It took a strong constitution to be a part of Led Zeppelin. Apart from the normal rigours of being in a world famous rock and roll band, Zeppelin were always the ones to bring it up a notch. Instead of simply being interested in the occult, Jimmy Page collected enough books on Aleister Crowley alone to open up an entire bookshop. Instead of just having fun with groupies, the band (allegedly) used sharks to spice things up. Instead of having a normal breakfast, John Bonham pounded vodka screwdrivers until he could barely see.
The logical conclusion is that it takes some real power to unnerve the members of Zeppelin, but one song in the band’s catalogue did more to unsettle Page than any other. It wasn’t the spooky ambience of ‘No Quarter’, the wild oscillating time signatures of ‘The Crunge’, or even the manic double-time samba of ‘Fool in the Rain’. It was the barren emptiness that came with the Presence track ‘Tea for One’.
It wasn’t even that the song itself scared Page, it was the fact that for the first time in his professional recording career, the guitarist was stumped about how to put his signature stamp on the tune. “‘Tea For One’ was the only time I think we’ve ever gotten close to repeating the mood of another of our numbers, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You,’” Page explained to Trouser Press in 1977. “The chordal structure is similar, a minor blues. I ended up sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got this guitar solo to do.’ I was really a bit frightened of it. I thought, ‘What’s to be done?’” he added.
Page was, famously, a man who was able to pull magic out of thin air: the main structure of ‘Kashmir’ came from just the last few seconds of a much longer composition entitled ‘Swan Song’. The solo to ‘Heartbreaker’ was completely improvised and finished in one take after the original recording’s solo was deemed unsatisfactory. But when it came to ‘Tea for One’, Page had difficulty in not repeating himself.
At one point, Page favoured a take that didn’t even require him to take a solo. “We did two takes in the end, one with a guitar solo and one without,” Page says. “I didn’t want to blast out the solo like a locomotive or something, because it wasn’t conductive to the vibe of the rest of the track.”
Eventually, Page came up with a slow-burning solo that perfectly fit the eerie nature of the song, but it only showed up after getting over a massive mental block.