MOJO’s 21-PAGE LED ZEPPELIN extravaganza is on sale in the UK now. It features Jimmy Page on the end of The Yardbirds and the rise of his world-conquering new band, a full review of the reissues by Jon Savage, and a rundown of Zep’s 50 Greatest Tracks as voted for by ZZ Top, Rick Rubin, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips, Mumford And Sons, Jeff Beck, Primal Scream and… YOU! In the meantime, here’s our report from the very first playback of the remasters’ long-awaited companion discs...
MARCH 25, 2014. MOJO is among the select few of industry types and label acolytes to be invited to Olympic Studios in West London to hear a sneak preview of the companion discs that will accompany the remasters of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums.
This is the first time that anyone outside of the band’s immediate circle has heard any of this unreleased material and, as a result, we are sworn to secrecy.
“I can’t wait for you to hear these different versions,” says Jimmy Page a few days earlier, during a lengthy chat with MOJO in his West London office. “I think it’s pretty exciting stuff.”
These days Olympic Studios is a private members’ club with photos on the wall of some of its famous former clients. The Stones loom large, as do Led Zeppelin who, in late 1968 during a series of sessions funded by Page, cut their first album there.
Today, Page is back at Olympic to personally introduce a selection of the unreleased tracks that will accompany the newly polished versions of the classic albums, released in chronological order starting with the band’s first three albums.
As anyone reading this should know by now, each album will come with a companion disc that will accompany the deluxe audio packages of the albums in all formats.
“I’m lucky that I remember so much of what we did,” he tells your correspondent, discussing the opening of the Zep vault. “A lot of the time the tracks have obviously all got the same titles on the boxes, although there were some with working titles, but when it comes down to it, I know what’s what.
“To be safe, though, I had to reacquaint myself with it all and find the versions that would fit best as a companion to the original material,” he continues. “There was no point in putting on a mix that was virtually the same but that just had the second voice missing from the mix, or whatever. The track had to offer a different view. It had to be a genuine companion. It wanted the experience to be as if you were carrying a dictionary and a Thesaurus, if you know what I mean.”
The idea of this kind of archival reissue campaign is something that Page has toyed with for quite some time.
“I had the idea of doing something very close to this a while ago, but no one could understand the concept,” he says. “They couldn’t take it on board – the management couldn’t anyway. I wanted to show an alternative version of the songs. What was a bit peeving was that then [The Beatles] Anthology came out. Now, my ideas aren’t rocket science because sooner or later someone’s going to come up with the same idea, but I suppose that this is now something more thorough than I had originally planned. The companion disc as a concept really works and I’ve spent time sequencing the material properly.”
Of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums, the only one not to have an additional disc of studio material is the band’s self-titled debut.
“There simply wasn’t enough studio material to make that work,” explains Page. “The material that was left over from the first album is already out. It’s Baby Come On Home [released on the 1993 two-disc box set, Led Zeppelin] but apart from that it was just fragments really, which you couldn’t really put out. There wasn’t really even enough to pull something together for Record Store Day, so it made sense to look for something else from around that time.”
As a result, Led Zeppelin will come with a much-publicized live show from the Paris Olympia in 1969 which was originally recorded for French radio.
“It was broadcast at the time but I didn’t know the source of it until I went to Japan a few years ago and I heard a bootleg of it. I couldn’t quite place the recording, although I remembered the show, and on the sleeve it said ‘recorded for French radio’. In the end we tracked it down, so you get the first album with a live disc which is like the first step down the road for the band.”
Led Zeppelin II and III, meanwhile, come with an additional disc of what Page calls “working mixes” that were produced during the course of the sessions.
“It’s not a mirror image of the original album because it can’t be exactly that,” says Jimmy. “That’s why it’s a companion.
“But it’s important to get this clear: these aren’t the eight-tracks or the 16-tracks that we’re listening to,” he clarifies further. “These tracks are the working mixes mixes at the end of the night. Not every night did I take them home, because I was going in the next night to do some more work but that’s why Robert [Plant] had a little box of tapes: he needed mixes that he hadn’t heard to work on the song. He sent me what he had down and that was useful too.”
Essentially, according to Page, the companion discs show Led Zeppelin at work, assembling the songs which have helped define modern rock music as we know it.
As he walks into what was once a former recording room at Olympic, Page looks fit if not a little nervous as he prepares to introduce the first airing of what has been long-awaited material. He describes some of his working before inviting the select audience to simply enjoy the music. Here are the tracks he plays and the first impressions of what they offer up…
Good Times Bad Times/Communication Breakdown
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin, recorded at the Paris Olympia, October 10, 1969 The opening salvo from Zep’s Parisian show features a stomping crowd as the band launch into a burst of Good Times Bad Times which then cuts into Communication Breakdown. Bonham’s cymbal hiss is audible but the dynamism of the performance is almost overwhelming, John Paul Jones’s bass driving the sound forward, and Page offering up a liquefying solo. There is no doubt that this is a warts-and-all performance – Robert Plant’s vocal drifts a tad out of pitch – but the heads-down, improvised finale is staggering.
You Shook Me
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin, recorded at the Paris Olympia, October 10, 1969 The customary slow-crawling blues tune you know and love. Again, the rhythm section are in staggering form. Equally, Page’s guitar sounds nasty – filthy in fact. Plant’s vocal interchange with Page’s guitar is also a fine indicator of Zep’s understanding of the dynamic possibilities offered up by the blues. Oh, and as with the first track, You Shook Me is unrepentantly LOUD!
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin II. This alternate mix appears to offer a different set of dynamics from the version you know and love. Bonham appears to be higher in the mix, while Page’s solo appears to be different from that on the final version included on the original album. If anything, this track swings a little harder than the final version, although the latter is clearly more polished.
Whole Lotta Love
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin II. The chorus of Whole Lotta Love is one of the oddest moments in modern music. Listening to this version of the track without the chorus, however, is brilliantly disorientating. The removal of echo in the middle section allows Bonzo’s work to shine brighter but, again, creates the sense that the listener really is witnessing a song being assembled. Plant’s vocal performance is different, Page’s solo is missing, but the track’s momentum remains intact. A minimalistic and yet utterly revelatory version.
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III, recorded at Olympic Studios. Is that a different guitar figure at the start? Hard to tell on one listen, but it’s certainly a different mix. A more taut version of the track, if anything. The guitar sounds more defined. The music moves less but somehow it sounds even more hypnotic thanks to the repetition. “It’s one take and you can hear how we’re moving around it at the end,” offers Page.
Since I’ve Been Loving You
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III Another different guitar intro? It’s certainly a different middle section. The Hammond sounds phased and more prominent and more florid that the version included on III. This version isn’t as finessed, but it is no less absorbing, Plant’s vocals sounding more emotive that the more familiar version. Once the track finishes, the audience at Olympic are forced to applaud. “It’s an earlier take. The energy is so raw. It’s really moving,” says Page.
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III. The emotional power of Since I’ve Been Loving is impossible to match and, dazed by the former, it is hard to focus on this version of one of Zep’s most heroic tunes. The vocals on the final section, however, do sound different and there is a sense of this being a work in progress.
Key To The Highway/Trouble In Mind
From the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III. A totally unreleased pair of country blues covers, cut from the same cloth as Hats Off To (Roy) Harper and featuring only Page and Plant, the latter blowing hard on a harp cranked through a Vox AC 30. “I eat my breakfast in California / I eat my dinner in Carolina,” hollers the singer on a faithful version of Trouble In Mind, the eight-bar blues which Big Bill Broonzy made his own. These twinned blues work-outs bring Page’s preview to a close.
“To be honest, the companion discs are there for people who don’t just listen to Led Zeppelin. They’re there for people who can really hear what we were doing,” he tells MOJO. “I think they’re going to really like what they hear.”
On first listen, Page is unlikely to be wrong…
PHOTO: Atlantic Records