Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hammering It Home: Rediscovering the Brilliance of Led Zeppelin Easy as I, II, III

Album Reissue Reviews
and Artist Appreciation

Led Zeppelin I - @@@@@
Led Zeppelin II - @@@@@
Led Zeppelin III - @@@@@

When I was less than three months old, Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut album (in January 1969).

By the time I turned two, the British hard rock quartet had put out two more studio albums. (Being that prolific was once par for the course, but most artists today go at least two years, if not several more, between albums.)

I don't think my folks adorned my crib with black light posters nor played "Whole Lotta Love" the way some parents use Mozart as baby background music, so I wasn't really weaned on the great Zep and I was too young to follow them through the bulk of the '70s.

Yet I still remember my dad--a bit incongruently, given his preference for opera and Broadway--adding the paper sack-sheathed In Through the Out Door to the family's record collection soon after its release in August 1979.

And as I was already aware of at least "Stairway to Heaven"--due to it often claiming the top spot or taking silver behind "Hey Jude" in Greatest Songs of All-Time countdowns on The Loop, WLS and/or WMET--Led Zeppelin has never not been a major contributor to the soundtrack of my life once I first came to know of their music.

Even before I could find it online, the full-page Tribune ad announcing four Zeppelin shows at Chicago Stadium--published Sept. 25, 1980, the day drummer John Bonham would die and the band essentially end--has been vividly etched in my mind (though I was still too young to hope to attend).

I don't know if I've yet screamed louder than I did in alerting a friend that "LED ZEPPELIN'S ON!!!!!!!!!!!" during the LiveAid telecast in 1985 (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones reunited to play three songs with a pair of drummers, including Phil Collins; full clip here).

When I took guitar lessons briefly as a teen, "Rock 'n Roll" was the first song I wanted to learn. (It was too difficult so I settled for "Born to Run.")

Led Zeppelin IV was definitely among the very first batch of CDs I bought, and if Zeppelin II wasn't, it wasn't far behind.

Led Zeppelin posters long adorned my bedroom at home, and in my freshman dorm room at NIU, a large band tapestry was the most conspicuous decoration.
And as a college senior in December 1988, I opted to blow off studying for a final exam in order to organize an excursion from DeKalb to Rosemont to see a Plant solo show for the first time (which included a number of Zeppelin songs).

So it's never been as though I really needed convincing or reminding to appreciate just how great Led Zeppelin was.

Which makes it all the more astonishing that each time something has prompted me to listen to Led Zeppelin more heavily or closely, my appreciation has only grown...considerably.

Though I had owned most of their 9 studio albums (including 1982's Coda, which I bought on vinyl as soon it was released) and The Song Remains The Same live soundtrack on LP, cassette and/or CD, when the Led Zeppelin box set was released in 1990--remastering and re-sequencing 4 discs worth of their songs--I bought and loved it. And I also bought the 2-disc complementary set that rounded out my having every one of their known studio tracks in an aurally sufficient form.

Or so I thought. But before I get to the audibly astonishing reissues of I, II and III, I'm having fun remembering all the times I was acutely re-Zeppelined.

Like both times I saw Page & Plant together in concert in the '90s, which included hefty doses of Zep in the set lists.
But even more acutely informing my regard for Zeppelin as a live act--The Song Remains the Same movie being marred by long, dreamy offstage vignettes--was the Led Zeppelin DVD set from 2003.

Even late-career footage from a performance at Knebworth in 1979 was mind-blowing, as were several earlier stage clips.

A live 3-disc compilation album--How the West Was Won--released around the time of the DVD was also tremendous, as was the remastered and expanded The Song Remains the Same soundtrack issued in 2007. The 1997 BBC Sessions set was also quite revelatory and delightful.

And in December 2007, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin plus John Bonham's son Jason shook up the world by reforming for a concert at London's O2 Arena. Unfortunately I couldn't get there--good thing I didn't really try, as the initial scheduled date wound up being postponed by a few weeks--but reviews were rather laudatory and I got chills seeing clips of "Good Times Bad Times," "Stairway to Heaven," "Rock 'n Roll," "Kashmir" and more that hit YouTube the next morning.

Although supposed plans for a reunion tour have since been scuttled by Robert Plant's resistance--while I most definitely would attend, I respect his just letting the legacy be--the O2 concert was released on Blu-Ray, DVD and CD in late 2012 and showed the show to be truly sensational.

Around the same time, Led Zeppelin became Kennedy Center Honors recipients, and along with much else on the telecast, I loved this tribute rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" by Heart, Jason Bonham and two choirs that made Robert Plant weep. The following summer I would see Heart and Bonham pay more extensive tribute in a show at Ravinia (my review).

And though Zeppelin were relative latecomers to allowing their catalog to be heard through Spotify, when it appeared late last year, it enabled me to revisit each of their albums after more routinely having listened to box set and live compilations.

I was especially surprised by how much better Led Zeppelin III is than I ever knew.

Excepting the opening "The Immigrant Song," it largely eschews thunderous, heavy riff songs more prevalent on the band's earlier and later albums for several folksy acoustic guitar-driven songs.

So as a kid, and long since, I thought--or likely more so, assumed--that it was a lesser, more boring album.

Hearing it, intact, through Spotify helped remedy this ridiculous notion.

And my regard for Led Zeppelin III--which I now consider a masterpiece on par with any other of their albums--has only further blossomed with the brilliant sounding remastered CD recently released along with I and II. (The others will come later this year and next.)

I am rather certain that the three albums--I bought the deluxe (though not most elaborate) reissues, which each included a disc of bonus material--are individually and collectively better than any new music I will hear this year, and likely greater than releases of any vintage that I acquire in 2014.

Taking its title from an "Immigrant Song" lyric, Hammer of the Gods is a famed biography of Led Zeppelin by Stephen Davis. I've never read it, but find its title rather apt as from the first sledgehammer blow of "Good Times Bad Times" to open Led Zeppelin I, there is something almost otherworldly about how awesome the band was--immediately.

As I wrote about in this piece, the 1960s represents the Renaissance age of rock 'n roll, not just because of all the amazing music that was made, most of it holding up perfectly today. It was a time of what I call a "creative cluster" that had musical geniuses like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Pete Townshend inspiring other geniuses like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies to up their games (and vice-versa).

Jimmy Page, who was a top-tier session guitarist in London while still in high school and would play on records by the Kinks, Who and myriad others, was initially part of a creative cluster of guitar gods within just a single band.

Joining the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton quit, Page suggest his friend Jeff Beck also become a member. Page would write the proto-Zeppelin track "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and outside the Yardbirds would record "Beck's Bolero" with a supergroup including Beck, Yardbirds' keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, Who drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Paul Jones, who was also a first-rate session man.

The "Beck's Bolero" sessions gave Page the idea to form a full-time supergroup. Refer to the Wikipedia entries on Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for more detail on how the group's formation transpired, but in 1968 Page had asked a singer named Terry Reid to join his new band.

Reid recommended Plant, at that time an all-but-unknown 20-year-old singer in Band of Joy. Plant in turn suggested Band of Joy drummer, John Bonham. John Paul Jones rounded out Led Zeppelin.

Everything has to start somewhere, but from the first verse of "Good Times Bad Times," Plant already sounds like the quintessential hard rock vocalist for which he would become revered. And I've yet to hear a drummer as powerful as John Bonham. Looking at it now, Led Zeppelin seems like the perfect melding of four brilliant musicians, but who knows what would have happened if Terry Reid had accepted Page's offer.

So although the months preceding Led Zeppelin I's release on January 10, 1969 saw Jeff Beck's groundbreaking Truth album (with Rod Stewart on vocals), the debut of heavy rockers Deep Purple and advancements in guitar playing and production from Eric Clapton (in Cream) and Jimi Hendrix, there is still a sense that the sonic blast of "Good Times Bad Times" came out of nowhere.

While I would now rank I behind II and III, it is nonetheless one of the best, most auspicious debut albums in rock history.

Second cut "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is also phenomenal, "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown" remain classics and while Page showcases--and sometimes pilfers from--his love of Chicago blues on "You Shook Me," "I Can't Quit You Baby" and others, the acoustic instrumental "Black Mountain Side" and slow groove of "Your Time is Gonna Come" demonstrate his and the band's great versatility.

With "Whole Lotta Love," "What Is and What Should Never Be," "The Lemon Song," "Thank You," "Heartbreaker," "Living Loving Maid," "Ramble On," "Moby Dick" and "Bring It On Home," Led Zeppelin II remains perfect from beginning to end. And as with the other two reissues, the audio quality of the remastered CD makes the album sound better than ever.

In buying the CDs from Amazon, I got digital versions instantly. These sounded great, but the CDs are truly heavenly. Some may question why Page devotes so much time to remastering old songs--and the bonus discs are little more than a curiosity (the live set from Paris that accompanies Led Zeppelin I is the best, but not essential)--but not only did all three reissues debut in Billboard's top 10 last week, speaking as someone who has long known and owned all of the songs included on I, II and III proper, buying these albums anew were well worth my money and have provided considerable delight.

Perhaps most of all for how much I now like Led Zeppelin III. "The Immigrant Song" still sounds holy,
"Celebration Day" and "Out on the Tiles" show that the album isn't otherwise devoid of thunderous guitars and drums, acoustic tracks like "Friends," "That's The Way," "Tangerine" demonstrate Page's great dexterity and the bucking bronco that is "Gallows Pole" stands as one of the 10 best Zeppelin songs ever (along with "The Immigrant Song").

It's somewhat a shame to see Page and Plant throwing media barbs over the former's desire to play live and the latter's resistance to touring with Zeppelin.

Now 70, I think Page should just let it be. But as not only a brilliant guitarist, but Led Zeppelin's erstwhile producer, sonic architect and legacy preserver, I understand why he won't let go of the past.

It's that good.

Yet again.

(For a better explanation of the musical advances on Led Zeppelin I, II and III, see this Pitchfork review.

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