On Second Thought: Led Zeppelin – How The West Was Won (2003)

It is impossible to deny Led Zeppelin their right to the moniker “kings of rock ‘n roll.” Twenty-plus years after their demise, all they had to do was release a giant new live box.

Put aside any disdain for the band from overexposure — whether it be from their status in constant rotation on classic-rock radio or the (unfortunate, in my opinion) use of “Rock And Roll” in the Cadillac commercials that incessantly ran every five minutes on every channel, everywhere, for a while. With the 2003 release of How The West Was Won — a three-disc compilation of two concerts from the band’s 1972 tour, and the minimalistically titled DVD, a five-hour-and-20-minute trip via footage of four concerts throughout the 1970s and archival material (none of it replicating material from the CDs) — the band re-staked its claim at the top of the pile.

So, this is not a review. Not really, anyway. A review seems pointless for material like this, which automatically had such great stature. Aside from the very poorly received The Song Remains The Same (a shambles of a live album for a band whose very legend is built upon its live shows) and the more recent BBC Sessions (which only serves to document the band in very small snapshots), Led Zeppelin had somehow slipped by the latest trend of classic-rock masters releasing live album after live album to both appease hungry fans and the bands’ own hungry bank accounts.

And what a shame. From the moment “Immigrant Song” blared from the speakers, it was obvious that the live material from this band far outshines the studio counterparts. You couldn’t, of course, actually argue that the studio material represents a mannered performance — Led Zeppelin in any form throughout its career was anything but mannered — but upon hearing the aggressive, insistent, and driving treatment those tracks received on stage, you may never again be able to listen to your well-worn copies of the classic albums. More importantly, for someone like me who wore out his fascination with Led Zeppelin years ago, this set revitalized and resurrected the greatness this nearly mythical band formed around itself. It’s become far too easy to write off Zeppelin’s material because it has become so familiar, so ingrained, so omnipresent — the reverence with which one must refer to the “almighty Zep” is almost simply assumed. Long after I’ve memorized the albums, long after nearly everything the band recorded has been played innumerable times on radio and every form of recordable media — and, of course, those Cadillac commercials — this set came along and packed a wallop.

More impatient listeners may still balk at the inclusion of the lengthy, legendary jams the band was known for. “Dazed And Confused,” “Moby Dick,” and “Whole Lotta Love” could have filled an entire CD by themselves (literally — there’s approximately 70 minutes spread nearly evenly between the three), but are thankfully separated by shorter tracks. And if you thought you’d long ago heard more than enough of “Stairway To Heaven,” How The West’s version restored to the FM-staple the rightful beauty it had the very first time you heard it. The first disc, for me, has seen the most time in the CD player. These were the more immediate crowd-pleaser moments and bluesy romps, and even with the longer tracks (“Stairway,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” — which clock in at seven to nine minutes each), the set moved along at a good clip. Discs two and three, featuring only four tracks each, require more astute listening. The long jams really need time to develop and envelope the listener, and so will probably require appropriate listening circumstances. These jams do tend to “ramble on,” so those of short-attention span or those just looking for a quick Zep fix are urged to move along after the main body of the songs have been covered. “Dazed” eventually develops into “The Crunge,” and “Whole Lotta Love” contains its signature medley, but getting there still takes some patience.

In the end, How The West Was Won more than made up for the previous absence of truly representative live Zeppelin. The sound quality was stunning — there is no other word for it — and highlighted aspects of the band that simply could not be represented or captured in the studio. Waiting decades to receive something like this was like getting that long-delayed gift from that relative or friend who somehow missed your birthday. You knew it was out there, and you hoped that after all this time it was going to be something really special.

This gift more than made up for being tardy: It re-established the legend of this unforgettable force in music. As if it was ever really in question.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.