The first question is whether any of this is really necessary. And the answer is no, of course not. The original albums were exceptionally well produced, with inventive use of studio dynamics for all those durable rock epics, crunchy guitars bouncing around the speakers, and John Bonham’s massive drum sound that has been sampled or copied by generations of hip hop, dance, and rock artists. We’ve seen several rounds of remasterings since then, although none have improved much on that magical sound. Audiophiles actually prefer the original albums over the subsequent Jimmy Page approved remasterings, complaining that the mixes were brightened and brickwalled at the expense of warmth and overall fidelity. But audiophiles complain about everything. The differences are probably not noticeable anyway to a teenager swerving around the neighborhood blasting “Heartbreaker” at the top levels of the speakers in his mom’s station wagon. And isn’t that the real Zeppelin audience?
A recent Slate article (“How Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Et Al Invented Modern Rock”) fellated the Zeppelin myth in an ostensible review of the new remasters of the first three albums. I can appreciate subjective criticism or appreciation, but the premise of this piece comes off like a delusional fatwa. For example, the intro to “Good Times Bad Times” from the debut album is “a powerful shot across the bow of pop music as…the blinking, blaring tritone that heralded ‘Purple Haze.” That sentence “heralds” the sort of pompous prose to follow. We won’t delve too deeply into the article because the analyses of the albums themselves are not quite that bad, and it’s hard to criticize a fellow Zeppelin fan, delusional or not. But still, the “bow” of pop music?
No, Led Zeppelin did not invent modern rock. Yes, they were great, but the Beatles and Dylan were more than just bit players in rock’s ongoing hagiographical drama. We can’t really blame Led Zeppelin for the atrocities of bands like Creed anymore than we can credit them for the White Stripes. I actually hear more of the Kinks in the casual bohemian dissidence in the White Stripes than the hoary excesses of Zep, and I suspect that the blame for Creed really lies with the boomy theatrics of Pearl Jam. Surely Zep “inspired” many of the horrors of eighties metal, but we must also look to the smiling bust of old Edward Van for that bit of ultraviolence. And of course it was the good old blues that really started all of this rock business, but that’s a touchy issue in the context of Led Zeppelin’s music. What does all this matter? Not much – this argument feels like the trivial patter of an infomercial host just before the big pitch. Should you really buy these remastered albums? Again? Wait, there’s more…
Led Zeppelin (1969)
I’ve always considered this one to be the least essential album in the catalog, including the underrated guitar heavy Presence and the disco hoedown swan song In Through The Out Door. Lots of heavy Brit blues rock with nods to American psych and hippie folk and none of it sounds quite ready for Mordor. I certainly don’t hear the opening of “Good Times, Bad Times” as “the sound of a new world being born,” as Slate would have it – more like percussive jazz pop with some overly busy Bonzo drum work, the sort of track you might find on Side Three of a Ginger Baker Band album. And if “Communication Breakdown” invented punk rock then I’m Iggy Pop. (Although it surely influenced the guitar playing of Steve Jones, which is a dubious sort of distinction at best, much as I love the bloke.)
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is the same dark acoustic boogie that it always was, still sounding distorted when the full band comes in, as if Jimmy hadn’t quite figured out how to capture their sound in full. Don’t worry – he would. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” on the other hand is something of a revelation. I’d always dismissed it as lame acid rock caricature, but it really is a neat little psychedelic rocker that’s nearly drowned out by Bonham’s massive drum beat. And that’s a good thing, as his driving rhythm keeps this from dripping into sub Procol Harum territory. This song really shines on this remaster, and the drum sound is even more defined, so crank it loud.
But the real treasures on this old Hidenburg are “Dazed And Confused” and “How Many More Times,” both of which would become live set pieces for the boys to jam out for hours and hours. I remember a rumor that supposedly no one could make it through the freak out section of “Dazed” on acid without going crazy, though that probably says more about the quality of Jersey lysergic than any mystical power of the song itself. The song was ripped off – of course – from Jake Holmes, but Zep added their own fiery magick to turn the little folk tune into this dark psych rock classic. Not that they gave him any credit, but what else is new? Anyway, “Dazed” is a real monster – that deep eerie bassline chugging into military riffing like Zep were already recruiting for Uncle Jimmy’s Army, then the freak out section which actually sounds quite tame on record compared to the live extravaganza it would become, and finally Bonham kicks the whole thing into the stratosphere. “Dazed And Confused” is one of Led Zep’s greatest moments, a breakthrough performance. Slate calls it “a lousy song,” after spending three paragraphs treating “Good Times Bad Times” like the second coming of Christ. Even if it was, “Dazed” is still more important. And then we end with “How Many More Times,” with its assured jazzy swing and monstrous riffs that feels more than anything else like a grab for the blues rock throne. This remastered version sounds fantastic – I can’t help but turn this song louder and louder and the sonic response is clean and powerful, nuanced even. Jimmy’s big riffs ring out in all their fuzzy glory, Bonzo swings like a madman, and John Paul Jones’s bass is more defined than ever. Spacier, more uninhibited than Cream, harder and more focused than Jimi’s Band of Gypsies – “How Many More Times” is the mightiest of the early Zep blues epics.
BONUS DISC – Live in Paris
I like the cavernous sound on the live disc just for the atmosphere and the sense of the strength of Bonzo’s drums, but it’s probably not something I’d listen to more than once. Their live sound got more interesting when they got weirder and more self-indulgent as far as I’m concerned, with the extended “No Quarter” piano solo marathons and Jimmy’s petitioning-the-devil-with-theramin act. None of that here, just loud echoing blues rock with Plant’s shrieking that grates pretty fast. And the “Dazed” freak out section is a real let down, as if Jimmy hadn’t yet figured out how to summon the soul of Aleister Crowley through his Les Paul. Don’t worry – he would. There’s a relatively brief “Moby Dick” with Bonzo slamming the drums with his hands and a propulsive, nearly out of control “How Many More Times” with a funky little jam with the “Whole Lotta Love” riff in the middle. Fun show, but not really worth the inclusion here.
Led Zeppelin II (1969)
The brown album. It really is astounding that the album that would so define the sound of hard rock in the seventies was actually released in ’69. The stale old blues rock sound has been jettisoned, in favor of dynamic eccentricities and a stylized riff heavy economy of songwriting. Recorded on the road, where the boys were partying their way into rock mythology (and a Frank Zappa song), Led Zeppelin II shows off pretty much everything they could do. A big leap from the debut, self assured and full of hooks, hobbits, and whores. It’s good, really good. In fact, I fear for the well being of any teenager who doesn’t at some point fall in love with this album, who memorizes its every turn and coughs out bong hits to its grooves.
“Whole Lotta Love” is simple, catchy, and dumb – just the right combination for a big radio hit. But this is a great song, almost in spite of itself, which is quite rare in that mainstream radio milieu. “What Is And What Should Never Be” works better as a showpiece than an actual song, shifting from jazzy verses to crunchy choruses, a guitar solo dialed in from Maui Waui and then that cool part where the guitars bounce back and forth between the speakers. But it feels like this band is coming into its own here, creating a new sound equally imbued with power and subtlety, informed as well by a compositional unpredictability. “The Lemon Song” assumes the blues rock pose of the debut, this time with a more confident swagger and funkier beat. More than any other track on the album, this one captures the improvisational eccentricities of live Zep from this period. I never thought much of “Thank You,” particularly when John Paul Jones joins in on the chorus. Guess they realized that mistake though, because he was kept safely behind the keyboards and bass after his little vocal misadventure here. There’s a vocal-less backing track included on the bonus disc, but the song’s just a bit too hippy dippy for me to vibe with. No, thank you.
“Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid” are almost the same song, so it’s an audacious little trick that they’re placed next to each other. Both are built on monstrous, memorable riffs, and who can hear the end of the former without singing, “In a purple umbrella and fifty cent hat”? The “Heartbreaker” solo is also a pretty important moment in guitar history – Eddie was listening. “Ramble On” is a great road song, even with the hobbit nonsense (“And in the darker days of Mordor…”) Some of that fantasy fixation was kind of silly, but these guys were really writing about what they knew: going out on the road, playing tunes, and banging broads. That’s what Lord Of The Rings is all about too, right? I actually agree with the Slate article that the intro of “Bring It On Home” is “nearly nearly destroyed before it gets started,” as the boys try to parody the sound of acoustic delta blues and end up just sounding silly. When the Stones did traditional blues they could give it that dark and eerie vibe (see “Love In Vain,” “You Gotta Move,” “Prodigal Son”) but on here the gang sounds like a Jim Henson muppet version of an old blues troupe, complete with a sunglassed rat playing the harmonica. But once the riff kicks in, all is right with the world – on an album full of classic riffs, this might be the best of the bunch. And then there’s Bonzo’s drum solo “Moby Dick,” which is sort of superfluous considering his already commanding presence in the band’s sound. I prefer the live twenty minute versions of this one anyway, but here’s the template and another great riff.
The sound of remaster? It’s bright. Or at least a lightened shade of brown. Unlike the debut, this album is better with a muddier sound – I don’t want to be able to discern which studio they recorded each song. I like some the bass definition even if all of these remasters are a bit light on the bass as a whole, but the overall clarity brings out Jones’s work nicely. But the differences are really negligible as far as I can hear. If you don’t already own it, this is a fine way to hear the album but otherwise don’t bother.
BONUS DISC – Outtakes & Alternates
Most of these tracks offer little variation from the released versions and there’s nothing particularly revelatory here, but I enjoyed this one nonetheless. I just know these songs so well that it’s cool to hear slight differences or earlier versions or even some Plant-less tracks, as on the instrumental “Living Loving Maid.” Though the instrumental “Thank You” is still as dull as ever. The big news here is a track called “La La,” a rare unreleased – albeit instrumental – song. So go ahead and write your own Zeppelin song – know any good old blues lyrics? Good disc, but no “Bring It On Home”? For shame.
Led Zeppelin III (1970)
III is my favorite of the trilogy, journeying as it does from the lands of ice and snow to the grassy (very grassy) bron-y-aur hills to the Mississippi Delta to the 7-Eleven convenience store. “Immigrant Song” probably invented Iron Maiden but I’m sure it feels very sorry about that. It rocks though, kicking the album off with that tight rhythm section marching toward Valhalla. I can hear Jones’s bass a bit more clearly on this remaster, although the clarity obscures some of the murky magic of the original. This song often gets singled out as an offender for worst lyrics, but I don’t mind all the “hammer of the gods” stuff, and I still can’t understand half of what Bobby’s shrieking about. “Celebration Day” is even better with its massed swirling guitars and the Band of Joy nostalgia of the lyric. I love the way all the riffs are layered in the mix, the amped up country hoedown of the groove. Bonham is given some songwriting credit for “Out On The Tiles,” which is more than the boys ever did for the blues masters from whom they stole much of the early catalog. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a classic epic blues, though not as dark or grandiose as “In My Time Of Dying” or “Tea For One.” But just listen to what this band can do with a Cminor blues song – all of the dynamic organ flourishes, ominous bass runs, an impassioned Plant performance, and some lyrical guitar soloing. And there’s even more clarity now in those squeaks on Bonzo’s drum kit. One of the rare Zeppelin epics that they never improved onstage – there’s just something perfect about this studio performance. Working at 7-Eleven every night, really makes life a drag – I don’t think that’s right.
Side Two is really where it’s at though. “Tangerine” is a pretty folk leftover from Page’s sixties daze with some wah and fuzz guitars intertwined cleverly in the mix. “Gallows Pole” turns a classic folk hanging tale into a celebratory hoedown. I never cared much for “That’s The Way” as a song, but it’s essential for the vibe of this album side. They’re really going folk, man, and you can even hear touches of mandolin and pedal steel in the mix. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is the most fun audience participation song in the whole Zep catalogue, except for maybe those acid adventures of “Dazed And Confused.” It’s just a fun song. Go ahead and stomp along and make sure you get those triplet claps down right after the chorus. These guys really understood their audience, enacting this divine connection with a room full of burnouts that can only be witnessed with a big Bron-Y-Aur stompalong. Who cares if the last song is a 78rpm inside joke? That’s why it’s last, so you can turn the thing off. That’s the way it should be.
BONUS DISC – More Outtakes & Alternates
III also has the best outtake disc of this remaster series: “Jennings Farm Blues” is essentially an electric “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” that I’m growing to love nearly as much, “Key To The Highway/Trouble In Mind” is a spacey acoustic blues that would have made for a much better closer than that Roy Harper nonsense, and the alternate mixes provide some cleaner versions of the very reverby album. I actually prefer “Friends” as an instrumental acoustic jam, where it might have been a successor to “Black Mountain Side” as nice Plant-less interlude on the album. But where’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do?” B side of “Immigrant Song,” no? Wha happened? Perhaps it didn’t qualify as unreleased status, but it would have made this “deluxe” version of III complete.
These remasters are really quite good, not the brickwalled affairs that one might have feared. The outtake selection is probably as generous as possible given the paltry amount of studio material remaining in the vaults. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them “essential” in that there isn’t so much improvement to the sound that would warrant repurchasing these albums, but if you don’t already own them, here you go. If you’re looking for the most impressive sonic upgrade, it would best to go with I, which really shines and sounds tremendous when played loud, as it should. If you’re a Zep neophyte and you’re looking for the biggest hits, hookiest riffs, and fazed cookies, then go with II. And if you want the best album and the coolest bonus disc, then pick up III. Otherwise, call me when we get to Houses Of The Holy.