[13 December 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For those of us either too young to have seen Led Zeppelin perform in person or without access to the many bootleg recordings floating around, our introduction to the live Zeppelin experience was the 1976 film The Song Remains the Same. While the visual impact of the band was formidable, the preening, hiphuggered Robert Plant in full Golden God mode, Jimmy Page sporting his Les Paul and SG Double Neck, the burly John Bonham delivering thunderous beats, and the understated, professional-looking John Paul Jones anchoring it all on bass and keyboards, the sound left a bit to be desired. Not that these guys were incapable of sending chills down our spines, as on the blues-drenched ballad “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and the (literally) incendiary finale “Whole Lotta Love”, but the overall impact of the music was more clunky than awe-inspiring, the soundtrack often out of sync with the sloppily edited film footage. Couple that with the fact that the actual movie was a gargantuan mess, part docudrama, part concert film, part pretentious wankery, and the whole experience ended up feeling rather hollow.
The Song Remains the Same album didn’t exactly help matters. Not only did the overall mix by Page and Eddie Kramer sound tepid and stale, but it was more of an assemblage than an actual live album. Recorded during a three night stint at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1973, the “soundtrack album” (aptly playing down the “live album” tag) had Page audaciously attempting to improve on the performances by splicing together bits and pieces from different shows into the same songs. Admittedly, Page did a terrific job on the double LP, the alterations virtually undetectable by casual listeners, but no matter how cleverly it was pieced together, much of the album lacked the kind of punch we were hoping for.
The bloated nature of The Song Remains the Same made 1997’s ferocious BBC Sessions and 2003’s How the West Was Won and Led Zeppelin DVD such revelations for many. Recorded at two shows in 1972, the three-disc How the West Was Won was especially a scorcher, the band sounding like the world conquerors they were purported to be. The collaboration with Kevin Shirley, who provided stunning mixes for both the CD and the DVD, was obviously too good a pairing for Page not to try another project, so the two reconvened in 2007, this time to give the much beleaguered The Song Remains the Same a thorough spit and polish. While the remastered, expanded product still does not come close to How the West Was Won, it’s nevertheless a significant improvement over the original album.
What fans will notice immediately is the inclusion of six additional songs that were left out, as well as the differing lengths of the other songs compared to the original tracks. While no details about each of the album’s tracks are given (though the Garden Tapes website will likely figure that out for us before long), the album has been assembled to reflect the full set of the July 28, 1973 performance (save for encore “The Ocean”, which is tacked onto the end of the first disc). What hits us immediately, though, is Shirley’s superb mix, which has more of a live feel to it, the crowd mixed a little higher and Jones’s bass sounding much more prominent than before.
Unlike West, which explodes out of the gate with “Immigrant Song”, the 1973 performances clearly show a band that sounds exhausted, and in spite of the punchier mix, it doesn’t change the fact that it takes a while for these guys to get going. “Rock and Roll” is one of the greatest opening tracks in rock ‘n’ roll history, but you can’t tell it from the lugubrious, stilted performance here, Bonham not so much propelling the song as pulling it back with his lugubrious backbeat, Page not sounding as nimble as he usually does, and Plant singing an octave lower, likely the aftereffects of throat surgery earlier that year. “Black Dog” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” plod along, the latter paling in comparison to the How the West Was Won version, but it’s not long before things pick up, as on “Misty Mountain Hop”, which has the band finally finding its trademark swagger.
Ironically, it’s not the short rockers that make this album worthwhile, as the more moody epics dominate the majority of the set, showcasing the band’s versatility, not to mention audacity. They were rock royalty and they knew it, and the longer tracks project the kind of bloated grandeur that added to the larger than life mystique to some, and sounded like mere tossing off to others. The previously unreleased “Since I’ve Been Loving You” features brilliant interplay between Page and Plant and “The Rain Song” is gorgeous and grandiose, while the murky “No Quarter” takes the chilly mood of the Houses of the Holy original and amplifies it a hundredfold, Bonham’s flange-tinged cymbal crashes and Page’s wah-wah pedal adding to the atmosphere. Mercifully, Bonham’s solo during “Moby Dick” is kept to its edited 11 minute length (we don’t ever need to hear a half hour drum solo, no matter how great the drummer), but it’s dwarfed by the centerpiece “Dazed and Confused”, which famously carries on for nearly half an hour. The song tests our patience, but for all the gimmicks (mainly Page’s extended bowed guitar solo), it’s a surprisingly structured opus that plays up the rock theatrics especially well, a snapshot of 1970s dinosaur rock at its most excessive.
Bloated, tired, excessive, or downright god-like, however you want to describe Led Zeppelin during this period of their career, the power of The Song Remains the Same‘s version of “Stairway to Heaven” is undeniable, the concert staple highlighted by an inspired extended solo by Page. Shirley’s mix helps things tremendously, especially during the song’s climactic final third, those famous double-mirror images from the film of Page and his double-necked SG forever ingrained in our minds, the song careening towards its euphoric, exhausted conclusion. The album might not be the essential Zeppelin live document, but this expanded version is still a worthwhile glimpse at a key moment in the band’s storied career.