Led Zeppelin Remastered: The First Batch (I, II & III)

John Kelman By

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I, II, III | IV, Houses of the Holy

For a time, Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest—if not the biggest—bands in the world, eclipsing the The Rolling Stones, the Who...even The Beatles. Born out of the ashes of the Yardbirds—even operating, very briefly, under the moniker the New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin came to symbolize the word hard in "hard rock," its ear-bursting, high-decibel performances the epitome of heavy. But from the very beginning, the brainchild of the Yardbirds' last lead guitarist—and final member of the "big three" of British rock guitar gods to pass through the group, which also included, at different and sometimes synchronous times, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck—was something more than just a blues-based, hard rock band, though tracks like "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby" from the quartet's eponymous 1969 Atlantic debut made clear that Page, along with fellow studio session ace, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, and two relative unknowns bound for both superstardom and tragedy, singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, were capable of being a more than credible white blues band.

Despite being relegated to history for more than three decades, the group disbanding after Bonham's tragic death—the result of a consuming well over a litre of vodka in a 24 hour period and dying, in his sleep, of asphyxiation from choking on his own vomit (strangely similar to the death of Jimi Hendrix almost ten years earlier to the day, the guitar icon similarly choking on vomit but, rather than alcohol, from barbiturate abuse)—Led Zeppelin has remained a popular band, not just in terms of commercial sales of its relatively small, nine-album studio discography but thanks to classic rock radio keeping so many of its hit songs ("Whole Lotta Love," "Immigrant Song," "Black Dog" and the long-overplayed "Stairway to Heaven," to name just four) in regular rotation.

While Zeppelin's catalog has been available in its entirety on CD for many years (the last definitive editions being Page's 1994 remasters), with advances in technology and what has become a lucrative market for new upgrades—deluxe and super deluxe editions of classic recordings—Page is launching his own newly mastered versions of the group's entire discography, in a total of six different editions, aimed at different pocket depths and listener dispositions. And virtually all of Zeppelin's records, with the possible exception of its posthumous Coda (Swan Song, 1982)—released two years and one week less than two months after Bonham's death—are classics that are worth revisiting.

The already rumored reissue series got an even greater boost in the arm with the release of Celebration Day (Atlantic, 2012), a multi-format release (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray) of the group's incendiary performance at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at London, England's O2 Arena that—with Bonham's son Jason laying it down so well that two of the three remaining original members actually considered reforming for more touring—more than redeemed the group's credibility and potential for reemergence after less-than-stellar reunions at 1985's Live Aid (with Phil Collins in the drum chair) and 1988's Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show, where Jason Bonham performed with the remaining members of Zeppelin for the first time. Still, with Plant the only holdout (and why not? 2007 was the year he released what would be a multiple Grammy Award winner, his Nonesuch collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand), despite the O2 performance demonstrating that Led Zeppelin could reunite and, delivering a thundering set that was surprisingly filled, in addition to the expected hits, songs that were rarely—or, in some cases, never—played live before by the group, it was simply not to be.

Five years later, despite occasional hints and innuendoes, Led Zeppelin remains a thing of the past, but with a first batch of reissues that includes the group's first three Atlantic recordings—Led Zeppelin, originally released in March, 1969; Led Zeppelin II, coming just under seven months later in October of the same year; and Led Zeppelin III, appearing almost a year after its predecessor—there's still plenty to celebrate.

Each album comes in six editions: a single, remastered CD; the Deluxe Edition 2CD, with an added disc of bonus material culled from live performances and/or studio outtakes, alternate mixes, rough mixes and previously unreleased songs; a remastered, single-LP 180-gram vinyl edition, in a sleeve that replicates the original release's first pressing in "exact detail"; a Deluxe Edition Remastered Vinyl set that mirrors, in content, the Deluxe Edition 2CD on either two or three LPs; a digital download version that includes all the content from the Deluxe CD Edition; and, finally, the Super Deluxe Edition Box which, in addition to the Deluxe CD and Deluxe Vinyl media, also comes with a hardbound 70+ page book with even more rare/unseen photos and memorabilia than included in the booklets acco

mpanying the other versions, a download card for high definition versions of all the content, a high quality print of the original album cover (the first 30,000 of which are individually numbered) and, for Led Zeppelin, a replica of the band's original Atlantic press kit.

That's a lot of choice, but that's a very good thing, since so many other reissue programs are criticized for not providing fans with the exact format they want. And while the Super Deluxe Edition Boxes are the only hard media editions to include a download key for the high res versions, those looking for them on their own can also find them sold separately.

In a time when remastered should—but does not always—mean better, the good news is also that, based on the Deluxe Edition 2CD versions of Zeppelin's first three albums, Page has treated the music with the respect it deserves, meaning it's never sounded this good. With some audiophiles justifiably critical of excess compression and noise reduction eliminating the dynamics and, at times, frequency range of classic recordings—and further criticisms against digitization for occasionally sucking the life out of those original releases—Page has managed to inject greater transparency, warmth and depth without losing the grit and sheer raw energy of these first Zeppelin recordings—surely a harbinger of similarly good things to come when the rest of the group's discography is released in 2015.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin (Deluxe Edition 2CD)
2014 (1969)

While Led Zeppelin was as strong a first shot off the bow as could be imagined, beyond introducing a group that would ultimately become known as the progenitor of hard rock/heavy metal it was a record that also demonstrated the stylistic diversity that would quickly become a band signature. Page and Jones had, after all, come from the vibrant and busy session scene of London in the 1960s, appearing on recordings ranging from the Kinks, the Who and the Rolling Stones to Donovan, Joe Cocker and Jeff Beck, with Jones already looking at a busy and lucrative career as an arranger/musical director in addition to being a broad-reaching multi-instrumentalist before Page recruited him for the band. So should it be any surprise that alongside thundering hard rockers like the opening "Good Times Bad Times" and almost impossibly up-tempo "Communication Breakdown" that Page should be featured solely on acoustic guitar, finding the nexus point of Indian music and British traditionalism on "Black Mountain Side," accompanied only by Bonham—on tablas?

Or should it be a revelation that, in addition to the slow-grinding blues of Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me," where Jones moves from electric bass to organ, and the brighter-tempo'd but still dark-hued version of another Dixon classic, "I Can't Quit You Baby"—where Plant delivers one of his best vocal performances of the date, already demonstrating a range that would only grow as the group continued to evolve—that the group should also deliver a stunning tour de force on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," a track that demonstrates, alongside "Black Mountain Side," that Page was as superb an acoustic guitarist as he was a testosterone-filled electric player? Or that Jones' organ playing went far beyond the soulful and straight into church during his intro to the rock ballad, "Your Time is Gonna Come"?

In retrospect? Of course not. But based on the various interview and review clippings included in the Super Deluxe Edition books, it's clear now (as it was then) that the two songs that really resonated with critics and fans were the two side-closers of the then-vinyl release. First, the pure psychedelia of "Dazed and Confused," which introduced a legion of guitar geeks to Page's remarkable acumen with a violin bow, used on his electric guitar to create, with the addition of delay, reverb, wah wah and plenty of stereo panning, a sound approaching a cello but also, with the added oomph of much higher decibels, something completely different as well. And second, "How Many More Times"—eight-plus minutes of sheer energy that, driven by Bonham's high octane drums, Jones' thundering bass lines and Page's combination of irresistible riffs, epic power chords and virtuosic soloing, created a progressive-minded, episodic album closer that blended bolero rhythms, more guitar bowing and Plant's searing, soaring vocals, all leading to a finale of truly epic proportions.

The second disc is culled from an October, 1969 show from Paris, France that makes up for its relatively low-fi quality—originally recorded and broadcast on French radio, it reveals the limitations of the time—with music still surprisingly clear and absolutely powerful, from a still-hungry group that expands "Dazed and Confused" to over 15 minutes and the set-closing "How Many More Times" to nearly 11. The set list also demonstrates that while the group seemed to be touring incessantly, there was still time being found to bring new material in, with both a concise version of "Heartbreaker" and a more extended version of Bonham feature, "Moby Dick," making an appearance two weeks before their release on Led Zeppelin II.

If the live performance shows anything it's that, while Page is the clear star as soloist—his extended "White Summer/Black Mountain Side" may be on electric rather than the acoustic of the studio recording, but it's just as impressive as an indicator of Page's interests in music beyond the conventional hard rock of his peers—it's that the real strength of Zeppelin, from the very beginning, was its confluence of factors, most notably the maturity of Plant, who was the youngest member of the band at 21 (Bonham was older by a couple months), with Jones 23 and Page the oldest, at 25. That Plant was already so well-formed in conception and approach makes it all the more remarkable that he was not Page's first choice, the now sadly overlooked Terry Reid who, declining the guitarist's offer, recommended Plant, who in turn suggested his fellow Band of Joy mate, Bonham. What might have been will, of course, never be known; the only thing that is known is that these four musicians created the perfect storm, something amply demonstrated as they hit the road for almost incessant touring.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin II (Deluxe Edition 2CD)
2014 (1969)

Incessant touring that made the recording of Led Zeppelin II all the more remarkable, pieced together from a multitude of sessions in a variety of studios and with a number of different engineers; this, as opposed to Led Zeppelin, which was recorded in a single, mammoth, 15-hour session that not only demonstrated the group's nascent strengths, but Page's vision as the group's producer—then, and throughout the band's existence.

From the first familiar notes of "Whole Lotta Love"—the lead single off II, despite it not being the group's choice, having planned to record a different song for the album's single—it's clear now, as it was then, that Zeppelin had arrived. And while the single version (not included here) edited out much of the psychedelic middle section and stuck to the repetitive riff that drives the song and is, without everything else, perhaps tediously so, it's to the credit of the performance itself—Bonham's unrelenting beat, Jones' unshakable pulse, Plant's unfettered singing and Page's stellar, piercing solo—that it not only became a hit, but the hit that truly broke Zeppelin in the US. Hitting number 4 on the American Billboard chart, the album—thanks to the emergence of FM radio and freer playlists that allowed for songs beyond the three-minute mark—soared to number 1 around the world.

The album is, perhaps, a little less diverse than its predecessor, but that doesn't make it weaker; if anything, its more decidedly electric tendency ultimately made it a textbook recording for so many groups that followed in its wake. There were the sexual innuendoes of "The Lemon Song"—though, truthfully, less innuendo and more direct reference, with lines like "Squeeze my lemon, 'til the juice flows down my leg" pretty hard to misinterpret. "The Lemon Song" was also the song for which the group was sued, successfully, for copyright infringement by the owner of publishing rights to Howlin Wolf's "Killing Floor"—from which the group not only liberally quotes, but on the initial British pressing of II actually lists "Killing Floor" on the record label as the third track on side one, credited to Wolf, while the liner lists it as "The Lemon Song," with compositional credit given to Zeppelin. It's surprising that Booker T. & the MGs never sued the group for its lifting of their "The Hunter" on Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times."

As heavy as II is, it's not without plenty of dynamics. Plant's processed voice during the verses of "What Is And What Should Never Be" are bolstered by the softest of instrumental supports, even as the choruses flip into overdrive, with Bonham's massive sound providing the glue between the two. And while it's a power ballad, "Thank You" is driven by Page's overdubbed acoustic and electric guitars and Jones' positively beautiful organ work—organ work that is revealed even more fully on the second disc, which features the backing track to the song, without vocals, so that Jones' work moves right to the front. "Ramble On" is another track defined by Page's acoustic guitars—during the verses, at least, until the chorus comes in with greater power, Jones' bass and Page's electric pushed hard by Bonham as Plant's gritty voice leaps higher into the stratosphere.

With the benefit of more time to record, Led Zeppelin II also reaps the rewards of time to experiment, resulting in the layers of guitars and voices, as well as copious effects creating plenty of "ear candy" ideal for the early '70s headphone listener and, despite being absolutely of their time, sounding anything but dated in these sonically updated versions. A brief version of Bonham's "Moby Dick" hints at greater bombast to come in concert for those who'd not experienced Zeppelin live yet, while the album closer, "Bring It On Home," is the closest Plant ever comes to truly trying to emulate the blues singers that formed just a part of who he was...and remains to this day—a singer who has, in his post-Zeppelin solo career, shifted gears multiple times and always with absolute authority, credibility and success.

Like Led Zeppelin, this (Deluxe Edition 2CD) comes with a 16-page booklet that's a subset of the material in the Super Deluxe Edition book—which, rather than commissioning a writer to document the history of a band that's been documented to death, tells the story of the band through various newspaper/magazine clippings, letters, contracts and other memorabilia that also demonstrates no shortage of a sense of humor. An early newspaper ad for "The Vanilla Fudge, with Len Zefflin" is wonderfully prescient of how things would be just a few months later, when the bill is "Led Zeppelin & Vanilla Fudge." Oh, how quickly things changed.

Of course, it would not be long before Zeppelin would begin to deliver the marathon two-and-a-half-to-three-hour sets that made sharing the bill with other bands impossible. But the liner notes also demonstrate that the state of music journalism was just as iffy back then as it is accused of being in the new millennium, where anyone with a website can call themselves a critic. The San Francisco Examiner's Philip Elwood endorses Zeppelin, writing "They already sound like a veteran group and soon ought to be ranked in the company of the Who, Rolling Stones and the late Cream. Basic musical considerations account for my enthusiasm. Led Zeppelin plays in tune, on pitch, and with a primary ensemble approach." High praise, indeed—and all the more significant that a letter from June Harris, of Atlantic Records, appears on the following page, where she writes to Elwood, saying, "I talked with Jimmy Page today and he too is extremely excited over their reception in San Francisco and the feature you wrote." Ah well; as ever, any press is better than no press at all.

Rather than any more live performances (there are plenty to be found on Zeppelin's two-DVD set of over five hours of live music, released in 2003, II includes 32 minutes of outtakes from the sessions that, as Page suggests in the liner notes, "present a portal to the time of the recording of Led Zeppelin. It's a selection of work in progress, with rough mixes, backing tracks, alternate versions and new material recorded at the time." Most revealing are the vocals on "Whole Lotta Love" (different) and "Ramble On" (where only one of the two multi-tracked vocals is heard); that the ultimate choices were the right ones may be true, but it's revealing to hear what could have been. But the most significant addition to the second disc is the closing "La La (Outro Rough Mix)," a four-minute instrumental that, with Page shifting from electric to acoustic 12-string and Jones on organ, moves from up-tempo optimism to a greasier groove that ultimately becomes a cornucopia of overdubbed guitars—electric, acoustic and wah wah. It's hard to know what it could have become as it's clearly unfinished, but along with the other seven tracks it's a worthy window into the recording process and the idea that not everything put to tape is worthy of formal release.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin III (Deluxe Edition 2CD)
2014 (1970)

After two albums that could do no wrong and constant touring that resulted in Zeppelin joining the Millionaire club as it outsold and outperformed so many other successful touring acts to become the top draw of the '70s, the release of Led Zeppelin III was a ballsy move. There'd been plenty of hints at "an acoustic album," though with tracks like the first hard-rocking single, "Immigrant Song," the slow-grind electric blues "Since I've Been Loving You," the funkified "Out on the Tiles" and balladic "Tangerine," it's hard to call it an all-acoustic record. But there's no doubt that acoustic guitars—in particular, acoustic 12-string—dominate a substantial percentage of III.

But if anyone is to suggest Zeppelin had gone soft, tracks like "Friends" lays waste to such claims; instead, with Page's slightly dissonant rhythm guitar and Jones' glissandi string arrangement lending the music a Middle Eastern inflection, this was simply Zeppelin doing what it had done from the beginning: experiment. That it managed to do so while, at the same time, delivering songs that were eminently accessible speaks to the time, as such a move these days would be considered beyond risky. "Celebration Day" introduces the sound of Jones' moog synthesizer, even as it's ultimately overtaken by Page's electric guitar, Jones' electric bass and Bonham's characteristically relentless groove to turn the song into a flat-out rocker, with Plant's dual-tracked vocals soaring higher than ever before.

Still, III did divide both critics and fans, though there were enough in favor to drive the album to the top of the charts (though for less of a time) and a full-page ad that said, presciently, "I, II and soon III. Thank you for making us the World's No. 1 Band." If the album was a bit confusing at the time, in retrospect it has become a favorite for its sheer diversity and for demonstrating even greater potential for a group that had already demonstrated seemingly limitless possibilities. "Gallows Pole," which originally opened side two, is a traditional tune arranged by Plant and Page, and layers the guitarist on banjo, as well as Jones on mandolin...who knew? And the closing three tracks—the balladic "That's the Way," countrified thumper "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" (written at a small cottage in Wales of the same name) and blues-drenched Plant/Page duo closer, "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper," named for the singer/songwriter for whom Page had recorded on something like 80 songs but also a tribute to American blues singer Bukka White, a spare tune with just Page's slide acoustic guitar and Plant's tremelo'd vocals—are truly acoustic excursions, with Jones even turning to double bass for his support of "That's the Way."

41 minutes of bonus material include alternate mixes of "The Immigrant Song" (with Page's tremelo'd electric guitar more dominant) and "Celebration Day" (without the synthesizer), rough mixes of "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Gallows Pole" and a couple of tracks without vocals, all shedding more light on the recording process. But of the three reissues in this first batch, III is the one with the biggest bonuses: two tracks never before heard. A rough mix of "Jennings Farm Blues," a mid-tempo instrumental (and not a blues) that, again, demonstrates Page's acumen when it comes to layering guitars—a skill that was studio-bound, as live it was Page, the lone guitarist, who had to find ways to make these songs work in performance. "Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind" closes the second disc the way "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper" closed Led Zeppelin III: just Page, on acoustic guitar (no slide this time) and Plant (his voice tremelo'd again), this time also playing some biting blues harp as well.

By the time Led Zeppelin III was released, Led Zeppelin had pretty much conquered the world, but even bigger things were to come with its fourth album—one of the best-selling albums of all time—more money than they could handle and the beginning of true excesses like private jets, renting out entire wings of hotels, sexual exploits that have since become legion...and the beginning of personal tragedies, in particular for Plant, that would alter the group's destiny. But until the next round of reissues, these first three titles make clear that Page is absolutely delivering on his commitment to making them "a major adjustment to what was done 20 years ago." With each album remastered differently to suit the media—CD, high-def digital and vinyl—Page may well have raised the bar for all reissues to come.

Tracks and Personnel

Led Zeppelin

Tracks: CD1 (Original Album Remastered): Good Times Bad Times; Babe I'm Gonna Leave You; You Shook Me; Dazed and Confused; Your Time is Gonna Come; Black Mountain Side; Communication Breakdown; I Can't Quit You Baby; How Many More Times. CD2 (Live in Paris, 1969): Good Times Bad Times/Communication Breakdown; I Can't Quit You Baby; Heartbreaker; Dazed and Confused; White Summer/Black Mountain Side; You Shook Me; Moby Dick; How Many More Times.

Personnel: Jimmy Page: acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar, backing vocals; Robert Plant: lead vocals, harmonica; John Bonham: drums, timpani, percussion, backing vocals; John Paul Jones: bass guitar, organ, backing vocals.

Led Zeppelin II

Tracks: CD1 (Original Album Remastered): Whole Lotta Love; What Is And What Should Never Be; The Lemon Song; Thank You; Heartbreaker; Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman); Ramble On; Moby Dick; Bring It On Home. CD2 (Additional Studio Material): Whole Lotta Love (Rough Mix with Vocal); What Is And What Should Never Be (Rough Mix with Vocal); Thank You (Backing Track); Heartbreaker (Rough Mix with Vocal); Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman) (Backing Track); Ramble On (Rough Mix with Vocal); Moby Dick (Backing Track); La La (Intro/Outro Rough Mix).

Personnel: John Bonham: drums, timpani; John Paul Jones: bass guitar, organ (CD1#4, CD2#3, CD2#8); Jimmy Page: electric and acoustic guitar, backing vocals, theremin (CD1#1, CD2#1); Robert Plant: lead vocals, harmonica (CD1#9).

Led Zeppelin III

Tracks: CD1 (Original Album Remastered): Immigrant Song; Friends; Celebration Day; Since I've Been Loving You; Out on the Tiles; Gallows Pole; Tangerine; That's the Way; Bron-Y-Aur Stomp; Hats Off to Roy Harper. CD2 (Additional Studio Material): Immigrant Song (Alternate Mix); Friends (Track—No Vocal); Celebration Day (Alternate Mix); Since I've Been Loving You (Rough Mix); Bathroom Sound (Track—No Vocal); Gallows Pole (Rough Mix); That's the Way (Rough Mix); Jennings Farm Blues (Rough Mix); Key to the Highway/Trouble in Mind (Rough Mix).

Personnel: John Bonham: drums, percussion, backing vocals; John Paul Jones: bass guitar, organ, moog synthesizer, mandolin, double bass (CD1#9), string arrangement; Jimmy Page: acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar, banjo, dulcimer, production, bass guitar (CD1#8, CD2#7), backing vocals; Robert Plant: lead vocals, harmonica.

I, II, III | IV, Houses of the Holy

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