The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXVII: Dazed and Confused
"There's something about guys in their thirties and Led Zeppelin," my wife, Mrs. Vinyl Anachronist complained. I'd just told her about the hugh chunk of change I'd dropped on Classic Records' new LP issues of the first four Zep albums. The total, with shipping and handling, was close to $120. "Just make sure you only play them when I'm not home," she said, shaking her head slowly.
Yes, after all these years, I've been unable to shake the LZ monkey off my back. More than twenty years ago I'd shunned all my old faves such as Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, AC/DC, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Who, Rush, Styx (yes, that Styx), after I heard X's Under The Big Black Sun. It was the biggest musical lightning bolt I'd ever felt, and it definitely changed my listening habits in a big way. Sure, I'd been listening to Talking Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello and even the Ramones before that, but this touched something primal inside me like nothing else ever had. So it was hello to the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Dead Kennedys, Fear, Black Flag, and Husker Du, and goodbye to Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham. I sold off huge chunks of my record collection in the spirit of purification, an act which haunts me to this day.
As I got older, however, I had to sheepishly admit that I still had a warm spot in my heart for what I outwardly referred to as "dinosaur rock." First I allowed Pink Floyd back into the fold and even bravely admitted to some of my punk friends that I'd never stopped liking them. Strangely, many agreed. That was followed by The Who, the Stones, and of course John, Paul, George and Ringo, musicians whose songs transcended genre-bound snobbery. I still can't believe I liked Bruce as much as I did, and I still like to anger Rush fans by saying that there's nothing Neil Peart can do that a drum machine can't. But I was actually surprised when I got a hold of some Zeppelin albums, listened, and found that I still truly loved this music.
So now I find myself in the year 2001, owning all the Zep albums again. Wait, it gets worse. I not only own the original Atlantic LP pressings, but I also own the digitally remastered CD box set of all the albums, too. And yes, I have decided to buy it all again, thanks to the wonderful new 180-gram LPs from Classic Records, a label that up until now has been mostly famous for reissuing some of the great classical recordings of the '50's and '60's. I do find it slightly daunting that they retail for $26.99 each (at that price I may skip Presence). My wife's a little miffed at this expense, but I let her blow $75 on a rare Wall of Voodoo CD on ebay last month, so she'll survive.
Are these worth all that money? To tell the truth, I'm not absolutely sure about the answer. Part of me has to recognize what a HUGE Zep fan I used to be. The vanity license plate on my new 1978 Datsun 310 read DAZNCON. (Only two other drivers in the entire three years I had the plates got it, and I was the recipient of a hearty "Zep rules!" from each one.) When In Through The Out Door came out in '79, I taped it on cassette, stuck it in the transport of my car player, and it stayed there for a solid three months. In fact, I wound up taping it on both sides of a 90-minute cassette so that I never had to wait for it to rewind! And yes, at one time I owned all seven different album covers of ITTOD. I was one obsessed little puppy. Hell, I even liked the song "Hot Dog"!
In other words, there's a very strong nostalgia factor at work here. In 1979, I was seventeen, had a good job, a new car, and a very sweet yet sometime volatile girlfriend who looked like a young, hot Vivien Leigh. My grades were even really good. And the soundtrack to my life at that time included the hits "Houses of the Holy," "The Ocean," "D'Yer Mak'er," "Since I've Been Loving You," and, of course, "Dazed and Confused." I mean, I do consider myself a fairly serious record collector, but I'm not one of those anal-retentive completists that have to own every album, every bootleg, and every 45rpm single put out by a particular band. But there's something about taking the shrink wrap off a brand spankin' new Zep LP and holding the shiny, unblemished black disc inside that makes me remember those magic years of my youth. And the songs still really rock.
BUT IS IT WORTH TWENTY-SEVEN BUCKS A POP?!?
Okay, I'll say yes. They sound better than the CD remasters. And they sound much, much better than my old original LP copies. When I was younger and listened to music with a much more modest stereo, Zeppelin sounded loud and powerful and uncompromising. But I noticed as I got older, and my stereo became better, that the original pressings started sounding dreadful. I know that Jimmy Page and Peter Grant were always going for a garage-band sound, raw and brutal, but some of those recordings sounded so primitive that they were borderline unlistenable. They sounded muddy and compressed and totally lacking in detail. And the tape hiss! My God, did they record some of this stuff with one of those Fisher-Price decks with the big pink handle?
I also heard some of the Zep albums years later, when they first came out on CD. Of course it sounded worse! I remember my first reaction was, "I can't believe I used to like these guys." For those of you who wonder if sound quality really enhances the enjoyment of music, here is your proof. So I was mildly, but not incredibly intrigued when I learned that Jimmy Page was supervising the digital remastering of Zep's entire catalog. In fact, I did resist laying down the green when that $100-plus box set came out. Part of me wanted it, but part of me also wanted to use the money to pay the electric bill. So I waited and eventually forgot that it existed, and then my younger brother got it for me one Christmas. And yes, it was surprisingly good, one of digital audio's finer moments. The sound had been cleaned up considerably, the tape hiss was reduced, and the songs sounded as dynamic and powerful as when I'd first heard them on a $50 record player back in the early '70's. The CD remasters were good enough to get me back into Led Zeppelin.
Well, the Classic reissues are even better. When the band is really pumping, say on "Rock and Roll," or "Communication Breakdown" or "Celebration Day," I don't think there's much of a difference; they were really "pegging the meters" when they recorded the louder songs, and there isn't much room for subtlety. But on the softer, more complex songs such as "Tangerine," or, especially, "Going To California," the acoustic guitars come alive and sound real, the bass sounds fluid and musical, and Robert Plant actually seems to have some vocal depth. And, surprisingly, I seem to be paying even more attention to John Bonham's drumming. He's always been one of my favorite drummers, but quick and complex he ain't. On these new pressings, it's easier to follow and appreciate just what he was doing back there, with his sometimes challenging time signatures and his sheer strength.
All in all, though, it isn't perfect. These aren't exactly audiophile-grade recordings. In fact, the phrase about sow's ears and silk purses comes to mind. This isn't about turning something into a sonic masterpiece, it's about making something that was very rough to begin with a little more satisfying. I'm reminded of an old girlfriend who brought some very, very early Sinatra recordings over to my house. I'd been boasting about my stereo, which by then was becoming very cool, and she was a little disappointed with the very scratchy mono sound of her "new" CD. Well, I popped it in my stereo, ready to wow her, and she instantly remarked that it sounded no better than it did in her Aiwa mini-system. I thought about it for a second and then realized...it sounded the same because that's all there was! High fidelity is about scraping every nuance from the inner groove that there is. If there's nothing there to start with, all the six-figure stereo systems in the world won't add more. And so it is with these Classic Records pressings. I think they've extracted every last nuance from the master tapes. That's all there is, folks. It isn't perfect, but it is finally complete. And it took the vinyl format to accomplish this.
I know some people will balk at what I've just said, especially since these recordings have yet to be released on some of the newer formats such as SACD and DVD-A. But again I'm reminded of that crazy ex-girlfriend and her Sinatra CD. I would be very surprised if the SACD version didn't sound almost identical to this new LP. Of course, I'd be more than happy to research this. All I need is for someone to send me one of those new $7500 Marantz SACD players...
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