There are no obvious answers, and the song remains the same
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
There were more than a couple of days in the past week that felt especially rough. Walk down the street and to the train, and there are more than a few folks silently dragging themselves to work.
I certainly didn’t know what to do. And I wasn’t actively looking for an answer, either. I just wanted to feel normal and escape for little chunks of time.
So I did what I typically do in these situations. I pulled out my headphones and scrolled through for something familiar and good, something that at least reminded me that life goes on and things will be okay, even if the music within doesn’t necessarily ever say that.
And I wound up on The Song Remains the Same, Led Zeppelin’s often maligned 1976 live album. It’s long and self-indulgent and it was exactly what I needed to start feeling human again.
The Song Remains the Same first appeared to me towards the latter half of my initial high school Zeppelin immersion — after all nine studio albums were firmly in hand, and before BBC Sessions and any number of bootlegs began to line my shelves. The initial appeal was, simply, in hearing the band live beyond the quick clips VH1 had offered up in their specials. And just in scanning the back of the double CD box, it looked more than promising. “Stairway to Heaven,” “No Quarter” and “Whole Lotta Love” all promised to top 10 minutes and “Dazed and Confused” clocked in at an incomprehensible 26:52. This was clearly a document that was begging to be experienced and studied, broken down to its finer components and then left to play through infinity on my CD player.
It didn’t quite happen like that. The album wasn’t terrible, it was just fine. I certainly didn’t dislike it, and there were more than one Saturday afternoon spent lying on the living room floor listening to the entirety of “Dazed and Confused” as some sort of endurance test. But nothing in the Zeppelin catalog had been merely “okay” to that point, which was confusing in and of itself. Soon enough, BBC Sessions eclipsed The Song Remains the Same as a superior album, and quickly filled my live Zeppelin fix whenever I needed.
Getting into bootlegs further cemented the widely held opinion that The Song Remains the Same was a missed opportunity. The then-unreleased versions of “Black Dog,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Misty Mountain Hop” from those same New York City shows alone felt superior. When my friends and I started getting our hands on live tapes from Los Angeles in 1977, London in 1975 and San Francisco 1969, those feelings only multiplied. This was a band that killed night after night. Why wasn’t The Song Remains the Same better?
There were a number of reasons, but the easiest to point to is that the album was something of an afterthought while production on the film to which it was tied dragged on over-budget and past its due date. Limitations and some natural human frustration later, and the results were available for all to hear.
Happily, this was all corrected about a decade ago. The band totally revamped The Song Remains the Same in 2007, bumping the running order up from nine songs to the full 15-song setlist. But beyond just adding songs, the sound on each track was meticulously revamped by Jimmy Page and engineer Kevin Shirley, and suddenly, the live album I was so desperate for in high school existed.
Having both versions in my library now makes for quick and easy comparisons of the two versions of The Song Remains the Same, and in stacking them up, there is no comparison. Where the 1976 version sounded distant and too-many-steps-removed from the thrill of being in the crowd, the 2007 edition is warm and immediate. The remixing and varied performances makes for a live album nearly as wonderfully monstrous as How the West Was Won. Unlike that album, which drew from California shows in 1972, here the band was confined to a specific three-night stand at Madison Square Garden. But there was clearly much more greatness available than they initially let on.
Beyond the added songs and the varied track lengths (“Dazed and Confused” somehow picks up another three minutes), it’s all blindingly obvious on the opening “Rock and Roll.” The original was tinny and there were clear mistakes in the solo and vocal performance — which is incredible, considering the original live recordings were supposedly doctored to remove any such glitches.
Now, going back to the source tapes and re-crafting the New York City set, there’s a life that wasn’t present on the original vinyl, and certainly not on the double CD I bought in the late 1990s. The listener sits in the middle of John Bonham’s drum kit, John Paul Jones holds down the bottom end, Robert Plant’s vocal is crisp and Page’s solo sounds blistering instead of muffed. Even the way the song flies into “Celebration Day” sounds more natural and exciting.
A trio of songs from Houses of the Holy may make up the most impressive chunk of the record. It begins with the searing doom of “No Quarter,” which sounds haunting even in its arena setting. Jones’ organ starts low and slowly winds its way through the crowd before the sky bursts through Page’s guitar. Suddenly, the listener is immersed in more than 10 minutes of dark, unsettled beauty. Catharsis comes through “The Song Remains the Same,” which sounds even faster than its breakneck speed thanks to this juxtaposition. And the band glides back to earth on “The Rain Song,” which begins gracefully and ends as powerfully as any song in this band’s mighty catalog.
The three songs don’t just serve as a brilliant example on what makes the new version of this album so powerful, they could easily stand as a complete primer on everything that made Led Zeppelin great. Daring song structures, mystical and cinematic lyrics, gifted musicianship and all channeled with a level of power that has never quite been matched. It’s as confident as it is daring, and it makes for a thrilling listen.
This has not been a good week. For all the talk of “life doesn’t change” or “it won’t be that bad,” the results of our new political reality are, at best, disheartening. Think about it too much and it becomes all the worse, assuming there’s any conscience there at all.
A lot of people woke up this week stunned and sickened and a more than a little confused on what to do next. And there’s a lot we all have to do, as long as we’re still of the mindset that the message that dropped a bigoted, orange bomb on our nation is a bad one.
This is not an excuse to play the “woe is me” card and do nothing to better our current situation. But for a couple of days there, things seemed hopeless. So I looked to an old friend who didn’t really have anything to say about life in 2016 or race relations or the continuing marginalization of anyone who isn’t a pissed-off white dude. Led Zeppelin is a band that at once makes me feel 17 and 34, that reminds me of everything I looked forward to as a kid and of musical ferocity that still inspires me today. It’s not political and it’s not dire, it’s just good. I needed something good.
I didn’t pick up the remastered The Song Remains the Same right away. It took a couple of years before I decided, why not, I’ll give this album another shot. I was immediately floored by the results, and it was obvious that I had a new stalwart in my collection. This was the album I wanted in high school and it would be there when I needed it.
I needed it this week. The Song Remains the Same still isn’t as perfect as my imagination says it should be, and four English guys with less-than-sterling reputations don’t have the solution, but it’s as comforting and non-judgmental as anything I could listen to. For the past few days, when I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts, I’ve called up these songs and let them swirl around in my headphones. Frantic as the music may be, it was calming and healing. There’s always a chance to right our wrongs. And the work comes next.
November 14, 2016
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com