On February 24th 1975 Led Zeppelin released their sixth album, an elaborately packaged double that quickly became both a high watermark of 70s British rock, and a foretaste of its decline. Physical Graffiti was that rare triumph, to be filed alongside Blonde on Blonde, The White Album and Exile on Main Street, as an example of a pop double LP that could justify its existence on purely artistic grounds. It rescued a band exhausted by the strain of its own success from impending implosion. Eight new songs complemented by off-cuts from previous LPs created, barring a few makeweight moments on side 4, a coherent whole. Listening to bootleg recordings of the 1975 tour you get a sense of a band not only having survived a crisis, but now taking the game to a new level.
Both fans and critics were ebullient. Words like ‘seminal’ and ‘masterwork’, the music journo’s stocks-in-trade of linguistic genuflexion at the altar of quasi-academic analysis, aggrandised projects like Physical Graffiti with the language of critical respectability, an investment that, in years to come, would represent a handsome pay-off for the record companies. Six years earlier Led Zeppelin had been derided as a bunch of vulgar oiks nicking songs from the blues greats and claiming them as their own (it’s true: they did), and failing to embrace the spirit of the coming moment: rock was erasing its working class roots in favour of bourgeois aspiration. Bands like Renaissance, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and Genesis were praised for their ‘classical training’. But hold on – pop wasn’t meant to be respectable, that was the whole point. Leave that for those cleanliness-obsessed retired civil servant types with their meticulously catalogued LPs of Chopin etudes. Fuck conservatoire training.
Led Zeppelin is often misleadingly referred to as a hard rock band. Their eclectic influences, aside from the blues – folk, classical, world music – set them apart from other rock bands of the era, and they avoided the painfully awkward attempts to integrate these elements into their music that many of their peers struggled with; and the various hair metal bands of the 80s who cited Zeppelin as an influence were mistaken if they thought they were somehow continuing to evolve the legacy that Zep left behind. The band pretty much wrote their own book, like the Beatles, The Who, the Kinks and the Stones before them. No-one, not even the surviving members themselves, succeeded in adding anything significant to their stock in the years following the band’s demise.
On February 23rd 2015 (24th in the U.S.), 40 years almost to the day after its initial release, Physical Graffiti was re-released, after much hype and anticipation, as part of Led Zeppelin’s entire-catalogue digital re-masters series. These come in a variety of formats, with ‘bonus’ tracks (similar to Pink Floyd’s ‘immersion’ editions, a term coined for their executive-grade reissue extravaganzas a few years back, but with fewer ephemera). All that’s missing is a bag of heritage-grade Afghani weed. In all but three cases (Led Zeppelin 1 and 111, and Coda) the bonus tracks are little better than pointless. Like much of the Beatles’ Anthology series, and other bootleg-busting enterprises, they are for geeks only. There’s a frisson to having this stuff on unofficial releases which simply evaporates once they become common stock.
So what, ultimately, is the buyer actually getting? Surely this is the same music, just given a spit and polish? Why not just play your original LP? Doesn’t this stuff mainly appeal to obsessives? Or is it down to a mournful attempt to relive the glory days, to bring the fans a measure of virtual sunlight to those gloomy hours in the man cave spent trying to evade the boredom and mediocrity of advanced middle age?
The answer, for those that are truly exercised by all this, is complex. Historically, the quality of vinyl LPs was subject to variables of care and expense in their preparation, manufacture and packaging. Second-generation master tapes, shoddy mastering, cheap or recycled vinyl (common during the oil crisis of the 1970s) and cardboard inner sleeves that scuffed the surface of the vinyl as you attempted to extract the record all contributed to some shockingly poor-quality vinyl releases. And in the case of Physical Graffiti, the bizarre decision to edit out the coughs and group banter at the end of In My Time of Dying meant that some editions, in terms of the content originally recorded and approved for release, were technically incomplete.
So when the 80s arrived, and with it the digital era of sound recording, new opportunities seemed to open up. CDs promised to be free of the clicks, pops and stylus wear of vinyl. It was alleged that they could be scratched or mishandled with no loss of signal (absurd crap). The 1980s ushered in new living conditions. New-build homes were smaller than many conventional semi-detached or terraced houses; smaller rooms and minimalist design made hi-fi systems seem clunky or ugly; playing an LP meant having a chain of often costly components – stylus (which wore out), cartridge, tone-arm, turntable, amplifier, speakers, potentially costly insulated cable. LPs took up valuable space. Alternatively, CDs could be played anywhere on the new space-saving component equipment – in the kitchen, the bedroom, the car, on the bus or train via portable players, and later, on PCs and play stations. Classical music buffs preferred the pristine sound quality of CDs. CD players used lasers – space-age technology in the home! The LP was a dodo: second-hand record shops, charity shops, flea markets and boot fairs all displaying cardboard boxes full of Phil Collins LPs attested to this. In this sparkling new era of hyped-up hope and opportunity, digital was king. Vinyl was dead.
The record companies were happy: they could sell you your entire record collection all over again. Sadly, though, history was to repeat itself. CDs were often mastered from second-generation analogue tapes, with desultory artwork and in ‘jewel’ cases whose flimsy hinges snapped off, resulting in piles of CDs littering the place, many out of their broken cases. Meanwhile, digital technology was developing increasingly sophisticated audio signal processors; dance music arrived, and with it came young DJs who favoured beat-matching 12” vinyl singles; it gave them something to look as if they were doing whilst on stage making a pretty good living playing other people’s records. From research into digital processing, via the sorcery of the record industry’s marketing arm, a new linguistic term was coined: the ‘digital re-master’, tailored to deliver ‘improved’ sound via the increasing proliferation of miniaturized sound systems. With a tacit acceptance that the first generation of ‘heritage’ reissues of classic analogue recordings had resulted in many cases in substandard reproduction, a new wheeze was rolled out: you could buy your entire record collection yet again, but this time in a ‘deluxe’ double jewel case with a plastic slip cover, and re-mastered originals, outtakes, crap versions rejected the first time round, obscure b-sides and an ‘essay’ by a journalist from Mojo or Uncut. A bonus for the record companies was that all this beat the bootleggers, who were releasing increasingly high-quality outtakes and demos (Ultra Rare Tracks by The Beatles, volumes 1-8, for example), flooding record fairs with editions in often lovingly produced and highly sophisticated packaging, with zero revenues going to the artist or their record company. The uncomfortable truth was that often the bootleggers were in closer touch than the patrician record companies with what the fans actually wanted, and had the will to give it to them.
To counter this, record companies developed their trump ruse: the Box Set, a long-form cardboard outer containing a plastic insert on which rested up to 4 CDs – the original album, sometimes in mono and stereo, with assorted clutter – the mandatory extra tracks no-one listens to more than once, and paper ephemera. A mainline nostalgia fest for the ageing classic rock fan. And in response to this, a new creature was now born. Ecce homo! From the succouring wombs of man caves up and down the country emerged a new breed of consumer, eager for his well-earned fix of Saturday afternoon retail therapy. 50 Quid Man was born.
50 Quid Man was your dad on a retirement plan, an annuity fund freshly cashed-in, a surprise inheritance from a distant relation or the softening blow of redundancy pay. Bored and restless, he was driving your mum up the wall by shuffling morosely from room to room in a house now emptied of university-age nestlings, too large for its ageing occupants. What to do? All other options aside, the answer was clear: dig the old h-fi out of the loft, drive down to the hauntingly depressing AnyTown UK strip-mall, roll past M&S, Clinton Cards and Mothercare, and on into Virgin or HMV to buy his entire record collection for the third time! Now his life could glean new meaning from the latest crop of super-deluxe re-re-masters, that hi-hat part in the middle 8 of Ticket to Ride he’d never heard clearly before. Or, currently, and more famously, in the emergent era of back-street vinyl specialists, the squeak of Bonzo Bonham’s kick-drum pedal on Houses of the Holy, an offcut from Led Zeppelin’s 5th album of the same name, and now appearing for the umpteenth time as track 2 on side 3 of Physical Graffiti, duly rendered at its correct pitch thanks to the miracle of master-tape true-speed restoration, one of the many perceived boons of third-generation digital re-mastering. A timely collision of third-age ennui, marketing linguistics and micro-chip superconductors.
Now, with the closing of the Led Zeppelin re-release cycle via the single-LP studio-floor mop-up swansong, Coda, expanded to a triple vinyl album, you can hear works-in-progress, a genuine rarity – Hey Hey What Can I do, originally available in the UK only on The Age of Atlantic sampler LP, and in various re-issue projects – given the magic re-master treatment, along with backing tracks recorded in Bombay with Indian classical musicians in 1972 for Led Zeppelin III.
So – is there any noticeable improvement? Should these editions replace the originals? Is there any good reason for buying them? Again, the answer is complicated, for all the reasons listed above. The only song in the whole Led Zeppelin reissue series that is radically different from its original is In The Light, which appears twice – once on the Physical Graffiti bonus album, and once again on Coda. So if you’re buying in for rarity value, this may be worth the price of admission. As to the rest – bearing in mind that there is no new music anywhere on these reissues, although some outtakes and mixes are previously unheard, it depends on whether or not you agree that the original LP you bought all those years actually needs ‘improving’, and if you have audio equipment to do justice to producer Jimmy Page’s efforts to digitally enhance those original analogue signals. In any event, nothing that doesn’t involve the invention of a functioning time-machine can improve In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin’s synth-based final studio album, as what’s needed here is that the band recovers from its many troubles and makes a decent record. It’s easy to be cynical about all his: with the exception of Physical Graffiti, the originals sounded great, and, if you’ve kept them in good condition, they still do. With a few notable exceptions – Steven Wilson’s re-masters and remixes of Lizard and Larks Tongues in Aspic by King Crimson, and Aqualung by Jethro Tull particularly – the whole digital re-masters scenario smacks of opportunism on behalf of the beleaguered record companies, damaged by the proliferation of illegal download sites, to come up with something that financially-enhanced original fans will want to buy – because if you download MP3s of any music, you’re back at square one, with drastically-reduced audio quality, re-mastering or not. Did I buy them? Yes. Do I regret it? No. Exactly why, I’m still trying to figure out. (According to research, men are more interested than women in the history of the things they collect. Perhaps we are tied in with the illusion of a continuing narrative, bolstered by the ‘bonus’ rejects, considered sub-par the first time round, but now given a new lease of life. Of more interest are the various adventurous treatments that Robert Plant has given Zep classics during his long solo career; the revisionary Page and Plant projects (Unplugged and Walking into Clarksdale) made it clear that the magic, in terms of generating anything truly valuable, was long gone from the Zep frontline equation).
So now, 50 Quid Man (recently up-graded to 100 Quid Man for the top-flight reissues) can bypass the ghost-town strip mall and head for his local artisanal vinyl specialist for the handsome immersion-experience Legacy Edition: and his kids can buy a reissue of the original single LP, complete with a specially-designed frame, stick it on the wall of their cell at their hall of residence and listen to the music from the download code on their i-pod.
New generations discover the music of the ancients, and hard-copy formats are re-born as interior decor, their content traduced as digital information in the ethereal realm of binary code.
And yet still, even after all this – the re-releases, the re-masters, the re-remasters, the deluxe, super-deluxe, immersion, heritage and legacy editions; the bonus tracks and extra discs – the central irony persists – that nothing is truly new, and that the songs remain the same.