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21 May 2012 5,981 views 5 Comments

A Portrait Of John Paul Jones:

John Paul Jones in discussion with Kettle’s Yard New Music Associate Stephen Montague.

Sunday, May 20 2012.

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.

We arrived at the Kettle’s Yard Gallery around 11.30. John was setting up inside the gallery – his lap top was lined to various devices and his  i-Pod. His five string Manson bass was upright and waiting. I had a quick word with John before hand – he told me he was currently working on his Ghost Sonanta opera project and added that he had enjoyed his recent Australian tour with Seasick Steve. ‘’Seasick went surfing most days!’’ he laughed.

The gallery was full to capacity with fans overflowing onto the upstairs balcony. John’s wife Mo looked down from her vantage point above the stage area.

Stephen Montague –the American freelance classical composer based in the UK and long time friend of John explained the format. This was to be informal conversation with John interspaced by various examples of his work including the Contemporary Music Group (Trinity Laban Conservatoir of Music & Dance,London) performing his 2005 composition Co-Motion. The ensemble consisted of John Heeley bass trombone, Christopher Tanton tenor trombone, Helen Whittaker flute , Victoria Puttock saxophone and Andreas Papapetrou piano.

Stephen proved to be an excellent interviewer keeping the conversation flowing freely and with much humour. He was quick to point out the fact that Led Zeppelin was ‘’Only a small part of his life… though a rather major part.’’

Stephen first relayed how he first met John at an electric and acoustic music  event.

‘’When he told me his name was John Paul Jones, being American I thought he was navel captain!’’

‘’He said he played bass ….I said in one of the London orchestras?’’

‘’No – he said he played in a rock group…’’

‘’Would I have heard of them?’’

‘’He said maybe ..It’s Led Zeppelin’’

‘’Even I had heard of Led Zeppelin!’’

‘’However somehow I introduced him to my fellow composers as John Paul Jones bass guitarist with The Rolling Stones. All these rock’n’roll bands were the same! I hope he’s forgiven me since!’’’

John began explaining about his mother and father’s musical comedy act.

‘’I began playing music when I took up the organ – then I heard a couple of records on those big juke boxes at the seaside – one of them was Johnny Kidd and The Pirates Shakin’ All Over.  I heard these huge bass lines and I thought I want to make a sound like that. S o I asked my Dad if I could get a bass guitar – he said ‘Bass guitar? Take up the saxophone you’ll always get work…. in two years time no one would have heard of the bass guitar!’

He then explained how he was involved in the session scene and arranging.

’’ I knew I didn’t want a real job – I just wanted to play music every day. I learned orchestration – basically I got a book called ‘Forsyth’s Orchestration’ –an old stand by written a hundred years ago”.

Stephen told the assembled: ‘’A group was formed …not The Rolling Stones…’’

JPJ: ‘’Another session musician who was the youngest session musician until I turned up -Jimmy Page you may have heard of him! He was forming a new band and a read little item in a music paper Disc and Music Echo – My wife Mo said ‘Jimmy’s forming a band you should ring him’. By then I was as doing hundreds of sessions and needed a change. So I called him up and Jimmy said  ‘Im going to see a singer who knows a drummer in Birmingham. I’ll tell you what they are like and we’ll do something’ -and that’s what happened.’’

”In composing in a group, I was very lucky because this band had very good musicians. We  all knew if something didn’t work-  there were no toys and no prams. We knew what worked and what didn’t work

Asked when Led Zeppelin performed their first gig.  ‘’Not sure ‘’ he replied looking in my direction –  I therefore only too happy to jog his memory and relay that that it occurred on September 7th 1968 in Gladsaxe Denmark. I know these things!

John then explained how he came to write the riff to Black Dog:

‘’ I was on a train coming back from rehearsals where Jimmy lived near Reading. This riff came into my head. I really wanted to write something that meandered around and didn’t really go where you thought it might go. My Dad had taught me  notation system where you can write down number numbers for notes- so I wrote them on a ticket – next time we were at rehearsal I showed them the ticket.

Stephen:‘’From a train ticket to beyond – this is considered one of the all-time great rockn’roll tunes’’

It was absolutely exhilarating to hear Black Dog bursting forth from the speakers and to watch John feeling the music and jigging along to the chord changes as only musicians can.

Stephen: ‘’I was hoping John would do some air guitar then’’

JPJ: ‘’No…. air bass guitar !’’

John then explained how he met Mo in Hampstead

JPJ: ‘’she was the one who made me make that call!’’

Stephen : ”Mo you were the one that made it happen – throughout history women are the ones who quietly make it happen’’

Asked by Stephen what he did after the demise of Zep John said:

‘I it was time to reacquaint myself with my family and we moved down to Devon and got more into more new music. I  I couldn’t get arrested after Zeppelin. I think when you are in a band of that stature everybody’s afraid to ask you anything. I actually had to go out and find people to paly music with.’’

Stephen then asked what happened in the 80s and 90s and John mentioned his work on the Scream For Help soundtrack and The Mission and Diamanda Galas

Explaining the Millennium piece John said:

‘’I was asked to contribute to a  record called Miniatures – you have one minute to do a piece – it must be one minute only. I basically multi- tracked on a bass lap steel guitar and built up this track’’

John actually selected the wrong track to play on his i-pod .‘’That was the wrong piece – that was another piece I did for Red Byrd.’’

The Fanfare For The Millennium opened with John Exclaiming ‘’Its coming!” …and then it went into a glorious short spiralling piece.

The Contemporary Music Group then performed two versions of his 2005 composition Co-Motion which illustrated how John had written the piece to be improvised –something that he said was unusual in classical performance.

John went onto explain about his current opera project The Ghost Sonata before finally taking to the Manson five string bass to perform excerpts from Nearly Ninety – the composition he performed at the  Merce Cunningham at 90 event in 2009.

This was bass guitar playing but as he put it, ‘’Not as we know it’’

It was right out on a tangent as John played against his electronic devices which gave out differing sequences for him to improvise against. It was simply astonishing watching him do this right in front of my very eyes –and a memory that can instantly take its place high on my list of all time Zep related thrills.

Talking about his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist, John said ‘’Basically I play anything with strings – I like the mandolin. In fact a lot of bass players play mandolin. It’s the liberation of having a small instrument! I also play bluegrass, I can play old time music. I can play old time fiddle and my daughter is also a fiddle player.”

The Composer Portrait ended with a rousing reception for John. He then graciously signed autographs and posed for photos for fans

This whole experience of being extremely up close and personal with a member of Led Zeppelin on a Sunday lunchtime was utterly surreal…and utterly wonderful.

He really is the master musician and this was evidence once again of the quiet dignity John Paul Jones displays in doing what he has been doing for nigh on 50 years – producing challenging and memorable music. Long may he continue…

Dave Lewis,May 21 2012.

John with Stephan Montague -all photos Dave Lewis for TBL


In the afternoon we kept the a party going in attending the tribute band Led Zed’s gig at the nearby Grapes pub. Their enthusiasm for the music was infectious. After their set they even let me up on the drums for a quick burst of my own Bonzo style snare fills! A great end to a great day – hi to Michaela, Dan, Ian, Tom, Jackie, Phil, Graeme, Pam, Maria, Richard and Roberta.

There are more photos of  the day on the Tight But Loose Facebook pages.

Don’t forget you can follow Dave Lewis/TBL on Twitter – LedzeppelinTBL

and Facebook (add us as a friend) at!/profile.php?id=161129


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  • André Cruz said:

    The envy is not a good feeling…
    Congratulations Dave, as I said before, this is the Dream Job !!!
    But I have to say, you do an amazing job.
    I only saw JPJ two days, 3 different gigs, at Bonnaroo Festival 2007, Manchester, TN. Last july I was at Optimus Alive in Lisbon wanting to see him play in Portugal for the first time but he doesn`t play with Seasick Steve there – this year went to Australia with him. I really would like to know why he didn`t wanted to play there but travel to countries so far away instead. Hugs from Rio de Janeiro to all zep fans !

  • Graeme said:

    Dave, you look so comfortable behind that kit…we need a TBL jamming session. A great day mate. I can’t think of many Sunday afternoons to top that. Take care mate. G

  • Dave Lewis (author) said:

    Chris – indeed it is!

  • Chris Wright said:

    As ever Dave, another rivetting account of a close encounter of the Zep kind. Amazing to think this modest, kind, unassuming man is the genius behind much of the soundtrack of our lives.

  • RichardG said:

    “It was simply astonishing watching him do this right in front of my very eyes –and a memory that can instantly take its place high on my list of all time Zep related thrills”…nothing more to add to that!

    Utterly spellbinding… still not even sure it actually happened and we were there. Will take a long time to come down from this one. Phew…!

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