It’s maybe a cultural truism that iconoclasts who live long enough eventually become icons. So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us much to see a rock ‘n’ roll hero like Jimmy Page standing behind the podium at the Oxford Union, for a lecture and Q&A series put on by the famed debating society. But as he tells his audience, it isn’t his first time at Oxford—he made an appearance at 16, accompanying beat poet and novelist Royston Ellis on guitar. (It was Ellis, Page notes, who suggested the quirky spelling of the Beatles to John Lennon.) This story leads to Page’s autobiographical sketch of how he became a musician by listening to “the music coming over from America” and the skiffle versions of the same by English musician Lonnie Donegan.
It’s a story familiar to fans not only of Page but of every British invasion band inspired by the American blues and R&B. But it’s always interesting, especially for Americans, to hear it told. Homegrown traditional music we take for granted sounded to the young Page like “it was coming from Mars.”
He describes the influence of Donegan as a “portal” to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, which bands like the Yardbirds picked up in the early sixties. Mention of that seminal English band leads Page to recount his second time at Oxford, to see the Yardbirds at Queen’s College, a fateful night that ended with Page joining the band on bass after Paul Samwell-Smith quit. By that time, he had served what he calls a “three-year apprenticeship” as a studio musician, arranger, and composer.
These reminisces set the tenor for Page’s short address, a series of vignettes from his venerable career, full of fascinating digressions and asides. At around 13 minutes in, he concludes that his “lifetime achievement” was to “do something which was initially my hobby, turn that into something which was a very professional process, but still a very creative one… and to inspire young musicians.” After his short speech, the program transitions to an interview format, and Page expands on and clarifies many of his comments. His affable humility and desire to share his wisdom and experience make this very enjoyable viewing for anyone interested in Page’s life and work, or in the history of rock ‘n’ roll more generally, which cannot be told without him, and for which he is a very able chronicler.