I think Led Zeppelin is in my DNA. They’re twisted and knotted up in those pesky hereditarial strands that make me me. Along with the Beatles and the The Doors, I do believe Led Zeppelin were pumped into my mom’s womb as I hung out, kicked occasionally, and bid my time till I could kick and scream for the whole world to hear and see. Some of my first memories are of the cover of Led Zeppelin III psychedelically floating in my face as the opening chords to “Black Dog” echoed in my ears. Why that song and that album cover come together in my early memories is beyond me, but that’s how I recall it. There used to be parties in my parents basement in my early years. It was a half basement with a washer and dryer, furnace, water softener, a pool table, and an old console stereo. At these gatherings Zeppelin’s first four records were played often. I do believe this is where the songs got stuck between my ears and stayed permanently. They were ingrained so much so that I recall getting yelled at by my kindergarten teacher because I was humming “Misty Mountain Hop” loud enough for her and the class to hear me. And once the turntable was retired and my parents stopped spinning those records, my older brother fell hard for LZ and the cycle began all over again. By the time I was learning to play guitar “Stairway To Heaven” and “Thank You” were two of the first songs I learned. Later on I can remember being mildly jealous of the fact that my cousin(who started lessons just a year or two after me) learned “Ten Years Gone” and could play it beautifully. I guess it was only right, as he was a Gibson guy and I was a Fender guy growing up(he’s now a Fender guy and I’m a…well, I’m still a Fender guy.)
It seemed to me after high school my relationship with Led Zeppelin went through a few stages. I kind of lost interest for a bit, leaving the albums to sit and collect dust. There was mild contempt for them at one point, with me thinking they were just another gluttonous heavy rock band that fell for the typical booze and drugs stereotype. There was a mild resurgence after STP covered “Dancing Days”, then interest drifted again. But then, in 1997 the BBC Sessions were released and my whole idea about who Led Zeppelin were changed. What I thought at one point was this kind of bloated and excessive rock band was at the beginning a powerhouse quartet that left ashes in their wake. BBC Sessions showed me a band in their prime willing to light the fuse and wait for the explosion. This album reinvigorated me and gave me a whole new admiration for the band I loved as a teen and lost interest in when I thought I’d matured as an adult. This live collection set in stone their reputation as one of the greatest rock and roll bands to ever hit a stage.
A mistake I remember making as a teen was going to the mall and I’d always hit the bookstore to look for the Rolling Stone album guide. Whenever I’d get into a band I’d always look up reviews of their albums. Of course, this was a horrible mistake as most of these reviewers had their heads up their asses. Imagine the disappointment during my Van Halen and Rush phases. Those reviews were awful. But the most surprising to me were the Led Zeppelin reviews. According to reviewer John Mendelsohn from 1969 in regards to Led Zeppelin’s debut he writes
“Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).”
Famed music journalist Lester Bangs didn’t have much nicer things to say about Led Zeppelin III, though he at least seems like he wanted to like it,
“Much of the rest, after a couple of listenings to distinguish between songs, is not bad at all, because the disc Zeppelin are at least creative enough to apply an occasional pleasing fillip to their uninspiring material, and professional enough to keep all their recorded work relatively clean and clear — you can hear all the parts, which is more than you can say for many of their peers.”
Gordon Fletcher’s Houses of the Holy review really takes the cake,
“The truly original songs on Houses of the Holy again underscore Led Zeppelin’s songwriting deficiences. Their earliest successes came when they literally stole blues licks note for note, so I guess it should have been expected that there was something drastically wrong with their own material. So it is that “Dancing Days,” “The Rain Song” and “No Quarter” fall flat on their respective faces — the first is filler while the latter two are nothing more than drawn-out vehicles for the further display of Jones’ unknowledgeable use of mellotron and synthesizer.”
I mean, Jesus. What’s a kid supposed to think when he’s reading these literary eviscerations of albums that have pretty much blown his mind? I’m sorry, but I still think to this day that Houses of the Holy is one of the greatest rock and roll achievements…ever. “The Rain Song”, “Over The Hills And Far Away”, “The Ocean”, “The Song Remains The Same”, and “No Quarter”? Fucking “No Quarter”, man. That’s like prog territory. I still get goosebumps listening to it. Elitist music journalist snobs, man. I’ll give Lester Bangs credit. I think he at least tried to open up to them.
But hey, I’m getting off point.
BBC Sessions to me gave a shining, steely middle finger to the naysayers that felt the urge to shit all over what Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham were doing. There was no pretension on those recordings. It was heavy blues and a hefty dose of black magic thrown together to create something new and vital. In 1997 I’d become a reborn Zeppelin fan. I shared my newfound fandom with everyone that would listen. I gave a copy to my parents and a copy to my brother. My cousin who’d learned their songs far better than I ever did couldn’t believe how great the album was. It was, to me, one of the few live albums worth owning. I was never a live album fan, really. Most live records to my ears felt very one dimensional and plotted. The live urgency that you feel when experiencing a band live in front of you was just sucked out of the experience when put to tape and you were left with what felt like a cheap money grab. Now before you puff your chest out at me and say “Hey pal, (insert band name here) (insert live album name here) was a great live record!” Yes, I know there are some exceptions, but as a general jhubner73 rule most live albums underwhelm. Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions is one of those exceptions.
Imagine my surprise and general glee when earlier in the year it was announced that BBC Sessions was being released as a 5LP box set, with expanded tracks, added goodies, and a total remaster by Jimmy Page himself? Well, if you can’t imagine it I’ll tell you I was sweating and panting mess. I told my wife that if she wanted to know what to get this guy for his 43rd birthday it was that box set. Since she usually buys me underwear if not given some sort of direction, she happily snagged it for me.
If you haven’t heard this set and you’re a fan then you must hear it. The 1997 CD set was great, but this new set hums. You feel like you’re on the soundstage with the band. It’s raw, visceral, and very much in your face.
Everyone is on point here. Bonham sounds like what I’d imagine Ben Grimm in The Thing mode would sound like on a set of drums. He was never a nuanced, Tony Williams-type of drummer. He was more of a bull in a china shop kind of drummer and that’s what they needed. He could groove when needed, like on “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair”. It’s three minutes show Bonham’s love for the the Bernard Purdie funk groove. His restraint and jazzy ride cymbal groove on “What Is And What Should Never Be” is also a a welcome refrain from his thunderous hits. “Communication Breakdown” is full force rock and roll, with an almost proto-punk feel. It appears four times throughout the set.
Robert Plant is in full banshee mode here. His turn in “How Many More Times” almost sounds like an out-of-body experience. His vocal turns on “You Shook Me”, “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “Thank You”, “What Is And What Should Never Be”, and “How Many More Times” are monumental. His range in these early days was unprecedented to my ears, and to pull this off live is stunning.
Jimmy Page, of course, is the mastermind here. His love of Tolkien, delta blues, and the occult come together here beautifully. He built the perfect machine to create his mystical music. Side F’s 18+ minute “Dazed and Confused” feels like some spaced-out exploration into the subconscious. This jumps the tracks into avante garde art rock, really. I can’t imagine the faces of those folks in the crowd watching this happen before them. Page conducts this musical cacophony like a wizard, his wand a Gibson Les Paul. He’s also quite exceptional on “Black Dog”, “Immigrant Song”, and the beautiful “Going To California” and “That’s The Way”.
But the real MVP here is John Paul Jones. And really, he was the MVP the entire run of Led Zeppelin. He added tasty groove to tracks that could’ve ended up being stiff and mechanical. Just check out “The Lemon Song” for proof of his bass expertise. Or “What Is And What Should Never Be”. Or the thunderous “How Many More Times”. Not seen on this set, but Jones really pushed Zeppelin into new territory with his keys and synth textures, as well as orchestrations on Physical Graffiti and In Through The Out Door.
Not sure I can say much more here. If you’re a fan(mild passerby-like fans need not stop) of Zeppelin and an even bigger fan of raw, visceral live album experiences I can’t recommend this box set enough. Don’t want to spend the cash? There’s a 3CD set available for quite a bit less cash. This one is well worth your time.
This one will get the blood a-pumpin’ and the booty shakin’. New Year’s Eve jams? Zeppelin has you covered.