactly Page meant. “Well, cancer, if it isn’t discovered by then.” With the presenter back on stable footing, it was now Jimmy’s turn to be flummoxed. “You mean be a doctor?” asked Wheldon. “No I haven’t enough brains for that, I don’t think,” replied Page. When Wheldon comedically gasped “No? I’m sure you have,” Jimmy appeared unsure, looked around the TV studio in search of his footing and then did something truly wondrous. Saying nothing more, he smiled broadly, if flintily into the middle distance until Wheldon gave up and went on to bother another member of the group. Teenage embarrassment. Middle class modesty. Maybe just a case of the jitters. But over the next five decades, whenever an interviewer’s questions became trite, intrusive or potentially uncomfortable, that steely quiet and disarming smile would be employed with almost universal success.

Finishing up their set with ‘The Cotton Song’, during which Jimmy summoned up a feathery guitar trill as the tune’s introduction, some whistles on the verse and a full-blown backing vocal for the chorus, his trial by fire on All Your Own was by all accounts a real nerve rattler. “I was quite nervous on that, actually,” he said later. “[Being] 13 or 14, it was quite a big deal going on television.” As for his pithy response regarding future career prospects, Page was again nothing but honest. “At that time, it wasn’t unusual for kids at school to have an academic route too, [so] whatever I said then was probably what I was studying that week!” Even in this age of smart phones and instant uploads, there are precious few opportunities to observe celebrities at close range before the advent of fame. As such, Page’s appearance on BBC’s All Your Own should rightly be cherished. “I was just an enthusiastic 13-year-old [and] we all start out that way, don’t we? Not everyone ends up with that stuff haunting them on YouTube, though…”

Beyond the perilous world of television interviews, skiffle actually gave Page much in the shortest of times. As with so many of his generation, it had acted as a superb primer into the joys of music and the simple fun that could be had by sharing it with others. “In England, we’d [been] separated from our folk music tradition centuries ago,” said Lonnie Donegan in 1998, “and were imbued with the idea that music was for the upper classes. You had to be very clever to play music. When I came along with the old three chords, people began to think that if I could do it, so could they.” As importantly, skiffle had also put a spotlight on an instrument that had thus far languished on the musical sidelines in the UK. “The great thing about the guitar when I was 12 years old was that it was portable,” Jimmy told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 2008, “[That] made music accessible to me. You could get together with your mates and before you knew it, the serious spirit of music was there.”

For all its attendant charms, skiffle’s time in the sun was to be relatively brief, the music soon brushed aside by a much larger, unwieldy and electrified beast recently escaped from the United States of America. Suffie to say, Jimmy Page was to be among its first victims. “When I was about 12, 13, I heard rock’n’roll,” he said. “Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. It was all so… primeval. There was so much urgency conveyed in rock’n’roll that young people were instantly drawn to it. I was no exception.”

Martin Power has worked as a journalist for over 15 years and written well-received biographies on David Sylvian, Aerosmith, Queen, Shane McGowan, Manic Street Preachers and Pearl Jam — all published by Omnibus Press.

Excerpted fromNo Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2016 by Martin Power. Excerpted by permission of Overlook Omnibus Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

PopMatters