Led Zeppelin wrote the book on Rock and Roll. They didn’t invent it, not at all. In fact there’s some that would argue they’ve done little original in their lifespan, but they defined the largess, the weighty riffs, the bacchanalian backstage and sheer scale of all that rock music could achieve. And now, in case any of us have been in a coma these past 45 years, the Zep-mythos is being fired up again, this time in the guise of the first three albums, re-mastered, re-duxed, repacked and re-released.
Whether the re-mastering process, overseen by Page himself, has made a huge impact on the sound is difficult to gauge, mainly as these records sounded pretty good to begin with. The crystalline clarity of the digital age may add or subtract to the sound depending on your tastes; some people miss the warmth of analogue, the subtle crackle of the needle on the grooves, some prefer being able to hear the performers sweat as they play. Polished to a fine shine as they are now, there’s nowhere for the songs to hide, but then Led Zep were never afraid of their performances being naked. A certain veritas in their performance was very much part of their oeuvre, and the occasionally mistake is to be as cherished as the humdrum virtuosity they also exhibited with an almost banal insouciance. When Bonzo traverses the kit like he’s got an extra couple of limbs, and then fudges what should be a rudimentary (for him) double beat on the kick drum, it makes all that’s gone before more real. The studio yapping we often get between songs, occasionally in the middle of tunes, adds to feel that for these four lads, playing the music as real and raw as possible was the important thing.
Mainly because these four lads were so good at what they did. More than the sum of their parts, but also very much individuals. The chemistry is so natural that nothing seems forced. Each and every player a master of their craft, yet simultaneously essential to the whole: JPJ’s understated authority, punctuated by occasional fleet-fingered fret examination, Bonham’s nimble-wristed power, the hyperactive auteurism of Page’s all round game and range and guts of Plant’s vocals.
Released in 1969, Led Zeppelin I sounds very much like a sixties record, from the fuzzing guitar tones, to the outro chorus of voice on ‘Your Time Is Going To Come’ to the folk pickings of ‘Black Mountain Side’, augmented by the vaguely Indian melodies and tablas. They veer from rollicking around on ‘Communication Breakdown’, to paying blues homage ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’, but in a way that is yet entirely their own. The band who became one of music history’s most aped doing the aping.
For I, the extra disc is a live show recorded in Paris in 1969. They start so frantically and energetically with ‘Good Times, Bad Times/ Communication Breakdown’, that Plant struggles to keep up. The band play most of the first record, a neat counterpoint to the actual album, and a couple of numbers from the second, including ‘Moby Dick’. There’s a scene in the movie The Song Remains The Same, where after they’ve started the latter and when Bonzo starts his thing, the other members walk off the stage. This for them is a break. They can have a smoke or a drink or get a few chapters of War and Peace in if needs be. You might want to do the same. Despite the awesomeness of Bonzo’s limbs, this is, when you get right down to it, a ten minute drum solo. This is where virtuosity begins to wander off on its own.
Led Zeppelin II. You know how it sounds. It’s great. It’s hilarious to listen to that record now and hear so many bastard children lurking around with in the songs. Without ‘Bring It All Back Home’, would there ever have been a Guns n’ Roses? Zeppelin at this stage are still in thrall to the codified blues rock of the 60s. They’re great, but yet to be truly interesting.
The second extras collection is essentially the album again, except in rough mixes and backing tapes. It’s interesting to listen to the band playing without the flourishes and overdubs. Whole Lotta Love’s rough mix is wonderfully unpolished, not least in the grittiness of Plant’s delivery. The backing track version of ‘Moby Dick’ contains just the intro and outro, and in lieu of a drum solo simply has Bonzo counting to four. A distinct improvement you might think. There’s also a previously unreleased song La La, which lay in a vault somewhere for four decades, and with good reason.
Their third record is where the legend really begins to take. Finally unfettered by an over reliance on the standard 12 bar power blues, Page and Plant repaired to the now famous Bron Y Aur cottage in Wales to write songs. The bucolic idyll was a welcome reprieve from the frenetic on-the-road writing that had served them up to this point. Unsurprisingly, there’s a very different feel to this record. It’s more pastoral, more folksy. There’s still rock, the incomparable ‘Immigrant Song’ is in keeping with the previous two records habits of opening with killer tracks, and there’s still blues flourishes, old habits dying the hardest. ‘Celebration Day’ is a whizz of frantic slide guitar, and ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, a real precursor to Zep’s incipient epic period, stands somewhere to the left of conventional blues, dark and mean looking, Bonzo’s thunderous drums punching holes in the idiom before Page’s exquisite guitar solo makes you realise no other band on earth, at any time, could have made this music. Page is one of the few (I reckon about four) rock guitarists that manage to combine the pathos, virtuosity and plain feel that elevates the guitar beyond mere penis extension.
As if to prove the point, III’s side two, as we used to call it in the day before re-issues and streams and even CDs, inhabits and entirely different space to the first half of the record. Taking a cue from the concurrently popular folk revival, they strum acoustic guitars, mandolins, and tell tales about hangmen and what have you, before finishing by taking their ‘Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’, who was cool then, but distinctly persona no grata now.
As with II, the extra tracks merely recreate the album. A rough mix of ‘Immigrant Song’ lacks the thwack of the album version. Presumably that’s why this version didn’t make the final cut, it’s not actually as good. This logic can be applied to all of the extras on II and III, if we’re being churlish. There’s precious little “new” material, and the rough mixes are just that: rough. But in among it all, for the fans, the completeists, the students, you get to listen to the process, and enjoy the nakedness of their playing, hearing notes and flourishes that have since been lost under the overdubs. Plant’s vocals seem to be the element that’s most changed come the final mix, and there’s real charm to the looseness of his delivery. But, while there’s moments of interest here, they don’t particularly add much to the albums themselves. Then again, it would be very hard to improve on them.