The 1980s are not generally regarded as a great time for the band that was at that point formerly known as Led Zeppelin.
In truth, they weren’t a band during the Reagan era — they were the three surviving members of a band, following the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980 and the group’s decision to call it quits.
The conventional story of what happened to Zep at this juncture goes like this. The band was already slipping into irrelevance, as its signature brand of heavy, heavy, heavy blues rock and Celtic folk thunder had been displaced by punk, with its raw energy and distinct lack of respect for its elders.
The rebooting effort of “In Through the Out Door” in 1978 divided the group, with singer Robert Plant and bassist/keyboard player John Paul Jones pushing toward a different sound — less hard, less “animal” as Plant once put it.
Guitarist and producer Jimmy Page and the ill-fated Bonham, their struggles with the rock-n-roll lifestyle not withstanding, were reportedly considering a return to form with Zep’s next record, although Page was in my view wrestling with his own devotion to the blues while not ignoring the punk onslaught.
Bonham’s passing ended what was in retrospect an overblown civil war in the band: Page dropped out of sight for a year, Jones continued on working with a variety of different musicians, and Plant launched a reluctant but wildly successful solo career (as a teenager in the early 1980s, Led Zeppelin often seemed like a distant legend from the pre-MTV era, while Plant was a lively if confusing presence in the video age).
Page would resurface and collaborate with Plant and Page’s old Yardbirds mate, Jeff Beck, forming the Honeydrippers; later, Page would team up with Paul Rodgers and create the Firm, and also undertake what critics have generally regarded as a meandering post-Zep existence, but what in retrospect now looks like an individualistic an actually creatively worthwhile episode of mourning for the end of Led Zeppelin, Bonham’s death, and in a sense the demise of the Very Big Rock Sound of the 1970s, which Page was instrumental in developing.
The 1980s low point for Zep was the 1985 Live Aid concert, a ragged and largely unrehearsed reunion that wasn’t corrected until 2007, when the band reunited in London and turned in an astonishing performance that for Zep fans has the power of a religious event.
In the midst of all this messiness in the 1980s, the band’s most unloved album appeared, “Coda,” a collection of unreleased studio material.
For a teen of the 1980s who had experienced the British invasion and Zep’s subsequent 1970s dominance secondhand, “Coda” presented the opportunity to actually buy a new Led Zeppelin record in 1982, rather than slap a copy of “Led Zeppelin IV” from 1971 on the turntable to spin it backwards and see if there were any secret demonic messages on “Stairway to Heaven.”
I don’t remember liking the record all that much, but that was due to both its shambolic absence of cohesiveness — and my own haphazard exposure to the Zep timeline.
The band was in it origins an aggressive proponent of the blues — specifically, the Chicago blues or city blues, distinct from the un-electrified country blues. You needed to have started with Led Zeppelin I, released in 1969, and not had your ears saturated with a million spins of “Stairway” on the radio in the ’70s to understand that.
Luckily, as a part of a massive remastering and re-issuing of the entire Zep catalogue, Page has added some context and credibility to “Coda,” integrating it with the larger musical Zeppelin narrative that’s been his life’s work for the past ten years (Page just turned 73).
There are really three Led Zeppelins: the live band, the studio ensemble, and the entity that appears on the albums. Of these, the studio ensemble is arguably the most interesting. Live, the band was ferocious early on, but over time it morphed into a huge and dramatic arena group that sacrificed a vibe that made it perhaps the finest blues-rock garage band every assembled.
The album Zep embodies Page’s many ideas about recording and production and is accordingly an artificial construct, by design — a musical vehicle for listening to entire vinyl records, both sides, on good stereos. In fact, the first four Zep albums are a long suite of music, the expression of a synthesis of major strands in Western music, from blues to folks to classical. They can stand up to the the most important Beatles records and are challenged only by the 1968-1973 run of the Rolling Stones, starting with “Beggars Banquet” and ending with “Goats Head Soup.”
The studio ensemble was the foursome that worked all of this out. By remastering the Zep catalogue and including a huge amount of the studio material, Page has illuminated this aspect of the band’s existence and certainly redeemed even “Coda, which now serves a useful purpose and gracefully presages the magnificent final remastered release, the Deluxe Edition of the “Complete BBC Sessions,” perhaps my personal favourite Zep album.
There’s a looseness to the Deluxe Edition “Coda” that’s more obvious than in the 1982 release. Yes, there some real gems, such as the Page and Plant collaborations with the Bombay Orchestra. But the recordings also convey the disciplined joy that the group explored in the studio.
The delicious groove that Bonham and Jones set up, punctuated with Bonzo’s explosive fills, establishes an hypnotic, surging background for the interplay between Plant and Page. And the remastered “Coda” is crammed with cool guitars sounds and textures.
As a player, Page has been captured by his mid-1970s image: the dragon-suited rock god swaggering in front tens of thousands of fans, wielding his Les Paul or his Gibson doubleneck, giving birth to everybody from Eddie Van Halen to Slash. But the man was really a thoroughgoing studio geek whose adventurousness as a producer is, to my mind, ultimately more significant than his skills with the six-strings. As Zepland asks itself year after year, “Where’s Jimmy?” in response to his infrequent appearances and lack of any new music, it might be worth thinking of his master vision as a producer and composer, rather than as a guitarist.
So we get, for example, the funky growl of “St. Tristan’s Sword,” an instrumental mix that shows just how delightfully locked in Page and Jones could be. Led Zeppelin had an embarrassment of musicianship in the group, and with cuts like this, it’s vividly on display.
A rough mix of “Bring It On Home” has a feral, sweaty vitality that showcases Zep’s filthy, post-Stones sex appeal and reminds us of just how indebted Jack White is to the more lo-fi aspects of Zep’s sound. The spacey, elegiac “Everybody Makes It Through (In The Light)” rough mix is one of the few examples in popular music of what a hard blues synth New Wave band would sound like as it was working out the details (the tune appears on 1975’s epic “Physical Graffiti” double-album).
All this extra stuff provides a freshness to the re-released original tracks on “Coda,” especially the blistering bluesers, such as “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” the Willie Dixon standard from Led Zeppelin’s debut album and on “Coda” taken from a live recording when the band was just tearing it up (for the record, Dixon and Zep tangled over copyright issues before his death as a result of Zep’s liberal borrowings from the blues legacy).
And the group’s eulogy for Bonham, the drum solo “Bonzo’s Montreux,” now sounds properly like a true coda for the force of nature behind the skins. “Baby Come On Home” is a luscious soul number that suggests an alternate-universe version of soundtrack from “The Big Chill” and reminds us of Page and Jones’ chameleon talents as onetime session guys. “Sugar Mama,” another old blue tune, is just a flat-out hoot.
Zep was a great big gigantic band, an impression that anyone could form based on the group’s records. But the remasterings and Deluxe Editions showcase a group that was even bigger than we previously thought. I realise that statement comes off like the raving of a fan, but the sheer scale of Zep’s musical contribution is the revelation of the sequence of re-releases. They were accused of being dinosaurs when “Coda” came out. They were dinosaurs.
But don’t forget: the dinosaurs were big.
And as “Coda” proves, big dinosaurs who could have a lot of fun.
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