What does it sound like?:
“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia. Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took. At that point, everything stops. Death by nostalgia”. Frank Zappa (1989).
Slightly more than 25 years have passed since that quote appeared in Frank’s autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book, but he wasn’t too far off the mark. As the heyday of the Leviathan rock bands of the 60s and 70s recedes ever further into the distance, so their nostalgic value grows exponentially year by year. Barring a couple of one-off re-unions, Led Zeppelin has been defunct since 1980, but they haven’t let a little thing like retirement slow them down. Thanks to Jimmy Page’s diligent and, at times, aggressive curation of the LZ catalogue, the band lives on as strong as ever via a seemingly endless series of reissues, each one more expensive and extravagant than the last. Let’s face it, persuading people to shell out on material most of them have already bought more than once is one of the great retailing tricks of our time.
It’s been nearly two decades since this BBC collection first appeared which in the nostalgic scheme of things means it’s mightily overdue for an expensive facelift. Originally released as a two CD set in 1997, it’s now available again in a variety of wallet-worrying formats, which is of course exactly the way of things these days.
The basic edition comprises the original 24 track double CD, plus a third disc of nine tracks, eight of which are previously unreleased. This includes three tracks from a March 1969 BBC session that were long believed to be lost and/or erased.
Inevitably, as with the two original discs, there is some duplication on the third CD including two versions of Communication Breakdown, bringing the total to five across the complete set. But as the band progressed the songs were expanded, rearranged and generally tinkered with, meaning that no two versions are exactly alike.
White Summer first appeared on the 1990 Led Zeppelin Box Set (as White Summer/Black Mountain Side) and is the only track on the third CD to have previously seen an official release. Page is often castigated for LZ’s cavalier approach to the music they assimilated, but the genesis of this track dates back to his Yardbirds days and broke totally new ground by bringing acoustic folk guitar arrangements by Davey Graham and Bert Jansch into the world of heavy rock. If only he’d credited Bert and Davey It would have been a masterstroke.
Lacking the micro-tonal precision of Jeff Beck or the effortless fluidity of Clapton, Jimmy Page is sometimes criticised for his so-called “sloppy” blues playing. But I don’t agree with that. The performances of I Can’t Quit You Baby and You Shook Me (three versions of each slow blues are found here) are a joy to behold with Page stretching out with a series of wild and jagged solos, each one more intense than the last. This is blues guitar heaven for those who enjoy such things and I’ll take these over the released versions any day. Strangely, though, the final version of You Shook Me fades out early.
We’re now at the stage where historical importance trumps pristine sound quality and some of the tracks on the third disc, while perfectly listenable, would almost certainly not have been considered to be of release quality when the band were still together. Some of this material was thought to be lost forever until a useable copy that a fan had taped off the radio surfaced. It’s not perfect quality, but the odd drop-out and a muddy vocal sound have never deterred die-hard Led Zep fans however.
But along with the acoustic Robert Johnson mash-up Travelling Riverside Blues and Sleepy John Estes’ The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair on the first disc it’s the only known performance of Sunshine Woman which is the main drawcard here. Owing something to Jeff Beck’s take on Let Me Love You, this mid-tempo piano-led blues stomper rattles along in fine style. Ultimately though it was more of an impromptu pastiche than a major work and it’s easy to see why the band never developed it further, although some of the lyrics and the basic arrangement did crop up in later Zeppelin songs.
So, here we have all 33 tracks LZ recorded for Auntie between 1969 and 1971, before they became too big to trouble themselves with the national broadcaster. It’s a fine collection right enough, but it’s hardly the jewel in the Zeppelin crown and certainly doesn’t deserve the huge asking price for the fancy top of the range deluxe editions. In recent years we’ve seen similar important BBC collections from Free, Cream, John Mayall, Hendrix and other Zeppelin peers, none of which received anything like this amount of fanfare. But as Zappa observed, the nostalgic cycles are getting ever closer together and helped by the current vinyl revival, this set will probably sell faster than the original 1997 release.
What does it all *mean*?
Twilight of the Gods? With the great rock bands of the 60s rapidly approaching death or retirement and little or nothing of quality coming up behind them to fill the void, it seems we are destined to keep recycling their music forever.
Goes well with…
You’ll need the rest of the Zeppelin catalogue too. Their final couple of albums aside, LZ enjoyed an almost perfect career trajectory. They arrived fully formed, gave us 6 or possibly 7 (depending on your viewpoint) five star albums, then bowed out gracefully following the death of their drummer.
Might suit people who like…
Grizzled blues boomers and heavy rock fans of all ages will enjoy this in equal measure. Call them magpies if you must, but Zeppelin did it better and louder than anyone else.