What happened was, I went to Black Dog, our local (very good) video joint, for a Saturday-night flick for a tired family, and picked up Princess Mononoke, we having recently become Miyazaki fans (it’s good, but not up there with Chihiro). As I was walking out of Black Dog the new Led Zeppelin DVD jumped out in front of me. Lauren gave me an understanding look after Mononoke ran down and shuffled off to bed, so I Zepped out till late. Herewith some notes on the DVD and band, for which the audience will self-select, a high proportion shuffling off like Lauren to more worthy diversions.

Led Zeppelin

When I was sixteen someone said “Listen to this” and slapped an LP on the platter which turned out to be Led Zep III, and Immigrant Song cut through my brain like a hot knife. For the ensuing decade I listened to lots of stuff but LZ was at the top of the list. As Nick Hornby elegantly wrote, when you get older it’s hard to leave room in your life for Jimmy Page—probably impossible. I never saw the band live.

Disc One, Sigh · There are two volumes of DVD; the first is an end-to-end concert recorded in 1970, just before the release of LZ II. It’s pretty poor; while the talent shows through, they had zero showmanship, and the sound is bleeding-from-the-ears bad.

A few impressions from the first DVD in no particular order:

  • They wanted it to sound that way. It’s obvious that they had done a lot of practicing, could play loose or play tight, and went to a lot of work to get that sloppy lurching sound.

  • It’s pretty amazing how Page managed to get an enormous wall of sound in a dozen different flavors out of his guitar setup, absent the array of pedals and effects any top-rank guitarist now deploys. I’m not saying it sounded good, I’m just saying there were a lot of different sounds, and they were big.

  • While Robert Plant had absolutely the best hair in the history of Rock & Roll, and as Rolling Stone once wrote, was an intermittently great singer when Jimmy Page provided just the right orchestral guitar rumble as backdrop, the guy can’t dance, can’t cheerlead, and is generally pretty feeble as a front-man.

  • To this day, I think the original on-the-album version of Dazed and Confused is a wonderful, nuanced, powerful piece of music as long as you can get by the misogynist lyrics. All the live recordings I’ve heard and seen have been monuments to wretched excess; I can now testify the violin-bow shtick was lame in 1970, but I suspect Page does it to this day.

  • The highlight of the live set is the encore, three songs I hardly know, C’mon Everybody, Something Else, and Bring It On Home. They’re all rockers, and the band plays them all straight and fast and tight, and Plant throws in some awfully good harmonica, and one is left to mourn the our-blues-are-looser-than-yours ethos they applied to their signature tunes.

  • Has any rock star ever dressed worse than Jimmy Page? I don’t think so.

The coda to the first disc is a trio of TV recordings, which are way over the edge into ridiculous; the band crammed into tiny video sets, with a TV audience clustered round them; two of them are Communication Breakdown and one is Dazed and Confused. Communication Breakdown has to be one of the great missed performance-piece opportunities of all time; the big frantic guitar riff (one of the great ones IMHO) is a golden opportunity to run like hell down to the front of the stage, or do a Pete Townshend leaping windmill, or a frantic pogo, or, well anything except stand there bending over with your hair in front of your face, which is pretty well what they did.

Anyhow, Disc One was bad enough that I managed to write an ongoing essay that was good enough to get slashdotted while it played, mostly during the extended drum solo (please, please, make it stop).

Altered States · So far it hadn’t gone that well, and it was past midnight. I was veering toward Proustian deflation of a treasured memory, and surely the band wasn’t nearly as bad as the first disc would suggest. Hmm, maybe the problem was that I was too sober. Since it’s no longer the seventies that meant alcohol. Hmm... the house was alcoholically challenged; Lauren hardly drinks at all, and while I do, I don’t care enough about it to be organized about shopping for it. Raiding the wine cellar was right out for this kind of deliberate resort to impairment. Then I remembered that our recently-departed house-guest had left a generous hunk of a bottle of duty-free gin, so I mixed up a ridiculously stiff G&T.

That helped, but it also helped that Disc Two is just a whole lot better. It starts with a 1972 version of, dig it, Immigrant Song, from some outdoor festival. The band was tight and sharp and they were moving on stage, and they totally nailed the tune, even managing to end it with a bang, not exactly one of their strong points. Shivers down the spine; all of a sudden I remembered, more than a little, what it felt like to be sixteen and hearing it for the first time. Which is worth something.

It was getting pretty late and I’m not used to drinking gin after midnight, so time was closing down on me and I had to do some cherry-picking on that second disc. Of Black Dog and Misty Mountain Hop and In My Time of Dying I’ll say only that they were OK.

A highlight from the 1975 segment was Going To California, played acoustic and sitting down, with a lot of flow and flair and some lovely mandolin from John Paul Jones. That same set includes the Voldemort of Zep tunes, the one you can’t even name any more if you want to retain some self-respect. If someone else listened to it write and tell me the worst.

The 1979 set had some real gems, I thought. I’ve always liked Rock and Roll, a no-bullshit rocker that made it obvious how important Bonham’s no-bullshit drumming was to the Zep sound, and the version here is a keeper.

The band members are on the record that they think Kashmir is their best tune, but I’d never really warmed up to it. But the version here is a honey, and I think they have a point. What hadn’t been obvious to me on the recordings is that this tune, for all its shifting rhythms and orientalism, is a rocker. The guys were obviously having a lot of fun playing it, they dug deep and reached back for more, and then more; I was dazzled.

And the last tune of the set is a straight-ahead charge through Whole Lotta Love, much shorter than on record, with the famous machine-gun guitar break moved right up to the front of the solo, which was tasty and to the point.

It was pushing two when I hit the sack, but hey, if you have some of those memories, you might want to rent this one; but skip that first disc.

Missing Pieces · This thing has over five hours of music all told, but they managed to miss a few of my favorite pieces. You won’t find You Shook Me (still one of the great guitar breaks of all time), Tangerine, The Battle of Evermore, When the Levee Breaks, or No Quarter.


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July 13, 2003
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