‘How the West Was Won’ Captures Led Zeppelin at Their Magical Peak

If the Valkyries deliver you to Valhalla, these are the songs the gods will sing inside.

How the West Was Won
Led Zeppelin
23 March 2018

During Led Zeppelin’s active career fans had to make do with a single official live release, The Song Remains the Same (1976) sourced from three nights in 1973 at Madison Square Garden. Reception has always been mixed, though a 2007 rerelease improved the sound quality and expanded the track list by six songs. Since the band’s official break up in 1980 after John Bonham’s death, other live releases have been released.

BBC Sessions appeared in 1997 and showcases material from four 1969 BBC sessions and a 1971 concert (a third disc of 1969 sessions surfaced in 2016). Though some of the same songs appear multiple times, fans greeted BBC with greater enthusiasm. The video-only Led Zeppelin offers the greatest chronological variety of material with live performances spanning 1969-1979. Celebration Day documents Led Zeppelin’s last—and quite possibly final—concert in 2007 (Jason Bonham fills in for his father John on drums). Glimpses of brilliant power are obvious, but the peak has passed. A 2014 bonus disc with the latest Led Zeppelin I remaster includes eight songs from a 1969 concert.

Contained between these layers is How the West Was Won. First released in 2003, it brings together two June 1972 shows from California. What sets it apart from the other live releases is that while they capture Led Zeppelin before or after their peak, West captures them at their magical peak.

Several of the tracks become extended jams and showcase Led Zeppelin’s improvisational abilities. “Dazed and Confused” stretches to over 25 glorious minutes. “Moby Dick” reaches almost 20 minutes. “Whole Lotta Love” grows into a 21-minute medley encompassing “Boogie Chillun”, “Let’s Have a Party”, and “Going Down Slow”. In a larger historical context, these lengthy tracks help us to understand why punk rock’s trim and slim songs were so revolutionary, especially when juxtaposed against gargantuan songs some saw as examples of bloat, excess, and extravagance. Think about reading William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” directly after T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or watching The Blair Witch Project right after Titanic. Tracks such as “Immigrant Song” and “Rock and Roll” come in under four minutes and show Led Zeppelin can also make a powerful statement quickly.

Unfortunately, tracks omitted from the 2003 version such as “Communication Breakdown”, “Thank You”, and perhaps most importantly, “Tangerine” are still absent from this latest version. Odder still is the mysterious removal of the two-minute “Hello Marylou” section from “Whole Lotta Love”. No, perhaps it’s not essential, but it is part of the original version and sounds fine. If we aren’t going to get new tracks at least don’t deprive us of what was already there. Since there are no new tracks, listeners will have to decide if the 2018 rerelease merits a purchase for the sake of completion, curiosity, or the possibility of improved sound quality—unlike the first version of The Song Remains the Same, the original version of How the West Was Won already sounded quite good. Still, it won’t be too hard to justify having a second copy of this.

How the West Was Won is a great introduction to not only Led Zeppelin but also to live albums and to rock music. Jimmy Page, guitarist and keeper of the flame for Led Zeppelin, has made no secret of the extensive work, editing, and other servicing that has been performed on the original tapes to present Led Zeppelin at their strongest. Sometimes live albums sound so live that they don’t sound good, clear, and tight, and sometimes they sound so good, so perfect, so sterile, that they don’t sound live. How the West Was Won strikes exactly the right balance between sounding good and sounding live.

Anything can still surface at any time. For example, Page has promised the delivery of unheard material for the band’s 50th anniversary; some of that could be live. For now and maybe for all time, How the West Was Won remains the mark to beat.

If the Valkyries deliver you to Valhalla, these are the songs the gods will sing inside.

RATING 9 / 10