Recently, I was treated to a two-hour preview of the new five-and-a-half-hour, two-DVD set entitled, simply, Led Zeppelin DVD. Led Zeppelin DVD represents the only substantial Zeppelin footage to be officially released outside of the 1973 concert footage used in the film The Song Remains the Same (1976), and it is, in fact, much more satisfying than that film.
With the help of Dick Caruthers, band member Jimmie Page produced this DVD package. A feast for the eyes and ears, this excellent package captures the evolution of the band and brings together footage of Zeppelin playing live and on television, all of it previously unreleased. The set consists primarily of excerpts from four well-known Zeppelin concerts. It also includes eight live performances from other sources and a few interview clips.
The first (and best) segment of the two-disc set is an entire Zeppelin concert from 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall, which comprises most of the first disc. The band, barely a year old at that time, had just released its second album, Led Zeppelin II.
Seeing and hearing the early Zeppelin perform on stage, I finally understand why the band so deserved its name. Playing together, guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones were heavy like metal but nimble enough to fly like a blimp. The live versions of “We’re Gonna Groove,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Bring It On Home,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” simply blow the studio versions away. Metal truly was born on the backs of this band, and this collection, especially the RAH concert, makes that clear. The power and complexity of these performances is so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to believe there are only four performers.
The second disc includes a four-song sequence culled from the same 1973 Madison Square Garden performances that served as the source for The Song Remains The Same. However, none of the footage here appeared in that film. Shot in 35 millimeter, these performances look and sound much more polished than those from the Royal Albert Hall show, and by ‘73, the frumpy, hippie clothes worn by the band in ‘69 had given way to flashy embroidered shirts and flared pants. The band had moved away from its roots as pure interpreters of the blues and moved into its prime as the leading progenitors of the bigger-than-huge sound of heavy metal.
Thankfully, the Madison Square Garden clips on Led Zeppelin DVD are not disrupted by the fictional vignettes that marred The Song Remains The Same, and the focus remains on the band’s performances. Here, a masterfully edited clip of “Misty Mountain Hop,” powered by John Paul Jones’ melodic organ work, artfully exposes the high level of communication between the band members. During “The Ocean,” Page displays total control of his instrument and complete command of the stage as he trades funky licks with Bonham, who, surprisingly, grabs a microphone to harmonize with Plant.
Nearly an hour of footage of Zeppelin’s headlining performance at Knebworth in 1979 rounds out the two DVD set. Here, the band sounds and looks even more polished than in the mid-‘70s. Adjusting to the ascendancy of New Wave, Zeppelin makes use of synthesizers and wears clean-cut clothing, looking almost like a bunch of preppies. In certain respects, by this time the group has lost its bite, sounding almost tired as it plays hits from years before. On the other hand, the energy of the massive crowd at Knebworth and the Zeppelin’s forcefulness on certain excellent tracks cuts through the band’s new, slick facade. Second only to “Stairway to Heaven” in its distinctiveness, significance, and influence, the Eastern-tinged epic “Kashmir” here becomes even more mystical than on record. During “Whole Lotta Love,” Plant engages in a deafening call-and-response with the hundreds of thousands in attendance; slick maybe, past their prime, no.
Visually, the Knebworth footage is most striking in that the band is captured by a number of cameras, from every conceivable angle. Page and Caruthers create a neat effect by toggling between grainy footage of the concert shot by fans in the crowd and the crisp footage that was projected on a giant screen behind the band as it played. At the end of the Knebworth concert, after singing “Whole Lotta Love,” Plant thanks the crowd for its eleven years of support, as if he was about to announce the demise of the band, the end of its evolution. He was unaware, of course, that the band would indeed dissolve little more than a year later, as a result of Bonham’s untimely death.
Led Zeppelin DVD seems to be another way that the band is thanking its fans. As Page commented recently, Zeppelin was never much of a pop band: it was despised by critics, rarely released singles, and nearly never appeared on TV. Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham focused on cutting albums and playing live for their fans. More than five hours of great performance footage, this new set is a gift to those fans, one that lets them see and hear what Zeppelin was all about.