What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces

With the exception of the Beatles, no other band has loomed quite so large as Led Zeppelin, to the extent that we’ll never run out of things to say: good, bad and great.
Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin I, II, III (Deluxe CD Editions)

He shamelessly utilized other artists’ work, didn’t bother to acknowledge the source material most of the time, became famous, influential and wealthy, is celebrated years later as a creative force without peer, is, in fact, synonymous with an entire genre. Undeniably a mercenary, a self-promoter, he was possibly in league with the devil.

I’m talking, of course, about William Shakespeare.

But, seriously. I can also talk about the ink—and crocodile tears—spilled cataloging the sins of the generation-spanning iconoclast who allegedly has taken all kinds of freedom with hymns, poems, blues songs, all while scoffing at the mere intimation of plagiarism.

But enough about Bob Dylan.

This picture of plagiarizers is clear enough now, I hope.

Talking about Led Zeppelin is never uncomplicated. But in 2014, with lawsuits (however unpersuasive) in the news, and the Internet making it easier than ever to understand –and hear– the instances where Zep was less than scrupulous about crediting some of their predecessors, whose songs they purloined or improved upon (depending on one’s perspective), it’s at once an ideal and odd time to reassess this great band’s first three albums.

They are here, in remastered form (yawn?), but for the first time since the two-part box sets in the early ‘90s, sporting previously unheard material (woah!). As is the case with so many classic acts who are in the semi-regular routine of recycling their back catalogs under the guise of ever-improved sound, this latest round is available via modest—and reasonably priced—reissues and deluxe multi-disc monstrosities.

Let the verdict be succinct and unambiguous: the sound quality is astonishing. If you are still rocking the now-ancient first edition CD releases (which would make you, like this writer, ancient), the first two albums in particular have desperately needed a sonic overhaul that these issues deliver: you can almost taste the lemon juice running down Robert Plant’s legs. Say this about Jimmy Page: in addition to his incontestable guitar skills, he was also a first-rate producer; if new technology enables increased fidelity, who are we to argue? Each “deluxe edition” features two discs; one with a remastered original and a bonus disc with the aforementioned “new” material. These are as no-brainer as it gets for casual fans and especially fanatics.

About the previously unavailable stuff. Who, exactly, needs bonus tracks with isolated vocals on songs like “Ramble On”? Everyone and anyone, obviously. If you are hardcore or have a cursory interest in the history of rock and/or the genesis of riffs repeated and ripped off so many times they seem artificial themselves, this is all very necessary. The question will arise: is there even more material in the vaults? Undoubtedly. But for now, this is fresh Zeppelin. Any Zeppelin is good Zeppelin; previously unavailable Zeppelin, regardless of quality or novelty, is priceless in its own way.

Your mileage, obviously, will vary. You can, for instance, experience “Friends” as an instrumental track, or “Since I’ve Been Loving You” a first draft of the eventual tour de force; you can also hear “Whole Lotta Love” with isolated vocals and guitar(s!) which is not unlike being inside the studio to marvel at how these Gospels got written and recorded. It’s probably worth the time and money to hear “La La”, which features the band jamming not quite aimlessly, but in a way that will make aficionados appreciate the ways some of these snippets and formulations resurfaced on later tracks.

The first album’s bonus disc is a live set recorded in Paris during their ’69 tour. Like the bonus tracks on the other two discs, some of the material has been bootlegged or available online, but now it’s finally, properly presented in official form. Again, as a curiosity, this is all worthwhile; for anyone who has spent decades worshipping at the altar of the Golden Gods, this is like India Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant.

On Led Zeppelin II the bonus tracks are variations on works-in-progress or “rough mixes with vocal”; on Led Zeppelin III there’s more of the same, only more so. The rough mix, for instance, of “That’s The Way” reveals what a technician Page was: the multi-tracked acoustic guitars and mandolin are clear and lively and we can appreciate the augmented—and wistful—feelings the subsequent slide guitar brought to the proceedings. Like many of Zeppelin’s more subdued tracks, it is deceptively simple; even on these restrained outings, Page was a gentle, astute stickler for detail.

A few words, of course, are necessary to put this material, particularly the first album, in better perspective, four and a half decades after its release. For starters, Led Zeppelin is not a debut album; it’s not even merely a revelation. It’s a reckoning, a realignment: things were simply never the same and audiences owe a perpetual debt for all that came after –including the ugly and unlistenable imitators.

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, cynical, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums, especially the first one, the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim (made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair) has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable, and indefensible, out of the way right up front. On the debut album, more than half the songs are borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from old blues legends; they used Joan Baez’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as a launching pad for their soon-to-be-patented (and, ironically, imitated) soft/heavy sensibility. “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” were initially claimed to be original compositions, but the band at least had the sense to not even attempt denying Willie Dixon full credit for both “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

While the band can (and must) be castigated for being too rapacious to do the right thing regarding royalties (until legally compelled to do so), there is a significant disparity between being brazen and being uninspired. To be certain, all of this original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on. Put another way, Zep’s remakes have an originality and élan that the songs British Invasion bands covered largely lack.

True, those earlier bands gave credit where credit was due, but their motives, ironically, were arguably less benign. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name two, were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating sources like Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell into their arsenal, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put yet another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles, unlike, say, the saccharin and opportunistic covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Put still another way, if I want to hear classic blues reimagined, give me Mr. Plant over Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Jagger.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of proper attribution, it could be—and probably never convincingly has been—argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work by anyone not named Eric Clapton to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the early ‘70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they loved this music, they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies.

So, after the shame and all the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influence and they have been repaid, indelibly and perhaps karmically, being copied by thousands of eager, inferior mediocrities. When it comes to art that matters, there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, those that came before them. These touchstones can, and should, become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin to (insert every ‘70s and ‘80s band here) to The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

In the final analysis, what really matters? The music that endures seldom needs anyone to describe or defend it. With the exception of The Beatles, no other band has loomed quite as large, to the extent that we’ll never have enough accolades. There are a limited number of bands that provide a blueprint for how to do it, even if everyone acknowledges there is no conceivable way it could ever be duplicated, much less surpassed. The first three Led Zeppelin albums are as sui generis as any documents in modern rock, and the dust will never settle because their impact can’t be exhausted and we’ll never cease to wonder how they happened in the first place.