Recording of August 2003: How the West Was Won

LED ZEPPELIN: How the West Was Won
Atlantic 83587-2 (3 CDs). 2003. Jimmy Page, prod.; Eddie Kramer, orig. eng.; Kevin Shirley, reissue eng.; Drew Griffith, asst. eng. AAD?. TT: 2:49:51
Performance ****½
Sonics ***

Live albums get a bad rap for one simple reason: the sound is usually less than thrilling—poorly mixed, with limited dynamic range, the imaging of a tin can. The list goes on. Few live sets, including of jazz—which, given its improvisational nature, has more classic live albums than any other genre—have ever made an appearance as Stereophile "Recordings of the Month."

Led Zeppelin's new three-disc set, recorded at 1972 shows in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, is not without sonic thorns. Most of the problems (as confirmed by the inestimable ears of John Atkinson) lie in the age of the source material. Time, likely exacerbated in this case by how these tapes were stored, will degrade magnetic tape. The set's comically minimal single paragraph of liner notes provides virtually no information about how the tapes were recorded or remastered. Still, the sound has enough range and richness to support the inescapable conclusion that, for a time, the Zep was an astonishing rock'n'roll band.

Recorded just after Led Zeppelin IV (aka "Zoso," a simplistic reading of the runic characters on the album's cover) and just before 1973's Houses of the Holy, these shows reveal the band at, if not their peak, then rapidly approaching it. The twin pillars of the Zep temple are in abundance here: the thunderous volume of a B-52 attack, and careening, driving, sometimes nearly chaotic arrangements of blues-based, proto-heavy-metal rock.

Unlike most rock bands today but very much like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and most other British bands of their era, Zep's music came from the blues; they'd spent time studying and worshipping at the temple of Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" is here inserted into "Whole Lotta Love" along with long quotations from "Let's Have a Party," by Jerry Leiber (of Leiber and Stoller fame), Gene Pitney's "Hello Marylou," and bluesman Jimmy Oden's "Going Down Slow." Dixon, who alleged that his "You Need Love" was the basis of "Whole Lotta Love" (his lawsuit against the band was settled in 1987), is represented here by this set's closer, "Bring It On Home."

Because Zep was home to four gifted musicians with very strong personalities, arguments over which was the star, the glue that held it all together, inevitably crop up when listening to a set like this. The majority of fans will side with Robert Plant or Jimmy Page, who wrote the bulk of the band's material. Vocalist Plant, with his high, bizarre, asexual purr, exposed midriff, and thrusting hips (think Spinal Tap's cucumber scene), was the band's eye candy. Bassist John Paul Jones, whose keyboards were a sort of stealth instrument, was Zep's quiet, steady presence.

Guitarist Page is one of his or any generation's finest guitar players, and here he tops himself in almost every song. His slow blues on "Since I've Been Loving You" is as flavorful as the folky side he flashes in "Going to California," or the full-on charge of "Black Dog." Across this entire set, the ease with which Page switches between rhythm and lead is a wonder to behold. Strangely enough, it may be in "Stairway to Heaven" (which Texas' Butthole Surfers perform as "Hairway to Steven") that Page shows the most genius, turning that overblown chestnut—hoary even then—into a white-hot display that blends the song's familiar, required turns, such as the opening descending chords of his solo, with new, hell-bent rushes.

Me, I've always been a Bonzo guy. Dead way too early in 1980, at the age of 32, John Bonham and his often jazz-like drumming was, for me, the source of Zep's much-touted onstage telepathy, the rivets that held the band's mighty metallic frame together, and its most talented and sadly reckless personage. It was no surprise to me when, after his death, the survivors decided that they couldn't go on as a band without him. While his solo on "Moby Dick," which clocks in at 19:20, is light-years past the obligatory and much-ridiculed rock-band drum solo, it's in tunes such as this set's storming version of "Rock and Roll," Bonham whipping the arrangement along before rolling out triplets at the song's conclusion, that define how essential his contributions were. The Who may have overcome Keith Moon's loss (a point still debated), but Led Zeppelin had no idea how to replace Bonzo.

In the end, How the West Was Won is about four very large talents coming into focus as one unit: the proverbially rewarding sum of the parts. But it's also about the energy, and, as in all good live recordings, it's about those moments of jaw-dropping supremacy that can't occur in a studio—where there's no crowd to impress, no groupies in waiting, no applause to feed on.

For visual confirmation of the band's monstrous live persona there's the simultaneously released DVD set Led Zeppelin which is a trove of Zep on film focusing on shows from Royal Albert Hall (1970), Madison Square Garden (1973), London's Earls Court (1975) and Knebworth (1979). There are also several interview segments from Australian and American television. The package has been remastered under Jimmy Page's supervision in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, DTS and PCM two-channel.—Robert Baird

shp's picture

John Bonhan as the rivet is a great analogy. 

And I've always beeni blown away by their Hello Marylou rendition here. They're playing a song a thousand others have covered. And you can still hear in every note that this is unmistakably Zeppelin.