Graham Reid | | 5 min read
With regard to critics who wrote that Billie Holiday used her voice like an instrument he said that was “a fatuous notion for any singer who so obviously relies on actual lyrics”.
A point still worth remembering about singers for those writers who fall for the “voice like an instrument” cliché, as I admit to having done sometimes.
And he also said if he were “to frame Larkin's Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven't already got probably isn't worth bothering about”.
He wrote that long before the current trend in rock for anniversary reissues of albums.
Barely a month goes by when there isn't some remastered reissue of a classic album (invariably with mostly worthless bonus tracks) and the expanded box set – the music packaged up with booklets and sometimes actual books, period photos, facsimiles of concert tickets, guitar picks, what have you – has also become the norm.
We're so far down the track now that there are reissues of reissues, albeit remastered sometimes and repackaged.
Without effort I have the original Hendrix albums on vinyl, a vinyl reissue set which arrived before the age of CDs, then the first CD reissue and more recently the repackaged remastered CD reissue of the reissue.
Sometimes – often enough perhaps, notably in the case of the Nick Cave and REM return bouts – a reissue is valid and this year I'd be hoping for the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night to be re-presented. This classic pop film has long been unavailable and a new generation deserves to see it.
When it was announced that Jimmy Page was going to re-present the first three Led Zeppelin albums re-mastered, I was reminded about what comedian Steve Martin said about born-again Christians: “Well excuse me for getting it right the first time”.
Page has been down the remastered path before on our behalf when, in 1990, we were treated to the four CD and booklet box set (right).
Clearly he didn't get it right that time so the three albums are back again (as nature intended, the box set was non-chronological) and each original album comes with an extra disc of live tracks, different mixes and suchlike.
Oh, and a booklet, of course. But just photos, no context-setting essay or the like.
The original albums we all know (and they sound exceptional I havw to admit), so let's just turn attention to those extra discs and, using Larkin's Law of Reissues, consider whether they add to the sum of our knowledge about Led Zeppelin.
The first album comes with a 72 minute concert in Paris recorded in October '69, nine months after the release of that album and at a time when they had completed their second which would be released a fortnight later.
Concerts are curious beasts for some in the audience: many want to hear the songs just like they are on the beloved album (the Eagles deliver that) and others don't mind if arrangements are changed (c'mon down Mr Dylan with Blowing in the Wind inna country-rock reggae style).
When Led Zeppelin went to Paris they stuck largely to instrumentally expanded versions of material from their debut, with the exception of two from their forthcoming album: Heartbreaker and drummer John Bonham's tour de force/farce Moby Dick which yawns out to nine and a half minutes. You always have to be there for drum solos, although I generally prefer not to be.
What strikes you about the concert is just how exceptional Robert Plant's vocals are – Eddie Vedder owes a lot to Plant's style on the terrific Heartbreaker here – but also how much of tea break he often gets.
Most of the concert is guitarist Jimmy Page's blues-fueled pyrotechnics (and his nine minute acoustic White Summer/Black Mountain Side which marries the Yardbirds track to the Led Zepp one), some exceptional playing which can only be described as proto-shredding (I Can't Quit You Baby) and those free form feedback/violin bow sonic psychedelics on the 15 minute Dazed and Confused (with additional help from John Paul Jones on keyboards) which are made for headphone enjoyment.
Interestingly you can hear in Plant's yelps on the 12 minute You Shook Me the sound that made its way into the tripped-out central passages of the soon-some Whole Lotta Love . . . in the closer How Many More Times a canny Page nudges in the key chords from that track. The shape of things to come.
Given what the state of the original tapes must have been (although the concert was recorded for French radio, so perhaps not so bad) this disc has a widescreen punch and sometimes a thrillingly shrill top end, especially when Page takes centrestage, which is often.
This disc is for those who think of Led Zeppelin as Jimmy Page's band with Robert Plant and some other guys.
The extra disc with Led Zeppelin II obviously couldn't just deliver more live material again so . . .
And here the disappointment begins. What you get starts with a "rough mix with vocals" of Whole Lotta Love. Imagine your favourite pizza with all the trimmings . . . but without the trimmings. Just the thin-crust base, some cheese filler and an anchovie or two.
With such stuff'n'nonsense are myths destroyed and great songs ruined. It's a bloody awful disc . . . and worse, it is irrelevant. Unless your sole purpose in life is to deconstruct Led Zepp classics.
There's also not a lot else of interest on this bonus disc (the non-vocal backing track for Living Loving Maid serves what purpose exactly?) other than maybe hearing the pastoral backing track for Thank You or a minute and a hlaf of Moby Dick before Bonham's drummering.
This sounds like Jimmy showing that iffn't it weren't for me, mate . . .
And on the extra disc with Led Zeppelin III -- you're not incined to say "bonus disc" after the LedZepp II awfulness -- you get different mixes (Hmmm, maybe Steve Martin has something to say about this?) and more pizza bases without the topping (Friends without the vocals track for example).
That said, the rough mix of Since I've Been Loving You has a certain raw edge that makes it feel more real than the released version (but only by a smidgen) and Gallows Pole -- as previously mentioned here -- really is one of their great ignored versions.
There's also a fine lowkey medley of Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind with Page on acoustic guitar and someone (Plant presumably) playing blues harmonica. Plant's vocals are processed to give a vibrato effect (you'll like it or you won't, I can't see the point actually) but it does illustrate just how these ruthless plagiarisers of the blues were genuinely steeped in the sound.
So there you have it: Led Zeppelin reissued with extra discs which have tracks that are variously essential (the debut album) or of little consequence (most of the other two).
We can guess this remastered series will continue and the next one will be very interesting: Will we hear Page rehearsing Stairway to Heaven by playing Spirit's Taurus? Will we get some director's cut of Black Dog? A rough mix of The Battle of Evermore with just Sandy Denny's vocals?
The road goes on forever and if Philip Larkin were here today -- and had the most remote but unlikely interest in rock music -- we might imagine what he would tell us.
Or, as the old saying goes, "You pays your money and you takes your chances".