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Critics' Choice
BBC SET REVEALS LED ZEPPELIN
AT THEIR RAWEST
8/19/16

By Phil Gallo

Making a great record in the ‘70s was never enough to be considered a great act. Greatness was in the ability to play the songs live, prove that an album with five-star reviews was not the result of studio gimmickry, guest musicians and the like. You put your name on it so you better be able to deliver a show that captures an album’s essence.

As SwanSong’s  The Complete BBC Sessions makes abundantly clear, Led Zeppelin could do it all soon after their formation. BBC Sessions also shows how Zeppelin was an oxymoron for the era: rooted in blues from 1950s Chicago yet electrifyingly current on an unmatched level. As the '60s gave way to the '70s that no other band had a similar Midas touch in mining pre-Beatles sounds to define the era's rock & roll.

It feels like a quaint notion now, this idea of a band’s value being tied to live performance and recordings. Technology today allows any act to ably re-create their recordings to the point that there’s barely a difference between the digital file and the analog appearance.

Back when the question was is it live or is it Memorex, Led Zeppelin was proving its mettle on record and the stage, a fact Complete BBC Sessions drives home one in-your-face and ferocious track after another.

Taken from sessions between 1969 and 1971, this is surly blues-rock, especially the third disc of nine previously unreleased performances. Clearly their absence from the two BBC Sessions releases in the 1990s owed to the inferior quality of the recordings, the performances are stellar examples of Led Zep at their rawest, especially Jimmy Page. His guitar solo on the newly unearthed “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a mind-blower; and “Sunshine Woman,” the rare Led Zep tune with a lengthy piano solo, finally makes it onto an official release.

It, too, is a powerhouse performance, owing more to the invigorating heft of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when Mike Bloomfield was in the group than any of their music inspired—and sometimes stolen from—Willie Dixon. “Sunshine Woman” is the last cut on the album and quite revelatory: As much as they celebrated the black musicians who created the blues they love, they knew they needed to push forward from the advances made by the white rockers who proceeded them, Page’s Yardbirds in particular. They were going to do it loudly and confidently, and as we look nearly half a century, we hear a band that was peaking as a performing act soon after its birth. It might be a bit of heresy for some classic rock fans, but BBC Sessions backs the assertion that this band hit its peak prior recording “Stairway to Heaven.”