Given the massive impact they ultimately had on the formation of modern hard rock and metal, it’s often forgotten that at their heart, Led Zeppelin was a British blues rock band. Recording and releasing their first two albums within a 12-month span in 1969, their initial approach was deeply rooted in the heavy blues rock sound that came about in the wake of Cream and their myriad offspring. This isn’t to shortchange Zeppelin’s status by any means; rather it’s to provide contextualization for the environment from which they sprang. Everyone knows the story of the group’s formation under the auspices of being the “New Yardbirds” and believed to go over like a lead balloon (hence the name), but the sheer ferocity with which they approached heavy electric blues on these early recordings quickly pushed the group’s origins to the backburner. In this, they trumped their peers, pushing the volume and intensity to new levels while still remaining largely true to their American blues roots.
On the recently remastered and expanded edition of the group’s BBC sessions, the number of blues songs far outweigh the heavier material for which they would ultimately become better known. While the band’s originals are indeed scattered throughout, these sessions lean heavily on the work of bluesmen Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, so much so that the first disc starts off not with any Zeppelin originals, but two Dixon cuts, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe”. These two songs, in particular, were so emblematic of the early Zeppelin sound that they each crop up three separate times across the collection’s three discs.
Originally released in 1997 as a two-disc set, BBC Sessions afforded a glimpse into the band in their earliest days. Not only did it feature the bulk of the material coming from the group’s first two albums, but it also featured the rare, unrecorded Zeppelin tune “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair” – perhaps the epitome of blues rock as it borrows from both Dixon and Johnson, as well as “Sleepy” John Estes. Supplementing the original collection with a third disc, the real draw here will again be the presence of rare material. Jimmy Page’s “White Summer” and another blues amalgam here called “Sunshine Woman” make their first official appearance on disc, making the album somewhat essential for diehard Zeppelin fans.
But seeing as how the first two discs had already been on the market for two decades, the fact that the collection remains the same only with a bonus disc of material feels like something of a bait and switch. Sure, the whole collection has been remastered from the original 1997 compilation, but there’s nothing else on a full two-thirds of the collection to warrant the need for those who already own the original collection. In fact, it would have been far more considerate to fans to offer the third disc as a standalone. Regardless, The Complete BBC Sessions is an essential entry for any and all Led Zeppelin fans.
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Featuring well over three hours of scorching performances from a group who would come to personify hard rock in the ‘70s, The Complete BBC Sessions serves as not only a fan’s dream, but also an ideal entry point for those just familiarizing themselves with the band. And while these individuals may well be few and far between, it contains all of the band’s best material in an energized setting, the late-‘70s malaise and excessive drug and alcohol abuse still some years from setting in. In essence, this is how the band can and should be remembered; so explosive are these performances that they trump nearly anything on the band’s live album, The Song Remains the Same.
And while there is a fair amount of repetition throughout, it’s nonetheless interesting to hear the evolution of each. “You Shook Me”, in particular, doubles in length by the time it appears again near the end of the first disc, the band stretching out like never before and allowing the song to unfurl in a slow, brooding simmer. On the collection’s second disc, “Dazed and Confused” nearly reaches the 19-minute mark, with Jimmy Page’s guitar delivering a host of tricks for which he would become one of the decade’s reigning guitar gods. Here, too, it should be noted that Robert Plant’s voice carries an unprecedented level of emotion and range. He proves that, while subtle tricks might have been employed in the studio, he was just as capable of carrying these songs in a live setting.
Though nothing beyond the band’s first four iconic albums appears here, it still serves as an ideal primer for one of the biggest bands of all time, firing on all cylinders and reveling in their prime. From “Communication Breakdown” to “Stairway to Heaven”, nearly all the hits are here, making The Complete BBC Sessions a de facto greatest hits collection. New to Zeppelin? Start here. A longtime fan of the band? You don’t need to be told twice to check this collection out.
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