LED ZEPPELIN I, II, & III REMASTERS Led Zeppelin (Warner) *****
The last time the Zeppelin catalogue was re-mastered was over 20 years ago- re-EQ’d, really, for compact disc- first for a 4 CD box set, then the full studio albums themselves. This time it’s been a much bigger project- taking everything back to the nuts and bolts, with the advances in technology since the 90’s, and re-mastering for 3 different formats- vinyl, CD and digital. In the process producer/ guitarist Jimmy Page sifted through hundreds of hours of tape to address Led Zeppelin’s studio output, and come up with a companion disc of bonus material for each album. The results, to my ears, are spectacularly well worth it.
LED ZEPPELIN I
Originally released in 1969, Zep I is a muscular blues workout. Page had a very specific vision right from the get-go… a mix of light and shade that mixed heavy rock and blues with folk music, and boy did the band ever succeed with this one. Upon the band’s very first rehearsal, in a basement room on Gerard Street in what is now Chinatown in London, bassist John Paul Jones recalls that “The room just exploded with sound- lots of silly grins and ‘ah yes this is it’. It was pretty bloody obvious that it was going to work, from the very first number!”
I’m judging these new re-masters based on advanced digital copies, playing on my Dell computer through the stereo- there’s better definition and separation between the instruments, and more presence to Robert Plant’s feral howl on tracks like Dazed & Confused. Overall, the album sounds bigger and deeper,with more balls and more raw power.
Of course there will be fans who say “So what? The CD’s I have sound fine” and I understand that. So, we turn to the bonus disc. It is a full concert from Oct.10th 1969 at the Olympia Theater in Paris. A concert from so early in the band’s career that I’d give a “good” to “good +” rating on the bootlegger’s scale, it contains performances of 6 tracks from that first album, an early version of Heartbreaker, plus John Bonham’s solo showpiece Moby Dick, originally called Pat`s Song after his wife.
Hearing a show from this early in any band`s career is cool- but this is Led Zeppelin so it`s spectacular. As a drummer I admire and am inspired by Bonham`s skill behind the kit but, like 90% of all drum solos this one, though muscular, is somewhat tedious. I`ve also never been a fan of Jimmy Page`s use of the violin bow in live versions of Dazed. A cool idea maybe, but in actual fact boring unless you’re baked. Still, this is a Zeppelin show from `69, so `nuff said.
HIGHLIGHTS: DISC ONE: Good Times Bad Times, Black Mountainside
DISC TWO: You Shook Me, How Many More Times
LED ZEPPELIN II
Led Zep II marks my first encounter with the band in, I think, 1970. My brother Mike brought home a 45 with Whole Lotta Love on one side and Living Loving Maid on the other, and evn though I was only 11 at the time, I can still see the black and red label and feel the effect the music had (and still has) on me.
The band had been doing shows for a couple of years by then and had been in the studio. There schedule was such that much of II was written and recorded on the road, in places like Vancouver. Zeppelin were becoming comfortable in their own skin and it shows in the performances. Songs like Whole Lotta Love and What Is And What Should Never Be required good headphones to fully appreciate, and the greasy blues groove of The Lemon Song made what hair there was on my 11 year arms stand up, though I scarcely knew why. Plant`s voice mesmerized, Page`s guitar work electrified and, on this song in particular, John Paul Jones made me want to play bass- he was that fuckin` cool.
The digital mix here is much ballsier than the old CD and even vinyl I have and, like I, the separation in the instruments is astonishing. I can hear everything on Bonham`s kit, his Paiste cymbals in sharp relief as he works in concert with Jones to lay down a fat, unforgettable bottom end for Page & Plant to work off of. Page has obviously taken advantage of the improvements in technology to make this record sound like the planet killer it should be, and a good thing too- at the age of 70, he says he wanted this taken care of (referring to the whole catalogue, not just this album) before it was too late.
The bonus disc is very enjoyable too, with rough mixes, some backing tracks, and something called The La La Intro Outro Rough Mix, a piece I don’t recall hearing before. It’s a look behind the wizard’s curtain as one of the mightiest albums in all of rock & roll is being pulled together, and how cool is that?
HIGHLIGHTS: DISC ONE: The Lemon Song, Bring It On Home
DISCO TWO: Whole Lotta Love (rough mix with vocal), Heartbreaker (rough mix with vocal) (even without the guitar solo in the middle, reportedly added as an afterthought by Page)
LED ZEPPELIN III
This is the album that causes the most discussion amongst fans. I don’t know if it’s their least popular, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that it is. After a pair of rip snortin’ classics like the first two albums just discussed, this left turn into a more acoustic sound put some fans off, myself included. In fact, when spinning this re-master and the companion disc to write this review, it occurred to me that this is the first time I’ve listened through the entire album in probably 4 or 5 years.
Zep III is an important record for Zeppelin as they branch out into other sounds and show an interest in folk and world music, as evidenced on cuts like Friends. fans panicked, not sure what to make of this new direction, with the Hammer Of The Gods rock of The Immigrant Song and a straight up blues called Since I’ve Been Loving You being the most commonly cited tunes on the record. Ask most fans how they feel about III and their answer will likely begin with a long “Wellllllllllll….” Sonic improvements on this re-mastered version are similar to I & II, though I daresay less pronounced.
Given my ambivalence to this record overall, the attraction for me is the bonus disc, my favorite of the three mentioned here today. Mainly rough and/or alternate mixes of album tracks, the most fun are the songs that I’ve never heard before; Jennings Farm Blues, a rough mix of all the guitar overdubs from that day, and Key To The Highway/ Trouble In My Mind with just Page on acoustic guitar and Plant on vocals- mesmerizing.
HIGHLIGHTS: DISC ONE: The Immigrant Song, Since I’ve Been Loving You
DISC TWO: Key To The Highway/ Trouble On My Mind, Celebration Day (alternate mix) (doesn’t have the synth drone that transitions from Friends into Celebration on the album proper)
If you’re a Led Zeppelin fan and have decided that yes, you need this newly re-mixed stuff in your collection, the question becomes “in what format”? Here is what the press release told me;
• Single CD – Remastered album packaged in a gatefold card wallet.• Deluxe Edition (2CD) – Remastered album, plus a second disc of unreleased companion audio.• Single LP – Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl, packaged in a sleeve that replicates the LP’s first pressing in exacting detail. (For example, III will feature the original wheel and die cut holes.)• Deluxe Edition Vinyl – Remastered album and unreleased companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.• Digital Download – Remastered album and companion audio will both be available.• Super Deluxe Boxed Set – This collection includes:o Remastered album on CD in vinyl replica sleeve.o Companion audio on CD in card wallet.o Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl in a sleeve replicating first pressing.o Companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.o High-def audio download card off all content at 96kHz/24 bit. (Live tracks are 48kHz/24 bit).o Hard bound, 70+ page book filled with rare and previously unseen photos and memorabilia.o High quality print of the original album cover, the first 30,000 of which will be individually numbered.o Led Zeppelin will also include a replica of the band’s original Atlantic press kit.
So the question then, is how deep are your pockets? When the Pink Floyd box sets came out, I went all in for Wish You Were Here and The Wall but found that, after a couple of listens I just went back to the albums themselves, ignoring all the fancy-shmantsy bonus stuff. When I went to grab the Dark Side Of The Moon, I scaled back to the 2 disc version and saved mysaelf about $80. So, when this first wave of Led Zeppelin stuff hits store shelves on June 3rd, I will be purchasing the two disc versions for my collection, perhaps picking up the vinyl at a later date thanks mainly to budgetary concerns- that, and while I’m still very much a music junkie, I’m just not the obsessive collector I used to be- then there`s the shallow pockets too.
This first rush of re-masters, though, has whet my appetite and I can’t wait to hear the rest of them, should be an interesting year or two coming up!