Legend has it that Led Zeppelin were the best live band of the 1970s. For far too long the only official example of this for those of us that weren’t there at the time was the lackluster The Song Remains the Same soundtrack album which just showed how self-indulgent Led Zeppelin could be. This was the best rock band on the planet? How bad were the worst then? Looking back, the mind boggles that the only officially available live recording of Led Zeppelin in their prime did little to enhance their reputation.
While 1997’s BBC Sessions went some way to righting that wrong, it didn’t really capture Led Zeppelin in their pomp, as some of the sessions were recorded just a little too early in their career, there was a collective sigh of relief from Led Zeppelin fans when How the West Was Won was first announced. At last – a proper example of Led Zeppelin in world-beating form!
Well, to a point.
Okay, so straight from the off, How the West Was Won sounds amazing. Page went above and beyond to capture the sounds and feel of Led Zeppelin at the height of their live powers. Kicking off with “Immigrant Song”, pretty much the Led Zeppelin song that 95% of their fans would want them to open a gig with, Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham stake their claim to be the greatest rock band on the planet with no small amount of authority, and The Song Remains the Same is a rapidly fading memory.
The thing is, while How the West Was Won sounds amazing, at the time it was recorded in 1973, Led Zeppelin also suffered from not knowing when to stop a good thing. Yes, we’re thrilled to hear the start of “Heartbreaker”, but are we still as enthralled when it finishes seven minutes later? Sometimes a band needs to know when to stop improvising and actually move on to the next song. It is therefore on the shorter numbers on How the West Was Won that Led Zeppelin’s power really shines through, with the acoustic section at the end of the first disc being really rather splendid.
For the other two CDs in this collection are a demonstration that Led Zeppelin had a really nasty habit of dragging a genuinely great song out far beyond the parameters of a comfortable listening experience. On the upside, if your heart has always desired a twenty three minute version of “Whole Lotta Love” which includes a medley of early rock’n’roll hits, you do get that here, and if you really do want to hear one of the few listenable drum solos unpleasantly stretched from a manageable four and a half minutes to nearly twenty, then look no further than How the West Was Won.
At the end of the day How the West Was Won achieved what Jimmy Page wanted it to when it was first released fifteen years ago. It is superior in almost every way to the version of The Song Remains the Same that was available at the time, thus ensuring that that lackluster recording received minimal play. The thing was The Song Remains the Same was given a huge sonic upgrade and expansion in 2007, and it genuinely did sound better than ever. Some of the numbers sounded even better than those on How the West Was Won, which inevitably means that the two live albums have much more in common now than they did when this triple CD behemoth was originally released.
While How the West Was Won is somewhat flawed, that’s more down to the original performances rather than anything else. There’s no escaping the fact that, while Led Zeppelin were a genuinely powerful live act, like many of the top acts of the era, they lacked any concept of economy or restraint, so if you’re going to try and genuinely reflect what one of their gigs was like, then you have to include the extended jams which allowed the concert goers to pop out for a cigarette, queue up for a couple of beers, drink said beers, and pop to the lavatory, and still manage to get back into the gig before the end of the third verse. The trouble is, those same jams don’t make for a particularly fascinating repeat listen for anyone but the Led Zeppelin obsessive, leaving you with the conundrum of either accurately reflecting the full overblown experience of a Led Zeppelin gig, or compromising that to ensure that those who weren’t lucky enough to be there had a genuinely great live album to keep returning to.
How the West Was Won isn’t a bad live album by any means, but its flaws demonstrate that while Led Zeppelin may have been one of the best live acts of the 70s, you really had to be there.