High volume Zeppelin


May 27, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


In its 11-year career, Led Zeppelin produced eight studio albums that stand as some of the most innovative and influential in rock history.

But while those discs remain sacred texts for a new generation of fans, listeners born 15 years after "Stairway to Heaven" was recorded are unfamiliar with another aspect of the band's legacy.

With an unrelentingly powerful rhythm section in drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones, the archetype of the "golden god" hard-rock frontman in Robert Plant, and one of the most inventive rock guitarists ever in Jimmy Page, Zeppelin was also a galvanizing live band, challenging itself and its audience.



Led Zeppelin is one of the rare rock bands about whom it can be said that fans never get enough. Any "new" Zep release is welcome, but the bounty of archival material on "Led Zeppelin DVD" and "How the West Was Won" is even more than fans could have hoped for.

The two-disc DVD documents the arc of the band's career, from rare 1969 performances on Dutch television through landmark concerts at the Royal Albert Hall (1970), Madison Square Garden (1973), Earl's Court (1975) and Knebworth (1979), plus additional treats such as video interviews and promotional clips thrown in for good measure.

John Bonham's thunderous drumming, Robert Plant's hyper-sexual prancing and preening and Jimmy Page's rapid-fire riffing are all presented in pristine audio and video quality. For casual fans, the discs are a front-row seat for shows they never dreamed they'd experience. For musicians, they're a master class that will allow them to slow down, freeze and replay their heroes in order to finally figure out Bonham's sticking during "Moby Dick" or Page's soloing on "Rock and Roll."

Less extraordinary but still hugely satisfying is "How the West Was Won," which melds two concert performances from the group's heyday (the Los Angeles Forum and the Long Beach Arena on June 25 and 27, 1972) into an accurate representation of one full concert from that era, complete with a 25-minute "Dazed and Confused" and a 23-minute jam on "Whole Lotta Love."

As live collections go, I prefer 1997's "BBC Sessions," which is more focused and concise. The musicians are the first to admit their longer indulgences can be a bit of a drag without the stimulus of mind-altering substances. But "How the West Was Won" is at least superior to "The Song Remains the Same."

Both releases are specially priced and relative bargains (the DVD lists at $29.98, the album at $26.98). And as I said, there is no such thing as lousy Led.

Jim DeRogatis

"We were constantly in a state of change and movement and growth within Led Zeppelin," Page says. "The fact is that you've got four musicians who were totally different as characters and people. But that bond--the music--when we played together, it just became something else."

Arriving in stores today, the two-disc "Led Zeppelin DVD" and the three-CD live album "How the West Was Won" provide the best opportunity yet to experience the power of the group as it appeared onstage.

Fans couldn't ask for a better early Christmas present.

"The thing of it is, it's hours of entertainment--it's 25 hours, 35 minutes long!" Page says, laughing. "Anyone who's been a fan of Led Zeppelin--it's just going to be great to be able to access it on this level, isn't it?"

I spoke with Page about this treasure trove of vintage material by phone from New York on Friday.

Q. How did this project came about?

A. The Royal Albert Hall celluloid was the catalyst. Really we'd only attempted to film the band in a professional capacity twice--once at the Royal Albert Hall [in January 1970] and once three years later at Madison Square Garden. And the Madison Square Garden concert came out as "The Song Remains the Same."

Q. The concert portions of that film are considered a disappointment by many fans who've long maintained that better footage exists on bootlegs.

A. Well, to span an 11-year career, that's all that there was as a testament. You know how it is when you have a bootleg anything: I've got bootlegs of other people, and they can actually be absolutely awful quality. Some of this stuff that's on the DVD has come out on bootlegs, but it was crap. Actually, Albert Hall had come out on bootleg, and it was terrible quality, and now we've got it in surround sound. That's our way to deal with all of this--to do the job properly.

It was an important time for us, and it was quite a milestone gig, doing the Royal Albert Hall. It was a real historic venue to play--it had been there over 100 years--and the history of music in there was just phenomenal. There we were doing it on our own--it was the equivalent of an American band doing Madison Square Garden. It was a good idea to film it, and it was an even better idea to buy it back!

At the time I went in to mix the eight-track [sound recordings], I started to make an inventory of what we actually had in there, and I saw all these other boxes for Earl's Court and Knebworth, and I saw the video canisters and I went, "Wait a minute, there's no point in just putting out the Royal Albert Hall. Let's look at a much bigger picture." And that was it. I started to embark upon it.

Q. You worked with engineer Kevin Shirley, who'd done the live recordings you made with the Black Crowes. But you were the only member of Led Zeppelin who was hands-on with this project, right?

A. Yes, I was. As it went on I was going to maybe five studios in one day. I was starting off at the audio studio in the morning and going to two or three video suites that were doing the various locations--Knebworth, Madison Square Garden, what have you--then going back to the audio studio to sort of dot the i's and cross the t's on the mixes. And that's how that went on day after day after day, so that everything was absolutely spot-on in sync. I can remember even three months into it, it was still, "That isn't in sync!" But I did supervise the whole thing and the whole sort of concept of it as it was actually being sent to the video people from the sound source.

In the middle of it, I thought, "Oh my God, I knew this was going to be an epic, but I didn't know it was going to be this overwhelming!" But it all came together and I'm just really pleased that what it comes down to is a journey of Led Zeppelin, starting from those early TV appearances right through to Knebworth. And it's the right time to have done it because know you've got super digital quality and the surround sound, so you're in a position now to be at the concert in a way you never could have before.

Q. Was it strange to spend such an intense period living in the past?

A. The thing is that the point of reference is the past, but it was being brought right up to the moment--knowing that it was going to be a DVD, and the fact of being able to get to this point where it would be the [best quality] visual with the surround sound. So yeah, OK, it's going back to the past, but it's bringing it right up to the moment.

Q. What's nice about the live albums and DVDs is that they show a generation of fans who never saw the band that it was just as extraordinary in concert as it was in the studio. The group was always evolving in live performance.

A. That's right. All of those concerts that are there, if you'd seen the concerts maybe a week later, they would have been quite radically different. Each one is just a frozen moment in time, and I'm just really pleased that it's there to be shown. Led Zeppelin was the most marvelous vehicle. To be there with your sort of musical equals, so to speak, to be able to take on anything and be able to execute it so well in the studio or on the record or whatever--it was just a dream, you know?

Q. When you take those sorts of chances in live performance, there are times when you wind up flat on your face. Were there ever nights where everything fell apart?

A. To be honest with you, I don't think anything ever just ground to a halt. But there were areas where I'd listen to stuff and go, "That's really good, that's really fantastic, oh my God, how did I play that bit?" I was just stretching out, I was trying this, I was trying that, and you can't always pull everything off, but it starts to mutate and it just carries on from there. All of a sudden people might think, "Actually that was quite an interesting move that they did there, even if it started with a wrong note." It's called improvising. I certainly don't have a flawless technique, but I certainly was playing with a lot of heart and a lot of soul there.

Q. I'd like to end with a question that I've asked both Robert Plant and John Paul Jones through the years: So much has been written about Led Zeppelin, and so much of it is made to sound so heavy and mysterious; from your perspective, what's the one thing that people don't "get" about the group?

A. That it was bloody fun!

Q. That's what Plant and Jones said, too!

A. Well, just maybe people might see that by looking at the DVDs! That's all you've got to do, man, is listen to the music! You can't make music like that unless you're having fun. It's a real commitment of heart and soul, but you can tell in the live shows just how much fun we were having it. Good lord, it's evident.