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Recess reviews: Led Zeppelin's 'BBC Sessions'

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Jimmy Page has had enough communication breakdowns in his life.

He must have, because with the latest Led Zeppelin reissue includes not one, but two versions of the proto-punk song—bringing the album’s total up to five, out of only 33 tracks. The reissue, “BBC Sessions,” covers six recording sessions the band conducted between 1969 and 1971, and includes nine previously unreleased recordings.

One of those is “Sunshine Woman,” legendary bootleg material for any true Zeppelin fan, which was reputedly lost to the ages, until Jimmy Page somehow recovered a rough copy of the song. The song is an incredibly lo-fi blues stomp, with pounding piano chords and Robert Plant’s howl carrying the body of the song over thundering John Bonham snare and cymbal. Page’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ knotty bass anchor the song as Plant’s harmonica and the piano trade off.

Joining “Sunshine Woman” in lo-fi glory are blues standards “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me”—songs the band unabashedly appropriated, to unfairly great success. The rough nature of the recordings somehow makes the band sound even more primal—and suggests that every song from the band’s first two albums just might be better only if heard through AM radio.

The rest of the new tracks are nothing particularly new—joining the new “Communication Breakdown” releases are another “Dazed and Confused” and two more “What Is and What Should Never Be”—except for the guitar hedonism of “White Summer,” where Page’s riffs tumble unencumbered for eight minutes straight.

The remainder of the album, which was first released in 1997, is still incredible. Including the only official live releases of some early Zeppelin songs, the sessions are a vital look at a band that had yet to indulge in the fantastic excess that would define masterpieces “Houses of the Holy” and “Physical Graffiti.”

The closest the band comes to this extravagance is the first live performance of “Stairway to Heaven,” which is tight and fluid, particularly when compared to live versions the band would record later in its career which would frequently stretch beyond ten lethargic minutes.

Other band staples are present as well: an almost 19 minute “Dazed and Confused”—replete with the classic violin bow guitar solo—graces the album, as well as a version of “Whole Lotta Love” that includes brief renditions four other early blues-rock songs, including Elvis Presley and John Lee Hooker covers. The album also includes the Robert Johnson send-up “Travelling Riverside Blues,” where Page displays all manner of slide guitar pyrotechnics and Plant’s wails about fruit somehow make the listener vaguely uncomfortable.

The album does lag in its repetitions of songs, particularly “Communication Breakdown,” which is a shame considering the songs Led Zeppelin passed over from its early catalog: “Bring It On Home” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” easily could have replaced a “You Shook Me.”

However, the album redeems itself with an incredible mini acoustic set of the radiant “Going to California” and “That’s the Way,” which are lent a particularly intimate feeling by applause of the tiny studio audience that sat in during the recordings—a stark contrast to the tens of thousands that accompany Led Zeppelin’s other live albums.

Led Zeppelin’s “BBC Sessions” reissue is a vital album for fans of the band: live recordings of early material that are missing from later live albums are here, as well as songs not released on studio albums and a version of “Immigrant Song” that sounds like it could have been recorded at your local coffee house’s open mic night. More importantly, though, it is an incredible look at the band when it was merely another great rock band, before it was corrupted and became the greatest rock band of all time. Fact.

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