“Good Times Bad Times,” the first track off the hard rock combo’s first album, today sounds very much of its time and also unusually forward-thinking. The crunchy riff that introduces the track augured for the amped-up sound of metal to come, but the opening verse and chorus still have one foot in mod pop. Yet the sheer attack that marks Zeppelin’s best work was already there. Jimmy Page’s guitar cuts loose at about the minute-and-a-half point, John Bonham’s intense drums drive the entire song. John Paul Jones does so much more than just anchor the song with his bass, while Robert Plant can’t help but sound like a man possessed once he hits his stride. Recorded in just 36 hours and produced by Page, Led Zeppelin built on the foundation of the British blues boom and took heavy blues-rock to the next level.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III have just arrived in their first-ever expanded editions, available in a plethora of formats from Rhino and Atlantic Records: 1-CD, 1-LP, 2-CD, 2-LP and 2-CD/2-LP box sets. These are among the most eagerly-awaited reissues of the compact disc era, and miraculously, both the remasterings and the previously unheard music live up to expectations. These decades-old recordings sound fresh and vividly crisp, with increased clarity, presence and detail, and pronounced stereo separation. Longtime fans are likely to be seized with the excitement of rediscovery at the classic albums in upgraded sound, but the 2-CD editions are also ideal primers for those exploring the band’s compact catalogue of just nine “core” albums for the first time. This first wave of reissues traces the early arc of the band from swaggering, upstart blues-rockers to metal pioneers to creators of an original sound all its own.
I: Your Time Is Gonna Come: Led Zeppelin I
Jones’ funereal organ introduced “Your Time is Gonna Come,” with Page on steel guitar. Like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” the song has the both the light and the dark sides of the band on display. It’s almost “hard folk” with a sing-along chorus and a pronounced soul influence. Just plain hard is the frenetically pulsating “Communication Breakdown,” a two-and-a-half minute nugget of fast and dirty proto-punk rock and roll. On the other end of the spectrum is the album’s longest track, “How Many More Times,” with its shifting jam reinvention of the bolero blueprint.
The storming, urgent “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was based on Anne Bredon’s folk song which also attracted the attention of folk heroines (Joan Baez), teen stars (Mark Wynter), San Francisco rockers (Quicksilver Messenger Service) and harmony pop bands (The Association). It took until the 1980s for Bredon to be credited, along with Page and Plant, for providing the basis of the Zeppelin transformation. “Babe” showed the band’s versatility, with passages of quiet beauty juxtaposed with rage and thunder. “Dazed and Confused” was written and recorded by Jake Holmes in 1967 but Zeppelin’s recording of the song with new lyrics and a modified melody was credited solely to Page. Following a 2012 settlement with Holmes, the credits on the new discs read, “Jimmy Page inspired by Jake Holmes.” Regardless of its authorship, “Dazed” is a furious showcase for Page’s bowed-guitar technique, with the band melding psychedelia with deep blues. The beguiling, short instrumental “Black Mountain Side,” featuring Indian drummer Viram Jasani, was inspired by a traditional song but followed the (uncredited) arrangement of folk artist Bert Jansch. Willie Dixon, on the other hand, received full credit for two covers on the album: the torrid twelve-bar blues-based “You Shook Me” (with turns for Jones on organ and Plant on harmonica) and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” inspired by the performance of bluesman Otis Rush.
Though Led Zeppelin was formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds, there could be no doubt after the release of Led Zeppelin I that the group had found a style far removed from that of the band in which Page once served. After the jump: more on Led Zeppelin II, III and beyond!
Released in the waning days of October 1969, Led Zeppelin II proved that the band’s debut was no one-off fluke. Like its predecessor, it was produced by Page and included both band originals and blues covers and adaptations. But the riff-based rock approach was honed even further. The heavy tracks were even heavier, and the overall effect was even more brutal. This is the album that spawned a thousand heavy metal imitators.
In the aggressive “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin had their first and only U.S. Top 10 single. Its success was likely a result of the insinuating riff, which would become one of the most famous in the rock canon. But its deconstruction of a basic blues with some of the most powerful power chords ever demonstrated Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham’s mastery of the form and hunger to move it forward. The album version upped the trippy quotient, with a lengthy, freeform jam mid-song. Today, “Whole Lotta Love” bears a credit for acknowledged Zeppelin influence Willie Dixon, having been influenced by his “You Need Love.” “The Lemon Song” was based on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” and though initial copies of the LP didn’t bear a credit for Wolf (real name: Chester Burnett), he’s been properly recognized since the early 1970s. Page savors each double entendre in the lyrics, with his bandmates matching them with fearlessly dirty playing.
“Heartbreaker” is second only to “Whole Lotta Love” in the Riff Dept., but the track is even more notable for Page’s unaccompanied, improvised, rapid-fire wail of a solo that still demands attention. It segues directly into another story of a no-good woman, “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” reportedly based on a groupie with whom the band had acquaintance. It’s been said that this track is among Page’s least favorite Zeppelin songs; while not groundbreaking, it fits seamlessly in the album sequence.
The spacey pop ballad “Thank You,” with blue-eyed soul courtesy of Plant and delicate organ work from Jones, indulged Zeppelin’s gentler side. It also marked a breakthrough for Plant as lyricist, as he tapped into emotion and poetry in his tribute to his wife Maureen. “What Is and What Should Never Be” is an atypical foray into a deep psych-pop vein. Plant’s literary interest in the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien inspired II’s other “light” track, “Ramble On,” which embellishes its folk roots with the feel of something lurking just underneath the surface. Jones’ melodic bass particularly shines on this track, as does Bonham’s soft percussion.
“Bonzo” gets his moment to shine via the obligatory drum solo on the instrumental “Moby Dick.” (Both “Moby Dick” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” make good use of stereo effects.) Although it frequently went much, much longer in concert, “Moby Dick” is a tight four-plus minutes in its album version. It segues into “Bring It On Home” – bookended by the Willie Dixon song of the same name (alas, originally uncredited) but mainly a Page/Plant blues-based original – to conclude the album. On the reissue, the track is credited in full to Dixon. Led Zeppelin II doesn’t end on nearly as dramatic or incendiary a note as it began, but the group certainly did bring it on home, and full circle.
With its machine gun riff from Page and Jones and Plant’s piercing banshee wail, “Immigrant Song” – the opening track of October 1970’s Led Zeppelin III – wouldn’t sonically have been out of place on one of its predecessors. But its lyrics – from the perspective of Viking travelers, referencing their conquests and religious beliefs – were far-removed from the blues cries of past. Zeppelin III heralded not just an extension of the band’s sound but a maturation of it, with Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham looking backwards and forwards to a more folk-based sound that was true to the group’s “heavy” roots but also embraced more acoustic textures. Inspired by a trip to Snowdonia (a region in North Wales) and the Bron-Y-Aur cottage there, the Page and Plant songwriting team delivered its most intricate work yet.
Side One of the original LP, from “Immigrant Song” to “Out on the Tiles,” featured some of Zeppelin’s most energetic songs, including the impressionistic and even funky declaration of reaching “the promised land,” “Celebration Day.” Any kind of unified concept is interrupted by the blues of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” a Page/Plant/Jones original inspired by past blues masters (“Since I’ve been loving you, baby/I’m gonna lose my worried mind”) and featuring Jones on Hammond organ (and its bass pedals) alongside some of Page’s most thrilling noodling and Bonham’s commanding, made-for-stereo drumming. The hypnotic, Eastern-tinged “Friends” featured prominent, cinematic strings and even, briefly, the Moog synthesizer, both handled with aplomb by the versatile Jones. “Out on the Tiles” concludes the “heavy” side of the LP with a blast of aggression, but the second side took an altogether different approach.
Page and Plant’s adaptation of the traditional “Gallows Pole” was far from typical Zeppelin material. Plant’s clear vocal cut sharply through acoustic guitar, with mandolin, pulsating electric bass, banjo and fiery drums adding to the tension. It wasn’t folk, and wasn’t rock, and wasn’t folk-rock in the sense with which that phrase is usually bandied about, but was a singular treatment from a band still eager to push the envelope musically. Jimmy Page’s solo composition “Tangerine” was, and is, one of the prettiest tracks Led Zeppelin ever recorded. Based on a song co-written by Page in his Yardbirds days, it’s a deliberately retro journey into memory, with twelve-string guitar, country-esque pedal steel, and harmonies (and a double-tracked vocal from Plant). Page’s electric solo added just the right touch of intensity to the song, perfectly sequenced to lead into “That’s the Way.” Written in Snowdonia, “That’s the Way” is sadly beautiful, with its melancholy lyric sung with restraint by Plant and its cascading guitars, gentle mandolin and tambourine – Zeppelin at its acoustic finest.
“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” conjures up images of a folk hoedown, with its acoustic guitars, double bass, spoons, castanets and the inevitable handclaps supporting Plant’s story of a beloved dog. Only Page and Plant appear on the album’s striking blues-folk mélange, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” The album’s closing track, this medley of various blues traditionals was dedicated to the folksinger whom the band befriended and influenced by Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White’s song “Shake ‘Em on Down,” to which the song explicitly refers. Led Zeppelin had mastered folk, blues and rock, and made an art of melding them.
All three “companion discs” for the first wave of reissues offer a host of additional material, all of which has never before been commercially released. And if you’ve heard any of this music (totaling 25 tracks across the three releases) before, you certainly haven’t heard it in this quality.
Led Zeppelin I’s bonus disc is the only one of the three to include live material rather than that from the studio. It officially premieres the band’s October 10, 1969 concert at Paris’ Olympia, which was broadcast in France on November 2 of that year. Though this performance has been bootlegged before, it’s restored to optimal quality here. There are fewer revelations here than on the later bonus discs, but as a “new” Zeppelin live album, it’s essential. Recorded less than two weeks before Led Zeppelin II arrived in stores, the concert features tracks from both I and II in raucous live renditions – with extra room for inspired jamming on the likes of “Dazed and Confused,” “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” and “Moby Dick.”
The companion discs for II and III play like alternate releases of the album, sequenced in album order but featuring unfamiliar versions of their familiar songs. Among the highlights of the bonus material for II: the May 21, 1969 take of “Heartbreaker” on which Page was still experimenting with the shape of his unaccompanied mid-song solo; and backing tracks for “Thank You,” “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” and “Moby Dick” (the latter in a short version from May 6). This June 25 version of “Thank You” brings Jones’ evocative organ to the fore, alternately bluesy and carnival-esque. An embryonic rough mix of “Whole Lotta Love” c. April 19, 1969 seemingly dates to before the title lyric was completed; based on the version here, the song would have likely been called “You Need Love.” Plant’s vocal is much looser than on the finished track, while the instrumental freak-out section is lengthier and trippier. Best of all – by virtue of its status as the most unexpected track here – is the jaunty “La La,” heard here in instrumental form. With prominent organ and scorching guitars, it’s catchy and surprisingly pop-oriented, which might have accounted for the decision to scrap it in 1969.
On the bonus disc for III, all of the original album’s tracks except “Tangerine” and “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” are represented with variant versions. “Out on the Tiles” is heard in an alternate instrumental version as “Bathroom Sound,” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is given an equally valid, refreshingly different electric-blues instrumental rendition as “Jennings Farm Blues.” The ballad “That’s the Way” is arguably even more haunting in this May 30, 1970 version with dulcimer and backwards echo adding atmosphere. The vocal-less track of “Friends” allows even more attention, naturally, to be paid to its intricate musicianship. The medley of blues standards “Key to the Highway” and “Trouble in Mind” (in the place of “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”) features, like “Harper,” just Page and Plant, jamming in perfect sync with one another from the session of June 10, 1970.
To longtime fans, the companion discs for II and III offer rare windows into the evolution of, and process behind, each song already ingrained in the listener’s head. But the tracks as selected by Page aren’t so rough or so unfinished that they’re unlistenable. Quite the contrary, the companion discs stand on their own.
Produced by Jimmy Page and remastered by John Davis under Page’s supervision, these meticulously curated and designed packages certainly feel like The Last Word on these albums. Though every possible addition isn’t here (such as the controversial single edits), the bonus material is choice. The 2-CD standard-sized digipaks honor and replicate the original artwork elements of the albums, including the Atlantic label design on the discs and the spinning-wheel insert on the cover of Led Zeppelin III. (The single-disc remasters are housed in larger mini-LP replica sleeves.) Sadly, the powers-that-be have opted to exclude any kind of liner notes, missing a great opportunity to put the music in historical perspective with the participation of the surviving band members. Those looking for additional visual content will have to seek out the hefty box sets, which include beautifully-designed hardcover books. These, too, lack liner notes but include reproductions of programs, articles and reviews among the memorabilia.
The “super deluxe” box sets feature the albums in the oversized paper sleeve replica editions, with double protection for the discs themselves. Though it’s questionable whether the boxes needed to include both CDs and LPs of both the original album and the companion disc (plus 96/24 high resolution stereo downloads on a card), the bells and whistles (the hardcover book, a numbered art print of the album cover, a sturdy box that’s ready for your shelf) might prove attractive enough to the diehard fan. Yes, the additional visual content is missed in the standard sets (especially given the lack of liner notes), but kudos go to the Zeppelin team for releasing all of the audio in these very affordable 2-CD editions.
Jimmy Page has set a high bar for the reissue of the band’s next six albums. One thing’s for sure, though – when the next batch is released (including the untitled album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV, with its little song entitled “Stairway to Heaven”), it will be another Celebration Day.
Led Zeppelin: Deluxe Edition (Atlantic/Swan Song, 2014)
Led Zeppelin II: Deluxe Edition (Atlantic/Swan Song, 2014)
Led Zeppelin III: Deluxe Edition (Atlantic/Swan Song, 2014)