ove ‘em or leave ‘em” seems to be the critical analysis of Led Zeppelin these days. Just looking around the net for 5 minutes, I found 3 prominent – no introductions needed! –websites who take this approach to their latest live album, How the West was Won. If it’s so cut and dry, why even bother writing a review? The people who love them will buy it no matter what, and the people who hate them won’t. It’s a fun angle to play up, no doubt, but the fact of the matter is, like every other band there are infinite opinions and therefore infinite factions. There are many factors that go into personal opinion but, when dealing with a band with such undeniable talent, a lot of it comes down to outside factors such as image and the associations we have with that image. Pictures of Robert Plant swinging his microphone around as a sweaty Jimmy Page walks over to him – chest hair hanging out and all – and wanks on his guitar like the phallic symbol it is, are just not in vogue right now. We are living in an era where men are told it’s OK to cry and women encourage this male sensitivity. In Zeppelin we have a juxtaposition of male bravado and homo-erotica that only confuses our role as men even more.
Hollywood has some influence on how Zeppelin are perceived too. The cult flick Spinal Tap took every rock cliché and made it into an ironic joke, sending the (not so) subliminal message that hating a band for their image is the right thing to do. An obvious satire, it did manage to make the joke so funny that it became influential. Granted, the things portrayed are completely obnoxious and, in modern society, are becoming less and less what rock and roll is about. But since when is being obnoxious anything but fun? I am a man. I like steak, beer, women, and fuck it, Led Zeppelin. When I really need to bounce around the room, morbid modern rockers like Radiohead and Sigur Ros just aren’t going to cut it. I need a fix, and How the West was Won is one sweet drug.
The knock on Zeppelin over the years is that they were never able to capture their fury, delicacy, and improvisation of their live shows to tape. The Rolling Stones (Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out) and The Who’s (Live at Leeds) set high standards for what a live album should be. Both captured everything the bands where known for and magnified it to cinematic levels. The guitars were louder and the drums were bigger, but there was also an intangible energy that glazed the entire performance. Zeppelin’s only attempt at this, The Song Remains the Same, was a major disappointment that failed to capture anything to tape except boredom. If you bought the accompanying documentary you could also see Jimmy Page bring a violin bow to his guitar - revolutionary at the time, but trite today. In the years that followed, you could get a true taste of their live show if you were willing to go the route of bootlegs (and jail time!), but nothing was legally released to the public - until today.
Sequencing together the best performances of two LA shows from 1972, Jimmy Page has put together a 3-disc set that falls just short of being a masterpiece. Several small problems keep it from that distinction. None is more obvious and annoying than the gaps in the timeline. At the end of “Black Dog”, which is track 4, Plant finally gets around to saying “good evening” to the crowd. After playing the epic “Stairway to Heaven” - which sounds surprisingly fresh - Plant again says “good evening”. These songs were most likely the openers of each individual show and probably should have been the first tracks on discs 1 and 2. There is also a strange segue from “Immigrant Song” to “Heartbreaker”. The “Heartbreaker” riff appears out of nowhere as “Immigrant Song” is being faded out, and for a brief second, both riffs are playing at the same time (...and somewhere there’s a conspiracy theorists whacking it). Such haphazard splicing ruins the flow and integrity of the record.
Aside from song and band introductions, Plant never interacts with his audience. Part of what made Zeppelin so legendary was their mysterious nature (Page buying the home of black magic practitioner Alistair Crowley and the well documented “my sweet Satan” lyric to name a few). This can’t be denied. But they were overly aware of it and played into it to a fault. The choice of mystery over interaction is a poor one. Part of what makes Live at Leeds the greatest live rock album ever is Pete Townsend’s commentary and humor between songs. The great line “He always ‘gets off’ at the wrong stop” before “A quick one while he’s away” comes to mind. The audience pauses for 5 seconds before finally getting the joke and enjoying a laugh with Pete. The energy emanated from such interplay augments the recording, even some 23 years later. Plant and Page might not have the wit to pull something like that off, but they are dry to the point of being boring. If they closed the 3-disc set with the hard rocking “Communication Breakdown”, the heavens would rain irony and all would be forgiven. But, even more apropos, they don’t bother to play it at all.
Like you would expect there are some major highlights here. The 25-minute “Dazed and Confused” starts with its signature dirge-like baseline. The slowed down tempo lets the listener hear every note as it creeps up and down the fretboard – an effect that creates a high sense of tension and drama. When the guitars finally chime in at the 2:45 mark the results are orgasmic. Plant is in rare form here, and his choice to improvise lyrics adds a freshness that compliments the extemporaneous feel of the tune. Halfway through it turns into Plant moaning and groaning (doing his best Leadbelly impression) while Page makes random white noise on the guitar. It’s almost impossible to pull something like this off without sounding pretentious or just flat out bad, but they actually manage to do it. The song erupts into a fury of drums and guitar, before suddenly shifting to what sounds like the guitar line in “The Crunge” (which, by the way, sounds eerily similar to Modest Mouse’s lounge. Isaac Brock = SO busted). The ten-minute jam, which ensues, is jaw dropping to say the least.
But then again, the whole album is jaw dropping. To expect less would be unfair to the band. These men are arguably the best rock musicians to ever step on the stage, and in being so are rightfully judged on a higher scale. For most bands, The Song Remains the Same would have been a critically acclaimed album with all the adulation that follows. For Led Zeppelin it was a flop. A very flattering insult if you think about it. 23 years later, and after hours upon hours of splicing, the end justifies the means. Led Zeppelin finally has their Swan Song.
Reviewed by: John Smietanik
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01