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'The Song Remains The Same' 2007 reissue
on 23 November 2007
‘The Song Remains The Same’ is a 1976 Led Zeppelin movie featuring weary, end-of-tour New York City shows that had taken place fully 3 years earlier. The film-makers didn’t capture enough footage to compile a complete performance, and Zep guru and guitar maestro Jimmy Page should have aborted the whole project. But he inexplicably opted to throw good money after bad, and commissioned reconstructed Madison Square Garden stage scenes and self-involved fantasy sequences to be grafted into the movie. After 3 years of on-off agonising the outcome was a vanity project that cost a fortune, had too many continuity and synchronicity gaffes to be funny, and also played a role in Jimmy burning out. A lifeless mix compounded a soundtrack album that found Led Zeppelin sounding for all the world as if they just wanted to be with their families at home in England. The impact on their career arc was devastating. In the spring of 1976, Zep had followed up their terrific 1975 double-album ‘Physical Graffiti’ with the joyless, troubled ‘Presence’ LP. By the summer, Jimmy and drummer John Bonham were struggling with addictions and singer Robert Plant was still recuperating after a car crash. So they desperately needed to buy time to sort out their problems before touring the US in 1977. Zeppelin did have an ace in the hole: in their archives lay a rich seam of barnstorming concert recordings, and they were due anyway to issue their first ‘live’ record. But that October, they released those lacklustre, dated New York shows in the form of ‘The Song Remains The Same’, a film with a double-album counterpart. Undoubtedly there were reasons for that decision – accountants, superstar egos, impaired judgment born of stress and personal problems. Nonetheless, the issuing of jaded, anachronistic 1973 performances rather than, for example, their marvellous 1975 Earl's Court shows, still looks like something akin to lunacy. Some of the songs were exposed to extensive, clumsy editing in the movie but fuller versions were found on the LP. Also, Jimmy had recorded three shows in the Garden 27-29/7/1973 and some chopping, changing and tinkering led to further differences between the two mediums. Kevin Shirley, the engineer behind the 2007 reissues, has greatly improved the sound dynamics. But Jimmy – almost unbelievably given the shortened versions in the film - insisted that this upgraded soundtrack album be sourced from the remastered DVD audio. (Dispensation was given, though, to restore 4 bars of ‘The Rain Song’ and to add a complete version of ‘Heartbreaker’ to the CD). So, while the overall sound is far more polished than the 1976 version, some of the selections on the CD are now shorter than they were on the old LP. Though Kevin has made a number of editorial improvements to the audio (e.g., a guitar howler in ‘Moby Dick’ has been replaced and some of Robert’s ad-libs have been softened or ramped out), he’s had to take a machete to some of the selections, most notably ‘Celebration Day’, ‘No Quarter’ and 'Whole Lotta Love'. Jimmy should have modelled this soundtrack reissue on the template of the 1976 double-album plus uncut bonus tracks. Making detrimental changes to the music and editing it down for the want of a minimal extra commitment to the project is disrespectful to the fans and is inexcusable for a band that has such enormous resources available to invest in its legacy. As for the performances, Led Zeppelin could hardly sound more exhausted or distracted. There are occasional moments of inspiration, but fatigue and an air of remoteness define this album. It’s particularly traumatic to hear two of their most glorious tunes, the heavy Blues classics ‘Dazed And Confused’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’, played with such an absence of feeling. Jimmy’s showboating in an overblown caricature of ‘Dazed’ is particularly tough to take. He solos at such excessive speed and for so long - the song is extended by 20 minutes – that his touch becomes clumsy and he reduces vast tracts of the song to a meaningless dirge. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is even worse. The editing is tantamount to butchery, and Robert, who has a torrid time on this LP, seems unaware that he’s supposed to be fronting-up a hard rock song. The theramin section is given, of all things, a cheesy funk backing, before Jimmy provides a soulless, vapid Freddie King cameo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, three tracks from 1973’s ‘Houses Of The Holy' LP are the pick of the selections on a ‘live’ album recorded the same year. ‘No Quarter’ is particularly impressive, and it’s a huge disappointment that Kevin had to splice out the expertly-executed, slow-boil transition from piano to guitar in the interlude. The eponymous tune ‘The Song Remains The Same’ and ‘The Rain Song’ weren’t done justice on ‘HoTH’, but Robert nails the latter and both are much-improved. However, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is unfocused and tired. In the 1972 'How The West Was Won' version, Robert sang the opening strains from the same fragile place he inhabited in the 'LZ4' original - and it's magical. Here he tries to get a foothold in the song but doesn't get close to connecting with it. Jimmy loses the impetus of the solo at one point before rescuing it and bringing it to a great finale. Perhaps tellingly, the band does seem to find meaning in ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, the forlorn minor-key Blues added as a bonus track. But the other extras are disappointing: there’s a big chunk missing from ‘Black Dog’, Robert sounds utterly drained singing ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ and Led Zeppelin had outgrown ‘Heartbreaker’. This reissue demonstrates that no amount of digital tweaking can aggrandise below-par performances. Moreover, the jettisoning of musical passages Zeppelin fans had grown up with (e.g., the terrific guitar solo at the end of ‘Celebration Day’, the building of momentum in ‘No Quarter’) is terribly shoddy. Jimmy should have ditched this project in 1973, learnt from the experience and moved on. Coinciding with the advent of punk rock in 1976, ‘The Song Remains The Same’ was a self-inflicted injury that caused irreparable reputational damage to Led Zeppelin. It made them look obsolete barely a year after record shops in Europe and the US had been engulfed by fans queuing to buy ‘Physical Graffiti’ and it had been necessary to book ‘Zeppelin Express’ trains to transport the faithful from around the UK to those Earl’s Court shows in London.