When Led Zeppelin recorded in Mumbai and rocked a Colaba nightclub

A relatively lesser known aspect of Led Zeppelin's recording career is a session that Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant put together with a group of classically trained Indian musicians at the EMI Recording Studios in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, in 1972.
Updated on Jun 04, 2015 08:59 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

More than four decades after Led Zeppelin shook up the music world, the band is still held up as the gold standard for hard rock. And a whole new generation of fans has been discovering the band's epic mix of blues and rock since guitarist Jimmy Page began rolling out special editions of their albums last year.

But a relatively lesser known aspect of Led Zeppelin's recording career is a session that Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant put together with a group of classically trained Indian musicians at the EMI Recording Studios in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, in 1972.

Watch: Led Zeppelin EMI Studios Bombay Sessions March 1972

Page, whose compositions like Kashmir would display the influence of world music long before that term had even been coined, was the driving force behind the session, which was the outcome of his desire to work with Indian musicians. Page acquired a sitar before Beatle George Harrison and listened to a lot of Indian music, an influence evident on tracks like Friends from the album Led Zeppelin III.

Plant and Page visited Mumbai at least four times in the space of twelve months during 1971-72. The first of these visits, with other members of the band, was in early October 1971, right after Led Zeppelin's tour of Japan.

When Page and Plant returned to Mumbai in 1996 to promote their album No Quarter, the singer recalled the 1971 visit and spoke about sitting outside a brothel, during an air raid drill (this was before the war with Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh), and using a tape recorder to record some street musicians and singers.

But it was during two trips in 1972 - one in March and another in October - that things really got interesting. Besides the session with Indian musicians that resulted in reworked versions of the Led Zeppelin songs Friends and Four Sticks, Page and Plant joined an impromptu jam with local musicians during a visit to the discotheque Slip Disc in Colaba (which later became the gay pub Voodoo).

Watch: Silent home movie shot by Jimmy Page in Mumbai (Feb 1972)

The Mumbai recording session

There is some confusion about the date of the recording session with top notch Bollywood session musicians at EMI Recording Studios at Pherozeshah Mehta Road, but most accounts say Page and Plant recorded there in March 1972.

Page and Plant travelled to India in March 1972 after a Led Zeppelin tour of Australia and New Zealand when they were denied entry to Singapore because of their long hair!

Watch: silent home movie of Led Zeppelin sightseeing in Mumbai

Led Zeppelin road manager Richard Cole, who accompanied Page and Plant to Mumbai during both trips in 1972, wrote in his book Stairway To Heaven: "From Bangkok, we flew to Bombay, where Jimmy and Robert had made arrangements to do some experimental recording. Jimmy had brought with him a Stellavox qaudriphonic field recorder that was several generations more sophisticated than anything the Indians had ever seen.

"The Stellavox had been custom-made to Jimmy's specifications in Switzerland, and it produced a higher quality sound that all of the eight-track studios in Bombay combined… Robert, Jimmy, and their Indian colleagues recorded raga-style renditions of the some earlyZeppelin songs, including Friends and Four Sticks."

Working with late flutist and composer Vijay Raghav Rao and an ensemble that included sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan, percussionists and violin, shehnai and tambura players, Page and Plant ran through several takes of Friends and Four Sticks.Led Zeppelin has never officially released any tracks from the Mumbai session though several bootlegs have since emerged. Especially fascinating is a 31-minute run through Friends, during which Page can be heard explaining the bars and scales to Rao, who gamely tries to convey his instructions to the Indian musicians who have clearly never collaborated with rock musicians.

At one stage, an apparently bored violin player begins playing snatches from the intro of RD Burman's Dum Maro Dum (from the 1971 film Hare Rama Hare Krishna), which was, to the musician, probably more exciting than the music of Led Zeppelin, which he had never heard.

The session produced a polished final take of Friends featuring Plant on vocals, Page on acoustic guitar and the Indian orchestra (wrongly referred to on the bootlegs as Bombay Symphony Orchestra) and a version of Four Sticks without vocals.

Cole wrote in his book that there were never any plans to release these recordings. Besides, the quality of the session did not rise to Page's perfectionist standards and the guitarist put the tapes from the session in storage in his extensive archive.

Interestingly, Page would repurpose the arrangements for these two tunes for the No Quarter unplugged album 22 years later and record them with Egyptian and Moroccan musicians.

The performance at Slip Disc

During their third trip to Mumbai after a tour of Japan in October 1972, Page and Plant stayed at the iconic Taj Mahal hotel. One night, most likely October 16, the duo decided to go looking for a hip night spot as the Taj's discotheque Blow Up - incidentally, Mumbai's first discotheque - was apparently too stuffy and dull for their liking.

Their search led them to the grungy Slip Disc, a club started by the shrewd businessman Ramzan Patel and located within walking distance of the Taj. By 1972, Slip Disc was the go-to place for youngsters, featuring live bands playing during evenings to crowds high on has and alcohol.

Funnily, Page and Plant were initially denied entry by a security guard instructed to keep out all long-haired hippies. An intervention by events organiser Yusuf Gandhi allowed the duo to get in. Patel reportedly had no clue who Led Zeppelin were, but the entrepreneur in him soon took over and he set about spreading the word about the duo's presence among Mumbai's music lovers.

Led Zeppelin road manager Richard Cole and Robert Plant ride a camel at a Mumbai beach. (ledzeppelin.com)

Late rocker Nandu Bhende wrote in a piece posted on his blog that he raced from Chembur to Colaba to be part of the audience in Slip Disc on that magical night. Page and Plant downed a few beers, signed some autographs and then clambered on to the stage at the small club for a jam with bassist Xerxes Gobhai and drummer Jameel Shaikh.

The duo played for about 30 minutes and, according to various accounts, performed an impromptu blues number about Mumbai, Whole Lotta Love, Rock And Roll and Black Dog. Some even claimed they played Kashmir, though that seems unlikely as Page and Plant began writing that classic track only in 1973.

Many years later, Plant said in an interview: "We stopped in Bombay and we ended up playing in an old dive there for a bottle of Scotch. It was superb. I was singing through a Fender cabinet (that) was the size of a 12" telly and Pagey was playing a guitar that must have had piano strings on it. And the people were so happy because they'd never witnessed anybody just passing through, taking the trouble to stop and play."

In another interview, Plant recalled that he and Page "ended up in there (Slip Disc) with loads and loads of illicit substances".

Musician Madhukar Dhas, who was in Slip Disc on the night, too recalled that Page described the borrowed guitar he used as having 'piano strings'. Arul Harris, the DJ at Slip Disc, taped the performance by the duo but the recording has since disappeared.

Guitarist Nissim Ezekiel of the band The Combustibles was in the audience when Page and Plant returned to Slip Disc the following night. Though the duo stayed for some time, they did not perform, he later wrote in a blog. Apparently, Page and Plant were turned off by the large crowd that had gathered at the club and Plant even reportedly threw a glass of beer at the camera of a photographer before leaving in a huff.

The now defunct magazine JS (Junior Statesman) covered the gig at Slip Disc in a November 1972 issue, including several photographs of the performance.

And that, folks, is the strange tale of Led Zeppelin visiting and recording in Mumbai.

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