In many cases when legendary bands unearth previously unreleased tracks, the songs are unspectacular demos or outtakes pulled out of a drawer, slapped together with new packaging, and sold at over-inflated prices. The new Led Zeppelin bonus material is a notable exception.
Guitarist Jimmy Page spent three years digging through boxes of quarter-inch reel-to-reel recordings from the late '60s and early '70s to find songs to accompany the "Deluxe Edition" remasters of the band’s original three albums, each of which will be available June 3 in a wide variety of formats. The additional six studio titles from the Led Zeppelin catalog will follow in the coming months.
"When you've got a chance to listen to it all, it's like a portal into that time capsule of when each album was recorded," Page announced during a press conference Tuesday at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City, which was preceded by a preview of eight of the bonus tracks. "The music is so joyous, it was terrific listening to it all and each individual's performance was so great. it gives you the opportunity to have another listen to every single person in the band and the individual performances, and how it really gels."
Page played the audience two bonus tracks from each of the first two Zeppelin albums and four from Led Zeppelin III. The bonus tunes from the Led Zeppelin — live recordings of "Communication Breakdown" and "You Shook Me" — are from an Oct. 20, 1968, concert at the Olympia Theatre in Paris that aired on French radio. As exciting as they are, they're not as revealing as the other six songs. Page, who produced the entire remastered catalog, included the live tracks because there are no existing outtakes from the Led Zeppelin sessions. The bonus live disc also features a 15-minute rendition of "Dazed and Confused" and early versions of "Heartbreaker" and "Moby Dick," which appeared on the band's second studio album.
The alternate studio takes from Led Zeppelin II offer far more insight into the inventive, multifaceted hard rock band. In the studio, Zeppelin constantly experimented with different sounds and techniques, often recording multiple takes of songs and choosing their favorite at the last minute.
"Everything [we did] was supposed to sound different from beginning to end of all the albums," Page said. "So I tried all different styles of guitar, acoustic tones, everything. The final masters, which are all the studio albums that you know quite clearly, were going to be the best ones, [but] these [outtakes] are fascinating and have an intrinsic and historical value."
The two unreleased songs from Led Zeppelin II suggest it might have been harder than Page implied to choose the final tracks for the original record. "Heartbreaker" features a different, lengthier guitar solo that contains familiar elements but extends the reach of the original, and "Whole Lotta Love" is dramatically different than the album version. The entire "wanna whole lotta love" chorus is missing, the guitars dive rather than swoop, and the psychedelic mid-section is far lengthier and even more mind-bending. John Bonham's percussion is clankier and less contained, and Page and Robert Plant's improvisational excursions are wilder to the point of sounding almost unhinged.
Page played the audience four songs from Led Zeppelin III, probably since it's the band’s most eclectic release. The vocals on "Immigrant Song" feature extra bite and there's a more dramatic shudder to the sustained guitar chords that echo throughout the song. The bluesy "Since I've Been Loving You" starts with a four count and places a more prominent role on the keyboards and bass. In addition, the song includes a lengthier, more urgent guitar solo, plus more improvisational vocals."Gallows Pole" adds multiple layers of guitars stripped from the final mix.
"All of that intricate rhythm guitar underneath was basically sunk down in the final mixes," Page said. "We were playing all this stuff live. We did 'Since I've Been Loving You,' one, two, three, four, on with the red light, and we went with it. Hearing it come out like that was cool."
The only completely new song Page played the audience was a cover of the blues standard "Key to the Highway," with just Page on acoustic guitar and Plant on vocals and harmonica.
"I was trying to give the same running order from the companion disc to Led Zeppelin III, so when it came to the last track, which was 'Hats off to Harper,' which has got a similar vocal sound as you can tell singing through the amp, this was something on the same reel," Page said. "I was looking for something else to use, and that popped on and I went, 'Oh, I remember doing that.' We did it in one take. We went in that night and did this ultimate country/blues approach to things. All the subtleties and how intricate it is, that was interesting to hear."
The songs Page previewed offer a well-rounded sampling of the bonus material from the first three remastered reissues. Page didn't play any of the album cuts, but assured the crowd that they were each treated with tender loving care and mixed to suit the particular listening needs of all of today’s music-loving fans.
"Obviously there's CDS, MP3s, vinyl," Page said. "That's the whole reason for doing it, so you've got everything catered for in every sort of area. But while I was working on the original albums, I said, 'Well, let's think of how to make this into something really special. And I left no stone unturned."