Since Christmas is coming, let’s take a consumer-centric view of the latest reissue of Led Zeppelin material. If we can trust the word of the Cult’s Ian “Wolf Child” Astbury, then 2008 might be the year Led Zeppelin, the one-time biggest band in the world, takes America all over again.
If so, 2007 will be seen to have been a year of astute preparation almost worthy of the late Peter Grant. First there was Raising Sand, the genre-hopping collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Then there was the announcement that Led Zeppelin’s three remaining members would reunite for the first time since their less than impressive cameos at Live Aid (1985), the Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary concert (1988), and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1995). This time, the press releases said that the band — with Jason Bonham filling in on drums — would be playing a proper full-length set at London’s O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome).
Then, after ticket applications for the reunion show had the promoter describing it as “largest demand for one show in history”, Jimmy Page fanned the flames further with coquettish hints that the band might record new material or set off on a world tour in 2008. Which brings us back again to Astbury, who recently announced at a Cult show in Cincinnati that his band would be opening for Led Zeppelin on their 2008 tour.
Whatever the truth of it, all this hullabaloo has certainly reminded the world that Led Zeppelin was and remains the greatest rock band of all time. My own personal most-listened to, Led Zeppelin has inspired me to create one of the most celebrated mix CDs of all time: More Songs About Groupies And “The Lord of the Rings”. But my deep and abiding love for the best of Led Zeppelin doesn’t make me blind to their faults and excesses, or compel me to rush out and buy everything that’s released in their name without engaging my brain. Oh no.
BBC Sessions? Absolutely. One of the finest rock ‘n’ roll sets you could ever hope to find.
How the West Was Won? How could I resist?
But Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin, Volume One and Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin, Volume Two? Why would I need those? And why would I want the early 1990s remixes when all Page did — essentially — was turn up the guitars and boost the drums a tad?
However, Mothership, a bargain-priced collection of two CDs and one DVD, released in the midst of the O2 frenzy, is a different kettle of worms altogether.
There are several reasons not to buy Mothership. First, it looks like the packaging was designed by a nine year-old with just two working crayons and a handful of thumbs. As if that wasn’t enough, the packaging also seems guaranteed to wreck your disks within a month at most. And then there’s the choice of material.
President Carter, as Mark E Smith once remarked, might love repetition but I’m more than a little tired of it. The Mothership DVD appears to be an extract of live performance footage from How the West Was Won. And musically, if you compare Mothership with 1990’s Remasters box set, you’ll see that the songs, essentially, remain the same. Mothership has simply dropped “Celebration Day”, “The Battle of Evermore”, and “Misty Mountain Hop” to make room for “When The Levee Breaks” on CD1 (very sensible), and replaced CD2’s “The Rain Song” with “Over the Hills and Far Away” (not so very sensible). Clearly Messrs. Plant, Page, and (if they let him have a say) Paul Jones have a very clear idea of what they think is their best work. As a fan, for what little that’s worth, I often disagree.
For example, according to David Fricke’s informative but indiscriminating liner notes, Robert Plant thinks that “Kashmir”, rather than “Stairway to Heaven”, is the definitive Led Zeppelin song. My arse, it is. “Kashmir” may be a work of shuddering greatness, but the truly definitive Zeppelin song is almost certainly “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.
Recorded for the exceptional, though often over-looked, Presence, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was … um … “inspired” by Blind Willie Johnson’s song of the same name — which is pretty definitive in itself. Further, it’s based around an earth-shaking blues riff, and features a Zeppelin-trademark duet between Plant’s voice and Page’s guitar, triple-tracked here for extra effect. Throw in the almost arrogantly tight rhythm work from the Johns and some of the most swaggering guitar work ever recorded, and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is absolutely definitive of the work of Led Zeppelin.
Further, a considered best of Led Zeppelin, I contend, would include songs like “Your Time Is Gonna Come” rather than the easy choice “Communication Breakdown” from the band’s magnificent 1969 debut album. And either “The Lemon Song” or “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid (She’s Just a Woman”) rather than “Whole Lotta Love” from Led Zeppelin II, which was also released in 1969! Similarly, my jury would vote for “Gallows Pole” or “Tangerine” at the expense of “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin III, 1970), and for moments of sheer genius from Physical Graffiti — surely the best rock album ever made — such as “Custard Pie”, “Ten Years Gone”, and “Down By the Seaside” rather than tired compilation staples like “Ramble On”, “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “All My Love”.
To get back into the festive spirit, so far the best we could say about Mothership is that it would make a nice Christmas present for the teenage boy in your life who hasn’t already discovered Led Zeppelin. But there’s an additional dimension here that should make any committed aficionado of the band also consider purchasing Mothership. Because this time the remixes are, at the very least, impressive.
Most obviously, Mothership does some very remarkable things to some of the earliest Zeppelin songs. The new version of “Good Times Bad Times” adds a little extra depth, texture, and punch to Page’s uncompromising guitar slams and brings out the bass. Similarly, remixing seems to have doubled the depth of John Paul Jones’ bass at the beginning of “Dazed and Confused”.
Moving on through the canon, “Whole Lotta Love”‘s theremin section still sounds like a self-indulgent bag of shite, and the searing guitar solo at the end of it still makes up for it. Meanwhile, Page was somehow able to mix more vitality into the drums of “When the Levee Breaks”, better separate the multi-tracked guitars on the extended introduction to “The Song Remains the Same”, clarify the enormously amusing lyrics of “Trampled Underfoot”, and render John Bonham’s drums at the beginning of the otherwise entirely disposable “D’Yer Mak’er” utterly remarkable.
While I have some unresolved concerns about the honesty of remixing, there can be no denying the overall effectiveness of what Jimmy Page has done with Mothership. On almost every song the informed listener will notice new patterns, textures, or shades. If Page takes the time and the trouble to remix all eight original Led Zeppelin albums, then I will happily sign up for the complete box set. Mothership, however, is a very close call. QED.