Monday, May 27, 2013

Winning Over the West

One of the things I have come to understand about my generation is that we are unique.

I suppose everyone feels that way about his/her generation, but I think it is particularly applicable to mine.

I don't think the people of my generation fully grasped that our time was the prime of the classic rock era. Too many of us grew up thinking that what we had was no different from what other generations had, but that wasn't true. Other generations didn't have Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.

Led Zeppelin.

We took it for granted, you see. It was all around us all the time, and I guess we all assumed that it was normal, that it was like that for everyone.

You can listen to the studio albums that were produced in those days — and kind of get a feeling for what the excitement was like.

But to really experience what people of the time experienced, you need to hear what a band sounded like in front of a live audience. Unfortunately, there aren't that many live performances from the late '60s and early '70s that were preserved — and even fewer that are truly representative of the experience.

Led Zeppelin released a double album in the mid–'70s that was all right, but it wasn't entirely satisfying — to the fans or the band. I had that album, and I listened to it, and I liked it well enough — but only, I suppose, because I had nothing with which to compare it.

Ten years ago today, I did. And, frankly, I found the album from the '70s to be wanting.

On this day in 2003, a triple CD, "How the West Was Won," was released. It was a compilation of the best live recordings from two Led Zeppelin shows in southern California in 1972. In the liner notes, none other than Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said the recordings were of the band at its best.

For many years, portions of those concert recordings were only available on bootleg albums.

If you can remember any part of those early days of the '70s, you're sure to remember songs like "Stairway to Heaven." It was then — and almost certainly still is today — Led Zeppelin's most recognizable song.

And you can hear it live on "How the West Was Won" — 9½ minutes' worth. In fact, the album itself contained more than 2½ hours of classic Zeppelin being performed live.

Hard–core Zeppelin fans could complain that the CD didn't include songs like "Thank You" or "Communication Breakdown," both of which had been around longer. But "Stairway to Heaven," which had just been released a few months before, has become the band's signature song.

Failure to include a live recording of that song might have been a deal breaker. Many fans probably would not have invested in the triple CD if "Stairway" had not been included.

Truth be told, many fans probably wouldn't have invested in that live collection if it had included songs from Zeppelin's later albums like "Presence" and "In Through the Out Door." Unfortunately, though, the shows from which the tracks were taken were too early to include songs from 1973's "Houses of the Holy" or 1975's "Physical Graffiti."

In that sense, "How the West Was Won" stands as something of a time capsule, a glimpse into the not–so–distant musical past.

More than a decade after the performances on "How the West Was Won," Led Zeppelin performed in a reunion as part of the Live Aid concert in July 1985. Zeppelin performed three songs on that occasion — "Whole Lotta Love," "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven."

Those are, arguably, Zeppelin's most popular songs, and all three were included on "How the West Was Won."

That should tell you a lot.