I, II, III (Reissues)
, June 2nd, 2014 08:12
For all the tantalising and salacious stories – some apocryphal, some not – of debauchery, drugs, destruction, mud sharks, groupies, whips, private jets, violence, black magic, transvestites, hard business dealings and death, it's become all too easy to forget what actually set it all off: the incredible body of music. And let's face it – without the music these tales that have set the benchmark of how a planet-shagging rock behemoth is expected to behave would simply be a catalogue of obnoxiousness with nothing to back it up. Just ask any of the spandex-clad cretins currently residing in well-deserved obscurity.
These re-issues of Led Zeppelin's initial three albums, the first to come springing from the traps and newly re-mastered under the ever-watchful eye of founder, guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, do much to redress the balance in favour of what Led Zeppelin were actually about. For not only are these given a new sonic sheen, they reveal – thanks to the bonus discs that accompany each of the albums – the work that, ahem, led to their completion.
The story of their inception has been told often enough. Formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds by former session guitarist Jimmy Page, a man whose nimble finger work graced the grooves of records by Lulu, Billy Fury and the soundtrack to Goldfinger among countless others, Led Zeppelin fulfilled the contractual live obligations of their previous incarnation before recording their debut album in 36 hours. What these re-issues do is give that story, and what happened afterwards, a more panoramic view which had only been glimpsed thanks to the countless bootlegs that have appeared over the years.
What we have here are two sides of Led Zeppelin: the studio based band and its live counterpart and the two are very different beasts indeed. Despite its lyrical limitations, Led Zeppelin remains an astonishing calling card. Notable for its breadth – here are explosive rockers ('Communication Breakdown'), heavy blues ('You Shook Me'), folk excursions ('Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You') and psychedelic workouts ('How Many More Times') – this is a heady and potent collection of songs born of a unique chemistry that bonds the principle players. It's right there from the opening chords of 'Good Times Bad Times' as Page's guitar coalesces with John Bonham's powerful drums and skittering percussion before giving way to John Paul Jones funky bottom end and Robert Plant's clear and powerful voice. It remains a beautifully economic yet devastating statement and one that set them apart from many of the blues boom bands of the time.
Equally, the album's acoustic sections highlight the light and shade that Page has spoken of over the years. Displaying a dexterity in playing and style that eluded many of the ersatz rockers that followed in their wake, Led Zeppelin's musical versatility was evident from the off. The only real downside to the album are the lyrics that frequently fall into blues cliché, casual sexism (see 'Dazed And Confused's “…soul of a woman was created below”) and outright nonsense (the protagonist of 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave' is going to ramble and leave yet then walk through the park everyday with the objection of his affection). In the wider scheme of things these are perhaps more excusable considering the times that the album was made in as well the comprehension of the blues' lyrical values by an inexperienced 19-year-old from the Midlands. But what really makes up for the lyrical shortcomings is the fast developing groove of John Paul Jones and John Bonham that would provide the foundation for Jimmy Page's excursions and Robert Plant's unique vocal delivery.
With the so few outtakes available from the time period of their debut, the second disc that accompanies the re-issue of their debut is a live recording from Paris in October 1969 and it shows the best and the worst of the band in a single package. Much of Led Zeppelin's live reputation is based on their improvisational skills as much as their sheer firepower and at their finest, Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham could read each other like books; a simple look or signal would find the band loosening from the moorings of the source material to take flight in any number of directions. This early recording is no different and its finest – see Plant gelling wonderfully with Page on an extended 'You Shook Me' or sounding like an air-raid siren during a devastating 'Communication Breakdown' – displays the magic that was their stock-in-trade. The downside is the then de rigueur drum solo of 'Moby Dick' and a curiously directionless 'Dazed And Confused' but as a document of a band finding its way to greatness this is nonetheless an engrossing listen.
Released two weeks after the Paris gig to dislodge The Beatles' Abbey Road from pole position in the album charts, Led Zeppelin II is a huge leap forward from its predecessor. Recorded on the hop in a variety of studios as Led Zeppelin lay waste to competitors and audiences across America, the album increases the riffs, funk and paints from a far wider palette to incredible and still breathtaking effect. 'Whole Lotta Love' is utterly murderous and not for no reason has it achieved and maintained its near-mythical status. The psychedelic mid-section that sees Page's skills come sharply into focus truly elevates the song while its coda makes for an orgasmic release. But there's so much more at play here courtesy of further psychedelic play in the form of 'What Is And What Should Never Be', the aching balladry of 'Thank You' and the folk-rock of the Tolkien-infused 'Ramble On'. This is an incredibly sexy album and the grooves contained within it are deep and wide. Not for no reason did Page and Plant zoom their focus on this album (and its successor) in place of much of the material of Walking Into Clarksdale when they revived Led Zeppelin in all but name at the tale end of the 90s.
The companion disc in this package offers an intriguing insight in the creation of Led Zeppelin II and one that highlights both the production skills of Jimmy Page and the musical contributions of his cohorts. Here, 'Whole Lotta Love' sounds much drier than the version that finally saw light of day. The reverb is yet to be added to the guitars as is the backwards delay to Plant's vocals. Similarly, the psychedelic mid-section is still in gestation and the band's re-introduction lacks the power of the final release. Plant's lyrics differ too and his vocals feel as if they're still reaching out for that glass-shattering quality that he knows he's capable of. Similarly, 'Ramble On' displays differences in vocal and guitar delivery while 'Thank You''s backing track spotlights the criminally undervalued contribution of the band's most versatile musician, John Paul Jones. The real point of interest contained here is the instrumental 'LaLa', a tempting and teasing glimpse of what could have been one of their most unique outings. As close to pop music as Led Zeppelin ever got, the track moves from a convincing reggae keyboard break that wouldn't sound out of place on a Jimmy Cliff cut to mod styling before finding itself in more familiar territory. Though incomplete by any standard, the band's versatility is shown off beautifully but it's hard to imagine a completed version, at least by what's hinted at here, ever sitting comfortably on the finished album.
Led Zeppelin III is where the band's dynamic and musical range really comes together and, for this writer at least, the most satisfying of the three. Stung by criticism of their combustible firepower, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant retreated to the bucolic environs of Snowdonia for inspiration and returned with material that was not only more gentle and considered than what had gone on before but also, in places, downright weird and beguilingly esoteric. Though the album opens with the explosive 'Immigrant Song', the track's economy is quickly evident: a short, sharp shock, it remains one of Led Zeppelin's most pithy songs yet it delivers as well as any of their epics. Here, and throughout the rest of the album, Plant comes into his own as lyricist. The gentle 'That's The Way' reveal a thoughtful and sensitive individual that was little in evidence during the band's previous two outings.
Elsewhere, 'Friends' and 'Celebration Day' convey a willingness to stretch out and explore in ways that had barely been hinted at. The guitar tunings employed on the former track, coupled with a haunting yet strangely menacing string section, add up to one of Led Zeppelin's more bizarre excursions and their interest in drones and the hypnotic effect they create is brought massively to the fore. Similarly, 'Celebration Day', which segues from its predecessor, focuses on a minimum of chords to create a woozy, see-saw effect that seeks inspiration from, and delivers beyond, the strictures of conventional rock & roll structures. These tunings and drones also make their presence felt on the swooping and circular re-working of 'Gallows Pole' and the utterly bonkers country blues of 'Hats Off To (Roy) Harper', one of the band's most overlooked yet intriguing moments.
Indeed, if anything characterizes the third album beyond the diversity of the material then it's the less-is-more ethos that paints it and this becomes apparent when listening the bonus disc of extras that comes with Led Zeppelin III. The alternate mix of 'Immigrant Song' has extra vocal tracks while 'Celebration Day' has a fuller sound courtesy of about three or four extra guitar tracks that weave in and out of the song. 'Since I've Been Loving You' has a different vocal take and guitar lead and it's to Page's credit as a producer that he strips these extras away to deliver a leaner and fitter beast than was perhaps originally envisaged.
The real gems to be found on the second disc are the two unreleased tracks that appear at the end. 'Jennings Farm Blues' is an early and instrumental version of 'Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp' and one that's some distance from the finished item. Electrified and rollicking, this is a lean and fit reading which again demonstrates both joyful playful and a sharp set of ears only too happy to re-work the song to greater ends. Finally comes the country blues melding of 'Keys To The Highway/Trouble In Mind' that sounds like a dry run for 'Hat Off To (Roy) Harper' as Plant's vocals are delivered through a revolving Leslie speaker.
A word on the re-mastering for all you audiophiles out there: while the general sound output levels are a shade lighter than the re-masters presented on the Mothership compilation, the bass response is pretty damn good. Take, for example, 'Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp' – Bonham's bass drum is rich, fat and booming and Jones' bass simply widens the sound. This improved low-end rhythm section, fundamental to Led Zeppelin's sound, cuts through brilliantly and really does show the work that's been done in this quarter.
These re-issues are brilliantly put together. The covers are faithfully reproduced – the spinning wheel of Led Zeppelin III is present and correct – and the extra discs give a unique insight into the creation of these masterpieces. Releasing these albums in small sections makes sense as it gives the listener an opportunity to digest the music and development of Led Zeppelin as the start of a wider musical story and journey. More importantly, it highlights music that not only embodies the power, majesty and, if we're honest, the glorious stupidity inherent in rock music but also musical ambition, vision and delivery that proved elusive to so many of the bands that followed in their wake over the decades. As an opening chapter to much longer and epic tale, they make the prospect of what's to follow so much more enticing.