Recommending a listen to the new reissues of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums is like endorsing a look at a restored Picasso. The art at hand was revolutionary to begin with. Now, both figuratively and literally, it is even more so.
The leg up Led Zeppelin has in what might seem an obligatory reissue campaign is considerable. Jimmy Page, the band’s pioneering guitarist, doubled as producer of these initial recordings. He has also overseen the remastering process, which provides especially vivid detail to the acoustic passages of 1970’s Led Zeppelin III and makes the spaced out interplay of the majestic Dazed and Confused (from Led Zeppelin II) sound like a true trip into the cosmos. But it is with the bonus “companion” discs of unreleased material now accompanying each recording that Page hits serious paydirt.
In the case of II (the second of two 1969 albums) and III, he has patched together a scrapbook of rough mixes, blueprint versions and alternate mixes of songs fans have known by heart most of their lives. The results are similar in intent to what the Beatles did nearly 20 years ago with their Anthology series. There is little by way of actual unearthed songs. But these works-in-progress act like liked a guided tour through one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most formidable catalogs.
Whole Lotta Love, the breakthrough hit from II, is presented as a live sounding beast with little studio embellishment. Even Page’s frenzied squeals come with minimal trickery, sounding like atomic duck calls as a result. But the charge provided when drummer John Bonham kicks the band back into gear after a trippy interlude is pure, handmade fury.
At the other extreme is the isolated backing track to Thank You, which makes the song into a largely pastoral instrumental. With only drums and Page’s rhythm playing as a backdrop, the lead winds up in the organ colors of bassist John Paul Jones, who makes the mighty Zeppelin sound like the more contemplative Traffic.
The companion disc for III digs a bit deeper. Immigrant Song is presented with the same unadorned clarity as Whole Lotta Love, while Friends is served as a raga-like instrumental. Then the surprises emerge.
We recognize in the guttural shuffle of Bathroom Sound the root of what would emerge on the finished album as Out on the Tiles just as Jennings Farm Blues is a jam-style predecessor to Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp. Page’s acoustic medley of the blues chestnuts Key to the Highway and Trouble in Mind with vocalist Robert Plant serve as a loose, cryptic coda.
The companion disc to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album differs in design to offer the biggest treat of the batch – a 70-plus minute concert recording from Paris’ Olympia Theatre that represents – especially in the electric folk frenzy Page triggers on a medley of White Summer and Black Mountain Side – the performance abandon Led Zeppelin embraced when it fled the studio and hit the heavens.