The Song Remains The Same

Led Zeppelin

Swan Song Records, 1976

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


In the studio, Led Zeppelin were masters of their own domain. Under the production hand of guitarist Jimmy Page, the band created glorious noises and layers of sound that gave even the trained ear an incredible workout.

Live, however, Led Zeppelin was a hit-or-miss act. Page was gloriously sloppy as a guitarist, and the only other true frontman, Robert Plant, was busy preening for the audience when he wasn't singing. The remaining backbone, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, were given rare moments to shine. (In fact, two bootlegs I have from the band's final tour are some of the best performances I've ever heard Led Zeppelin give.)

That brings us to today's subject, the 1976 soundtrack release The Song Remains The Same. I know it's heresy punishable by death to speak ill of the great Zep, but this album shows not only the limitations the band had in concert, but also how difficult it truly is to make a live album.

Originally recorded in 1973 at Madison Square Garden, this album features a mere nine songs through the two discs (never mind that five of the songs stretch well past ten minutes). With only material up to Houses Of The Holy to draw upon, the band carefully - if not often predictably - selects their performances.

The main problem comes up if you've seen the accompanying movie. Not only were a lot of performances not included - I would have enjoyed hearing "Since I've Been Loving You" or "Black Dog" - but some have been edited to fit the vinyl slab. A good chunk of "Dazed And Confused" has been taken out of the album - and you can hear where the cut took place.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In fact, the movie spoils the album. Once you get a look at the visual images accompanying the songs, listening to the album just isn't the same. (One image I could have lived without was that of Plant's son playing with himself in a stream.) It's one thing to hear Page play the guitar with a violin bow or sculpt the air with a Theremin, it's another to see him wailing on his Les Paul or noodling with the Theremin, creating some unearthly sounds.

All this said, whether you're watching the film or kicking back with the double-album soundtrack, you can't get past the fact that this is incredibly boring. There's only so much I can stand of a Bonham drum solo or Jones's diddling around with the keyboards. (Page, on the other hand, at least keeps his guitar solo fresh throughout on "Dazed And Confused.") The band seems to be grasping for straws in the ending bridge of "Whole Lotta Love." On the other hand, the performance of "The Rain Song" adds a whole new dimension to the work.

And then, there's the song that Led Zeppelin will always be known best for: "Stairway To Heaven." Color me extremely biased on this one, but there is no substitute for the original studio version. They try admirably to capture the same magic that they did in 1971, but that kind of power is only harnessed once. Not that I mind hearing it performed, it's just that one needs to take any version other than the original with a grain of salt.

The Song Remains The Same offers proof that Led Zeppelin were more comfortable in the studio. Live, they have only each man and the instruments he played. There was one shot, on one instrument at a time; overdubs were impossible (and thank God they chose not to use a tape loop). Plant's voice is beginning to show signs of wear here; he's not always able to maintain levels on the high notes. Page is downright messy at times in his playing, though he is always able to recover and return to the track at hand. In Jones's case, there is only so much one can do with keyboards before it becomes so much whacking off on the ivories. And Bonham - there is no doubt in my mind he was one of rock's greatest drummers. Nonetheless, his solo is boring - and even the film doesn't save it.

Is this album Led Zeppelin's fault? I don't think so - there are those who are still unhappy with the subpar performance in the film (remember, it took three years from date of filming to release for this to see the light of day). But rather than blame the filmmakers, I just see this as another example of the difficulty bands have in trying to harness the power of their live show into a format where one is neither close to the band nor able to see them. (A better example of a good live cut, ironically, is a soundcheck version of "I Can't Quit You, Baby" on the closet-cleaner release Coda.)

Die-hard Zeppelin fans are undoubtedly forming lynching parties in my honor, but the sad fact still remains: almost 25 years since this performance was first captured, The Song Remains The Same is a poor example of Led Zeppelin's power on stage... and it has not held up well with age.

Rating: D+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Swan Song Records, and is used for informational purposes only.