Thursday, June 12, 2014
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LED ZEPPELIN - LED ZEPPELIN, II, III (Deluxe Reissues)
Excuse me while I, err, Ramble On awhile about the new Led Zep reissues, with their Page-led improved audio, and "companion" discs of alternate mixes, backing tracks, and in the case of the first album, a vintage live concert. There certainly aren't many albums left that can generate excitement (and big sales) for their archival reissues, at least of the old-school rock stars. I'm sure at some point we'll get a 40th anniversary issue of something like Synchronicity by The Police, but that's not the same is it? There are stars, and then there are solar systems. If you are picking up hard copies of the albums, I figure the majority will be getting these double-CD versions, rather than the singles or the pricey Super Deluxe editions.
Here's my take on the first three albums, the caveat being that I've never been a huge fan. I know, sacrilege in some quarters. But it's the later albums I don't care for, these first three are the ones I'll champion, especially the first album. Page and Jones, studio pros deluxe met up with wild rural blues belters Plant and Bonham, and there's much experimentation and brilliance on display. While much is made of Page's lift of blues classics, its what he did with them that's so exciting. Such guitar of course, but the use of studio dynamics, especially the space left in the tracks, is equally smart. The pauses and the changes all make what follows, whether a Page solo or a Plant vocal, stand out even more. And all this is made only better with the new audio here. So much more than hard rock/blues was going on as well, with lots of pop touches Page and Jones would have picked up from other bands and producers over the 60's. Youngsters, that's Anglican church organ you are hearing at the start of Your Time Is Gonna Come.
Then came months and months of touring, through Europe and the U.S., and out of the studio they had to rely on power. Guitar heroics, drums solos and screeching Plant came to the front, and it certainly influenced Led Zep II, recorded later that year in 1969. Much of the variety of the first album is gone, to its detriment. Zeppelin was becoming the big hard rock band they are best remembered as, but it was more out of necessity. The songs were still great though; Whole Lotta Love, Ramble On and Living Loving Maid are among their best.
Zep III is best known as the album where Plant and Page took off to Bron-Y-Aur cottage in Wales to have a break from the constant touring, and write. With no power and no amps, the songs started as acoustic numbers, and it is a more folk-oriented album that the first two. This annoyed the heavy fans, but actually took them back to more imaginative sounds, with Immigrant Song, Gallows Pole and That's The Way far more subtle than the crunch for which they were better known. It was as if they were two different bands; brains in the studio, and brawn on the stage. I'll always choose the thoughtful stuff, at its best on I, II and III.
The bonus or companion discs hold few revelations. Most of the extra tracks on II and III are rough mixes or backing tracks, hardly worth straining your ears for differences. There is a fine instrumental chunk on II called La La, not a complete song but quite tuneful and good to hear. Zep III has a few more interesting bits, including quite a different mix of That's The Way, with a dulcimer to the fore. As is usually the case with these things, the right choice was made for the final album. The much-bootlegged Jennings Farm Blues appears, actually electric guitar parts recorded but discarded from Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, and entertaining for sure. Finally, there's an out-take of Page and Plant doing an acoustic version of Key To The Highway/Trouble In Mind (old blues standards if you don't know) with good picking and a Plant harp fill. This is the big find, I'd say.
The live concert on Led Zep 1 is the most significant bonus, a 70-plus minute set from France, recorded for radio broadcast just before the release of Led Zep II. It includes a couple of numbers from that next album, Heartbreaker, and that concert staple, Bonham's showpiece Moby Dick. Yes, the nine-and-a-half minute number centered on a drum solo. Oh well, there are fans of it, just not me. Dazed And Confused is more my style, and there's some long blues workouts as well, the group still fleshing out their set list. But I'll take a live set over the minor out-takes featured on the other discs.