Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Latest Led Zeppelin repackaging unnecessary for most fans

The Mothership is coming! But who cares?

There has long been a trend among corporate giants to release countless duplicative compilations of musical artists' best work. Be it the result of capitalism or something else, it happens a lot. I don't particularly understand the market. Why would there be a demand for another rehashing of the same material that's previously available? If they're selling, that's fine.

Whether or not to buy a newly released Led Zeppelin compilation was for many years something consumers never had to contemplate. But now, the band's creative handiwork will soon re-enter stores with the new name of Mothership. It is described in a promotional statement as "a 24-track, two-CD comprehensive collection that spans their illustrious career." However, this aim has already been achieved -- not once but twice in Led Zeppelin's past. As a result, fans must examine this third two-CD collection of essential material and judge for themselves whether the new release itself ought to become an indispensable addition to their collection.

The Original Compilations (1990–1998)

Two-thirds of the band's studio output easily fit onto four compact discs when first attempted in 1990 on a box set simply titled Led Zeppelin. Each of the four discs loosely concentrated on a general time period in the group's studio output, although strict adherence to that rule was abandoned in favor of a flow between songs. Jimmy Page said the running order presented the old picture in a new frame and was something fans would come to appreciate.

Another strong point of this original repackaging was that the selected tracks were drawn not only from the original eight studio albums but also the only posthumous release out by that time, Coda. The image of a mesmerizing and mysterious crop circle emblazoned the LP-sized cover. Also, its liner notes incorporated a history of the band including the accounts of journalists who supported the group throughout its career. All in all, the four-CD Led Zeppelin was for many reasons the most vital assortment of the group's studio work released to date.

Quickly following its release was Remasters, the first two-disc examination of the band's most essential studio work. Its 26 songs drew mainly from the same pool of songs as was included on the four-CD set, with the notable exception that Remasters altogether ignored that posthumous release, Coda.

The supplement to the original Led Zeppelin box set was released in 1993 with the name Box Set 2. Contained in a small package with art based on the same crop circles concept, it was comprised exclusively of only those studio tracks that were excluded from the four-CD box. Some people have chosen to nickname this tiny collection "the rest of the best," which presupposes that Led Zeppelin's entire catalog is all "the best."

If that is the case, then the definitive collection of the group's studio output can be only Complete Studio Recordings, the exhaustive 10-CD box set also issued in 1993. It contained all nine studio albums, including Coda, in their entirety with their original running orders intact. The set's Coda disc was also expanded to include the few tracks that had been previously unavailable on CD prior to the box sets. Even with its high pricetag, Complete Studio Recordings was a critical grab for many ardent Led Zeppelin fans.

For nearly the rest of the decade, these four collections were the only sets consumers had to mull over purchasing. Of them, the only one that attempted to package only two discs' worth of the very most fundamental work was Remasters.

This period also saw the release of the two-CD BBC Sessions. None of the material on this set has been reissued since.

A Presence in the 21st Century (1999–2006)

In 1999, Led Zeppelin released the first half of a two-volume set of CDs officially released as a best-of compilation. This first installation was called Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volume One, and its follow-up the following year was Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volume Two. These presented a near-identical repeat of the tracks found on Remasters (more on this later), although the sets took advantage of new technology available when they arrived in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Each included enhanced content that paired previously unseen live footage of the group performing a Led Zeppelin song with the audio of its standard studio rendition.

The familiar track listing was not the only point of contention among fans. Many viewed the cover art of each as abominable. They feature the band members sporting astronaut uniforms. However, the booklets accompanying Early Days and Latter Days were showered with newly prepared liner notes as well as rare and previously unseen photographs. All things considered, the strong points of these releases made them palatable overall, and the powers that be were excused for releasing sets that were practically carbon copies of the two CDs in Remasters.

The Early Days and Latter Days sets were combined in 2002 as a single two-CD purchase, making them more attractive as one-stop shopping for casual fans.

Likewise, Remasters was repackaged in 2003 to fit into a standard-size CD jewel case, thus making it an even more attractive purchase than it already had been.

This period also saw the releases of Led Zeppelin's DVD and the three-CD live release How the West Was Won, both in 2003.

Mothership: Not Much of a New Frame

Only a few years after these commercial releases, the band is already at it again. This November, Led Zeppelin will saturate the market with a third two-disc set repetitively containing virtually the same predictable track listing. Mothership will boast of new liner notes from rock music journalist David Fricke, but that is about all its standard release has to offer that is both new and positive. For example, its new cover art is a downright deplorable cartoon rendition of a blimp (or is it a spaceship?) with two-dimensional lettering. As far as capturing the mystique of the group as did the crop circles, this putrid image misses the boat entirely. (This eyesore of an album cover is included on this page for educational purposes only and not because it brings beauty to the words.)

Only the collectors' editions seem especially appealing as they are said to contain shirts and reproductions of rare memorabilia. In addition, a limited collectors' edition of Mothership will incorporate a single-DVD summary of the same footage used on Led Zeppelin's 2003 DVD. However, these expensive limited editions are not intended for the same type of widespread consumption as the attractively repackaged Early Days & Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volumes One and Two and Remasters. The cost associated with the memorabilia-enhanced limited editions of Mothership will surely keep casual fans away.

The Song Remains Repetitive: Find the Differences

Taken for the music only, each of the three similar two-disc collections -- Remasters, Early Days & Latter Days, and Mothership -- sorts the band's studio output into one of two categories: release dates that are pre-1972 and post-1972, or material from the first four and the last four studio albums. The overlap between Remasters and Early Days & Latter Days, between it and Mothership, and in fact between Remasters and Mothership, is significant.

Overall, Remasters contained the largest selection of Led Zeppelin's material. No less than 15 tracks culled from the first four albums appeared on its first disc, whereas both Early Days and Mothership have just 13 each. The treatment of the group's final four studio albums was the lightest on Latter Days, with only 10 audio tracks compared to the 11 on both Remasters and Mothership.

These sheer numbers do not convey the actual duplicity as much as does a thorough rundown of the precise song selections. Nineteen standouts from the band's catalog have remained constant top choices throughout each reappraisal of the material. Yes, that's correct: Remasters, Early Days & Latter Days and Mothership all have 19 tracks in common! That means 82.6 percent of the last two compilations match each other and Remasters! For instance, "Stairway to Heaven" has always ended the collections spanning the band's pre-1972 output, and "The Song Remains the Same" has kicked off every post-1972 disc. There's little variation anywhere except when it comes to the treatment of Led Zeppelin's fifth album, the 1973 Houses of the Holy.

The only selections from the debut Led Zeppelin album to make any of these collections are "Good Times Bad Times," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown," and the same four have appeared on all three collections. They were presented in a different order each time, and Early Days was the only one to present them in the same sequence as on Led Zeppelin's debut.

"Whole Lotta Love" is the only Led Zeppelin II track to have been included on all three, coincidentally the fifth track of each. "Heartbreaker" and "Ramble On" were chosen for both Remasters and Mothership, whereas Early Days preferred only one track from Led Zeppelin II -- "What Is and What Should Never Be," which was seen on neither of the other two collections.

From Led Zeppelin III, the two most recent collections have embraced only "Immigrant Song" and "Since I've Been Loving You." Remasters opted to sandwich another Led Zeppelin III track between those two, "Celebration Day."

Five songs from the band's untitled fourth album were selected to close out the running order on the first disc of Remasters. Of these, the triumvirate of "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven" has made it to the all three collections. "The Battle of Evermore" made the transition from Remasters to Early Days but not to Mothership. "Misty Mountain Hop" was dropped from both two-CD collections following Remasters, exchanged instead for "When the Levee Breaks."

The post-1972 discs vary less, mostly because the band seems to have agreed over the years that only two songs from each of its last two albums are worthwhile inclusions. These are "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and "Achilles Last Stand" from Presence, and "All My Love" and "In the Evening" from In Through the Out Door. Likewise, only three songs from the double album Physical Graffiti showed up on all three compilations: "Houses of the Holy," "Kashmir" and "Trampled Underfoot." Another Physical Graffiti track, "Ten Years Gone," was chosen for Latter Days, but the album's remaining 11 songs were not chosen for any of the three compilations.

As previously stated, the album whose representation varies the most, by a hair, on these sets is Houses of the Holy. In addition to the ever-present "The Song Remains the Same" at track one, "No Quarter" has made the final cut for all three releases. Whereas this pair of Houses of the Holy songs was deemed a sufficient showing for Latter Days, the band also selected "D'yer Mak'er" as track three on both Remasters and Mothership. Wildcard songs from this album were additionally included on those two collections: "The Rain Song" on Remasters and "Over the Hills and Far Away" on Mothership.

Early Days and Latter Days were the only of these compilations' standard editions to contain live footage of the group, albeit mimed to the studio releases. (Sticklers point out that while the visuals of "Kashmir" being performed at Earl's Court in 1975 is synched to the audio from the studio version, the audio does not fade out as it does on the studio version; that is because the ending from the live performance was introduced seamlessly into the audio.)

Conclusion

What's the point in reissuing the same music over and over again with little exclusive goodies to offer? Tell you what: You write the conclusion! Let's get this comments section buzzing! Go ahead and take the devil's advocate and defend this Mothership release as vital to any music collection. If you can explain how it presents anything new, then you are a great persuader.

9 comments:

  1. The only "contribution" Mothership makes is to add another lame post-Zeppelin album cover to the bands discography. Virtually every release since the demise of the band has had weak cover art. If it's not landscape scenes (dvd & box set), it's spaceships and astronauts. I can't believe the boys allowed themselves to be shown as astronauts. I know, maybe they should come onstage at the O2 in Apollo 13 gear!

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  2. EXACTLY...no matter what, you can't stop the business end of the deal.
    Along with the long awaited TSRTS re-release, the execs that be obviously saw the $$ in their eyes that could be made with once again, rehashing the past. Nature of the ugly beast. Of course they could have all gone on record to say, enough of that. Should they have ? Yes, I believe they should've. And you know what...it is an ugly cover.
    If they get ranked on for offering up redundant repacked goods, well, they deserve it, they could've prevented it themselves.

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  3. This repackaging, while completely unnecessary, will probably sell simply because people in CD stores who might not have ventured to the L section in Rock/Pop would see Mothership displayed prominently in the store or behind the counter and purchase it as an afterthought. With all this talk of a one-off concert in London with such high demand, the name Led Zeppelin would of course be a little more familiar to those people who might be exploring the band for the first time (and, in fact, may not even be sure that Led Zeppelin is a band rather than a person). So it's like the biannual pledge drive on PBS. Every few years, they want to sell more records, and they figure they will do that if they stick a new collection in stores. It raises the visibility for consumers.

    What a repugnant cover for this album. I'd like to see some explanation for that! We ought to humiliate the people responsible for the artwork by dressing them up in astronaut suits! Of course, they might get a kick out of that.

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  4. Personally, I never understood the logic in placing the British band Led Zeppelin in space-suits emblazoned with American flags. While the boys were obviously adored here in the States, making them into US astronauts makes little sense.

    As to the endless repackaging of the same stuff, it's incredibly irritating to genuine fans who like to think of themselves as completists (read as: it's pissing me off). Why do I need another set of regular CDs with studio tracks? So I can read the wisdom of David Fricke? The guy's an excellent writer, but come now...

    If more attention is going to be devoted to Led Zeppelin's studio canon - either at the expense of, or in addition to the attention devoted to a live concert release - let it be poured into a transfer of the master tapes to Super Audio CD and/or DVD-Audio.

    If the music industry wants to rescue itself from mp3 downloads, then someone is going to have to come along and sell the new formats. I would argue that the bands to do it would be bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (Floyd already has what is probably the best rock release on either of the new formats - Dark Side of the Moon on SACD).

    Imagine hearing When The Levee Breaks in uncompressed glory in the middle of your living room. A good engineering job might give the effect of standing in the stairwell at Headley Grange as John Bonham pounds our heads into sweet oblivion with that huge drum sound.

    With the release of The Song Remains the Same on BluRay and HD-DVD, I think it would have been the perfect time to issue an album or two on SACD/DVD-A. Now THAT would have been worthwhile.

    Mothership on CD? No thanks.

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  5. Wyatt, good points about what kind of releases could be hitting the shelves instead. It is awesome that we are getting the DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions of The Song Remains the Same a week after Mothership. I'm glad some people have the technology to play and appreciate these. I'm not even sure what an "SACD" is.

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  6. Music journalist Lisa Robinson, writing for Vanity Fair about a whole slew of new releases featuring previously released material in new packages, has the following to say about Mothership and the reissue of The Song Remains the Same: "A great band is a great band. Frankly, it doesn't matter how many times these guys re-release this stuff; it always sounds better, still sounds modern, and still combines hard rock with blues, acoustic songs, and Eastern influences."

    See http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/11/hottracks200711 for her full article.

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  7. Here is an interesting Web page comparing the album cover to past work by its designer, Shepard Fairey: http://www.thedailyswarm.com/swarm/led-zeppelins-shepard-fairey-imothershipi-cover-revealed/

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  8. Fear not intrepid led-heads: In march all will be re-revealed with the 180 gram V I N Y L edition of Mothership (4 LPs)
    The hammer of the gods finally back on the format of the gods!
    Praise Pagey!

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  9. No reason at all after the Remastered CDs came out in 1990. Mp3s can be easily ripped from those discs and they sound as good as they're gonna get. Still, $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!!!

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