LED ZEPPELIN – BBC Sessions (Rhino): How much you really need this reissued compilation of in-studio and in-concert live takes of Zep’s early days depends entirely on whether you A) own the first one, B) are satisfied between that and the more eccentric (read: bloated) How the West Was Won, and C) believe you need more crudely-recorded versions of “Communication Breakdown” and “What is and What Should Never Be” in your life. Led-heads are probably already familiar with this document, fans unfamiliar with it are in for a treat, and newcomers are best shuttled off to Led Zeppelin IV as a starting place.
What makes BBC Sessions special is that it’s the only decent live recording of the band in their prime: the first disc is material recorded from separate sessions in 1969, the year Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II dropped, the second disc from a concert performed in 1971. The only real alternative is How the West Was Won issued by Atlantic in 2003, a three-disc behemoth of a showcase comprised primarily of two shows in California in 1972, and while they may have been at a songwriting peak at that time, already their shows were becoming incredibly overblown with obnoxious running times. (Some people are gluttons for punishment and actually enjoy the twenty-minute “Moby Dick.”) Beyond that there are only bootlegs, and if that’s the sort of thing you’re into it’s doubtful anything in this review can be useful to you.
BBC Sessions is the best way to get three great tracks not available (at least at a reasonable price for a reasonable package) anywhere else: the hard rock riff-off of “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair,” the bouncing blues of Page’s acoustic slide, not to mention Jones’s nimble bass work, on “Travelling Riverside Blues,” and the quick ‘n dirty cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else.” The run-throughs of signature tunes like “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love,” even when they go into wild excess, are still grounded: when Page dives into the guitar solo on the many versions of “Communication Breakdown,” it’s to show off his virtuosic talents, interesting and riveting to listen to because the variations performance-to-performance are notable performances in themselves, not because, as is the case all too often on How the West Was Won, he wants fill seven minutes because he knows he can make an audience sit through it.
The big attraction of the extra third disc to the original 1997 release’s two is the believed-to-have-been-lost three-song session from 1969 around the same time their debut dropped. But spoiler: the newly-unearthed “Sunshine Woman” isn’t good enough as a standalone song (to say nothing of the atrocious sound quality) to warrant springing for the elongated rerelease. For owners of the original, it’s only worth, sort of, if you meet requirement C, because the first recording of “Communication Breakdown” and both performances of “What is and What Should Never Be” are primo. For fans who somehow never managed to get around to it, BBC Sessions is a great artifact that found Zeppelin in an early and raw period—undeniably talented more than they even knew, though not yet pompous enough that their live performances had become sickeningly slick. B PLUS (***)