The Song Remains the Same

Expecting a Led Zeppelin reunion sometime in the future? Dream on. Instead, try this: a four-and-a-half hour live DVD document of the band, captured at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970, Madison Square Garden in 1973, Earl’s Court in 1975, and Knebworth in 1979, with the addition of a handful of TV promos and dozens of snippets of unseen road footage. It is something Jimmy Page has intended to do, he says, “since The Song Remains The Same. That’s all there is out there.”

As overdue as it may be, the excuses Led Zeppelin DVD gives for its lateness are credible ones. Possibly the most pertinent of these is that the band’s surly approach to promotion means there is only a limited amount of footage in existence in the first place.

“In those days, you have to understand what you had at your disposal to promote your album,” says Page, ensconced in the viewing lounge at Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, where the double-DVD was edited, authored, and more. “Over here, there were radio broadcasts, where you would get a couple of numbers on a program; there was press, of which there was hardly any to do, which was rather wonderful; and then there was television. What you found on television was pop bands. The sort of format we wanted to do — we wanted to play live — it didn’t really figure in their agenda.”

Nevertheless, there was some footage, and when Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones secured the rights to an almost-complete film of their 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert in 1999, Page resolved to dig the Zep archive out of storage and see what else could be found.

“I knew we had the audio tapes because I used some of the material from the Albert Hall on Coda, although they were suitably disguised. That’s the last time I heard them, in 1982. We had a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with our storage facilities, and I suddenly realized that it was my job to find these tapes. I went and found them and in the process there were all these boxes coming out. Bit by bit I started to go through and see exactly what we may or might not have, at least theoretically.”

Closer inspection, however, revealed most of the film to be in truly terrible condition. Not only was it in a variety of long-obsolete formats, but all of it was filthy and much of it had fallen to pieces. Reels were only vaguely labeled by venue, with no clues as to the specific gig they contained and certainly no details of what songs might be found on the silent, badly damaged spools.

The sheer scale of the devastation revealed itself gradually to Dick Carruthers, founding director of Metropolis Studios’ M Productions film and TV division, whose job it was to trawl through and attempt to sort the hundreds of cans of negative film and videotape. The 35mm film had to be benchworked, re-joined, electronically cleaned and baked before it could be played, and even then there were fears that it would disintegrate before it could be transferred into digital form.

Meanwhile, Page was remastering the best of the audio from the concerts in 5.1 surround sound, which presented its own problems. Certainly, the initial idea of putting out a series of entire live performances on DVD was quickly rejected. “The Earl’s Court tapes had never been heard since 1975, so we had to bake them,” says Page. “When we put them on, we found that they must have had terrible trouble in the truck the very first night, because it was totally aborted. Then on another night we would find one person was playing under par or a bass drum wasn’t recorded, so you come down to the point again where it was what you call Hobson’s Choice. There wasn’t a lot of leeway with the audio.”

The task of bringing the audio side together fell to resident Sarm West engineer Kevin Shirley, who produced the final mixes on Digidesign’s Pro Tools. Mastering duties were split between two long-time Shirley-associate Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering in London and George Marino at New York’s Sterling Sound. Marino, who mastered the Zeppelin CD reissues with Page back in the late ’80s, handled the stereo mastering of the DVD, while responsibility for the final 5.1 cut was given to Young, a co-founder of Metropolis along with Ian Cooper and Tony Cousins.
“The recordings included from the Albert Hall show in 1969 were actually only eight tracks,” Young notes. “Just done on the basis of three tracks for the drums, one for bass, one for guitar, one vocal and two for the audience. That’s about as basic as you can get, but the tapes from that show still sound incredible.”

Given the often ferocious power of the band in its prime, one of Young’s main concerns with the 5.1 was to preserve the sense of a group truly in its element within the live arena: “One was constantly aware of trying to create that ‘being there in the band’ feeling. In particular, I didn’t want to lose any power in the bass end. We added bits of EQ and a little compression, but nothing too drastic.”
In fact, Young’s main difficulty was in reconciling the two distinct sides of Zeppelin’s output — sometimes still pegged erroneously as a purely ‘hard rock’ act, they always had their more reflective acoustic side. Dynamics, then, became a priority, “especially on the second disc where there is a large section of acoustic material. Rather oddly, that actually sounded louder than the rocking stuff, so we had to tone it down. Preserving consistency was something we had to get to grips with.”

New York’s Marino had a relatively trouble-free task in converting Shirley’s Pro Tools mixes into the final stereo masters. “It was a pretty straightforward three or four-day job,” says Sterling Sound’s chief technical officer, Chris Muth. “We kept Pro Tools as the medium, then played the tapes through George’s Muth Audio analog console. We were working with Sontex EQs and Prism A-D, D-A converters.”
This is Marino’s favored way of working — and, indeed, all of Sterling’s resident engineers retain a preference for analog consoles. “They simply think they produce better-sounding results,” says Muth, whose own audio company built many of Sterling’s fixtures.

Back in London, the final part of the editing process, that of bringing the video together with the sound, brought all the challenges Page and Carruthers had come to expect. Where specific sections of video could not be found, a battery of tricks was used, from stills to clever cutaways to excerpts of bootleg Super-8 footage procured from bootleggers on the promise of a credit. In the case of the lost Madison Square Garden tracks, the film of any one song consists of a patchwork of meticulously edited clips from performances on several different nights. “We were making things that never before existed,” says Carruthers, who is already resigned to the disapproval of purist fans.

Nonetheless, the finished DVD signifies the staggering success of the operation, and Page in particular is keen to play down the difficulty with which the extraordinary whole was constructed. “What you have got are gems — it doesn’t matter how they were arrived at,” he says.

Editor’s Review

By Rich Tozzoli, Senior Editor

There is a reason why the Led Zeppelin DVD has been number 1 on the Billboard Music Video chart for six straight weeks. When I first heard about it, I drove to the store that night to buy it. The clerk said there were a few left, and they sold out of them with each shipment. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to go buy a music product. It was worth it: Led Zeppelin is a two-disc set with over five hours of material. It features Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround, superbly mixed by Kevin Shirley. Jimmy Page supervised and produced it, along with director Dick Carruthers (The Who, Rolling Stones, Oasis).

Disc One features the band onstage at Royal Albert Hall in 1970. There is no pretense, just sheer power and aggression. In fact, they seem almost startled that the crowd is there listening to their magic. Special highlights include unique versions of “C’Mon Everybody,” “Something Else,” and “Bring It On Home.” The two-camera shoot is remarkable in quality, and the digital restoration is a treat to the eyes, aside of the music. Extras on Disc One include a French TV promo of “Communication Breakdown,” glimpses of the band in the dressing room at Royal Albert Hall, and TV footage to their trip to Iceland that same year. Robert Plant had never even seen that footage before himself.

Disc Two features the “Immigrant Song” from 1972, a performance at Madison Square Garden in July of 1973. Check out “Black Dog” and a powerful version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” There is also bootleg footage incorporated into the concert, which adds grit to the visuals. The band’s showmanship has changed, but their on-stage magic comes through clearly. Next, there is footage from a five-night stand at Earl’s Court in 1975, with an acoustic set that showcases their softer and more melodic side. Finally, there are some classics such as “Rock and Roll,” “Kashmir,” and “In The Evening” from Knebwoth in 1979. Extras on Disc Two include a NYC press conference in 1970, footage onboard their private Boeing jet, and two unique promo films that include Jimmy Page in his home studio.

Simply put, Led Zeppelins’ DVD has raised the bar for future DVD production. Its sheer sales numbers will make major labels take a serious look at the power of the format, and this disc will be remembered as a trend-setter. Bravo, Jimmy Page et. al.

Surround Professional Magazine