The Yardbirds – “Little Games” (1967 / 2014)

yardbirdslittlegamesDespite being a huge Led Zeppelin fan for most of my life, I never paid any attention to Jimmy Page’s pre-Zep band the Yardbirds.  But the other day I got my hands on this new re-release of their last studio album, 1967s Little Games, so I sat down to give it a listen.  Not only was this the only Yardbirds album on which Page was the sole lead guitarist (Jeff Beck having also been with the band previously), but one of the studio musicians who played bass and did some orchestral arrangements  later became an important part in the Led Zeppelin story – John Paul Jones.  In fact, the perceived disaster that was Little Games significantly contributed to the breakup of the Yardbirds, and it was from the ashes of that dissolution that one of the all-time greatest rock bands emerged.  Initially billed as The New Yardbirds, they quickly changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

It’s tough to truly understand how this record fit into the landscape of 1967 and how it was heard as part of the Yardbirds catalog.  Overall the contemporary reviews were mediocre at best, and no hits emerged from Little Games, so it was certainly a commercial disappointment.  And I kind of get it.  It feels very disorganized, like a bunch of random songs just thrown together.  Some pop, some heavy psych, but no cohesion of sound.  There are, however, some gems here.  The heavy psych instrumental “White Summer,” with it’s obvious Eastern influences, is the groundwork for some of the great quasi-folkish Zeppelin tracks on Physical Graffiti, and “Glimpses” is another psych powerhouse, this one involving the entire band.  “Drinking Muddy Water” is the other high point, a solid blues rocker.

As for the rest?  Well… it’s fine.  But not much there that strikes my fancy.  Still, Little Games is an enjoyable listen, and you can pick up some of the later Zep vibe in a few spots.

Robert Plant – “Now and Zen” (1988)

robertplantnowandzenRobert Plant was one of the very first concerts Holly and I went to together.  It might in fact have been the first, but in talking it over while we listen to 1988s Now and Zen we’re just not sure.  Other candidates are INXS and Tin Machine (<– the only way I ever managed to see Bowie… but at least I saw him).  I remember that we went to the Plant show with my future father-in-law, since similar taste in music was about the only thing a mullet sporting teen and a middle aged dude could possible have in common other than their interest in the same girl… albeit approaching the girl part of the equation from completely different directions.  Mind you, he was more Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, while I was more Now and Zen.  But we both agreed on Led Zeppelin IV, so when Plant and company pulled out the mandolins and played some Zep tunes including “Going to California” we could finally see eye to eye.

I’d forgotten how good this record is.  Yeah, I remember the hits – “Heaven Knows,” “Tall Cool One,” and “Ship of Fools.”  But damn, the whole thing is pretty solid.  Plant is one of those singers who aged well, changing his style as time went on and finding new and interesting ways use his changing voice.  From the Honeydrippers to his work with Alison Krauss, even when I haven’t liked it a lot it’s been near flawless.  As Advancement Theory teaches us… when I haven’t enjoyed Plant’s work, most likely the problem is me, not him.

Led Zeppelin – “Led Zeppelin IV” Deluxe Edition (2014)

Zoso.  The Mothership.  The Hammer of the Gods.  Led Zeppelin.

I’ve written before about how I first came to the mighty Zep, so I won’t rehash that here.  It happened in high school, and it seemed like at that point anyone who was into rock fell into one of three camps:  Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, or The Who.  The holy trinity of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.  The people your parents warned you about, because they’d be bad influences who would turn you onto drugs and make you worship the devil.  Three near-perfect, but distinctly different sounding bands who were responsible in their own ways for countless adolescent arguments that often quickly deteriorated into name calling and insults.  And you know what?  They’re still powerful today, still relevant despite the fact that two of the three have been around for over half a century.  Last summer while visiting my friend Tristen in New Jersey we stopped by a bagel place and the dude serving us had the four symbols from Led Zeppelin IV tattooed on his forearm.  He was in his early 20s and probably hadn’t even been born until at least a decade after John Bonham’s death, yet there those symbols were, permanently inked on his body.  Zoso lives.

I don’t specifically remember the first time I heard Led Zeppelin IV, but it probably would have been my sophomore year in high school.  But I do remember the first time I saw it on vinyl, spending the night at my friend Joe’s house as he opened the gatefold and just tripped me the hell out with that creepy looking monk guy on the hill overlooking the town.  What was he doing out there by himself?  And those symbols… what did they mean?  Which one represented each band member?  We didn’t have the internet, so there was no place to even try to look to find out.  We’d think and talk about this kind of thing for hours while playing Led Zeppelin in our rooms, and debate about whether or not “Stairway to Heaven” was actually the greatest rock song of all time.  We played our cassettes backwards to hear the alleged backwards masked messages, and were creeped out to hear those warbled sounds.

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I got my hands on copies of the first three Led Zeppelin vinyl re-releases a while back and wrote about them HERE, but for Led Zeppelin IV I got a copy of the big boy, the deluxe box set containing two records, two CDs, a limited edition print, and an 80 page full-color hardbound book, all packaged in a sturdy, nearly 2″ thick box.  If you dropped this on your foot, you’d almost certainly break a toe.  It could probably stop a small caliber bullet.  But I don’t know if it can protect your soul from what lurks within…

How many times have I listened to LZ IV?  Fifty?  A hundred?  And some of the songs way more often than that.  I still have the CD copy I bought in the late 1980s, and I’m pretty sure I had a vinyl copy back before I purged my vinyl collection in the 1990s.  I’m sure I’ve listened to Side A way more often than Side B, but c’mon, let’s take a look at that first side:

1.  “Black Dog”
2.  “Rock And Roll”
3.  “The Battle of Evermore”
4.  “Stairway to Heaven”

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That is right up there on the list of greatest album sides of all time, alongside such magnum opuses as the first sides of The Doors’ The Doors, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Baby 81 (yes, seriously).  If “Going to California” had been slotted #3 instead of “The Battle of Evermore” it would be unequivocally the best (or perhaps if Heart’s Anne Wilson had sung the female parts on “The Battle of Evermore” as she has live so many times, because she’s perfection for that song).  Fortunately that wasn’t the case, because everyone else might have just packed up their instruments, put them in storage, and taken desk jobs, because rock ‘n’ roll would have been perfected.

I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know about Led Zeppelin IV.  It contains the song that is certainly automatically part of any discussion about the best rock song of all time (“Stairway to Heaven”), it established Lord of the Rings-esque folk rock as something that actually rocks, it made countless young people want to take up the mandolin, and it inspired dudes who work in bagel shops to tattoo its symbols on their arms.  That’s power, my friends.

As I mentioned earlier, the box set deluxe edition comes with two LPs and two CDs, which contain identical material (plus a download card for FLAC files of both).  The first is the entire Led Zeppelin IV album as remastered by Jimmy Page (which, if anything, sounds a little light on the bass to my ears).  The second is a different version of the album – alternate versions of all eight of the original songs, in the same order they appear on the original.  In general these kind of alternate takes/mixes are only mildly interesting to me, or more curiosities than anything else.  That being said the mandolin/guitar instrumental versions of “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California” are pretty fantastic.  The book, too, with all of it’s color photos and images of memorabilia is fun too look at while you’re listening to the album, whether on vinyl, CD, or FLAC.

Led Zeppelin Remasters

Unless you’ve been living under the “rock” in rock ‘n’ roll, you probably heard at least something about the Led Zeppelin catalog being re-released on vinyl.  Well, not only are the records being re-released, they’re also being remastered by none other than Jimmy Page, and offered in a bunch of different packages, from the basic original format, to two record sets featuring the original album plus a bonus record, to a “Super Deluxe” version that includes vinyl, CDs, and a full color book (oh yeah, and there are CD versions as well).

Is this a shameless money grab as some have insinuated?  Personally I think not.  While you may not care about things like previously released alternate takes and instrumental tracks, a lot of die-hard fans do.  Throw in some live stuff and remastering by Page himself, and I for one was pretty excited to get my hands on some of these babies.  Hell, even if you don’t want the bonus materials, it’s a great chance to get a pristine copy of the albums on heavyweight vinyl for a reasonable price.  It’s not going to hurt the value of your originals, and you’re welcome to keep listening to them instead if you want.  Hell, I still have all the Led Zep albums on CD, all of which I bought before 1990.

The other day I was fortunate to come across copies of all three of the first batch of re-issues – Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III.  The first two are the “standard” format vinyl – the remastered record in a sleeve featuring the original artwork and packaging (so Led Zep II is gatefold), while the third (Led Zep III) is the Deluxe Vinyl Edition that comes with a second record of alternate versions and instrumentals.  The packaging on all three is top notch with sturdy, high gloss jackets that have colors that really pop and seem at least slightly resistant to fingerprints.  I mean, don’t put down a slice of pizza and pick up your copy… but its better than some albums that I have that you can walk past on the shelf and they’ll somehow end up with fingerprints on them.  The vinyl is heavy 180 gram, the inner sleeves are good quality (not just paper), and all my records came out of their sleeves looking relatively clean and unscuffed.  So far, so good.

Led Zeppelin I

If “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” doesn’t give you chills, you’re already dead.

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I haven’t dusted off LZ I and listened to it all the way through in years, probably.  And while I won’t say something ridiculous like “gosh, I forgot how good this album is,” I will say that it still sounds amazing and it’s hard to believe it’s 46 years old.  Forty-six!  WTF?  This album is older than I am (by a little…) and it’s still powerful and awesome.  I think this was the first Zep album I bought, picking it up on cassette from one of those huge bins full of discount tapes that every shopping mall Musicland use to have at the front entrance (if you’re too young to remember Musicland, or, frankly, cassettes… <sigh>… go ask an “old” person; used to be you could get tons of great classic rock albums for pretty cheap in these bins).  I will freely admit I didn’t quite “get” it right away as a 15 year old.  But I did “get” Led Zeppelin II when I bought it soon after, and from then on I was all about the mothership.

The recording quality and clarity of the remaster is top notch.  And yes, I even compared it to my CD version, and I can promise you that the CD isn’t any cleaner sounding.  For my money this was always the most bluesy Zep album, and the one where John Paul Jones contributed the most.  His bass lines are deep and heavy, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, and the man knows how to groove. He’s wicked on “Good Times Bad Times” and kills it on every song, all the way through to the opening licks on the closing track, “How Many More Times.”  This is Zep at their heaviest, and it sounds great.

The second record on the deluxe version is a 1969 live show from Paris, which I’m actually curious to hear.  So while I didn’t get that vinyl version, I may at some point break down and buy the CD so I can check it out, unless I can find it as a download.

Led Zeppelin II

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I wrote a virtual love letter to this album for my 500th post on Life in the Vinyl Lane, which you can read HERE.  I don’t have a lot more to add – this is THE seminal album in my life, that one record (technically cassette… yes kids, that’s how we bought music in the 80s because, frankly the CD wasn’t around yet, and records were what your parents bought) that changed how I listened to and thought about music.  The first album that I listened to all the way through, over and over and over and over again.  I don’t think I ever had it on vinyl back in the day, so it’s cool to have it on my shelf now, nearly 30 years after having heard it for the first time.  Like LZ I, the quality is excellent and it sounds great on my system.  Get some.

Led Zeppelin III

I have a confession.  For the longest time I didn’t like Led Zeppelin III.  It sat there forlornly on my shelf, surrounded by Led Zep CDs that actually got played, and collected dust.  Probably the only time I’d pop it in is if I wanted to get my epic viking on and shout through the intro of “Immigrant Song.”  As far as I knew, that might have been the only song on the album.  Presence got played more often.  Hell, even Coda might have.

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But as I got older, people started telling me I needed to give LZ III another chance.  And slowly I did.  First coming to realize the brilliance of “Gallow’s Pole” (which is actually better than “Immigrant Song”…) to the tremendous blues groove of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (there’s John Paul Jones again!) to the sad “That’s The Way” (I don’t know how I’m gonna tell you… / I can’t play with you no more…) to the crazily underrated “Out On The Tiles.”  There’s some killer stuff here.  Look, I still think it’s a more uneven album than it’s predecessors, but kudos to the Zep for taking some chances and doing some different stuff.  While I think Led Zeppelin IV sounds more like the first two records, the LZ III vibe is evident in the next series of releases like Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti.  

As for the bonus material, there is one alternate version of every song on the album.  “Friends” is the only instrumental, the different mix of “The Immigrant Song” seems just a bit more trippy, and I really enjoyed the version of “That’s The Way” with the echo effects.  I doubt I’ll listen to the extra stuff often, but it is interesting to hear different ways that the band was approaching the music that we’re all so familiar with.

 

I’m not sure when the next batch of re-issues will come out, but I’m really looking forward to them since the next trio is probably the best three-record run in the band’s career – LZ IVHouses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti.  That’s tough to beat, top to bottom.

Life in the Vinyl Lane Post #500!!! “Led Zeppelin II”

It’s hard to believe that Life in the Vinyl Lane made it to 500 posts.  When I started this blog I figured I’d probably stick with it for a few months and then it would fade away.  And while it probably will eventually slow to an inevitable halt like all blogs do, I’m still excited to discover and write about music.  So for those of you who check it out from time to time (or on a regular basis), and especially those of you who email, I thank you.

So why the hell am I posting about Led Zeppelin II?

It’s not like there haven’t been millions of words written about Led Zeppelin and their 1969 masterpiece second album.  And let’s be honest – I’m not going to give you any new insights into the record, and I won’t be breaking some new fact about the band like that Robert Plant is actually space alien from a planet where everyone wears skin-tight jeans and can hit the high notes or that the sound waves from John Paul Jones’ bass can cure some types of cancer.  So why?  Because Led Zeppelin II has been, and probably always will be, the most important album in my life.  And it’s my blog.  So there.

You need coolin’
Baby I’m not foolin’
I’m gonna send ya
Back to schooin’.
— “Whole Lotta Love”

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Led Zeppelin II wasn’t the first album I bought.  Hell, it wasn’t even the first rock/metal album I bought.  I didn’t discover the mighty Led until my sophomore year in high school.  Many people have their musical experiences shaped by older siblings, but I didn’t have anyone at home to show me the path to rock ‘n’ roll righteousness (my dad’s copy of The Jazz Singer didn’t quite do it)… though I did have the benefit of two things in the early 1980s – MTV and KISW radio.  MTV got me into what was big at the time – Ratt, Van Halen, and a secret appreciation of Duran Duran that it took me over a decade to admit publicly; KISW exposed me to some stuff that wasn’t on MTV, or at least not often, including some classic rock heavies like Judas Priest and Deep Purple, and the occasional playing of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

I actually think I can remember the moment I was first “told” about Led Zeppelin, or more to the point had some dudes roll their eyes about the fact that I’d never even heard of them before, down in the “sophomore pit” basement where our lockers were in high school.  That afternoon I literally walked across the street to the mall on my way to the bus stop, bought a copy of Led Zeppelin I on cassette (remember Musicland stores??) and took the bus home to listen to it.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed initially.  But I decided to give them another try, and a few weeks later bought Led Zeppelin II and my brain exploded.

It would not be an exaggeration to say I literally wore that tape out.  At that point (we’re in the mid 1980s now) we had a computer at home and I used to use it to dial in to various chat boards.  I was even a “room manager” on one of them.  So if you too dialed in to BBS’ in the Seattle area in the mid 80s and remember someone with the user name HAGAR, that was me.  (TANGENT –> I reconnected with my friend Joe a few years ago, who I believe was actually one of the two people who told me about Led Zep.  We hadn’t seen each other outside of maybe a class reunion in 20 years.  When I brought up the BBS thing and reminded him of his old nom de BBS he almost dropped his fork.  When I reminded him I was HAGAR he said, “Oh yeah, after Sammy Hagar.”  Unfortunately I was not that cool, and took my name from the comic strip Hagar the Horrible.  <sigh>)  I sat in my dad’s home office constantly to surf the boards, listening to Led Zeppelin II in his boom box.  I may have done this every single day for, oh, I don’t know, maybe six months.  I knew every nuance of that album.  Even playing it right now while I write this (“Heartbreaker” is playing) I’m finding it hard to concentrate on writing as I get into the song and Jimmy Page’s guitar work.

At various times in my life I’ve been convinced that specific tracks from Led Zeppelin II were the greatest rock songs ever – starting with “Whole Lotta Love,” but quickly settling on “What Is And What Should Never Be”… then at some point “Ramble On.”  Even “Love Song,” which might be the most straight forward rock ballad love song of all time.  Now after literally 30 years of listening to this album something like probably 250 times all the way through (and another seemingly 1,000 listenings of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Ramble On” on the radio), I feel like I know every nuance, every breath Robert Plant took that was subtly caught by the studio mic, every emotion.  And yet it’s still powerful every time I listen to it.  It’s never gotten old.

I don’t think I’ve ever owned a copy of this album on vinyl.  I eventually wore out that tape, and as soon as I got a CD player this was one of the first discs I bought (I think Dark Side Of The Moon was literally the first CD I picked up… once again, from Musicland at the mall!)… and I’m pretty sure the CD copy I have today is that same one that I bought around 1987.  With the entire Led Zep catalog being remastered and re-released on vinyl shortly, I may have to break down and buy a wax copy… though that will depend a lot on the price and what, if any, bonus tracks are on it.  Though I’ve always been a huge Zep fan, I’ve never been a “completist” in buying anything and everything that comes out on the band – the 10 studio albums are really more or less enough for me.

Leaves are fallin’ all around,
It’s time I was on my way.

Thanks to you I’m much obliged,
Such a pleasant stay.

But now it’s time for me to go,
The autumn moon lights my way.
But now I smell the rain, and with it pain,
And it’s headed my way.

Aw, sometimes I grow so tired,
But I know I got one thing I got to do,
Ramble on.
— “Ramble On”

Fortunately I “found the queen of all my dreams” the same year I first heard Led Zeppelin II, and I’m still with her today.  Despite the fact that she will usually say, “Oh, big surprise, Led Zeppelin” and rolls her eyes whenever it comes on the car radio.  🙂