I have been listening to the newly released Led Zeppelin Deluxe edition remasters or whatever you want to call them and I won’t give a full review now, just my first impressions.:
First, I played the opening track from each of the first three albums back to back to test a hypothesis that I’ve had for a long time. I was not disappointed by the results. I have long thought that the opener (which was usually the candidate for a single and the loudest track on the album) on each successive Led Zeppelin album, of the first three, was less heavy than the one before. Try this at home and let me know if you agree.
I remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin. It was 1969, I had recently lost my Dad and my older cousins were having pity on me by letting me hang out with them. I was entering my teens, it was later than I usually stayed up and I was drinking beer, or was it vodka (Wowie Zowie!). The stereo was cranked and it was a fairly good quality set with a Garrard turntable and good sized speakers. The opening chords of ” Good Times, Bad Times” felt like an explosion. I had never heard anything like it before. *
I bought Led Zeppelin II as soon as it was released in the autumn of 1969. “Whole Lotta’ Love” was the opener. It was heavy but it didn’t knock me over the way that Good Times, Bad Times had. Instead, It drew me in to the rest of the album.
Led Zeppelin III was unlike the other two. It had more light than shade, as Page might say. Therefore, it was fitting for Immigrant song to sound even lighter than Whole Lotta’ Love.
I have heard it said that the first album was thrown together because the band was touring. I disagree. To my ears, it is masterfully produced by Jimmy Page, no stranger, by then, to the studio. The drums, in particular, set a new standard with their close miking. The revival of slapback echo (also used by John Lennon on Instant Karma) and especially, reverse reverb on “You Shook Me” must have had producers standing up and taking notice.
Page claims that no alternative versions of songs from the album exist because “there was no time”. I beg to differ. Bootlegs of sessions at Olympic Studios from 1968 contain alternate versions of Babe I’m Gonna’ Leave You and You Shook Me, as well as a song called Babe Come On Home (Tribute to Bert Berns) and an untitled instrumental. The concert from Paris on the deluxe edition was also previously available as a bootleg. It is good to finally have an official release.
The Deluxe Edition of Led Zeppelin II and III held the most surprises for me. II has a song titled La La which begins like something from Houses of the Holy and ends like something off of Beck-Ola. III features a version of Key to the Highway that sounds more like John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed than Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Very good indeed.
If you have a bootleg of the first album, such as “Hairway To Steven” you can follow how Jimmy Page was starting to construct suites and not just rock songs. For example, the raw track of Babe I’m Gonna’ Leave You was not simply a complete song waiting for a few tweaks or overdubs. It would not have made sense without Page’s steel guitar and flamenco overdubs. Likewise, on II there were songs that would not have made sense unless they were fully formed beforehand – they were definitely not thrown together.
The production on I and II are impeccable. On I, Page plays a Fender Telecaster through an old Supro amp (think South Side Chicago blues). I have friends who wouldn’t believe it was a Tele because the sound is SO00 heavy. They thought it must be a Les Paul. On II he starts using the Paul. Even though Zeppelin were touring constantly and sometimes recording in substandard studios ( one was called a hut ) the quality is top notch.
Led Zeppelin III is another story. In spite of the fact that they had settled down by then, in my opinion, the album is sonically inferior to the first two. There is a considerable amount of noise on each track. At first, I thought this was due to the use of acoustic instruments on the album. However, noise is also present on electric tracks like Since I’ve Been Loving You, where you can even hear John Bonham’s kick drum pedal squeak. I would love to know why the outtake, Key to the Highway, has better sound quality than the rest of the album.
Nevertheless, Led Zeppelin III is a favorite of mine because of the strong performances and maturity of the songwriting. It certainly spoke to me in the autumn of 1970.
*Listening with my nearfield studio monitors, the soundstage was: Rhythm Guitars panned hard left (delayed echo hard right), Bass near left, Vocal center, Drums wide (panned left and right), and Lead Guitar center. The heaviness of the track was aided by the rhythm (power chords), bass and drums all coinciding on the downbeat.