Decades after it was recorded, the music of Led Zeppelin still evokes certain descriptions: powerful, thrilling, awesome. And while monster rock tunes like “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love” aren't usually thought of as the soundtrack to a lighthearted, rollicking good time, laughter and camaraderie filled the air at “The Song Remains the Same: Behind the Board With Led Zeppelin,” a panel discussion produced jointly by The Recording Academy's Los Angeles Chapter and the Producers & Engineers Wing (www.producersandengineers.com).
L-R: Andy Johns, Ron Nevison, Eddie Kramer
Photo: Mark Sullivan/WireImage.com
Offering a “board's eye view” of the band's history, the panelists included Eddie Kramer, who began his association with the Zep when he engineered Led Zeppelin II; his other credits include projects for Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Kiss and Peter Frampton. Andy Johns' long history with Zeppelin began with second-engineering work on II and went on to include engineering for the band's monumental Stairway to Heaven, as well as the Stones' Exile on Main St., and albums by Blind Faith, Joni Mitchell, Van Halen and, most recently, Godsmack. Ron Nevison engineered on the Physical Graffiti album; his artist roster encompasses The Who, Heart, Bad Company, Thin Lizzy and Foghat. In the moderator chair was producer/engineer Ed Cherney, who, despite his own stellar credits, made it clear that he considered himself a “pisher” compared to the panelists.
Cherney began the evening pointing out that he and the panelists were speaking through Shure SM58s — the durable mics Zeppelin used on their most famous recordings. But before he had a chance to do much moderating, Kramer and Johns took off on high-spirited digressions about their pre-Zeppelin encounters with the bandmembers: Kramer met Jimmy Page when the guitarist did session work on Donovan's “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and Johns was scolded by bassist John Paul Jones for playing his instrument during a break in some pre-Zep session work. Kramer also recalled his reaction when Page first told him about a new band he was forming: “He said, ‘Led Zeppelin,’ and I said, ‘That's the stupidest name I've ever heard.”
There was also deep respect for the music — every time a song was played, the three engineers were transported into a state of total concentration. Kramer said that the innovative forward echo effect during the vocal break in “Whole Lotta Love” was an accident; he couldn't erase a reference vocal Plant had recorded so he added reverb to it. Nevison revealed that John Bonham's thundering drum sound on “Kashmir” was achieved by running the drum track through an Eventide phaser.
Page produced the band's records, and all three engineers recalled their collaborations with him fondly. “He had a remarkable sense of direction and focus,” Kramer says. “He was similar to Hendrix in that he had a clear vision of where the music was supposed to go.” Nevison remembered Page's attention to basic building blocks: “He used to come in for playbacks and turn the guitar way down. At first, I thought it was because he'd made mistakes. Then I realized he wanted to listen closely to the drums. He knew that if we got Bonzo's track right, everything else would work.”
The most heartfelt responses of the night came when moderator Cherney asked if the engineers had had any sense that they were creating historic recordings. “When I was in there working, I was just focused on getting things right so that Jimmy didn't take my head off,” Kramer replies. “You just try to do your job correctly, which is to interpret the artist correctly, no matter what the recording medium is. We all brought different perspectives to the band's sound and had particular ways of working, but essentially we were servants to the music.”
“It was always Led Zeppelin, not us,” adds Johns. “If you put Eddie and Ron and me in a studio together, all you'd hear at the end of the session is hiss coming out of the monitors. The band created the magic. We were just lucky enough to catch it.”
Chris Crisafulli is an L.A.-based writer and co-author, with Jerry Schilling, of Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship With Elvis Presley, published by Gotham Books.