Led Zeppelin’s early box set veils the band’s strengths

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin. Atlantic, 1990
The Byrds, The Byrds. Columbia, 1990
from: the Boston Phoenix, December 21, 1990

ALTHOUGH ITS WEAKNESS was the thematic long-form album concept, Led Zeppelin were never a singles band (they released singles only in the US). Guitarist and producer Jimmy Page’s studio sorcery was enhanced by the way he strung “album” tracks (a new idea) together into mixes that became larger arcs of sound and drew attention from the band’s main flaw: they didn’t really have many big thematic ideas. Theirs was the triumph of the aural disguised as the thoughtful. Even now, after years of Zep-bashing by the critics—and years of undiminished sales—it still doesn’t look like a bad trade-off. As cock rock goes, you can’t pack more wrecking-ball ballast than Jimmy Page’s chopper squadron of guitars, John Paul Jones’ incomparably inventive (and invisible) ground support, and John Bonham’s bottom-heavy drum patterns—he moved through songs like a wayward tank, firing at will.

But the new homonymous box set on Atlantic (four CDs, six LPs, four cassettes) turns the Zep’s mere sleight of hand into a Trojan-horse routine. It’s bad enough that what began as a fresh style of brazen, inventive aural assault has become heavy-metal cliché. Now a series of impeccably produced, path-breaking individual albums has become a bloated box, the product of holiday corporate bingeing.

As the supposedly authoritative map to Zep’s legend, this blockbuster killer-diller bombshell begs questions. What is the point to this stupendous, unforgettable, unassailable collection of work by rock’s most dinosaur-like dinosaur? How to divvy up 54 “album” classics, pack in a couple of unreleased goodies, and come off with a hype that lures consumers away from the original, and superior, ten albums already on CD? Or, more to the point—how to sustain your Zep jones through four CDs that undermine this band’s strengths rather than enriching them? The box does point up that the band’s glory days, their first four albums, came during two over-productive years of constant touring, 1969–71. This stretch is top-heavy with juggernauts—riffdom that would define rock radio for the next two decades.

But perhaps because of their swift, monolithic success, Zep garnered hosannas for all the wrong reasons. This band packs more than just a heady arsenal of titanic licks and Celtic blues braggadocio. In terms of rock history, they scored big points by indulging in Page’s loopy, futuristic mixes: the way Robert Plant chases his own double-tracked hyena yowls, or the way Page’s echoing guitar ripples from speaker to speaker. As future fans like Let’s Active’s Mitch Easter would declare, Page carried the production experiments of the ’60s into spacious arena-sized arrangements that would have made Jimi Hendrix salivate. And as Page has said, to go back and remix the whole pile of tracks would coop him up at the boards until the next century. But comparing Page’s spanking clean, newly mastered updates to the original CD releases doesn’t offer any blinding revelations in terms of sonic quality. Even on the less assaultive numbers, like Plant’s duet with Sandy Denny, “The Battle of Evermore,” the contrast between the original CD and this new one is minimal. Sure, the new sound is flawless, and there are some nuances that peek through that you’d miss on vinyl.

Led Zeppelin even turned the thumping they routinely took from critics into a kind of debauched pride. Now Zep get the last laugh by exposing their contempt for rock criticism via their own liner notes.

But spotless sound is not what made Led Zeppelin godlike to two generations of hormones. It was the bigness of the sound and Page’s drug-rush segues. Given that layout was one of the things that kept his scattered ideas afloat, you have to wonder why he insisted on trashing some of his—and rock’s—best album sequences. Right off the bat, you get “Whole Lotta Love,” from the second album, a tad sluggish for an opener but arguably a thumper that best displays their trademark lurch from high-wire overdrive to lunatic drum cadenza to lion-tamer guitar coda. From there, “Heartbreaker” springs the set into motion. But at the chopped-off end of the track, just as Robert Plant busts his gut, you crave the familiar release of “Living, Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman).” In Page’s new sequence, you get “Communication Breakdown.” It works, all right, but it feels like punting on a third down. When the debut album’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” fails to dovetail into “Black Mountain Side” (it nudges “Ramble On,” from Led Zeppelin II, instead), you come away thinking Page has lost touch with what made those original sequences work.

Before this becomes another critical diatribe against Zep’s stature, let’s get one thing clear. The argument over Led Zeppelin’s critical status is fun because they’re a band made up of musician’s musicians, and for that reason, their myth has always occupied a greater space in guitarists’, bassists’, drummers’, and (lastly) singers’ minds than it has critics’. And despite the critical carping, Zep’s musical stature is sizable. The band have taken their jaded time acknowledging their debt to Willie Dixon for “Whole Lotta Love” and to Bukka White for “In My Time of Dying,” and they have yet to own up to “Dazed and Confused” (San Francisco folkie Jake Holmes). This sloppy attitude toward blues heroes didn’t win any points with purists, but it was part of how Zep played their beautiful loser’s game, and the casual rip-off seemed truer to the outlaw spirit of the blues. These were virtuosos without a cause; they refused to be lumped in with all the other over-humble English blues acolytes, who sometimes worried the style to death instead of playing out its ideals of release and deathless humor.

Led Zeppelin even turned the thumping they routinely took from critics into a kind of debauched pride. Now Zep get the last laugh by exposing their contempt for rock criticism via their own liner notes. The booklet leads off with crusty veteran Cameron Crowe, who is reduced to drooling over such meaningless quotes as Page saying, “The whole search is for the unknown, we’re always looking…” Kurt Loder then covers a lot of the same background, writing as catatonically as he talks, and in maze-like sentences. Finally, Robert Palmer, the astute blues critic, chimes in and is generous enough without sounding absolutely craven. But aside from the criticism that still gets stuck in the band’s craw, Zep compromise themselves by glossing over several concerns—lyrics, first and foremost. Who the hell knows what “Stairway to Heaven” is about? “Who cares,” the multitudes yell back. Well, Zep for one. Even before it became a radio ritual, and then a bore, and then chore, they had dubbed it a mountainous classic, redolent of everything the band can do, yada yada yada. They act as if “All that glitters is not gold” were transcendent mythological symbolism. A “bustle in your hedgerow” is more like it.

It’s Plant’s overwrought singing that makes such bald philosophical vacuity finally laughable. To his credit, Plant understood the gift of self-depreciation (nobody who cakewalks his way out of the rocky 5/4 clomp that is “The Ocean” can be all bad). But Zep’s self-importance in interviews preceded and finally swamped what the music said better by itself. When you sound bloated and don’t have the requisite brain-heft to back it up, you simply sound bloated. Plus la change. Then, as now, sounding bloated was the same as sounding heavy, and Zep made sounding heavy seem heavy, and seeming was believing. What once blazed through the speakers as a torrent of proverbial “heavy metal thunder” has aged as near-brilliant calculation and effect. They sound better, more focused, on almost everything from Presence (1976) than they do on Physical Graffiti (1975). (On Graffiti’s “In the Light,” Jones’ keyboards sound like applied hardware.) And even though their intensity and commitment to their material is unmistakable, cleaning up an icon is thrilling only if it makes you hear it in a new way.

Compare this Zep job to the recent The Byrds box, another four-CD extravaganza. To begin with, Columbia was gracious enough to use previously unissued or out-of-print material for roughly one-third of their set, including Gram Parsons’ quietly commanding tribute to Woody Guthrie, “Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos).” And you can’t help stammering at the way these new mixes—atonement for years of poor Byrds CD sound—leap out at you, revealing not just craft but inspiration: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the vocal epiphany of its era, works out to be a duet, not a group sing. It makes Dylan’s dance of dialogue and enlightenment that much more of a metaphoric revelation. By comparison, the corporate box syndrome applied to Zep reeks of profit over substance, packaging over historical accuracy, trend over respect for style. How does Page justify omitting “Tea for One,” the gloomy close to Presence, while including the soggy “All of My Love,” a sop to current power-ballad convention? “The romance was great,” Robert Plant says in the liner notes, listening to the scratchy recording. “But… in real terms, Zeppelin is as competitive now as it was in 1980. So it should be heard right. What we did back then was always make sure it sounded good. For me, it’s timeless stuff and it needed a million-mile service.” Plant might as well say it’s time to polish up the Atlantic label’s hood ornament—metal looks better when it’s shiny. You can’t miss his meaning: Zep’s continuous success, and their forced reunion at Live Aid in 1985, has created a lot of new Atlantic stockholders to answer to. The band have become even more a corporate entity than a cultural emblem. Can anyone really claim that their influence on a vast market of dopy metallic braggarts has been positive?

True believers in this rube’s hoary Celtic brouhaha will find plenty of cavernous pockets of sound to get lost in during “Kashmir,” their vaguely Eastern bolero. And praise must be showered on them for omitting any inkling of The Song Remains the Same, their 1976 live debacle. But the rest of us are better off tracking down the CD catalog on the installment plan in used-record shops. Get a friend to tape “White Summer”/”Black Mountain Side,” a fine live Page solo with Bonham’s gentle accompaniment; “Travelling Riverside Blues,” a Robert Johnson tribute done up as a slide-guitar showboat (from a 1969 BBC broadcast); and “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” the B-side to “The Immigrant Song” single. Skip Page’s new merging of “Moby Dick” with “Bonzo’s Montreux.” The rest works better in its original context—as gleaming arcs of sound unfettered by boasting and apocalyptic hype. Don’t let this recycled Trojan horse, driven by accountants, through the gate.