Has any music reviewer ever missed the mark more than John Mendelsohn in his 1969 Rolling Stone critique of Led Zeppelin’s scorching, finely honed debut? After calling the album self-indulgent, he labeled Jimmy Page “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs” and dismissed Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting.” The album, Mendelsohn concluded, was “a waste.”
OK, everybody’s entitled to one mistake. But when the group returned just 10 months later with the equally potent Led Zeppelin II, Mendelsohn was back too, this time with a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek review that, for example, mocked Page as “the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4” and 5’8” in the world.”
Lester Bangs — who took over Rolling Stone’s Led Zeppelin beat to critique its third album — was only slightly more enthusiastic. After labeling various tracks “production-line Zep churners” and “lethally dull,” he allowed that “much of the rest” of the third LP was “not bad at all.”
The magazine did eventually wake up. In 2003 it called Led Zeppelin’s debut “astonishing” and placed it at No. 29 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Led Zeppelin II (which Rolling Stone now said “opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock and roll”) came in at No. 75. (Led Zeppelin III didn’t make the list, though some people have come to regard it as the best of the three albums.)
Happily, many music listeners instantly heard what Rolling Stone’s original reviewers missed: this was primal, blues-influenced rock and roll from a uniquely talented quartet. All three albums sold well from the start, and today they remain key elements in the catalog of a hugely important band that has sold more than 300 million LPs and CDs.
In fact, these albums are so well known that it’s hard to imagine there are many rock fans who aren’t now familiar with them. It’s also unlikely that there are many serious Led Zeppelin enthusiasts who don’t already own them. This presented an obvious challenge to the group’s label — the same challenge that has recently faced other labels, all of which seem to think one key to saving the record business is finding new ways to sell old music to well-heeled baby boomers who already own it. The standard solution appears to be to combine remastered versions of original albums with a ton of bonus material.
That’s exactly what we have here, along with a mind-boggling array of consumer choices for each of the three albums. You can opt for a single remastered CD; a single remastered LP on 180-gram vinyl; a two-CD or two-LP set, with the remastered album augmented by bonus content; or digital downloads of the remastered album and/or the bonus content. There’s also a “super deluxe” boxed set that includes the CDs, the vinyl, access to the downloads, a print of the original album cover and a hardbound book.
So should you take the bait? As with most reissues of this sort—such as the recent deluxe editions of the Who’s Tommy, Van Morrison’s Moondance and the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat—it all comes down to the extent of your fandom. If you’re a casual admirer who already owns the original CD versions of these albums — or such earlier re-packagings as Led Zeppelin Boxed Set, Led Zeppelin Remasters, The Complete Studio Recordings or Mothership — you may understandably see little need for this newest upgrade. But if you love the band, as I do, one listen should be enough to justify the price of at least the deluxe CD editions.
As the titles above suggest, this is hardly the first (or even second) remastering of the three albums, but Jimmy Page’s latest effort — which involved transfer of the original analog tapes to a higher-resolution digital format — does result in a notably fuller and warmer sound than on prior releases. Moreover, the bonus tracks on the group’s debut — a recording of a widely bootlegged October 1969 Paris concert — are terrific.
The companion discs with Led Zeppelin II and III are less crucial; as is often the case with bonus content on reissued albums, you can see why most of it didn’t make the original release. Most of these tracks are experiments — less than fully formed early versions. Still, they offer insight into the group’s creative process and it’s fascinating to hear some of the different paths the band might have taken with these songs. You’ll also find such surprises as “Jennings Farm Blues,” a fine instrumental progenitor of “Bron-Yr-Aur-Stomp” and a medley of blues classics, “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind.”
Led Zeppelin’s label has announced that the reissue program will continue with remastered, expanded versions of the group’s six remaining studio albums. I can understand why some people might say “enough already!” But I, for one, can’t wait.
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press.