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Classic Album Reviews: Led Zeppelin | How the West Was Won / Led Zeppelin DVD

Two excellent retrospectives showcase the consummate rockers' live prowess.

This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


“Playing live was the real jewel in our existence,” asserts Robert Plant in the liner notes to the new Led Zeppelin DVD. “There was a feeling of reaching and stretching for something that wasn’t quite so evident on the records.”

Up until a few days ago, a quote like that would have had naysayers rolling our eyes and making snide comments about rock stars who need to get over themselves. Sure, Led Zeppelin were the consummate hard-rock band. Still are, if their perpetual presence on FM radio is anything to go by. But a transcendent live act? That’s harder to believe — and I saw them in the mid-’70s, so I know a little of whence I speak.

But you don’t need to take it from me. You can just watch The Song Remains the Same, their live album and concert film from 1976. Sure, it’s a rock-movie classic. But let’s be honest: It’s also a ridiculous, bloated mess. (If you can keep a straight face while watching those wizard-and-broadsword sequences, you’ve obviously never seen Spinal Tap do Stonehenge.) The album? Well, it’s just the movie without pictures. And neither has any of the reaching and stretching Plant is talking about — unless you count a half-hour version of Dazed and Confused that includes the hippy theme San Francisco.

But that was then and this is now. Now, I have been to the mountain. I have spent a chunk of the weekend with two of the most hotly anticipated new bits of Zep memorabilia in years: How the West Was Won, an impressive three-CD set of live audio from 1972; and Led Zeppelin: DVD, an essential two-disc retrospective of video footage from throughout the band’s career. Now, I see what all the fuss is about. And you can too. But which one to buy?

Depends how much you like Zep. If you’re a casual fan, go for How the West Was Won. It’s an 18-track set pieced together out of two widely bootlegged California gigs from 1972. Granted, that makes it less of a historical document. But it does make it one great live album. The performances are swaggering, sweaty and soaring — archetypal rock drummer John Bonham drives the band with his massive bass drum and thundering triplets; leonine singer Plant’s screeching vocals have never sounded better; guitar god Jimmy Page’s fretwork is fiery, flawless and inspired; and the under-rated MVP bassist / keyboardist John Paul Jones glues it all together so seamlessly he makes it look easy.

Naturally, the cherry-picked set list is a winner, balancing shorter, heavier cuts like Immigrant Song, Black Dog and Rock and Roll with lengthier flights like Whole Lotta Love. Sure, much is familiar turf; Page whips out the bow for Dazed and Confused; Bonzo pummels the kit with his hands on Moby Dick. But there are enough fresh bits — a bit of Greensleeves and some roots licks in Heartbreaker; an acoustic mini-set of Going to California, That’s the Way and Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp; raucous takes on Wanda Jackson’s Let’s Have A Party and Gene Pitney’s Hello, Mary Lou in Whole Lotta Love — to give you new appreciation for Zep’s prowess. The downside? The sound is OK but not mind-blowing. The set is 150 minutes and could fit on two CDs, which makes you suspect they put in on three just to jack the price. But strangest of all is the packaging — there isn’t much. Basically, all you get here is the music. Sure, the music is more than good enough for the casual listener. If you’re a true fan, though, you want more.

That’s where Led Zeppelin: DVD comes in. This monster was created for the Zep freak in your family (come on, we all have one). It houses five hours of video — concert footage, TV gigs, interviews, promos, even shots of roadies unloading gear. Much of it was painstakingly assembled from old films that were digitally refurbished, with bootleg footage and still photos used to fill gaps. Still, the results (with the possible exception of the roadie stuff) were worth the effort.

There’s a 100-minute Royal Albert Hall show from 1970 that captures the young band in full ascent, tearing through oldies like What Is and What Should Never Be and Communication Breakdown, followed by Eddie Cochran tunes in the encore. There’s 20 minutes of material that wasn’t in Song Remains the Same. There are half a dozen songs from a 1975 show at Earl’s Court, closing with Stairway to Heaven. There’s 50 minutes from the band’s 1979 Knebworth show, a late-period triumph that included later fare like In the Evening and Kashmir.

As if that isn’t enough, there are extras, including: A B&W video for Communication Breakdown; a hilarious 1970 press conference (“How are you different from The Beatles?”); and a 30-minute Danish TV appearance from 1969 that is so crisply shot you can see threads hanging from Page’s guitar strap. Add some gorgeous packaging, including plenty of pictures and two booklets of liner notes, and you’ve got one of the best retrospective DVDs ever assembled. My only quibble: Why give us part of Knebworth when the whole show is out as a bootleg? Hell, a third (or even a fourth) disc wouldn’t deter fans; if anything, it would make the set more attractive.

Even without it, though, it’s nice to know that Plant wasn’t lying about Zeppelin’s live show.