From the point of view of trying to influence the potential consumer, writing a review of the new Led Zeppelin DVD is pretty pointless: if you’re a fan of the group, you already own the DVD. And if you’re not, no amount of praise on my part is going to convince you to buy it.
Still with me?
Great, because we can explore what makes this two DVD set so impressive–and why Zeppelin themselves were so exciting.
In the mid-1980s, Jimmy Page took to the road with The Firm, musicians (not the least of which was the otherwise great Paul Rodgers) less compatible with his playing style than Led Zeppelin was. Additionally, his chops were suffering from a long self-imposed layoff from not playing, as he mourned the 1980 death of drummer John Bonham. As a result, Page’s reputation certainly took a nosedive. The new Led Zeppelin DVD should successfully allow Jimmy Page to recapture his legend as a guitar hero who, at his best, is worthy of mention in the same breath as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Two DVDs worth of stunt playing, furious power chording, filigreed funk and just about every other technique imaginable on the electric guitar remind the world that at the peak of his powers (and even a little after that peak, as the Knebworth concerts surely were), he was a monster player.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the luster was a bit worn off of Page’s reputation in the 1980s was how much the musicians in Zeppelin complemented him. Like fellow ex-Yardbirder Eric Clapton in Cream, Page was a guitar hero smart enough to surround himself with a drummer and bassist who were even better players than he was. Unlike Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, Zeppelin kept its internal power struggles and battling egos to a minimum.
While Page was clearly the band’s producer and leader, Zeppelin was a band, not a superstar guitarist and his sidemen. Maybe that’s one reason why none of the three surviving members of the band have created much that will last the test of time the way Zeppelin’s original output has: the men under their employ in the 1980s and ’90s weren’t in a position to argue with them, or suggest alternatives, the way that the individual members of Zeppelin could. Jones could do wonders arranging Page’s riffs. Bonham’s drums could add the perfect color. Plant’s scat singing and fearlessness with his vocals helped kept the band from becoming nothing but verses, choruses and guitar solos.
The DVDs also serve to remind us what an awesome drummer John Bonham was. He was equally capable of thrashing about his kit as Keith Moon was, but he had far more impeccable timing and control over his instrument. Nobody–and I mean nobody in rock could play a bass drum better than Bonham. “Kashmir” and “Good Times/Bad Times” are tributes to his ability to crank out rapid-fire 16th note hits on one bass drum faster than the average drummer could on two.
While Robert Plant shared the spotlight with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones’ role in the band was long taken for granted. But he was the best overall musician in the group, an excellent multi-instrumentalist, and an inspired Fender bassist, bringing the sensibility of a James Jamerson to glue Zep’s frontline to Bonham’s drumming. His keyboards added many colors to Zeppelin’s sound that the vast majority of crunchy rockers who dominated the arenas of America in the 1970s could only dream of emulating.
History Placed In Context
The DVDs do a good job of placing the band’s history into context. The current conventional wisdom of Zep is that they were an incredibly tight band, until the early 1970s, when Page and Plant, indulged by their manager, Peter Grant, began to snort vast pharmaceutical quantities up their proboscides when they became a sloppy, self-indulgent mess.
Side one of the DVD is the band’s 1970 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Side two goes from Madison Square Garden in 1973 to Earl’s Court in 1975 to Knebworth, their last and largest appearance in England, in 1979. It’s this last concert that may provide the greatest revaluation of the band. Given their reputation during this period, the material from Knebworth shows a surprisingly tight group, even if it is led by a guitarist who’s pipe cleaner thin. Having (in retrospect permanently) retired his bell-bottomed, Joan Crawford-shouldered dragon suits, Page was at his most emaciated during Knebworth, an appearance even more obvious in still photos.
And yet seen in video, Page is his usual Red Baron self, bopping across the stage, playing to the crowds, and generally tearing up the fretboards of his Les Pauls, Stratocaster, and Danelectro.
Incidentally, it’s nice to see a man who can go from a 1959 Les Paul–at the time worth about $10,000, to a Danelectro guitar largely built out of Masonite, and worth about $125. Today, a ’59 “Lester” is typically worth somewhere north of $100,000, and that same Danelectro is probably worth about $500. And it never sounded better than in Page’s hands on “Kashmir”, “White Summer” and “In My Time Of Dying”.
Because most of the footage from 1975′s Earl’s Court concert came from video cameras used to supply images to the Jurassic-Jumbotron above the group, the material is almost all close-ups, making the transition from the letterboxed, cinematic Song Remains The Same outtakes just before it that much more jarring. The first handful of numbers feel like an early MTV Unplugged show, as the band displays surprising subtlety during their acoustic set. Page trades his Les Paul electric and plectrum for a Martin acoustic and a steel thumbpick. The Earl’s Court set ends with, not surprisingly, “Stairway to Heaven”, with Page on his trademark Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck guitar. The opening is very, very similar to the version in “The Song Remains The Same”, with John Paul Jones playing a nice recorder patch on his Melotron. But even as early as 1975, you get the feeling that the song was beginning to be a bit of a millstone around Zeppelin’s collective neck. The band’s energy perks up during Page’s guitar solo, and its buildup, which contains some very tasty doublestops and on-the-spot improvising, followed by some surprisingly clean tones on his guitar’s 12-string neck in the song’s outro. Look closely, and you’ll see Page soloing on his double neck with a broken string (the B-string, I believe), and somehow able to maneuver around the solo on the five remaining strings.
“Stairway” and the craftsmanship involved in both recording the song and pulling it off live illustrates part of Zeppelin’s success. While their core elements–especially in the studio–were Page’s acoustic and electric playing backed by a thundering rhythm section, and backing Plant’s diverse vocal range; the DVD illustrates that Zeppelin could go anywhere: the do-whops of “The Ocean”, the exotic Escher-like feeling of “Kashmir”, the speed-thrash of “Communication Breakdown”, the slow aching blues of “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, etc. Some groups have one sound that they pummel you into the ground with. Zeppelin had all sorts of different ways to pummel its audience happily into submission!
Lots of Easter Eggs
As the amount of tracks available in the studio went from 8 to 16 to 24 in the 1970s, Jimmy Page took full advantage of that technology, layering subtle, almost subliminal guitar tracks, that wouldn’t pop out to a listener’s ears until he had heard the album at least a dozen times. Page and the DVD production team have taken a similar approach to these discs. Hidden in the DVDs are all sorts of fun “Easter eggs”: rare snippets, outtakes, and home movies. For example, go to the Madison Square Garden footage from its submenu, and you’ll see backstage excerpts cut out of The Song Remains The Same. Go to Earls Court from its submenu, and you’ll see exterior shots of the hall in the mid-1970s, followed by a shot of Zeppelin crossing a street to the building (or perhaps the Royal Albert Hall) from about 1970.
Is it a perfect DVD? Well, chances are, if you’re a fan, a favorite song got shortchanged. I would have loved to have seen “Ten Years Gone” included, with Page on his B-Bender Telecaster. Or “White Summer” preceding “Kashmir” at Knebworth or Earl’s Court, as in concert, Page would segue effortlessly from his solo fingerpicking on the former, to the full-on stomp of the latter. John Paul Jones seems a bit shortchanged as well. His signature song, “No Quarter”, which evolved into an epic keyboard exploration by 1977, is missing, as is any other material from their 1977 US tour, for that matter.
At times, the video (from those early Jumbotron feeds) is a bit rough, as is the sound on some of the Royal Albert Hall segments from 1970. But that’s not surprising when dealing with 30 year old material long vaulted.
But that’s pretty minor nitpicking. In “Kashmir”, Robert Plant sang, “all will be revealed”. These DVDs are the closet to revealing everything that made Zeppelin tick as a live band than anything they’ve ever released. And they’re a steal with a $24.95 list price.