Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Led Zeppelin

There are a number of things about Led Zepp, apart from the music, that are quite interesting. The fact that they were formed as an incarnation of another already existing group, the fact that they refused to release any singles in the UK, the fact that they never played a gig north of Watford after 1973, the fact that they have issued not one but three “untitled” records, and the fact that they have just completed a reissue campaign which was at times so underwhelming, it makes you wonder why they bothered. More of that later on.

The band’s reputation as possible originators of heavy metal - a claim that, if it were me, I would attempt to disprove - or at least, as one of the leading lights of “hard rock”, is undisputed, and up until the end of the 70s, the group had released a series of solid, and sometimes spectacular, records upon which their legacy was built. This is a brief little overview of what was a relatively short career, but one which has had a long lasting impact. Because the UK discography is relatively simple, eight studio albums, one posthumous single, and a few other bits and pieces, catalogue numbers for each release are shown in the main article itself. This will relate to the original release, be it vinyl, CD or DVD, and the 2014/15 reissue campaign will be mentioned at the very end.

The band’s origins go back to 1967, when guitarist Jimmy Page joined The Yardbirds in time for the release of their “Little Games” album. By 1968, the band had more or less broken up, but there was the small issue of an already scheduled European tour on the cards. Page was given the nod to put together a new line up of the band to fulfil these dates, and the band were to be renamed “The New Yardbirds”. Imagine going to see the “New Oasis” and realising it consists just of Bonehead and four other random people. Anyway, this new version of the band was completed with the hiring of singer Robert “Percy” Plant, bass player John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, through various contacts that Page had, and a concert setlist consisting heavily of covers was put together, alongside the odd old Yardbirds hit, such as “For Your Love“. “Dazed And Confused”, which the original Yardbirds had covered in concert, remained in the set, and a revamped (and re-credited) version would appear on the first Zeppelin album.

Even though The New Yardbirds had been put together to complete the outstanding tour dates, the chemistry that the band members found between themselves as soon as they had done their first rehearsal was regarded as something special. This encouraged them to consider making this a full blown career, rather than just be used as a contractual obligation duty, and after the tour was finished, the group decided to go into the studio to record an LP. A UK tour was also scheduled, and initial dates under “The New Yardbirds” banner were played in October 1968, but the consensus is that the arrangement Page had been granted had just been to complete the European tour, and so when word filtered through of the continued existence of the ‘Yardbirds’ to former member Chris Dreja, the band were informed that a name change would be required. By November 1968, the group had been re-christened Led Zeppelin, although Page has quoted in some interviews that he wanted to change the name anyway to showcase this band as being quite separate from his old one. The name was derived from the phrase ’going down like a lead balloon’, in reference to a conversation Page had had with The Who’s John Entwistle during the final years of the “Old” Yardbirds, about Page’s desire to form a super group with members of The Who and Jeff Beck.

The band’s debut LP, simply titled “Led Zeppelin” (LP, Atlantic 588 171) surfaced in 1969. The band’s R&B roots appear quite heavily across the record, although John Paul Jones’ organ arrangement on “Your Time Is Gonna Come” helps to move this record away from what could otherwise have been just another UK band having yet another stab at traditional US music once again. That, and Page’s guitar histrionics, Bonham’s powerhouse drums, and Plant’s vocal range, help to lift the album‘s quality above that of, say, the first Moody Blues record. I don’t go back to this record as often as some of the others, but when I do, I realise that this is actually a very good beginning to a career that would really blossom on future releases - the blues is in there, but thankfully isn’t of snore-some modern-day Clapton stylings, but is a version spiced with psychedelic splashes, and pure rock and roll noise. Just check out “Communication Breakdown”.

The wheel wasn’t completely reinvented on “Led Zeppelin II” (LP, Atlantic 588198), issued later the same year, but there was an element of the sound being ’expanded’ - the gargantuan roar of “Whole Lotta Love”, the quiet bit loud bit thrill of “What Is And What Should Never Be”, the warped R&B of “The Lemon Song” with it’s famous squeezing the lemon lyric, and the closing “Bring It On Home”, where Percy’s vocals sound like they were recorded on a tape deck where the heads hadn’t been cleaned beforehand for about 50 years. Despite the “no singles” rule in the UK, the overseas arms of the band’s label didn’t comply with this instruction, and by now, the issuing of 45’s in other countries had helped cement the band’s reputation in the USA and beyond, with the likes of “Whole Lotta Love” turning the group into worldwide superstars. An edited version of this track was made available on radio station promos.

“Led Zeppelin III” (LP, Atlantic 2401 002), from 1970, is notable not only for it’s “wheel” artwork, but the fact that the band more or less completely changed direction here, creating an album that was heavily, heavily indebted to acoustic and folk music. You can’t find a single person with a bad word to say about Zepp nowadays, but apparently, back then, the music press hated them, and when they heard this one, hated them even more because of it‘s musical about turn. It’s now seen as a defining moment in rock and roll history, the point at which the Zepp began to make themselves harder to categorize, and helping to make folk-rock no longer be seen as a dirty word. That said, the opening number is still the best, the electrified primal roar that is “Immigrant Song”.

From many, myself included, it‘s the fourth album which was the first real Zepp classic - and is probably still the best. Famously issued without a title as an apparent two fingered salute to the music critics, the appearance of four symbols on the cover and the fact this was the next release after “Zepp 3“ explains why everybody and their dog refers to their 1971 album release as “Led Zeppelin IV” (LP, Atlantic 2401 012). Home to the much scoffed at, but epically awesome madness that is “Stairway To Heaven”, this record rocks hard - the snarling double whammy opener of “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll”, the organ driven throb of “Misty Mountain Hop”, the acoustic swirl of the sublime “Going To California” and the thunderous pounding of “When The Levee Breaks”, where Bonham’s drums sound like they have been transported in from the depths of hell, this is a record that hipsters might want to try and moan about, but it really is as good as it’s reputation suggests. As a live band, the Zepp were now starting to move away from clubs and theatres to bigger and bolder venues, and the era of stadium rock was starting to dawn.

But the music still remained good for the next few albums. 1973‘s “Houses Of The Holy” (LP, Atlantic K 50014) may well have been home to the awful cod-reggae of “D’Yer Maker” (a reminder that, along with UB40, you should really leave this sort of stuff to the experts - or at least, to The Clash), but was also home to the storming rock of “The Song Remains The Same”, the melodic beauty of “The Rain Song” or the keyboard twizzles of the majestic “No Quarter”. Such was the quality of what made this set, was that they left the (potential) title track off the LP altogether. The group headed out on tour, and were now firmly established as arena conquering rock beasts. They played three shows at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, which were filmed for a potential concert film, only for the concept to be temporarily shelved. There was no UK tour conducted in support of the record, the band’s last UK gig having been back in January (two months before the album’s release) at the modestly sized Preston Guildhall. For some, the retrospective view here is that this was the beginning of the end.

The aforementioned recording of “Houses Of The Holy“, the song, was resurrected for the band’s 1975 release “Physical Graffiti” (2xLP, Swan Song SSK 89400). The first release by the band on their own, newly formed, record label, and again housed in a fancy sleeve (a die cut front cover, displaying a house, which allowed you to alter what you could see through the windows), it’s regarded by many who don’t view the fourth LP as the bona fide classic, as the bona fide classic. It’s a sprawling affair, being a double album, and was split more or less half and half between newly recorded material, and older outtakes, brushed off and given a tarting up. But repeated listens only help to reveal it’s brilliance, be it the boogie woogie fun of “Boogie With Stu”, the strutting funk of “Trampled Underfoot” or the enormous, gargantuan, roar of “Kashmir”, a song so massively huge, it makes the entire AC/DC back catalogue sound like Belle And Sebastian.

So popular were the Zepp, the consensus was, in their homeland at least, that there were simply no venues big enough around the provinces of the UK to house them if they wished to tour. So their UK “tour” to promote the album consisted of a 5-night residency at London’s Earls Court. At the time, the idea of a band holing themselves up in a single venue was considered highly unusual, and promo material was designed to try and sell this to people as an “event” - fans from across the UK were encouraged to take the train to visit the band play in the capital. A novel idea at the time, but a sure-fire sign that Zeppelin were effectively starting to get ‘too big’, and that the era of mega acts just playing in London as part of their so-called “World Tour” was slowly emerging.

A planned tour outside the UK to promote the album was cancelled when Plant was involved in a car crash in August 1975, which left him with serious injuries which took some time to heal. Plant was still in a wheelchair as the band began work on a new studio album instead several months later, released the following March as “Presence” (LP, Swan Song SSK 59402). It again came in a quite iconic sleeve, with a number of slightly surrealistic images of people being photographed with a strange black obelisk shaped object sitting in front of them, known as “The Object“. Critics were rather harsh on the record, which is strange, given that it is home to the stop-start groove of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the monumental blast of opener “Achilles Last Stand”. With a tour impossible to conduct, due to the slow recovery of Plant from his injuries, attention instead turned to the “postponed” 1973 concert film. By the end of the year, footage from the gigs had been turned into the movie “The Song Remains The Same”. Given that home video was yet to be properly invented, a soundtrack album was created so fans could buy some form of document to tie in with the event (2xLP, Swan Song SSK 89402). The LP wasn’t quite a genuine soundtrack, as several songs featured in the film were absent from the record (and vice versa) whilst some of the songs that did appear on both versions were sourced from different shows for the different formats. Critics again were harsh, as were band members, none of whom felt it captured the full blown Zeppelin concert experience. It did, if nothing else, officially document the elongated versions of “Dazed And Confused” that the band played in concert, with the version here weighing in at 27 minutes in length.

By 1977, Plant and the band were ready to tour again, and conducted a tour of North America. Plans to play in the UK were not considered, as UK tax legislation had been set at such high levels for high earners, that the band would have played the entire tour at a complete loss - the days of gigging at the Dagenham Roundhouse were now over. Given that the band’s last album was now a year old, the group only played a handful of songs from it, and instead opted for a sort of greatest hits set instead. But barely two years after Plant’s car accident, disaster struck again. A fortnight before the tour was due to finish, Plant received news that his son back in the UK had died of a stomach infection. The remaining five dates were immediately cancelled, and the Zepp were back on hold again as Plant flew back to the UK.

In late 1978, the band reconvened to record what would be their eighth, and final, studio album. Legend goes that neither Bonham nor Page were in great shakes health wise, and that the album was heavily driven along by Plant and Jones. This goes someway to explaining why the album seems a bit guitar-lite, and why some of us are a bit under whelmed by “In Through The Out Door” (LP, Swan Song SSK 59410), which was released in late summer 1979. Bizarrely, for an album released in the seventies, it seems to almost be an indicator of how bland and over-produced music would become in the EIGHTIES, the record was sort of ahead of it’s time but in a bad way. Yes, the keyboard driven buzz of “Carouselambra” is quite thrilling, and the retro rock and roll of “Hot Dog” is fun, but the polished AOR sound of “In The Evening” and “All My Love” sound completely out of place when compared to anything the Zepp had done before.

The LP was housed in another fascinating sleeve, a brown paper bag designed to give it the look of a bootleg album (a bit odd, given that it was simply the new studio LP). Inside, there was a piece of black and white artwork which - and god knows why anybody decided to do this - would colour itself in if it was washed in water. The album was being seen as the Zepp’s big comeback, and the band announced a comeback gig at the ludicrously large Knebworth Park for August 1979 (to be preceded by some smaller shows in Copenhagen the month before). Despite having not played in the UK since 1975, and with punk having threatened to get rid of them, the Zepp were still hugely popular, and the show sold out. A second gig was lined up at the same venue, but for the following weekend, and although the plan was to release the album in time for the shows, technical hitches meant that by the time the band hit the Knebworth stage for the first time, the LP was still on the “to be released” schedules, and eventually surfaced after the second Knebworth show.

The Knebworth shows may well have shown how monumentally big the band were, but the Zepp themselves were unhappy with the gigs, feeling that it was too big a venue to conduct a comeback, that the crowd didn't feel fully involved, and that the band themselves were a bit shaky. But it was all supposed to be the start of the rehabilitation of the band, and in 1980, a tour of Europe was lined up. Beginning with a show in Dortmund on 17th June 1980, the band adopted a new approach - a shorter setlist, and a more stripped back style, an attempt to try and get away from the excesses of the more recent shows, and a throwback to the band’s more intimate club roots. The final show was in West Berlin on 7th July.

A US tour was due next, with the first dates due to take place that October. Rehearsals were scheduled for September, but early on in proceedings, John Bonham died from asphyxiation, caused by a heavy drinking session during the previous 24 hours. He was found by band mate Jones, and immediately, any plans to continue with the planned tour were abandoned. With the band having had no line up changes thus far, things were not going to change now, and in December 1980, the band issued a press statement announcing that Led Zeppelin were no more.

In 1982, as a sort of official “signing off”, the band issued the short but sweet outtakes album “Coda” (LP, Swan Song A 0051). It consisted of what the band claimed were the only outtakes left in the vaults, along with some live recordings and alternate versions of previously available songs. Most of the second half of the LP consisted of outtakes from the sessions for “In Through The Out Door” and were so good, you wondered how these had been overlooked in favour of some of what did make the grade. The band reformed briefly in 1985 for the US leg of Live Aid, with Phil Collins and ex-Chic drummer Tony Thompson standing in for Bonham. The performance was regarded by the band as being nothing short of shambolic, and when a DVD release of the event was being put together twenty years later, the band refused to allow any part of their set to be used, and instead donated a sum of money to charity to make up for any shortcomings their lack of involvement might have had on the release. Bootlegs of the performance do exist, whilst high quality audio clips are also floating around, helped by the fact that BBC Radio 1 included part of the band’s set in remixed form on their “Live Aid: 10 Years On” show in 1995.

By the end of the eighties, the Zepp had briefly reformed once more - with John’s son Jason on drums - in 1988 for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show, although once again, the band were slightly unhappy with their performance. The band’s back catalogue was also issued on CD. By 1990, Page had been tasked with the remastering of the band’s recordings, and a selection of his results were issued on an untitled boxset issued later that year - housed in a sleeve depicting a take on the famous alien ‘crop circles’ phenomenon of the time, it was later followed by a release called “Boxed Set 2”, so we shall refer to this one as “Boxed Set” (4xCD, Atlantic 7567 82144-5). It ran in more or less chronological order, but was designed actually to work as a vinyl or cassette release, and so certain songs were placed ‘out of sync’ so that they could open or close a particular side of the record. It included four rarities - previously unreleased performances of “Travelling Riverside Blues” and “White Summer / Black Mountain Side”, both lifted from BBC session performances, and a hybrid mash up of the two Bonham drum showcases, “Moby Dick” and “Bonzo’s Montreux”, originally to be found on “Led Zeppelin 3” and “Coda”. There was also a B-side, not bad for a band who didn’t “do” singles, “Hey Hey What Can I Do”, which had slipped out in overseas territories on the flip of the “Immigrant Song” 45 and was thus making it’s UK debut here. An edited highlights set, “Remasters” (2xCD, Atlantic 7567 80415-2) was issued before the end of the year, also in a “crop circles” style sleeve, which made no attempt at all to include any of the rarities this time around. “TRB”, by the way, saw another set of lemon squeezing lyrics, for those of you who like to know about such stuff.

The aforementioned “Boxed Set 2” (2xCD, Atlantic 7567 82477-2) surfaced in 93, with another variant on the crop circle imagery on it’s cover. It’s main duty was to sweep up all of the band’s remaining recorded (studio) output that hadn’t made it onto the first box, and also came with an ’incentive purchase’ track in the form of the previously unreleased “Baby Come On Home”. It was followed by the career spanning “The Complete Studio Recordings” (10xCD, Atlantic 7-82526 2), a US only import according to Discogs, which did what it said on the tin - reissues of all eight studio albums and “Coda” (it’s 10 discs because, of course, “Physical Graffiti” was a double album). The version of “Coda” included here was expanded to include the two BBC tracks from “Boxed Set”, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” and “Baby Come On Home”. The Bonham mash up was left off presumably because it was not a ’proper’ song. The individual albums were then reissued and were, until last year, the latest versions available in the shops, and were identified by their “remastered” legend on the left hand side of the cover.

I can’t remember the exact reasoning behind why “Whole Lotta Love” (CD single, Atlantic AT 0013CD) was issued as a 45 in the UK in 1997. Perhaps it was in a advert, or it had won a “greatest ever riff” poll, I really don’t recall. But appear as a single it did, with a newly created radio edit that was shorter than the LP mix, but longer than the original shortened version that had been created for the original overseas single and promo releases in 69/70. Nothing massively rare appeared as b-sides, “Travelling Riverside Blues” from the first box, and “Baby Come On Home” from the second. All copies of the single were numbered, but in those days, physical singles still sold in big numbers, so thousands of copies were pressed. The same year saw the release of “BBC Sessions” (2xCD, Atlantic 7567 83061-2), which compiled most - but not all - of the recordings the band made for the BBC in 1969 on disc 1, with disc 2 devoted to the band’s heavily bootlegged BBC “In Concert” show at the Paris Theatre in London on 1st April 1971. The band were simply ‘too big’ to return to the Beeb in later years, and so whilst the release is incomplete, it still offers a fairly decent overview of the band’s visits to the Corporation in those couple of years.

After a couple of slightly pointless best of sets in the early 00’s, “Early Days” and “Latter Days” (later compiled into a box set - 2xCD, Atlantic 7567 83619 2), the Zepp once again rose back up over the parapet in 2003 with some more new material. First up was another anonymously titled release, the band’s debut DVD release, which usually gets referred to as “Led Zeppelin DVD” (2xDVD, Warner Music Vision 0349 70198-2), which included TV show footage and gig performances from across the band’s entire career, including footage of the Earls Court and Knebworth shows. It was issued at the same time as a new live album, “How The West Was Won” (2xCD, Atlantic 7567 83587 9), an attempt to try and capture the live Led Zepp sound in a way that “The Song Remains The Same” had failed to do - it was compiled from shows the band had played in the USA in June 1972.

In December 2007, the band reformed for another one off show. Their first since the often overlooked reunion at the 1995 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, it was the band’s first full length show since Knebworth, but was another charity event, meaning tickets were only available through a lottery style random selection process. Another best of set, “Mothership” (2xCD, Swan Song 8122 79961 5) had been issued in the run up to the reunion, alongside a revamped DVD reissue of “The Song Remains The Same” (DVD, Warner Brothers Z5 72654) - the CD edition of the soundtrack was also reissued in slightly reworked form.

After yet another boxset release in 2008 of the band’s studio output (essentially a retitled repressing of the 1993 box), it all finally went quiet. The 2007 reunion show was finally issued on a variety of formats, all taking the basic gig and spreading it across multiple discs, one of the more bog standard being the 3 disc set released in 2012 as “Celebration Day” (2xCD + DVD, Swan Song 8122 79688-7), before it all went quiet again.

Until last year. Despite having said thirty odd years before that there was really nothing in the vaults, the band announced a complete expanded reissue of their back catalogue (or at least, “Coda” and the eight studio efforts) in 2014. How were you to expand an album which supposedly spawned no outtakes? Simple, just offer “different” versions of songs everybody knew. Simples!

And so, starting in the summer of 2014, we got bigger versions of albums with the promise of nothing particularly new. Aside from regular LP and CD reissues of the original albums, there were double disc releases planned (or, in the case of the already double “Physical Graffiti”, a triple) with the extra disc being a “companion” disc upon which alternate versions of material on the regular album were placed, with both expanded CD and Vinyl editions available. The nine albums appeared in chunks, with the first three albums surfacing in June 2014, and “Presence”, “In Through The Out Door” and “Coda” being released just a few months ago. Aside from the four already mentioned formats, each album was also due to appear as a £100 rated super deluxe boxset, which would simply include the double album, double CD and a fancy book. Pointless really, but with the design of each due to be “similar” in style, I guess, anybody with £1000 to spare would find it quite nice buying them all to put next to each other on a shelf.

Given that I already had most of the Zepp’s albums by this point, I gave most of them a miss - but Wikipedia helpfully has a dedicated page to the reissues which explains what you were getting for your cash. Certain albums had a different approach, “Led Zepp 1” features a period gig from the time mostly consisting of tracks from the debut, whereas “Led Zepp 2” features mostly alternate studio mixes of the same songs.

In most instances, the companion disc had a running time that was fairly brief, I guess, so that the material could be easily housed on a single slab of vinyl for the LP versions, meaning that for “Physical Graffiti”, reissued in isolation in Feb 2015, the 80-odd minute album still only came with 40 minutes of extras. The band did get a bit of a knocking for offering what were, at times, barely altered mixes when compared to the original - indeed, I bought a deluxe “ITTOD” and thought that my companion disc was mispressed because it sounded so similar to the original. However, this reissue offered an genuine “alternate album”, the same LP (ie. Identical track timings) but with variant mixes - it’s just a shame some of these variant mixes have sound differences so difficult to spot, even my dogs couldn’t hear them. Despite some songs appearing with totally different titles suggesting they were work in progress versions of the completed songs, they are not - “The Hook” is simply a mono mix of “All My Love”, codeword for “sounding muffled”. Whether this mix was produced at the time for a genuine, proper reason, or if it was just Page having to make something up to fill up the disc, I really don’t know. The sheer pointlessness of it all is, in a way, admirable.

However, the band did push the boat out a bit for the “Coda” reissue. Although they cheated a bit by selling this as “the only reissue to feature TWO companion discs”, the running time of each was designed to balance out with the original - ie. Each disc is only about half an hour long, so even though all the bonuses could have been squeezed onto a single disc, you get asked to pay over the odds for a triple album. Cheeky sods. However, because the original album was an outtakes set, Page made the decision here to use the bonus discs to provide a “history” of the band, and as such, as well as getting alternate takes of “Coda” material, you also get alternate takes of stuff from across the board, such as a “rough mix” version of “When The Levee Breaks”. Now, that’s what I’m talking about.

In theory, the deluxe reissues should put a lid on the Zeppelin history books. It’s unlikely, given that record companies have in recent years become obsessed with repackaging their heritage acts, knowing full well any old tat will sell. Just look at the now annual Dylan outtakes albums. Anyway, that’s not the point here. The point is the Zepp have now been brought back into the public eye again, and in doing so, you can see where Royal Blood got half their ideas from (the other half being Queens Of The Stone Age). There is no doubting that, whilst they are possibly hero worshipped a bit too much by some - still lagging behind The Who in my books - they made some damn fine records, and in some respects, Percy’s decision not to reform is quite honorable. They are not in danger of tarnishing their reputation by staying dead and buried, as it’s difficult to see how a reformed Zepp could ever record another “Kashmir” or “Stairway” or “Levee” - monumental pieces of rock and roll, which helped move them into the upper echelons of music history.