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Loose, Rough, Raw or Self Indulgent and Excessive: The Style of Led Zeppelin Live and the Connection to Punk Rock
Some people are just born in the wrong eras I guess. I think I'm one of these people, as I was born a few years after Led Zeppelin disbanded and was still far to young to go to the reunion tour so never got to see Led Zeppelin in their element: live on stage. The release of modern CD sets and DVDs has given those of us who were not lucky enough to see the band in concert a glimpse at what made this band huge. How the West Was Won, the Led Zeppelin live album released in 2003 was actually the turning point album for me that transformed the band from a great classic rock band worthy of an extensive best of, to my must have band of all time (within a year of picking up this live album I owned nearly every album the band released).
Led Zeppelin may be a fantastic studio band creating some great albums, but for me they are a band that is best heard live or at the least on live albums. Their live shows are great examples of what makes great rock and roll, but have also sparked some debate over the years.
The Live Albums
Oddly enough, a band known for its live shows has very few in its catalog to choose from. It wasn't until 1976 that the group released The Song Remains the Same, combination film and live album, and even that, due to sound constraints, recording techniques and perhaps some other unknown reasons, just doesn't seem to capture the magic as much as it should. The later released remastered How the West Was Won and the associated Led Zeppelin DVD Set are both a different story as both are incredible, with great sound and footage from across the bands career, that really seem to do these concerts justice and shows the band as a far rougher and raw live act than I think some people realized. According to people who did get to see them when they were touring, both of these more recent sets also give a much better representation of what it was like to be at a Zeppelin concert.
There are also a number of official and unofficial bootlegs that can be found, the most well known being the BBC Sessions, which is also quite good, but still does kind of pale in comparison with the more recent live releases, and I haven't heard any of the other bootlegs.
This leaves fans with only the smallest glimpse of what these shows were like and they have since become the stuff of legends.
There has also been some controversy though, as some believe Led Zeppelin to be the greatest live band in history, while others see them as self indulgent, excessive and overblown, especially live.
Simplicity Through Improvisation Versus Self Indulgence
When punk rock debuted, there was a bit of a backlash against bands like Led Zeppelin for being excessing. I am a big fan of the early punk movement, bands like the Clash, the Stooges and the Sex Pistols, but I never really agreed with these claims about Zeppelin (probably because I'm a huge Zeppelin fan too, a complete impossibility I know). I always preferred Led Zeppelin live though and when comparing these early punk artists with the work of Led Zeppelin live, I actually see some parallels where they are both working towards the same idea (and even have similar sounds), but in opposite directions and maybe pointing towards opposite end results.
Listening to some of the Led Zeppelin live material released, the first thing you'd probably notice is how slimmed down, rough, raw, loud and pushed the band sounds. It is the same four people on stage that play on the album but they don't sound the same at all. The sound is so hugely powerful, raw and rough, that it even resembles some of the early punk work, (the Stooges come to mind). There is a spontaneity, and improvised feel (Jimmy Page used to call it "loose") about their live work that always seems to come through no matter how majestic, grand, progressive or mystic the song may be.
Also noticeable on first listen to this live material is how some people can call it a bit self indulgent and excessive. The band's improvisational style pushes the music well beyond standard songs, into massive 20+ minute jams of noise rock, psychedelic medleys, improvised blues numbers, bits and pieces of other songs, and who knows what else. The songs are allowed to evolve far away from their original versions and take on a life of their own, while remaining loyal to the feel of the song, even on epic medleys of blues numbers. A 20 minute song will probably always sound a little excessive, but I believe the intentions behind their live show were to achieve something actually quite similar to what the punk movement was pushing for, even in their later years when the music got more experimental and the concerts got more theatrical.
I see the early punk rockers (and other movements like grunge later on) as taking rock and roll and seeking to simplify it; trying to distill it down to something more pure, with the emphasis on emotion and the songs rather than image or drama. They pursued this goal by stripping out anything that they considered unnecessary leaving bare bones rock and roll. What got thrown out was often times experimentation, improvisation, extended soloing, advanced parts and sometimes musicianship, advanced recording or stage techniques and much of what Led Zeppelin took and ran with during their career.
When I listen to Led Zeppelin live though, I hear the same desire to distill their songs down to something more pure with the emphasis on emotion, but they go about it in an entirely different way. Robert Plant once said that everyone in the band was at one time captain of the ship, directing which way the music would go, and this is part of why their live performances evolve and have such a loose feel. Instead of limiting their music to reduce it to its essentials, they instead let them go and evolve into a truer form. They do not improvise just completely randomly or in the style of jam bands ala the Grateful Dead. Instead, the extended pieced from Led Zeppelin, the improvisation and the loose feel of the songs all seem to remain loyal to the feel of the song. These performances sound all about immediacy and spontaneity. When improvising and letting their music evolve on stage it is as if they were letting whatever would happen naturally and comes from instinct within the feel of that song occur. This seems to push the live performances to extremes both sonorously and stylistically. Their blues songs are pushed from soulful and bluesy to outpourings of emotion, the hard rock songs go from hard hitting to absolutely bombastic and the psychedelic explorations become epic delves into noise experimentation and philosophy, generating a grandiose feel with nothing but sound.
It is almost as if their songs become stronger and are distilled down to their essence through the band's improvisational style.
I think both the punk movement and Led Zeppelin when playing live were aiming for the same thing really: to take their songs and make them as purely emotional as possible. The problem is that they are going in opposite directions and end up at opposite final musical forms. I should also say that neither side of this debate really pushed their ideas to their logical conclusions either, where punk becomes one chord simple strumming songs and improvisation becomes pure free form noise rock. This is important to remember because I think this is actually part of why both movements became so popular, as extremes in music are rarely easy to listen to or popular. Both the form of the punk movement and Led Zeppelin are in a way minimalistic though. One actively attempts to distill their music down to its emotional content and the other uses the natural technique of improvisation on stage, to almost let the music distill itself.
Both, in their own way, are slimmed down to, and based on, simple ideas. It's interesting because in more modern times I see bands like the White Stripes as quite an effective blend of the two techniques.
In the end though, I guess it was the differences in these techniques that caused a bit of a rift between the early punk rock movement and bands like Led Zeppelin, or maybe they didn't see it like I do... who knows... as I said, I like both.
I never really considered Led Zeppelin overly excessive in their massive live shows and jams, or in their heavily improvised style, but I can certainly see how some people can see it that way, especially in their later shows. Instead, I think their style and improvisation used to push their own songs further, combined with how they remain loyal to the feel and don't branch out into straight free form improvisation, is why their live work sounds so amazing, and that they really weren't too different from the early punk bands after all.
Maybe it was little self indulgent or maybe the average concert goes didn't really understand why "Dazed and Confused" had to be nearly a half hour long, but when the band was on... it worked, and they put on one heck of a show, in my opinion.
As always, in the end, music, live or otherwise, is only what you make of it and this is only one way to look at this debate, the punk movement and the legendary Led Zeppelin live shows.
If you're interested in hearing some more from Led Zeppelin Live, you can get the latest live album release from Amazon directly here: How The West Was Won
And the DVD set here: Led Zeppelin
I personally recommend both if you're a Led Zeppelin fan, as if you've never heard the band live other than on The Song Remains the Same, you might be in for a surprise at just how good and distinctly rough, they sound on these sets.