Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Remasters of the Universe: Led Zeppelin revived

Hear that whooshing noise? Can you feel that breeze? Tell-tale signs that the eyebrows of wives, girlfriends and significant others everywhere are currently shooting skyward en masse as menfolk return from the shops, sweatily clutching the newly remastered copies of the first three Led Zeppelin albums.

To a man - and I swear this is not cheap misogyny - 'conversations' are currently taking place throughout the developed world that will employ, at some point, the words "...but don't you have these already?".

Face facts, we are still, at heart, hunter-gatherers. Should George Lucas (inevitably) release another Star Wars collection on some as-yet invented new format, we will buy it, even for the umpteenth occasion (this, I should stress, is a different arrangement to owning two CD copies of the Heat soundtrack, which I did through being of an age where I am likely to forget, when acquiring the second, that I already own the first).

Putting gender stereotypification, borderline sexism and self-deprecating ageism to one side, let's consider the Led Zeppelin releases themselves. Why should you want to buy again albums that should already be sitting in any record collection that is good and proper, and in one of the multitude of formats that record companies and the consumer electronics industry have foisted on us over the last 50 years?

Don't expect a logical answer: because if logic had anything to do with it, households populated by at least one adult male would not be bursting at the seams with entertainment ephemera.

The actual answer - which I know won't sustain a domestic argument - is "love". Yes, soppy old love. This is the music that inspires unrequited passion about music itself. Led Zeppelin's is the music that will reach down inside your soul, forcing any one of a number of reactions from gently tapping feet to a full-on, whiplash-inducing frug.

Before providing practical explanation of this, however, let me, first, get the commercial out of the way. Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III have been re-released following an extensive remastering project carried out personally by the band's founder, Jimmy Page.

Page has applied a genuine labour of love, to use that word again, a personal investment of several years, not only working like a master art restorer on the original albums, but also tirelessly tracking down unreleased material for the bonus discs available in the deluxe (and priced accordingly...) boxed packages offered alongside CD and standalone vinyl versions of the albums.

Later this year, Zeppelin will re-release their other six studio albums, again in different packages, and again with Page lovingly remastering them. "It's just so important to remind people what a fucking good band Led Zeppelin was," Page recently told the NME. "I hope young musicians find it a source of inspiration. "That's how I learned, and that's what's so seductive about doing this nerdish thing. Led Zeppelin have real serious musical mastery, and this is passing it on. It's a cool thing to do."

Led Zeppelin, an album of nine songs recorded in the autumn of 1968 at the legendary Olympic Studios in London's sleepy suburb of Barnes, launched a band that consolidated the talents of the former teenage guitar prodigy Page, his fellow session star-about-town and musical polymath John Paul Jones, and the Midlands duo of an alpha-bloke drummer John Bonham and the prototype leonine rock god Robert Plant.

Led Zeppelin, the band, arrived fully formed. Led Zeppelin, the album, was and still is a totally visceral experience, perfectly mixed with Page's inventive, cyclical guitar riffs, Jones' pulsing bass lines, Bonham's pounding drums, and Plant's half-screamed, high-register white soul vocals.

Listening to the new remaster, however, it's hard to understand how critics, at first, gave the album a lukewarm reception (most notably a "poisonous" review in Rolling Stone, according to Page). Some called it derivative and lacking distinction from other hard rock outfits out there, including Cream, who'd broken up just two months before it came out.

True, like Cream and other contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Humble Pie, Zeppelin took the electric blues as their mould, and that is more apparent than anything with Led Zeppelin: not just because of the two Willie Dixon covers, You Shook Me and I Can't Quit You Baby, either, but also with the frantic boogie of Communication Breakdown, Stax-influenced How Many More Times, and the Page opus Dazed And Confused, which presented the guitarist as both authentic bluesman and a guitarist with the unique ability to create something very dark indeed with his riffs, especially the decidedly demonic moan on this track.

There's an immediacy about Led Zeppelin that reflects the live feel of an album recorded in just 36 hours. Consequently, it's as exciting and as vibrant as any of the great debut albums, from Are You Experienced? to Never Mind The Bollocks, and from My Generation to Definitely Maybe. With Page's remastering work it has been made even more enjoyable to soak up. The new work provides something tangibly different, like a great work of classic cinema, cleaned up and relaunched for the big screen.

Led Zeppelin doesn't just represent a snapshot of the emergence of heavy rock in 1969, but is the source code, the genome, for just about every guitar-based rock album to have come out in the intervening 45 years. You can certainly hear where Jack White and Kings of Leon got their ideas from.

The Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition
To accompany the remastered Led Zeppelin, amongst the myriad formats and packages, the 'Deluxe Edition' deluxe box set (which includes a sumptuous book, the original launch press kit, the album on CD and a high resolution audio download) contains a restored live recording of the band playing the Olympia in Paris in October 1969. Originally recorded for a French radio broadcast in the November, the tape had lain undiscovered in the basement of the Europe 1 station until being uncovered seven years ago.

I'm a sucker for a live album, and this one interestingly captures an outfit at the very beginning, especially as it is in lieu of the 'companion discs' accompanying the remastered second and third albums (36 hours' studio time didn't generate enough spare material).

There's a reassuring nervousness about Good Times Bad Times, but already the confidence, the swagger and the sheer braggadocio of Led Zeppelin is there to be heard on Heartbreaker, Dazed and Confused, Moby Dick (the Bonham-indulgence...) and a blues medley built on How Many More Times with Lemon Song and Boogie Chillen'. Above all it announced that Led Zeppelin were and would be a live act of simply peerless authority.

Led Zeppelin II was written in between and during tours for the first album, and recorded during the first half of 1969. In retrospect, Page hints that they were doing a 'just so' job of coming up with new material, grabbing studio time at Olympic, in LA, New York, Memphis - wherever they found themselves and had the time. Normally that might suggest and sound like a rush job, but the compressed schedule may have helped to produce an album of even greater urgency than the first.

II brought about Page's conversion to the iconic 1959 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top. This might seem like a guitar nerd detail, but his use of it on II, and subsequent synonymity the instrument, was as much an influence on the evolution of heavy rock as the songs it contributed to. Fender had Clapton, but Gibson had Page. Old Yardbirds and their weapons of choice....

II delivers an even louder, harder barrage of rifftastic classics, including Whole Lotta Love, Ramble On and Heartbreaker, once described by Rick Rubin as possessing "the greatest riff in rock". It's unlikely anyone will have cause to argue, although clearly trying to select one of Page's iconic riffs over others is like trying to choose a favourite child. I mean, how do you pick between Black Dog, or Kashmir or Ten Years Gone?

While II evolves Zeppelin's version of the blues further, it doesn't abandon the humidity of the Mississippi Delta entirely. On The Lemon Song, Robert Plant takes off into the Deep South with one of those songs that only old original bluesmen could get away, metaphorically extending the sexual imagery of Whole Lotta Love with the semi-screamed declaration of arrival: "Shake me 'til the juice runs down my leg". Quite.

"Led Zep II was very virile," Plant has since said. "That was the album that was going to dictate whether or not we had the staying power and the capacity to stimulate. It was still blues-based but it was a much more carnal approach to the music and quite flamboyant."

More to the point, it was an album of supremely gathering self-confidence. Plant himself had more to say in the writing of II, while the appearance of Moby Dick - essentially an extended drum solo by Bonham with a bit of band boogie at either end - shows remarkable chutzpah. Drum solos, along with bass solos, are not everyone's cup of tea...

The quality of Page's remastering work pays off handsomely with Led Zeppelin II, not just on his own solos and riffs, but on the overall soundscape. This is the hallmark of all three remastered albums, each producing new fidelity never previously heard, to the extent they almost sound like new albums. Whole Lotta Love is a perfect example: one of the most familiar of Zeppelin's entire library - made more so for us Brits who grew up with CCS's version as the Top Of The Pops theme tune - Page's studio sorcery has breathed new life into the old dog.

On its own, the remastered II is a new experience to be revered. But its companion disc' - the first of two compiled from Page's exhaustive process to find rare and forgotten material - contains more compelling listening, including fascinating alternative mixes of Whole Lotta Love,  What It Is And What Should Never Be, Ramble On and the previously unreleased La La, the kind of outtake that bands put in this packages just to give you the "what were they thinking...?" moment. In this case, a quirky snatch of psychedelic pop as incongruous in the Led Zeppelin repertoire as the reggae-influenced D'yer Mak'er on Houses Of The Holy.

Throughout the process of listening to Led Zeppelin II, the conscious knowledge that it is 45 years old is undermined by the sub-conscious sense of listening to something for the first time.

If that's what all that nonsense about dabbling with the occult was all about, then whatever pact Page made with figures of the underworld has clearly been to our benefit. The song - or rather, the story - remains the same with Led Zeppelin III. Recorded between January and August 1970, Led Zeppelin were, by now hitting their stride.

With the new decade came the turnover of the 60s beat boom. The Beatles were over, the Stones heading for exile, and things were getting heavy. Black Sabbath were emerging from the same part of England as Plant and Bonham, and exerting a decidedly industrial approach to rock that Liverpool and London's beat-based art school crowd had not exposed themselves to.

And so, Led Zeppelin III pounds to life with John Paul Jones' thudding bass on Immigrant Song, giving the Sabs' Paranoid a run for its money, with Plant belting out one of rock's most demonic wails, not to mention of its most bonkers opening couplet: "We come from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow - the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands".

Until that point, the limit of Norse references in popular music had extended only so far as Norwegian Wood. Now, Viking references were being used to kick off the third album from a group of hairy rockers who would go on to develop a reputation as the most colossal Viking marauders of the British Invasion.

Despite its feral start ("That's the way to open an album", Page recently told The Guardian's Michael Hann), III was the album that set the tradition of bands "getting their heads together in the country". After two years of relentless touring to increasingly larger audiences, Page and Plant decamped to the cottage Bron-Y-Aur in Snowdonia, a move that injected acoustic guitars into the writing process, not to mention inspiring the track Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, which lead to a more textured album than the previous two, with the mellower That's The Way and the traditional Gallows Pole competing with the minor-key blues of Since I've Been Loving You, which builds to a Page crescendo of still breathtaking gusto.

Led Zeppelin III's companion disc is another curate's egg of outtakes, rarities and the previously unreleased, with the outstanding highlight being a joyful Page and Plant studio jam of the blues standards Keys To The Highway and Trouble in Mind, a demonstration of the fact that Led Zeppelin weren't just an earnestly good band, but they could enjoy themselves too.

That's not to say the other companion tracks aren't worth the investment. An earlier take of Since I've Been Loving You finds Plant's vocals in a more plaintive form, adding a different emotion to the definitive track committed to the album.

"I think we produced something really good: a courageous album," Page told Michael Hann, adding that this was "a band standing up for its convictions, doing what felt natural without being at the beck and call of record labels or A&R men. We were able, without any hindrance, to keep pushing the boundaries."

To return to that earlier question, there is a point to Led Zeppelin re-releasing these albums now. Like their contemporaries, they are part of a vital heritage. There is no logical argument that allows their comparison with more up to date artists. But that's not the point. Indulging in these three packages is to indulge in music that not only was of its moment, but continues to resonate today. Listening to the three albums, plus copping an ear to the works-in-progress of the companion discs, lets you enter a world where the music industry properly gave a damn about music.

Led Zeppelin weren't formed by a TV talent show. Like the apparent random accident that was the formation of the universe, fate brought four disparate individuals together to form the greatest rock and roll band in history. Natural - or unnatural - forces were at work, and still are. That's why Page - as Zeppelin's curator-in-chief has invested himself so enthusiastically in seeking out additional proofpoints of just how good his band were.

He doesn't need the money, any more than Led Zeppelin need to reform and do another tour (which won't happen in any case). And that's what makes these packages so richly enjoyable. It's knowing that the person who put them together is having just as much fun from doing so as you are from listening to them. That's what I mean by "love". And there's a whole lottta that going on here right now.


  1. Love indeed. These are hallmark albums from the best rock band ever. It's amazing to me as well that their first album wasn't originally lauded!

    Thanks for an excellent review, Simon. I'm rambling on down to the shops for my copy now!

  2. Thanks Jon - this turned into a labour of love of my own! Hope you're enjoying them!