Led Zeppelin Remastered
Your first sip of beer beer. Your first drag on a cigarette. Maybe even that first kiss. Led Zeppelin was the soundtrack for the Seventies and now, you may want to file those cherished but worn LP copies and replace them with the much ballyhooed reissues from Rhino.
Recently, I received a promo set of the deluxe edition vinyl LPs for the first three Zep records, and I must say, they are fairly special. The rest of the catalog will follow. And yes, you guessed it, Zoso, or Led Zeppelin IV if you prefer, will be out just in time for Christmas. Yes, buying more plastic from the record labels gets galling. They prey upon our weakness and weak spiders that we are, we willingly roll into the web. We have paid for this intellectual property over and over again, so no worriesthe artists are getting paid. But the reissue juggernaut, no matter what the format, can be very problematic, and very expensive, particularly for collectors.
Having said all that, Page, Plant and Jones have not been overly greedy. There has only ever been one remastering of these records in 1994 and the band has been smart about not flooding the market with inferior “collectors” repackagings. Or dodgy, sonically compromised live sets. And to be honest at $115.00-$118.00 depending on the outlet, the super deluxe editions which are the most expensive of all these formats, do not feel like gouging.
Happily, these new remasters, supervised by Page of course, come in seven different formats (super deluxe edition box, deluxe edition 2 CD, deluxe edition vinyl, single CD, original album vinyl, digital download, HD Tracks 96/24 download) has reignited the Zep wars. In the past couple days, I’ve fielded a number of calls and emails from friends and Stereophile readers who I didn’t know, tussling yet again with the question of which Zep album is the best. The newly released July issue of Mojo has poured oil on the fire by listing the top 50 Led Zeppelin songs. Stereophile Contributing Editor and world class record collector David Sokol went through the Mojo piece and did some figuring. Surprisingly, the two albums with the most songs on list are Physical Graffiti and Zep II (i.e. the Brown Bomber) with nine songs each. Zep I has seven on the list while Zep I has eight. Most controversially, “Kashmir” (from Physical Graffiti) gets the nod as the best song. And the always underrated Presence, my personal favorite, only places two tunes on the list.
The results of these remastering jobs, including that of the muchpraised Beatles set, have become a bit predictablea brighter, fresher sound that’s slightly more expansive and has slightly improved dynamics. These Zep LP pressings from Pallas in Germany are beautiful, heavy and very, very quiet.
Recorded in less than two days, for less than two thousand pounds, Zep I, with the Hindenburg gloriously aflame on the cover ranks as one of the best debut albums ever and one of the first records in a genre soon to be known as metal. It’s arrival signaled that strummy folk rock was being replaced by something harder-edged. Even the blues cover, “You Shook Me” featured a tortured vocal from Plant and a blinding solo from Jimmy Page. The unforgettable riff rock of “Communication Breakdown” set many a teenage boys heart aflutter. The album’s heart, “Dazed and Confused,” may begin as a psychedelic anthem but it soon takes flight and becomes a basher with Bonham’s thunderous drumming and crashing cymbals leading the way. Upon release, the album was viciously slagged by critics, especially in the States. My favorite bit is the album’s notorious Rolling Stone review which inveighed that Robert Plant was “foppish as Rod Stewart, but nowhere near as exciting.”
In the case of all three records, the biggest draw for fans who know the original records by heart are the “companion” discs of rough mixes and alternate takes. In the case of Zep I, this means two discs of live material from a concert in October 1969 at the Olympia in Paris, which was recorded by French radio, and has here been remastered and spread across two LPs. Sonically better than most Zep bootlegs of this era, it shows how fully formed the band was from the very start. An overlong “You Shook Me” meanders endlessly while a version of “Heartbreaker,” which was on the then just released Led Zeppelin II, rocks the house.
Written on the road and recorded piecemeal in Los Angeles, London, New York, Memphis and a primitive studio in Vancouver that the band called “the hut,” Zep II, which was released nine months after the debut, has always sounded remarkably good, thanks no doubt to the good ears of Page and engineer Eddie Kramer who performed miracles with its many sources. With a cover that used a photo from WWI of the Red Baron’s crew (with the band’s faces superimposed) and Page’s first crack at the Theremin (on “Whole Lotta Love”), this may be the Zep masterpiece. Remastered once in 1994 for the CD boxed set, II’s 2014 Page remix is its best sound yet. The extra LP of 8 tracks contains a more relaxed rough mix of “What Is And What Should Never Be,” a stripped down “Ramble On” with a killer vocal performance by Plant, and a previously unknown/unreleased instrumental track “La La” that shows how much creativity was coursing through this band at this time when even their rave ups were better than most band’s best stuff. Finally, the backing track on the companion disc for “Moby Dick” is comically short considering that when the band played it live, Bonzo’s drum solo could run half an hour by itself!
Finally there’s Led Zeppelin III which unlike it’s predecessor was written in mid1970 at a remote cottage in Wales, the legendary Bron-Yr-Aur. Back then, very much like Led Zeppelin I, this album was also disliked by critics and was not initially a huge seller. Written in a cottage with no electricity, not to mention the fact that Plant and Page seem to have reacted against the Marshall stacks of Zep II, Zep III is a much more acoustic and introverted recording. My record guru, the aforementioned David Sokol calls this a “more mature record,” which I have to say rings right. Recorded at Headley Grange, a rundown mansion, as well as Olympic and Basing Street studios in London, it was mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis. As for the companion tracks, III actually has three worthy, if less than earthshattering extras; the first being “Bathroom Sound,” which is a very bass heavy, odd sounding rough mix of eventual III track “Out on the Tiles.” “Jennings Farm Blues” is the instrumental version of “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp.” The last, which Page has mentioned over and over again in interviews about these remasters, is “Key To The Highway,” a blues standard previously recorded first by Charlie Segar and then every other blues musician on the planet, most memorably by Big Bill Broonzy, Little Walter and Eric Clapton. Here it’s Page on slide and acoustic guitar and Plant on blues harp and vocals, the latter of which are run through a vibrato amp and so quaver with a tremolo effect. Best of all, the LP cover reproduces the spinning wheel or more properly, the volvelle, which was included with in the original. Designed by artist Zacron, this was considered “multimedia" in 1970! Speaking only for the LPs, this is Zep done right both in terms of improved sound and high quality pressings.
Bring it on man. What’s next? Oh yeah I know!
“Hey, Hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!