Friday, September 24, 2010

Led Zeppelin 12: BBC Sessions

In the ‘90s it had become de rigueur for bands—particularly those from the ‘60s—to dig up tapes of their old BBC radio appearances for a cash cow CD. They were always live performances, less polished than album sessions, and often sported unique songs that weren’t available otherwise. Starting after the success of the Beatles’ BBC set, there was talk in the industry that other similar sets would be released through a single distributor. Luckily, in the more popular cases (the Beatles, The Who, David Bowie) the artists themselves, along with their own labels, got directly involved, generally resulting in a better produced, more personal package.
Several existing hours of Zeppelin’s appearances on the BBC have floated around on illicit collections; two-and-a-half of those hours were included on this collection. All of the first disc comes from various 1969 sessions, some of which occurred within a few weeks or even days of each other. Several songs from their debut are replayed and extended, showing more debt to various blues artists. The rarities stand out: “The Girl I Love She Got Long Wavy Hair” features the riff that was later used to bookend “Moby Dick” and some howling lyrics, while “Somethin’ Else” is a chaotic piano-driven version of the Eddie Cochran classic, and is tons of fun. The disc closes with the majority of the excellent Playhouse Theater show whence “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” on the first box set came.
Disc two delivers the bulk of a 1971 show from the Paris Theater, just before the release of Zoso. Right away you can hear how their set had changed in two years. This was one of the first-ever live performances of “Stairway”; non-collectors will notice that “Black Dog” uses its live intro taken from “Out On The Tiles”. There’s a lovely acoustic pairing of “Going To California” and “That’s The Way”, “Dazed And Confused” is now over 18 minutes with a bow section, and an extended “Whole Lotta Love” touches on several blues and rockabilly tunes.
On its initial release, BBC Sessions was an essential if long-overdue addition to the Zeppelin canon, providing an excellent glimpse of their earlier live shows. Of course there were some exclusions that some people complained over, but both discs were packed pretty full, and the compilers were pretty sure five versions of “Communication Breakdown” would have been more redundant than the three they did include. They still felt fine about repeating “Traveling Riverside Blues” from the 1990 box, but not “White Summer”. But such quibbles pale while the album’s playing.
Much of this was rectified when, after the rapid-fire expansion of the entire Zeppelin catalog, The Complete BBC Sessions added a third disc to the original two. Now the title was truly accurate, save a few snippets from some of the longer medleys shaved to keep from having to pay too much on royalties outside the band. These additions complete both the Playhouse Theater and Paris Theater shows, adding those missing versions of “Communication Breakdown”, two more of “What Is And What Should Never Be”, an 11-minute “Dazed And Confused”, and yes, even “White Summer”. Just to prove they weren’t kidding, there’s even a “missing” 1969 session only preserved on a crappy tape that features the otherwise unreleased “Sunshine Woman”, a neat piano-driven prototype of “The Girl I Love” and “Travelling Riverside Blues”. Due to a noticeable static whine, those tracks end the set for maximum overall listenability; with a little creativity, the home user can create a truly chronological set that puts the first four sessions on one disc, the complete Playhouse Theater on the next, and the Paris Theater show spread across two more. Or you just can be happy Jimmy put it out at all.

Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions (1997)—4
2016 The Complete BBC Sessions: same as 1997, plus 9 extra tracks

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