LED ZEPPELIN How The West Was Won (Atlantic)

howthewestwaswon.jpg (29082 bytes)"How The West Was Won" is a triple CD containing 150 minutes of Led Zeppelin performances taped in California during June 1972, rediscovered by Jimmy Page in the course of assembling the band's accompanying DVD retrospective. As if compelled by an EU ruling, like every single other reviewer to tackle this article, I must mention that, at the very least, this will ensure that nobody need buy a copy of "The Song Remains The Same" ever again. Pull up a beanbag, this makes for a long evening in.

Disc one opens with 14 seconds of ambience entitled "LA Drone", intriguing enough to make a certain kind of listener wonder why the band didn't explore more of this Eno-prefiguring tendency in their work ("Music For Airships", anyone?), before "Immigrant Song" delivers the expected volcanic Viking assault. Like much of "How The West Was Won", it arrives looser than the studio equivalent, but still just tight enough. Page's "Heartbreaker" solo grows a country honk and a soupcon of madrigal, and "Black Dog" lifts its bludgeoning intro from "Out On The Tiles". When they keep it concise like this the results are hammer-of-the-Gods powerful - if you want a more accurate reproduction of the majesty of Led Zeppelin you might as well go shopping for plaster of paris. Their ability to fill up the sonic spectrum still astonishes: only close inspection reveals that, during a fluid "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Stairway To Heaven", they operate without a bassist, John Paul Jones being otherwise engaged with his organ - although I have to admit that I've never been able to remain straight-faced during a live rendition of the latter since hearing the version Zappa closed his "The Best Band You've Never Heard In Your Life" album with, which adopted a reggae strut and featured a note-for-note recreation of Jimmy Page's guitar histrionics for horn section. I should also point out that "How The West Was Won" sounds great, no doubt a result of having legendary engineer Eddie Kramer doing the taping 30 years ago. Do they play "Going To California" for an arenaful of fried Californians? Of course, although programming it alongside "That's The Way" - as tender and mysterious as this set gets (i.e. quite a bit) - and a countrified "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp" during which you can practically hear outbreaks of square-dancing in the aisles - resurrects the fetid ogre of the 90s stoolrock mini-phenomenon, the reviled 'unplugged section'.

Over on disc two, however, things immediately take a tumble, with a taxing 25-minute "Dazed And Confused", which at least lives up to its title. From its plodding opening and ominous gong crashes this is the Zep at their most wilfully Jurassic: Percy and James, the latter armed with violin bow, wail like injured beasts and the lyrics' hoary, misogynistic cliches have not worn the years lightly. Relief does not appear when it briefly morphs into the Brubeck funk of "The Crunge" - "Do the crunge", suggests Plant, to little obvious enthusiasm as the release of "Houses Of The Holy" and the corresponding age of enlightenment was still ten months hence. Fortunately, "What Is And What Should Never Be" immediately compensates, even if it lacks the rollercoaster dynamics and shot-by-both-sides guitar panning of the original. "Moby Dick" is, as you might expect, the Drum Solo: although it doesn't quite anaesthetise the nerve endings as effectively as Ginger Baker's percussion exploration on the "Wheels Of Fire" version of "Toad", being the second most tedious 15+ minute drum solo in my record collection isn't much of a prize, is it? As with the Cream track, the sense of relief when the band meander back on stage from whatever recreational entertainments they've been indulging in during the meanwhile is palpable.

On the final CD "Whole Lotta Love" begins so promisingly, with thunderous authority, which soon dissipates with a tacky medley of ageing blues and rock 'n' roll standards. For a band that guards its legacy so jealously it seems like a woeful misstep, especially as the whole stretches out over a mind-gnawing 23 minutes. "The Ocean" compensates some, though, and "Bring It On Home" does exactly what its title promises, although even here the urge to noodle distracts the gentlemen from the plot.

There's a cracking Led Zeppelin live album lurking within "How The West Was Won", a really great C90's worth of molten heavy metal - you could save over an hour if you bumped off "Dazed And Confused", "Whole Lotta Love" and "Moby Dick", and you'd have to be pretty masochistic to feel short-changed. But maybe that's the lesson and the legacy Led Zeppelin have left us: their currency was excess, and moments such as those are part of the trip.

LED ZEPPELIN Physical Graffiti (Classic)

Is “Physical Graffiti” the last great Led Zeppelin album? Now there’s an argument waiting to happen! I dunno. I’m not usually found claiming that inside every double album there’s a superior single album struggling to get out (c’mon, do you really think that “The Beatles”, “Blonde On Blonde”, “Electric Ladyland”, “Exile On Main St.”, “London Calling” or “Being There” are too long?), but for me there’s a definite quality delineation when the songs specifically recorded for the album are compared with the offcuts (some stretching back five years to the “Led Zeppelin III” sessions) added to inflate it to double disc proportions. I mean, do you really think anybody at the O2 was hollering themselves hoarse for “Boogie With Stu” or “Black Country Woman”?

Nevertheless, there’s still a fistful of fine moments to be found amidst these four sides. Step forward the precision-tooled stadium blooze of “In My Time Of Dying” and the crisp efficiency of “Houses Of The Holy” and “Trampled Under Foot”. “Kashmir” is arguably the album’s most towering, epic moment, but it shares a fascination for Eastern mysticism with “In The Light”. Time and again it’s John Bonham’s drumming that impresses most on this album, and here he’s practically playing a melody line. If any selection here could justifiably claim neglect, the underrated “Ten Years Gone” – a child of “The Rain Song”, perhaps – is it. However, by the time you reach the final side, the sound of novelty barrel-scraping rushes in to fill the inspiration vacuum.

Classic Records’ 200 gram super vinyl profile (well, that’s what it says on the sticker, anyway) pressing is something of a curate’s record. At times – “The Rover”, for instance – it sounds compressed and distorted in a fashion that surely offers little more sonic delight that a reasonably good condition secondhand copy, although admittedly it might just be offering a clearer view of the quality (or lack thereof) of the master tape. On the other hand, the acoustic guitars of “Bron-Yr-Aur” swirl around the listening space in a way they certainly don’t on my iPod. Unfortunately, though, it’s nowhere near the revelatory sonic standards of Analogue Production’s recent reissue of “Fragile”. Still, the replicated original packaging, in all its die-cut, multi-sleeved, mid-70s excess, is lovely.

LED ZEPPELIN BBC Sessions (Atlantic)

When originally released in 1997, “BBC Sessions” represented the first fresh Led Zeppelin material to reach record shops in 15 years. With two discs crammed to their circumferences with licence fee-sponsored performances taped in 1969 and 1971, the presence of multiple takes of several songs suggests a kind of curatorial comprehensiveness, even though the packaging never makes any such bold claims. It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, to discover that a complete 1969 session is missing, and the band’s 1971 “In Concert” performance has been abridged and edited.

Disc one is for the archivists: with two versions apiece of “You Shook Me”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “Communication Breakdown” you really have to love the band’s eponymous debut to make consistent headway here. More loose than tight, there’s an honest spikiness to these versions that renders them rougher and more abrasive than their studio counterparts. Arguably of more interest to the general listener are the previously unheard songs. “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair” is a Sleepy John Estes co-write (note how meticulous the band are with crediting their sources these days), and it’s a stunner, visceral in its attack, Plant hollerin’ free and uncaged with the folk-blues clichés. It fair leaps out at the listener parked amidst all that over-familiar first album material. “Travelling Riverside Blues” is a similarly delicious slide guitar confection, with acknowledged roots in the Robert Johnson songbook. A cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” is less successful; jangling like a pub piano, it could almost be called sloppy.

One gently thrilling aspect of “BBC Sessions” is how it almost allows the listener to graph how the band begin to transcend their influences. Listen to “What Is And What Should Never Be”, for example, to hear them pulling and shaping the sum of their parts into startlingly new shapes: backporch Tolkein sized for stadia. It’s also great to hear “How Many More Times” again, a curiously unexploited corner of the Led Zeppelin canon to my mind. It’s presented in stinging, slashing form here – listen to Bonzo’s slippery juggling of time signatures – but an excursion into “The Lemon Song” territory causes some unforeseen floundering.

Disc two’s the keeper, containing a(n edited, admittedly) 1971 performance introduced by John Peel. It’s not without its indulgences (19 aptly titled minutes of “Dazed And Confused”; a “Whole Lotta Love” that, even in snipped form, spends too much time morphing into some kinda folk-blues jukebox) but material from their second and third albums is dispatched smartly and sharply. In fact, both setlist and arrangements posit it as a pocket-sized primer for the triple CD set of 1972 USA performances “How The West Was Won”.

The inclusion of songs from their enigmatically untitled fourth album would have been a highlight of the original broadcast given that it was still eight months away from release. They sound pretty complete already, “Black Dog” is even wearing its “Out On The Tiles” concert intro. “Stairway To Heaven” seems almost eerie, with John Paul Jones’ thin keyboard sound deputising for the woodwind of the album version, but a mid-set acoustic interlude of “Going To California” and “That’s The Way” is at least two decades ahead of MTV Unplugged-style cliché. “Thank You”’s tightrope-treading mix of power and vulnerability is admirable, too. “Dazed And Confused”, however, finds the band rooted in the bludgeoning blues excess of their past. Admittedly in its early minutes it’s practically crawling with malevolent intent, but does it really have to sprawl over a quarter of the disc? It’s twice the length of “Stairway”! Extreme in all quarters, the gong abuse and distended, cawing central section are the work of a band unused to having their artistic vision questioned, and not necessarily in a good way.

Is there a finer single disc live Zep experience than this one? I’d say not: it’s got the tight and the loose, the trouser-quaking attack and the flabby indulgence. Everything that made them what they were is represented, for better or worse.

Robert Plant