CD Reviews: Led Zeppelin

Top Row: the original album art for Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III; bottom row are the revised art work for the new reissues (Rhino)
Top Row: the original album art for Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III; bottom row are the revised art work for the new reissues (Rhino)

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin II
Led Zeppelin III

Atlantic/Swan Song/Warner Music

by David Chiu

Even after it had long officially cease being a band since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, the British rock band Led Zeppelin continues to remain popular, as evidenced by the surviving members’ well-received reunion concert at the O2 in London in 2007. New releases from the band – whether they are box set retrospectives or live compilations – would occasionally pop up over the years. But Led Zeppelin hasn’t completely opened the vaults as far as unreleased material from the archives – thus relegating die-hard fans to continue spinning their worn-out vinyl and CD copies of the band’s records and hearing classics as “Stairway to Heaven,” “No Quarter,” and “Kashmir” in their pure, original form.

Until now, that is. This past Tuesday marked the re-release of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums – Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III – whose digital remastering was supervised by the band’s guitarist Jimmy Page. But the bigger story with this reissue program, spanning all of the Zep’s nine studio albums from 1969 to 1982, is that each of the original records will be accompanied by a bonus disc of previously unreleased studio and live material. For fans, this is as close as they’ll ever get to hearing some ‘new’ band music. (In addition to the 2-CD packages, the reissues will released in a variety of formats, including vinyl, digital, and as a boxed set).

From its formation in 1968 out of the ashes of Page’s former band the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin turned British blues rock upside down with a heavier sound than their peers. That is quite obvious on its electrifying self-titled debut album (1969) that introduced the world to Page’s innovative guitar heroics, Robert Plant’s compelling and charismatic vocals, Bonham’s bombastic drumming, and John Paul Jones’ invaluable bass and keyboard playing. Trailblazing a path for future heavy metal acts in the next decade, Led Zeppelin is a mix of hard rock (the punkish “Communication Breakdown,” the hauntingly psychedelic “Dazed and Confused”) and American blues (“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “You Shook Me,” “How Many Times”). The bonus material accompanying this release is a 1969 concert at the Olympia in Paris, whose setlist mostly draws from the first album and a few then-new songs (“Heartbreaker,” “Moby Dick”) – the amazing sound quality of the show’s audio will make the listener feel like he or she is right up front of the stage. The original studio tracks on Led Zeppelin are nothing compared to when the band performed the tracks live: this version of “Dazed and Confused” clocks in at 15 minutes, serving as a showcase for Page’s heroics on his axe; while “You Shook Me” is full of slow-burn sexual innuendo accented by the call-and-response between Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocals.

By no means, Led Zeppelin II (1969) suffered the dreaded sophomore jinx that most bands experience when it comes to recording the second album. Rather it spent seven week at #1 on the album charts highlighted by one of Zep’s most memorable songs, “Whole Lotta Love.” With a killer guitar rift, that song encapsulates the band’s forging of hard rock and blues into something fresh and original. To this day, almost every single track from Led Zeppelin II has been regularly played on classic rock radio, from the dramatic “What Is and What Should Never Be,” through the tender ballad “Thank You,” to some brawny rockers in “Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On.” Several of its tracks are reprised as alternate mixes on the companion disc of this reissue that reveal both subtle and noticeable changes compared to the final takes. For example, on the rough mix of “Whole Lotta Love,” one could hear the track without some of the overdubs, bringing certain elements to the fore; or the backing track to “Thank You” reveals the beauty of Jones’ organ playing and Bonham’s drumming. The hidden gem on this reissue is “La La,” an uptempo soul-meets-psychedelic rock instrumental track that had never until now been featured on an official Led Zep release.

Led Zeppelin III (1970) has been generally regarded as a sort of transitional record for the band because it’s kind of an about-face from the sonic one-two punch of the first two albums. Not that the group had abandoned its swagger as is the case on the frenetic and sweeping rush of “Immigrant Song” and the swagger of “Out on the Tiles.” But Zeppelin branches out stylistically on III by embracing Indian or Middle Eastern influences on “Friends”; country-and-western on the galloping “Gallows Pole”; and some lovely acoustic-dominated folk on “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way.” As Page said in the liner notes in the band’s 1990 Led Zeppelin box set about that third album: “The element of change has been the thing, really…It’s the reason we were able to keep it together.” With the exception of 1976’s Presence, Led Zeppelin III might be the most underrated of all the band’s albums and would serve as a musical template for the later records. The bonus alternate mixes that grace this new edition of Led Zeppelin III offer a glimpse of the original album songs in their ‘unplugged’ form. It is highlighted by three previously unreleased songs: the instrumentals “Bathroom Song” (which would later morph into “Out on the Tiles”) and “Jennings Farm Blues”; and the band’s interpretation of “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind,” whose sound is like something out of a 1920s blues recording from the Mississippi Delta.

If these new releases are an indication of the painstaking care and type of material unearthed, then it’s going to be an exciting time for Zep fans when the next batch of reissues arrive – among them are the mighty trifecta of Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti.

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