In some ways, the worst thing about classic rock recordings is that they eventually become seen as such -- as classics, immaculate, immutable, immortal. There's something almost sacrosanct about long-treasured rock albums, so much so that the average fan can no more imagine altering the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or the Eagles' "Hotel California" than they could inserting a sax solo into Mozart's "Ein Kleine Nachtmusik."
But that's not necessarily the way music was meant to work. Sure, there have been plenty of rockers who saw albums the way writers see books, as something to be honed to perfection and left to posterity.
Others, though, saw recordings as just that -- a moment captured on tape, representing nothing beyond what was going on at that particular point in time. For them, music was too fluid to be defined by a single performance, for they knew that the real magic lay not within the order of specific notes, but with the chemistry between musicians.
Led Zeppelin was precisely that sort of band. From the first, there was a magic about the way Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham played together, a sonic serendipity ensuring that virtually every performance would be unique. For them, a song was little more than a starting point, ground zero for whatever musical combustion the four might spark; the rest was spontaneous invention.
All of that is lost to us now. Led Zeppelin gave its last full concert on July 7, 1980, barely three months before Bonham died, choking on his vomit after a night of heavy drinking. Since then, Led Zeppelin has been almost entirely defined by its studio recordings -- astonishing works, to be sure, but hardly representing the full measure of the band.
That's what makes Led Zeppelin's "BBC Sessions" (Atlantic 83061, arriving in stores today) such a godsend. Recorded over the space of five sessions -- four in 1969, the fifth in '71 -- this double-CD set presents Led Zeppelin in all its improvisatory glory, from its 12-minute run through "How Many More Times" to an 18-minute "Dazed and Confused." Moreover, though its song list includes a raft of fan favorites -- "Whole Lotta Love," "Black Dog," and "Stairway to Heaven" among them -- these aren't just minor variations on the album versions, but complete reworkings.
In some cases, these BBC performances actually make the studio recordings seem like pale approximations. Take, for example, the 1969 version of "Whole Lotta Love." Where the album version is a masterpiece of momentum, its signature riff chugging with grim determination beneath Plant's keening, lust-driven vocal, this version has a far looser feel, its steamroller riff mitigated by the muscular swing Bonham brings to the drumming.
It may seem a subtle difference at first, but when the band gets to the song's B-section -- the bit on the album where Page uses a theremin to make weird electronic whoops as Plant yelps and Bonham's high-hat orbits the speakers -- the tune totally changes. Bonham sets things up with a little Gene Krupa routine on the tom-toms while Page jump-starts the theremin. Then, as Jones' bass growls like an upset stomach, Page moves to guitar, answering the theremin shrieks with equally strange guitar sounds.
By the track's end, our sense of the song has totally changed. What once seemed like a killer riff with a bit of weirdness in the middle suddenly seems like an experimental excursion framed by two chunks of heavy rock. And even that is different from the crushing, adrenalized version we find on the second disc, where "Whole Lotta Love" is stretched into a 14-minute medley that careens through John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun'," Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die" and "That's Alright Mama," the last of which features Page offering a note-perfect quote from Scottie Moore's guitar solo on the Elvis Presley version.
But that was precisely the sort of thing that made Led Zeppelin special. There was always an element of stream-of-consciousness to the band's shows, with Plant or Page taking off in some unexpected direction, and the rest of the band following as if they'd rehearsed it that way for weeks. So where one version of "Communications Breakdown" ends with a throbbing bit of wah-wah guitar, another finds Page slipping into the riff from the Isley Brothers hit "It's Your Thing."
Even better, each is equally convincing.
Needless to say, this will be obsessive listening for Zep fans. Although much of the album has been bootlegged over the years, this set not only offers superior sound -- the mastering was done by Page with engineer Jon Astley -- but presents an honest and accurate view of the band.
Unlike modern concert recordings, where mistakes are later "corrected" in the studio, "BBC Sessions" lets us hear the band both soar and stumble. In fact, the album's second disc offers a complete and unedited version of a 1971 concert the band staged at the Paris Theater in London especially for the BBC. It's hardly letter-perfect; the band starts off by rushing the opening of "Immigrant Song," and pulls more than a couple of clams in "Thank You." But the feel is so electric, so exhilarating, that the mistakes barely register.
This is Led Zeppelin the way the band was meant to be heard, and frankly, it would take a time machine to top the sound and excitement of these "BBC Sessions."
To hear excerpts from Led Zeppelin's new release, "BBC Sessions," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 11/18/97