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Led Zeppelin: Remasters Round Two

October 28th, 2014
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Today see’s the release of the Led Zeppelin IVand Houses Of The Holyremasters, complete with bonus material, here in North America. The remastered albums have been available as Mastered for iTunes for some time now, so I will reserve comment on their quality besides saying, the iTunes versions are excellent. Otherwise, if you have a chance to hear the CD or LP versions, there’s no reason to believe they won’t also be top notch (and certainly I felt Led Zeppelin, II and III all were).

The bonus material, available on the Deluxe Editions, however, gives us fodder for real discussion. Unlike the third album, which had Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind, there is nothing new in the bonus material, nor is there any live material like we saw on the first album. Both IV and Houses of the Holy’s bonus discs are presented as the complete album, with alternate versions, alternate mixes and instrumental versions of the songs.

In February 1971, Jimmy Page and engineer Andy Johns travelled to Los Angeles, master tapes for the fourth album handcuffed to Page (note: kidding), to master the album that would become what many consider Led Zeppelin’s most astonishing moment. He took the tapes to Sunset Sound Studios, where the state of the art studio was booked for mastering of the tapes. Job done, he returned to London and settled into Island Studios with his bandmates to play the new album: the sound was a disappointing mess. No one seems sure what happened, but it appears the equipment at Island couldn’t handle the more sophisticated mastering done at Sunset Sound, and Page returned to the Island Studio to re-master the songs yet again. Of the eight songs on the final album, seven of them were from the London mixes. Only When The Levee Breaks survived from the California mixes.

Of the bonus material on Led Zeppelin IV,the alternate mix of Stairway to Heaven from the Sunset Sound Studios session, and When the Levee Breaks from the London remixing appear. Other alternate mixes from unknown sources are Four Sticks, Rock and Roll and Misty Mountain Hop. Misty Mountain Hop shines the most, with a John Bonham count-in and a much more live sound, the song comes alive in a way it never really did before. When the Levee Breaks is also noticeably different, although not for the better. While Four Sticks sounds more live, wetter in audio geek parlance, Levee is much drier, that famed drum sound somewhat diminished in the mixing. They made the right choice going with the Sunset Sound Studio mix on this song. If we were hearing that mix, that drum sound for the first time here, now, it would be all that anyone would be talking about.

Rock and Roll and Stairway to Heaven on the other hand, have barely noticeable differences. The guitar is a little down in the mix here, the voice up there. Yes, the recorders are definitely louder, but not so much that most people would notice if they didn’t know. On the other hand, Black Dog (Basic Track with Guitar Overdubs) is an alternate take, and while the differences are subtle, at least until the ah-ha’s when a Plant adds a harmony vocal. It doesn’t work actually, sounds too much like that guy beside you at the concert singing along with the band, but you can hear them trying something. Besides, Plant’s ad-lib on the outro is outstanding.

Instrumental mixes of Going to California and Battle of Evermore are interesting, but the repetitive nature of those songs means it’s not something you would listen to more than a few times. While not something you might throw on in the car on your way home from work, throwing the LP on the turntable with a good whiskeywould make for an enjoyable hour on a Friday night.

On Houses Of The HolyLed Zeppelin’s songwriting really grew. Instead of writing pop songs, they were composing music in a rock vein. This becomes evident on the instrumental versions on the Deluxe Edition on this release. The Song Remains the Same is an interesting song unto itself without vocals. And while Over The Hills and Far Away still has it’s repetition, the “guitar mix backing track” is enjoyable. The guitar solo being a little higher in the mix is an added bonus. No Quarter is, again, a complete composition sans vocals, working perfectly as an instrumental composition. What you quickly hear is that Robert Plant was not necessary to either No Quarter or The Song Remains the Same, but manages to put together a performance that adds to the whole of the piece (although a reasonable argument could be made that The Song Remains the Same is a better song as an instrumental than with his speeded up chipmunk vocal added as on the album).

The Rain Song (mix minus piano) baffles me slightly, but only because I can’t detect the difference between the original and this one. The Crunge (rough mix – keys up), Dancing Days (Rough Mix with Vocal) and The Ocean (Working Mix) are the same. Detecting what may be different (no count in on The Ocean for example) could be a game unto itself. So while there’s nothing exciting in the remaining bonus tracks (and no D’Yer Mak’er at all), added in with the three instrumentals you get an idea of what this album could have been like. And in fact, Jimmy Page’s original idea was to start it off with The Song Remains the Same as an instrumental (in fact, it was originally called Overture) that connected to The Rain Song.

What you get from the Houses Of The Holy bonus disk is that it could have been a better album. So far, of all the bonus disks, this may be the only one I play on a regular basis instead of the original album.


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Cool for Cats Friday

March 4th, 2011
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Stairway to Heaven meets Gilligan’s Island.

A Day in Green Acres


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The Freedom of Music: Jailbreak

May 23rd, 2010

freedom-of-music-header

One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

In his classic heavy metal treatise, Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman says in the Prologue:

…if you wrote an essay insisting Thin Lizzy provided the backbone for your teen experience in the mid 1970s, every rock critic in America would nod their head in agreement. A serious discussion of the metaphorical significance of Jailbreak would be totally acceptable. I just happen to think the same dialogue can be had about Slippery When Wet

sidebar-1Critics, start your nodding.

 I missed Jailbreak when it came out in 1976. In fact, I only discovered it in the past few weeks. Who knows why, I was 13 that year, certainly into music. I knew who Thin Lizzy was, liked the songs Jailbreak and, of course, The Boys Are Back in Town. But I never owned the album, still don’t own it although I did recently acquire the album on MP3.

 Avast, and how would you be acquiring that? you ask. Fear not, acquiring a legal copy during my infrequent visits to my local record store is on my agenda. Bad news if you’re Phil Lynott’s survivors, I’ll be buying a used copy. The only reason I can figure I never owned it is that I have a Thin Lizzy Greatest Hits album, that returned with my mother from one of her occaisnal trips home to Ireland. I had all the Lizzy songs I’d need, I must have reasoned. That’s where I reasoned wrong.

Sure the hits are good: Jailbreak and The Boys are Back in Town are both great rock songs, classics even. And Cowboy Song, which I’m not entirely sure was ever released as a single or was a hit, but is a standard of the classic rock canon. “It’s just like Wanted, Dead or Alive,” people always say. It was the jumping off point for Chuck Klostermans comparison of the two above:

…the car radio played Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song“. I was struck by how much it reminded me of Wanted, Dead or Alive.

Yes, it is just like Wanted, Dead or Alive, in that both songs use the word “cowboy,” a lot, and both have electric guitars in them, and Wanted, Dead or Alive uses the cowboys as a metaphor for being a rock star and Cowboy Song uses cowboys as a metaphor for people who work on ranches in the American southwest, and Wanted, Dead or Alive is in the key of D, and Cowboy Song the key of A and that’s only like, four apart. Otherwise, there’s not that much the two have in common that they don’t also have in common with Stairway to Heaven and Kiss’s Black Diamond and Chilliwack’s My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) or any of the 1,000 other songs that starts slow before kicking it up.

 What makes Jailbreak such a good album though, is the non-hits. The real magic lies with the unheard songs in the collection. Romeo and the Lonely Girl might be the best song I never heard before. In the last week, it’s been the song that I’ve played over and over. Running Back is what amounts to a love song in Phil Lynott’s world. Not a ballad by any stretch, but a pretty song. And how can you not love lyrics like the following:

I’m a fool now that it’s over
 Can you guess my name?
I make my money singing songs about you
It’s my claim to fame.

That’s what almost every rock singer is trying to say in about half the songs they do: “I make my money singing songs about you.” They just can’t quite get those words out, and waste 3 1/2 minutes of your time not quite saying it. Angel from the Coast is a piece of guitar genius from start to finish. Different and original, yet unmistakably rock and roll.


Even the weaker songs, and Jailbreak has a couple of weak songs, have their moments. Warriors is just another hard rock song, the kind hundreds of bands were doing at the time, and would do for ten more years. But the guitar solo is a monster. One of those stunning solos that make you appreciate why so many songs have the guitar solo. Fight or Fall is weak, derivative work. But listen closely, because what’s unmistakable is that Elvis Costello was. Hell, who am I kidding here, listen to the echo section at the 1:25 mark: I’m tellin’ myself, tellin’ myself, tellin’ myself, tellin’ myself, tellin’ myself, tellin’ myself. Akon was listening. And this band’s real magic was there deft sense of melody. The delicate little solo in Fight or Fall is note perfect.

Listening to Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak this week, I can’t help asking myself: how was this band not one of my top three bands growing up? How did I miss these guys? And how did I ever miss this fabulous album?

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