From the abyss: Rediscovering the mighty Zeppelin
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
This is a tale of growing up.
In a mystical musical journey that has taken me through several bands and sapped many a dollar from my meager bank account, Led Zeppelin came at a critical point in my development. I was in high school and was fed up with the pathetic modern (read: mainstream) rock scene of the mid and late 1990s. This sent me back to the past in backlash, and I began to discover bands other than the Beatles. This included the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Who, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, among many, many others. At the time, though, one mammoth band rose above the rest fairly quickly — The Zeppelin. Loud, brash, thundering, punishing, brilliant, they were everything I had been looking for. I picked up every album on CD, and, eventually, vinyl. Posters covered my room. All mix-tapes had a three-Zeppelin-song minimum for a good four years. I was, likely, very annoying to everyone I knew.
And then, one day, around age 20 or so, it ended, and with a thud. There was very little ceremony involved in the realization that I couldn’t stand this band — or any band, for that matter — who exhibited this much pompous attitude. The Clash were right when they said that the site of a Zeppelin album was enough to make them want to puke. The overblown nature of the band had worn on me, to say the least. So much so, that by the time their first real live album, How The West Was Won, was originally released in 2003, I was in the midst of a full Zeppelin backlash. I may have never been more sick of a band — Jimmy Page’s guitar antics made me want to vomit, Plant’s wailing was grating at best, and, damn it, for the last time, John Bonham was not as good as Keith Moon! The over-the-top grandeur of the band had worn thin, and that was especially true of their live show.
It wasn’t easy giving up on them, though. There was a lot of history there, and I wasn’t ready to let go entirely. The live Led Zeppelin DVD was released simultaneously as the triple-disc live set, and I invested my money in that instead. What did I find within those two DVDs? More Page guitar noodling, more mindless volume, more of the stuff I was sick of. I packed it up, put it on my shelf, and refused to watch it until only very recently. I decried the band’s ability live, calling this and How The West Was Won self-indulgent piles of crap that weren’t worth listening to.
And, in case it needs to be spelled out, I didn’t bother to listen to How The West Was Won.
My Led Zeppelin revival has taken place slowly but surely through the past 12 months. It began earnestly, with listening to random tracks and once again including them in mix CDs, playlists and the like. Realizing the power of songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Communication Breakdown” was the first step in recalling what drew me to the band in the first place.
In a very random fit, I threw the second disc from BBC Sessions on while I worked one night, and I was blown away. The sheer power of the band at that time, with Plant and Page roaring while John Paul Jones thumped away knocked me down all over again. To be sure, the bass sound on that album is jaw-dropping. I listened to it about 46 or 47 more times before finally deciding that, yes, Zeppelin ruled once again. The studio albums got their respective spins, and it was finally time to give How the West Was Won a chance.
Oh, how my ears still ring, buzz and burn.
All Music Guide will tell you that this record fills the only gap in Zeppelin’s catalogue, the truly killer live album, and they won’t be lying. This album, capturing the band in California in 1972 just before Houses of the Holy was released, is an aural assault of the grandest form. This record is just punishing. From the opening blast of “Immigrant Song” through the roadhouse romp of “Bring It On Home,” it never lets up. All the indulgences that had sunk my love of the band are here, but finally exciting and fresh.
Take “Dazed and Confused,” which kicks off the second disc. On The Song Remains The Same, this track plods its way to the finish line. Here? It burns. The light-to-dark guitar motifs, Plant’s improvisations and Jones’ bass join together to create a mighty rumble, while switching in and out of early versions of “Walter’s Walk” and “The Crunge” keep things fresh. The former live version was more a test of endurance; anytime myself or one of my friends were able to get through the entire half hour, we were sure to note the feat the next day in class.
The entire set shows Zeppelin’s confidence in spades. Just looking at the track lengths on this thing: “Dazed” clocks in at 25:25, “Whole Lotta Love” runs 23:07, while “Bring It On Home” and “Stairway To Heaven” both top nine minutes. Most extreme of all, “Moby Dick,” John Bonham’s drum showcase, is 19:23 long. The last two discs contain four songs each and are each packed to the rafters. Zeppelin may have displayed a flair for the minute details in the studio, but that’s totally gone here. Live, bigger was better and more was more. No one else could ever pull any of this off, yet plenty of bands have tried. For the sake of all of us, stop. This was a once-in-a-century situation, where a band could get away with indulging in its whims so blatantly. All the hard rock and metal bands that followed in their wake can’t do it. All the jam bands of the past two decades couldn’t match this constant intensity. The days of the long, long, long song and jam should have just ceased here. It won’t ever be topped.
Hell, if nothing else, How The West Was Won might serve as the greatest example of why the band should never reunite. Recent rumors have the band coming back together to coincide with the release of the greatest hits set The Mothership and the re-release of The Song Remains The Same, but this mighty live album serves as the biggest example of why any reunion would be a disappointment: there’s simply no way they could ever come close to matching this. The band on display here is the band remembered in legend: the powerful, swaggering group that raised the hammer of the gods and lowered it down upon every high school and college student in the 1970s. They were the pinnacle of hard rock, leaving thousands of imitators in their wake.
Now? Jimmy Page is 64 years old. Robert Plant is older and his voice is a completely different animal — it would be physically impossible for him to do these songs justice. And while the idea of having Jason Bonham fill in for his father is intriguing, he’s still not Bonzo. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that.
Led Zeppelin was defined by youth, mystique and power. On How The West Was Won, all of that and more is on display. It’s a document of one of the greatest bands to ever walk the Earth at their absolute peak. It’s brash, defiant and triumphant. And it brought an old friend back into my life. So, hello, Jimmy, Robert, John Paul and Bonzo. I’ve found the bridge. “Black Dog” blares out of my car stereo once more, and I’m back to longing for a 1970s high school education. It’s been a while, but it feels nice to bring it on home one more time.
August 17, 2007