REVIEW: Led Zeppelin – self-titled box set (1990)

LED ZEPPELIN – self-titled box set (1990, retail price approx $60 CAD at press time)

It was the fall of 1990, and I was on the verge of graduating highschool and entering the “real” world. However, my musical development was way far behind — everybody’s was, in 1990. Poison, Whitesnake and Motley Crue ruled the charts: All bands, one way or another, influenced by Zeppelin, by the way. Yet, I had avoided actually hearing a Zeppelin studio recording. MuchMusic’s endless showing of The Song Remains The Same had cooled any interest I might have had in this great band. I really didn’t like that concert, and I still don’t listen to it.

In 1990, pop rock was showing its first signs of death and I was becoming interested in bluesier, more authetic sounds. I was beginning to listen to FM radio and I heard a song called “Travelling Riverside Blues”. The slide guitar was eloquent and infectious. Immediately, I wondered what I was missing.

A friend, Danesh, who also had never owned a Zeppelin album in his life, picked up the box set released that fall. I asked him how it was. Cryptically, he responded, “It’s good.” It went on my Christmas list and I anxiously opened it on December 25, 1990.

I didn’t get to start plowing through the thing until the next day, after the turkey and Christmas guests were gone.  On the 26th, I woke up early.  I read the liner notes and I listened to the whole thing in one marathon almost-5-hour-session. Today, this is the running order that I associate these Zeppelin songs in, not the original studio album order.  I listened to the box set in these marathon sessions 3 times during the Christmas break!

This was actually the first box set I ever owned.  Not too many bands I liked had one, back then.  In fact I think the only other box on the market at the time that even slightly interested was The Ultimate by Tommy Bolin.

I loved the cover art.  I was obsessed with the crop circle phenomenon.  I bought a T-shirt with this design on it a few weeks later.  upon seeing the cover, my friend and fellow Zeppelin fan Andreas said “Figures, Zeppelin created everything else in rock, why not crop circles too?”

For the record, this is still no substitute for owning all the Zeppelin studio albums. They have a life all their own. However, Jimmy Page carefully assembled this running order to breathe new life into these tracks, and breathe they do.

I can’t imagine a better opener than “Whole Lotta Love”. It is a one-two punch followed by “Heartbreaker”, and then “Communication Breakdown” takes things to an out-of-control pace. Geniously, Page followed this with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”.  Total switch of pace, and another brilliant side to the band.  But yet even on this, Plant refused to tame down his vocals, straining at the leash to let hell loose.  I was hooked. I couldn’t even fathom a set of songs better than these. Better late than never, right?

I was entranced by the swirling “Kashmir”, a song I will never tire from.  I could not believe the power of “What Is and What Should Never Be”.  The Rush-like complexity of “Achilles Last Stand”.  The tender acoustics of “Going to California”.  The muddy, churning synth of “In The Evening”.  The dark, foreboding blues of “When the Levee Breaks”.  The fun, upbeat reggae of “D’Yer Mak’er” (still don’t really know what that means).  The tropical heat of “Fool In the Rain”.  The ominous “No Quarter”.  Song after song, hour after hour, Led Zeppelin continued to reveal new layers of this band to me.

The only songs that I didn’t care much for, and still consider also-rans, are a lot of the tracks from Coda, their posthumous outtakes release.  I felt stuff like the punk rock of “Wearing and Tearing” and the folky “Poor Tom” were not as great as the A-listers.  While they are not without their merits, I don’t believe that today they can stand up against “The Immigrant Song” or “Tangerine”.

We kids didn’t really get the lyrics, or why Robert was singing about wearing flowers in your hair.  We found the lyrics amusing, quaint.

Today I own all the individual Zeppelin albums in box set form (The Complete Studio Recordings), but I still listen to this box and its sequel, 1993’s Box Set 2. When I have 5 hours at home, this is the way I prefer to go. This box set creates a journey. Each disc is a journey with a distinct opening and a distinct end, but the entire running order is like that as well.   There are distinct sections, moods, and movements in the box set.  Witness “All My Love” as the final track. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end a five hour journey than that hopeful fade out.

Then Bonzo died and the hope was gone.

Interestingly, even though the unreleased/rare tracks here were later reissued on the Complete Studio Recordings (they were “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “White Summer/Black Mountainside”, and “Hey Hey What Can I Do”), one slipped through the cracks and to the best of my knowledge is only available on this set:  Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreaux”, an interesting remix (today we would call this a “mash-up”) of Bonzo’s two drum solos intertwined.  It is not on the Complete Studio box. It’s not because it’s inferior or redundant, in my opinion. Jimmy lovingly put this track together as a tribute to his friend 10 years after his death, and it works brilliantly.  It neither replaces the originals, nor gets in their way, because it’s more a cool showcase of Pagey’s mixing skill, if you asked me.

10 years gone? It was hard for me to believe that Zeppelin had been gone for only 10 years at that time. It seemed to me like they were part of pre-history, something that predated everything I’d known. Yet all the bands I knew cited Zeppelin as an influence, from Kiss on down to the newest groups, like Cinderella (who worked with John Paul Jones). They were a part of my rock and roll soul without me even knowing it. Hearing this box for the first time was like discovering a part of myself!

Liner notes are excellent, and until reading The Hammer of the Gods, was pretty much my sole source of Led Zeppelin information and photographs.   They are ample, and include an essay by Cameron Crowe.

Interestingly, even though this set has theoretically been supplanted by newer, superior sounding collections, it remains in print and reasonably priced.  There must be something to it, I guess!

5/5 stars

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6 comments

  1. I like the listening order of this boxset, too.
    But I’m far too cheap to buy ANOTHER boxset (I already have The Complete Studio Recordings), so I made a playlist on iTunes mimicking the order of these 4 CDs (and the other 2 as well).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you haven’t found out already D’yer Mak’er is meant to resemble “Jamaica” when said quickly with an accent. It’s an interesting title to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

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