Diehard fans, casual listeners, and ordinary folks will have noticed that Led Zeppelin has been in the news of late. Though the group officially disbanded in 1980, producer-guitarist Jimmy Page has been going through the vaults to create deluxe repackagings of the classic albums Led Zeppelin, LZ II, and LZ III, and is promising further of the same treatment to later works, including the immortal LZ IV, featuring “Stairway to Heaven.” (An unintended aspect of the promotion is the launch of a lawsuit claiming “Stairway” was plagiarized from “Taurus,” an instrumental by the act Spirit – most analysts, me included, think the claim is pretty flimsy.) Page has been busy doing the rounds of talk shows and other publicity outlets to flog the new products.
Et tu, Jimmy? Numerous other classic rock artists of the era, among them the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles, have long been issuing revamped or rediscovered material: alternate takes of well-known pieces, discarded ideas that never made it to record, and live audio of the bands in their prime. Led Zeppelin itself has been reformatted into the four-disc CD Box Set of 1990, the BBC Sessions radio takes from 1998, the How the West Was Won live album and the concert DVD of 2003, and the Mothership greatest-hits anthology of 2010. Clearly, there’s a market for all of this. For buffs like myself, the distinction between the “original” music (official releases from the groups’ active careers) and “special editions” (subsequent compilations of unheard, resequenced, or remastered songs) has become academic. Yet I can’t help but feeling a pang of disappointment to see the legendary Jimmy Page chatting with the un-legendary Jimmy Fallon, drumming up business for music that is ultimately but an aural shadow of the art I revere.
From a professional standpoint, you can’t really begrudge Page or his peers for all this. It’s their legacy; they can do what they want with it. Some of them are cashing in on an appeal they never properly exploited when they were stoned twenty-three-year-olds – this time around, they’ll get to keep the money that went to the record companies, or up their noses, in 1973. Others are simply curating their past work for an enthusiastic contemporary following, much as the original Star Trek actors came to realize that their roles on the USS Enterprise, however inconsequential they seemed at the time, would ultimately be how the world remembered them and they might as well give the audience what it wants. And some rock stars, Jimmy Page likely among them, have simply found that they don’t have much left to say, creatively, other than revisit their glories of yesterday. If your achievements include Led Zeppelin, that’s a forgivable indulgence.
But the idle jams and demo takes on the new-old Zeppelin issues are more for completists than the uninitiated, and the spectacle of the formerly mysterious Page touting them on TV and other media detracts from his one-time reputation as hard rock’s dark wizard. Zeppelin have been putting out posthumous cuts since Coda in 1982, followed by the B-side “Hey Hey What Can I Do” and the radio gig “Traveling Riverside Blues” in 1990, so any more exhumed audio is going to be of the extremely raw, bottom-of-the-barrel variety. You could call it historical; you could also call it cynical.
Part of what made Led Zeppelin and other classic rock acts so appealing in the 1960s and 70s was the very fact that they mostly operated under the pop-cultural radar. They were famous and successful, obviously (Zeppelin were on a People cover in 1976), but they weren’t really competing with sitcoms, Sonny and Cher, and Evel Knievel for exposure. Even years after their breakup, what we now call classic rock was more often derided as dinosaur rock, which actually made the music more interesting: in 1985, what was obsolete and unhip by MTV standards was, for a lot of us, pretty cool. So it’s a little discouraging that Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, once the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll dreams and heavy metal nightmares, have become just more fodder for online soundbites, late-night talk shows, and endless commercial recycling. I had hoped for better, but maybe that’s just me.