While there are only seven official CDs of live Led Zeppelin material, many of the tracks are over 10 minutes long. I’ve picked 5 of the best pieces for your listening pleasure—listen via the Grooveshark widget embedded below.
I’ll warn you up front that this probably won’t mean much to non-Zeppelin fans. For a beginner’s introduction, see my post “What more can you say about Led Zeppelin?” I Googled for related posts online, but the closest I was able to find was an article called “Ranking the Best 7-Minutes-or-Longer Led Zeppelin Songs” (referring to the studio tracks; I agree with the author’s selections other than “Achilles Last Stand”).
Led Zeppelin was the quintessential blues rock jam band. This made both their studio and live tracks much longer than the typical radio-friendly 2–4 minute tracks of both yesterday and today. Other than “Free Bird” and “L.A. Woman”, I can’t think of any other radio tunes over 7 minutes long that get the regular airplay that “Stairway to Heaven” does.
I don’t know much about the bootleg Led Zeppelin recordings, but I can’t imagine that they offer anything better than what’s presented in the official releases. Jimmy Page (Zeppelin guitarist) has done a pretty good job remastering and remixing their live recordings over the years, although critics have argued that he’s done a little too much tweaking. He’ll edit out parts of songs or transplant parts of one performance into another. (A website called The Garden Tapes details almost every edit that Page has made to the tracks on each live album.) I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out, although I don’t have a copy of the 2007 reworked The Song Remains the Same (TSRtS tracks below are from the original 1976 release). As far as the audio quality of these recordings, I’ve never heard Led Zeppelin on vinyl, and I’ve never been able to tell much of a difference in quality across most Zeppelin releases (remastered or otherwise). In general, though, the BBC Sessions seem to be of the lowest sound quality—but don’t quote me on that.
Without further ado, here’s the list, and a Grooveshark playlist (clicking on this link gives you track lengths if you want to follow along with the highlights mentioned below; the embedded widget here doesn’t have that feature). Legend for notation in parenthesis after each song: track length; abbreviations for each release: BBC Sessions (BBC), How the West Was Won (HtWWW), and The Song Remains the Same (TSRtS); disc.track numbers; recorded date/release date.
- How Many More Times (11:51 BBC 1.14 69/97) – This was less than a year after the band first played together. From the beginning, they were a jam band that naturally fused each member’s distinct style. Check out the guitar/voice mimicry at 4:52 and the unique dampening effect at 8:08.
- Dazed and Confused (25:25 HtWWW 2.1 72a/03) – This song made bowed guitar playing famous. More guitar/voice mimicry at 18:01.
- Whole Lotta Love (23:08 HtWWW 3.1 72a/03) – This song (the studio version) was their only single to break the US Billboard top 10, but I’ve never liked it much. The medleys in the live versions of the song, though, are excellent (except “Mary Lou” in this case).
- Stairway to Heaven (9:38 HtWWW 1.7 72b/03) – Best live crescendo ever recorded?
- Moby Dick (12:47 TSRtS 2.3 73/76) – “John Bonham! John Henry Bonham.” Best drum solo with a grunt (@ 7:18) ever.
Honorable mention: Dazed and Confused (18:36 BBC 2.5 71/97), Moby Dick (19:20 HtWWW 2.4 72a/03) , Whole Lotta Love (14:25 TSRtS 2.4 73/76), Dazed and Confused (26:53 TSRtS 1.5 73/76), No Quarter (12:30 TSRtS 2.1 73/76).
Even though Led Zeppelin performed up until 1980, you may have noticed that they haven’t released any post-1973 live material on CD. I have a feeling Jimmy Page has more up his sleeve. I’ve excluded songs from the 2003 career-spanning DVD release because (a) almost none of the live songs they played after 1973 were over 9 minutes long and (b) the DVD has very few long tracks that sound better than what’s already on CD . I love the DVD on its own, though. The only properly-licensed image (above) and video (below) that I liked for this post come from 1975 performances that are on the DVD.
I’ve listened to each of these at least two or three times (on headphones, in the car, or on my computer with a subwoofer), but I haven’t had a good stereo system for several years now. To all the other Led Zeppelin aficionados—or any impassioned listener—how do your favorites compare?
Stairway to Heaven (watch Page break a string just after 8:20):