by David Fricke
The music in this collection is the last word on Led Zeppelin - really. It is the long-awaited, final episode in Jimmy Page's exhaustive digital restoration of the Zeppelin studio canon and a vital, irrefutable summation of the historical argument for the group's honored place at the high table in rock & roll Valhalla.
This material - thirty-one essential performances culled from Led Zeppelin's nine studio albums, plus one newly discovered outtake - is not merely the best of the rest, the orphan songs that could not be shoehorned into the weighty 1990 boxed set, Led Zeppelin. It is the Rest of the Best, everything else you need to know about why Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and the late John Bonham still walk tall through rock & roll, over a decade after inscribing the last studio entries in the Zeppelin flight log.
It is also living rock theater, music that refuses to be filed away under "Once upon a time..." The way the earth seems to crumble at your feet under the weight of Bonham's thunder telegraph drumming; those deliciously fearsome moments when your neck snaps back in the face of Page's switchblade riffing complemented by his guitar-layering orchestration; the haunted-carousel spectacle of Jones' dramatic keyboard orchestrations; Plant's full-bore vocal celebration of the band's devotion to black roots music and great thirst for transcendant sensual (not just sexual) adventure - it all comes back here with an exhilarating rush, untainted by years of gee-whiz nostalgia and undiminished by the ongoing plague of hamfisted copycat bands.
The history of Led Zeppelin is pretty much common knowledge now. The hysteria that the band created in its wake is the standard by which all superstar bands are judged. The studio anecdotes, salacious road stories and fiscal tales of album sales and box office wonder have been told and retold in countless books, band interviews and fawning critical retrospectives (most of the latter served with a hefty sidedish of humble pie, given the pasting Led Zeppelin got from the press in the early days). Still, a handful of false myths and snap judgements endure:
That Led Zeppelin is the sum total of what you hear on classic rock radio, the heavy-rotation hits like "Stairway To Heaven," "Whole Lotta Love" and "Kashmir." That Led Zeppelin was, first and last, a heavy metal band, with all of the artificial drama and cock-rock excess that the genre stands for. And that Zeppelin's acclaimed musical sorcery was really expertly disguised sleight-of-hand, the product of liberal (and sometimes too literal) influences from the Great Ancients in blues, Fifties and Sixties R&B, Sun Sessions hillbilly bop and olde English folk - and then a vigorous reshuffling of the deck.
The truth is, there is no such thing as virgin birth in rock & roll. Sonny Boy Williamson, the young hepcat Presley and Page's pivotal apprenticeships both as a Yardbird and as a top guitar-for-hire, arranger and producer on the London session scene in the mid-Sixties all begat, to varying degrees, Led Zeppelin. The British blues explosion and the early mind-melt properties of San Francisco psychedelia also figured in the Zeppelin formula. John Paul Jones brought an articulate, rock-solid bass style rooted in jazz and R&B as well as intuitive mastery of texture from his days as as studio bassman and arranger for Donovan, Dusty Springfield and the Rolling Stones.
In turn, Led Zeppelin begat not only a host of crass imitators (much to the group's eternal chagrin) but also, via some unpredictable youth culture detours, the late Eighties crossover marriage of heavy metal and hip-hop and the recent co-explosions in underground grunge rock and industrial dance music.
What Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham brought to the English blooze'n'decibels party in the late Sixties was a refusal to be bound by convention. They had a keen desire to kick down the walls of genre and explore rock's outer limits, a desire fueled by a ferocious determination to succeed. The Zeppelin immortality we now take for granted belies the fact that this was a band that revelled in risk. On record and on stage, Led Zeppelin's specialty was the roads least taken, a largely uncharted musical turf where everything that passed through the group's sphere of ambition - blues, pumpinf Fifties boogie-woogie, torrid Memphis soul, Arabic and Indian exotica, Jamaican reggae, folk roots, Harlem funk - became ripe for absorption and mutation.
That is the Zeppelin legacy revisited and revitalized in this collection. Quite a few of these songs Led Zeppelin rarely, if ever, played live. They're the ones that keep slipping through the FM radio playlist cracks. But any true love or knowledge of Led Zeppelin is incomplete without them.
The set begins, appropriately enough, with the opening track from the 1969 debut album, "Good Times Bad Times," the sonic boom that announced Led Zeppelin's arrival to the world. Inside three minutes, the band unleashed its entire arsenal in a Sensurround blueprint of what was to come, complete with Bonham's signature kick drum hammering, Jones's pivotal earthquake bass riff, a tonsil-stripping Plant performance and that unmistakeable Page-directed mix of light/heavy, verse/chorus dynamics. But in a way, the next selection, a ripsnorting cover of Ben E. King's "We're Gonna Groove" that inexplicably stayed in the can until 1982 when it appeared on Coda, says even more about Zeppelin's origins and goals, even though this rendition was recorded 14 months after "Good Times Bad Times."
Co-written by King, "We're Gonna Groove" made its first appearance in the Zeppelin repertoire in September, 1968, when, to fulfill leftover obligations from his Yardbirds days, Page took the newly formed Zeppelin on a Scandinavian tour as the New Yardbirds. On the tours that followed throughout the winter of '68-'69 and well into 1970, "We're Gonna Groove" - re-scored by the group with a choppy nuclear-impact funk beat and a searing chorus of buzzbomb Page guitars - became part of a favored menagerie of roots-rock covers which the band drew on at will as a bold advertisement of roots and intentions. At the drop of a Page riff or the slam of a Bonham backbeat, "Whole Lotta Love," "How Many More Times" and "Communication Breakdown" would be transformed into elastic, electrifying medleys veering from the Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" to Sam Cooke's "Shake" and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's Alright Mama."
Other strange bedfellows in the Zeppelin mix included Spirit's "Fresh Garbage," the soul nugget "As Long As I Have You" by Garnett Mimms and, at one memorable three-and-a-half-hour show at the Boston Tea Party in May, 1969, "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Please Please Me" by the Beatles. But those early spot-the-hook romps proved to be a perfect mobile laboratory for the individual members to refine the creative telepathy that sparked their studio work for the next decade. Already conversant in numerous musical languages, they had no trouble fashioning out of them one of their own.
On the first two albums, Led Zeppelin made no attempt to hide either its source material, or respect for it. "How Many More Times," shaved down to eight minutes from its often much longer live incarnation, was a volcanic salute to the Chess and Stax Records motherlodes, incorporating both Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" and Albert King's "The Hunter" along with a sly quote from Ravel's "Bolero" (possibly via "Beck's Bolero," which Page wrote and produced for Jeff Beck). "The Lemon Song," a Plant vocal tour de force combining Delta blues-derived double entendre with self-mocking white adolescent dick-ego, was a boisterous band-engineered collision of Howlin' Wolf's immortal, cheatin' woman complaint "Killing Floor" and Robert Johnson's classic orgasm metaphor from "Travelling Riverside Blues." Notably, Zeppelin cut this song live in the studio (except for some overdubbed guitar in the bridge) in Los Angeles during the spring '69 U.S. tour, literally as the number had evolved on stage.
Led Zeppelin's particular genius for transforming influence into original style could be as literal as the unforgettable riff'n'shriek duet by Page and Plant in the middle of "You Shook Me" - inspired by Robert Johnson's echoing of vocal and guitar lines but which Page and Plant took to heady arena-rock theater extremes - or as figurative as "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" on Led Zeppelin III, Page and Plant's salute to the progressive British folk stylist Roy Harper. Powered by Page's agitated, skidding acoustic slide guitar and Plant's hot-blooded wailing and harp-blowing, spiked with crackling distortion and tremolo, this frenetic fireside raver recorded at Olympic Studios in London paid homage to Harper's no-sellout ways while cconjuring up Deep South daydreams of field trip wanderlust and back porch blues recitals. Roy Harper was not a bluesman per se, but in his maverick singing and writing he looked - as did his biggest influence Bob Dylan and, of course, Led Zeppelin - to American black folk expression for inspiration. Page in particular demonstrated his affection for the latter's records (check out Page's guitar playing on 1971's Stormcock and 1972's Lifemask), but in "Hat's Off To (Roy) Harper" he and Plant could not have come up with a more apt tribute.
Oddly, upon it's release in October 1970, Led Zeppelin III threw both fans and critics for a big loop with its forays into more introspective acoustic music. It should not have been a great surprise. From the first album, the contrast between meditative guitar filigree and epic riff explosions was a key part of the Zeppelin schematic, one which would reach an apex with the suite-like grandeur of "Stairway To Heaven." One of Page's guitar showpieces with the Yardbirds had been the evocative modal instrumental "White Summer," which soon evolved into the solo acoustic folk-raga interlude "Black Mountain Side" on Led Zeppelin; an electric medley of both pieces was a nightly highlight of Zeppelin shows through 1970.
The spell of music-making that took place at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in the south of Wales during April and May, 1970 during the band's hard-won vacation there (after fifteen grueling months of almost non-stop touring) was all the more impetus to try pulling out the plugs, instead of all the stops. Today, thanks to the success of MTV's "Unplugged" concert broadcasts, the notion of heavy rockers-as-sensitive balladeers is thought to be a great leap forward. Led Zeppelin was not only twenty years ahead of the pack, but the band showed that going acoustic did not have to mean going soft. Actually written during that working holiday at Bron-Yr-Aur, Led Zeppelin III's "That's The Way" was a lacework caress of acoustic guitars, mandolin and gracefully executed pedal steel work. It also featured one of Robert Plant's finest early lyric moments, a sensitive, emotionally direct expression of pride and determination.
Not bad for a song written by Page and Plant, and in fact first sketched out on a portable tape recorder, during a walk through the Welsh countryside. That working holiday was such an inspiration that Led Zeppelin recorded two tributes to the place - "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" on III (somehow the "r" in Yr went awol) and Page's brief solo piece "Bron-Yr-Aur" (eventually recorded for Physical Graffiti and heard again in this collection). Acoustic sets also became a standard part of Led Zeppelin's three-hour stage shows and it was rare for Zeppelin thereafter to not leaven the crunch in the studio with more homespun drama. Actually, "Black Country Woman," recorded in an outdoor garden at Mick Jagger's Stargroves mansion during the Houses of the Holy sessions, was a bit more ribald in tone, thanks to John Bonham's frisky kick-drum part. Still priceless: that audio verite moment when a plane flies overhead just as the tape starts rolling, someone (probably engineer Eddie Kramer) says "Can't keep this airplane on" and Plant replies "Nah, leave it, yeah."
Zeppelin imitators through the years have had no problem approximating the brute heavy metal force that was the band's most popular specialty. But the critical element in the Zeppelin light-heavy equation was movement. Few bands since have proven as imaginative or as adept at subdividing and recombining rock's elemental 4/4 beat into new forms of boogie locomotion. While John Paul Jones was the essential anchor man on bass, giving the Page-Plant frontline the freedom to go to pyrotechnic extremes, John Bonham was Zeppelin's secret rhythm weapon, a man who possessed not only the muscle but the agility to accomodate Page's fondness for precision strength.
Well, maybe not-so-secret: Bonham had already proclaimed himself King of Big Drum Mountain on Zeppelin's first tours with "Pat's Delight," a rumbling solo showcase named after his wife and reborn on Led Zeppelin II as "Moby Dick." Yet for all of his imposing physicallity on and off stage, Bonham was a team player, whose great contributions to the rhythym math were occasionally acknowledged with co-writing credits. "Out On The Tiles" from Led Zeppelin III bears his unmistakable imprint; the drum part is a busy, bullish swagger perfectly suited to the song title (British slang for a night on the town) and Page's topside riffing, full of abrupt, punctuative slams and a great, perfectly choreographed opening motif that sounds like a drunk tumbling down a flight of stairs.
"Four Sticks" on the fourth album was even more imposing. Under a short, ascending guitar phrase that ran ad infinitum through the song like a hard rock adaptation of the Minimalist composing techniques of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, Bonham kept up his own accelerated, rhythmic counterpoint, a circular tabla-like effect on the toms that firmly anchored the varying repetition (five times, then three, then eleven) of Page's riff. It's worth noting that Led Zeppelin re-recorded this track in 1972 (along with "Friends" from III) with the Bombay Symphony. Unfortunately, that version has never been released. The song was titled "Four Sticks" because Bonham played here with two drumsticks in each hand; it actually sounds more like four arms.
The big bombshell in this set is the newly discovered "Baby Come On Home," and not only because it crops up just when we were all secure in the knowledge that with "Coda" Jimmy page had swept the Zeppelin tape closet clean of all worthy leftovers. Listening to it now, it's hard to believe that "Baby Come On Home" was recorded in October, 1968 during the thirty-hour blur - spread out over two weeks - that yielded Led Zeppelin. It's also hard to believe that the track managed to drop out of earshot for twenty-five years. Closer to grinding, confessional Memphis soul than the Chicago blues fire that consumed most of the first album, this Page-Plant original is a robust hymn of undying passion and forgiveness, sung with an earthy force and integrity that Plant was rarely given credit for even at the height of Zeppelin's fame. John Paul Jones takes the track to church with bouts of ringing gospel organ under Jimmy Page's cohesive, supple licks, themselves given a rippling Leslie effect.
"Baby Come On Home" was not the sound of the young Zeppelin playing to its apparent strengths, although it would have made a hell of a hit single. (Still would, too.) Yet that til-now forgotten tangent, an attempt to fuse hard rock vigor with the emotional tensions of rhythm and blues and the lustre of great progressive pop, was actually grounded in a significant, too often hidden strength in the Zeppelin vision. Nearly everyone in the band had experience making pop records - Page and Jones as sessionmen, Plant as a would-be teenage idol in the mid-Sixties making producer-driven paisley-kitsch singles. And however much they avoided the assembly-line approach to music, they never forgot that the best rock & roll always baits you with a succinct, irresistible melodic construct and then entraps you in its mood, however loud or loving that mood might be.
Every Zeppelin record was made with that rule in mind, but it was only once in a while that the band let down its guard and made their own kind of pop music. "Night Flight" on Physical Graffiti was one of those times. It was originally cut for Led Zeppelin's fourth album, and wisely left for later, since it didn't really suit the style or mood of that record. But the song is one of the forgotten charms in the Zeppelin repertoire, choogling along in an amiable blues groove set up by Page's rather clean rhythm twang and John Paul Jones's radiant organ runs. Distinguished by a sly melodic upturn in the chorus, "Night Flight" rocked like a distant, black sheep cousin of Creedance Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary."
With In Through The Out Door, that clarity and glow became part of the raw material for Led Zeppelin's last great studio experiment. The band had taken the noise-as-exorcism method as far as it would go on the 1976 album Presence, a stunning expression of personal turmoil (Plant had suffered a near-fatal auto accident) and nearly eight of accumulated battle fatigue. You can hear it practically in 3-D with John Bonham's vehemently stuttering beat in "Hots On For Nowhere" and the gnarly, surreal intensity of Jimmy Page's lead break on the track. When Led Zeppelin returned to recording two years later in the winter of 1978-79, at the height of England's punk-rock uprising, it was in a more relaxed, invigorated frame of mind, with a vibrant, modernized sound.
Although not regarded with quite the same nostalgic fervor as the "four symbols" album or Physical Graffiti, In Through The Out Door has given us two of Led Zeppelin's most enduring studio performances, the propulsive enchantment of "In The Evening" and Robert Plant's eloquent vocal portrayal of deep mourning and emotional rebirth in "All My Love," written with John Paul Jones a year after the tragic death of Plant's young son Karac. The other track that pointed to the probable course of the regenerated Zeppelin was "Carouselambra" in which Plant's incantations were nearly overwhelmed by the roiling might of John Paul Jones's synthesizers. There was, surprisingly, no core guitar riff; Page alternated between a steel-grey jangle and, in the slow-burn hollows of the song, tortured bent-chord groans colored by guitar synth and gizmo overdubs that suggested a growing weariness with regulation hard rock showboating. In leaving distortion and impetuous thrashing to the punk-rock youngsters, Led Zeppelin was announcing a likely course for a new decade.
Instead, the band was forced to surrender to creul fate. On September 25, 1980, John Bonham was found dead - a victim of one of his other favorite activities beside music, drinking - in a bedroom in Jimmy Page's home in Windsor where the band was rehearsing for a fall American tour. On December 4th, Swan Song Records issued a brief statement announcing that Led Zeppelin had called it a day, unable to see any future without Bonham.
Rock & roll went on, but the unfinished business of Led Zeppelin left behind reverberates throughout this set. You can hear it in a left-field experiment like Page and Bonham's electronically orchestrated 1976 drum experiment "Bonzo's Montreux."; in the brilliant appropriation of Little Richard's racing-heartbeat piano attack for "South Bound Saurez" on In Through The Out Door; in the contagious R&B hilarity of "The Crunge," in which Bonham took some comic liberties with a James Brown-patented funk beat and Jones parodied the metalic slide of the JB horns with his synthesizer; in "Tea For One," a long, slow, homesick blues from Presence that redressed those early lemon-squeezing obsessions with a poignant Page-Plant admission of loneliness and melancholy that even rock gods sometimes have to really suffer to sing the blues.
It's been a long time, as the song goes, since they rock & rolled. Listening to this collection it's also hard to imagine a time when Led Zeppelin will never be with us. Turn it up and let 'em bring it on home, one more time.