June 2, 2014
Zep Re-Issues Spark Crusty Memories
Forget the big hair. Forget the unprecedented big sound; the loudest, hardest hitting drummer ever. Led Zeppelin was just plain big. Only one band, The Beatles, ever sold more units worldwide than Led Zeppelin and, compared to the mega-raunch of Zep, The Beatles were as wild as a curled up kitten sleeping under the Christmas tree. In the USA, only The Beatles, Elvis, and Garth Brooks have had more sales. If the Beatles were the band of the 60s, Led Zeppelin was the band of the 70s, spawning inumerable clones. So when it was announced that the first three Led Zeppelin albums — imaginatively titled I, II, and III — are to be re-issued on the Atlantic Swan Song label, it provoked a fair bit of music press nostalgia and some crusty but probably reliable memories from guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant. We are promised re-mastered quality and bonus tracks, but then how else could hardened fans be persuaded to buy again what they already own?
Those first three albums broke a lot of molds. Although noted for their heavy, blues-infused rock numbers, which were the jumping off point for heavy metal, the band loved to mix it up with some gorgeous acoustic stuff, too, featuring Page’s unique guitar playing style. This mix was perhaps most evident in Led Zeppelin III and in a recent Guardian article, Page and Plant reminisce about the making of the record.
After a grueling period of touring to promote the second album, the band was strung out and ready to chill. Looking for somewhere quiet, away from the frenzied world of rock stardom, Plant remembered an idyllic retreat where he had gone on holiday with his family and decided they would decamp there for some down time. That place was a cottage known as Bron-yr-Aur in the Welsh mountain area of Snowdonia, and it gave its name to one of their best loved songs. Page and his girlfriend, with Plant, his wife and daughter, and Strider the dog went down to the cottage with a couple of roadies. When the families left, the two got down to playing and recording. They didn’t have much choice about playing purely acoustic stuff – the cottage had no electricity. Recording was done on battery-driven Sony cassette players. The building was fairly ramshackle. The roadies had to gather firewood for heat and, as there was no water mains, they had to carry that, too. Endless supplies of cider, bottled gas and candles were the order of the day. But the isolation, peace, and lack of power made the pair think hard about how to mix acoustic and electric music together successfully, something they had struggled with up to that point. Several songs had their genesis there including, rumor has it, the seminal Stairway to Heaven.
Bron-yr-Aur has become a place of pilgrimage for Zep fans from all over the world. The cottage, which dates back to 1790, is now owned by ex-teacher Ruth Dale, who is happy to welcome those die-hards who make it into the mountains to pay their respects. When Ruth’s father John, a vicar from the Midlands, bought the house “for a song,” he just saw it as a perfect country getaway. He had no idea he was buying a piece of Rock history. As for Ruth, well, it just seems right that she now runs a children’s choir named Tangerine after the Zep song. Music still grows from Bryn-yr-Aur.
Image Credit: Danny E. Martindale / Thinkstock