Before Led Zeppelin became the hallowed hard-rock pioneers known for epics such as "Stairway to Heaven" and "Kashmir," the young, hungry British rockers simply spewed out killer albums and played sledgehammer versions of them onstage. The band's opening trio, 1969's "Led Zeppelin" and "Led Zeppelin II" and 1970's "Led Zeppelin III," get luxurious reissue treatment on Tuesday, via CD masters, with a 70-page picture book for affluent fans, and corresponding discs of rarities and live tracks for each album. Here are 10 things you didn't know about the set, curated by guitarist Jimmy Page.
1 Page spent years digging through a West London vault -- Rolling Stone described it as "heavily guarded, climate-controlled, super secret" -- of master tapes. "I left no stone unturned," he told the magazine. "I dread to think how it could have been thrown together if I wasn't around."
2 The reissues show how the progression from "Led Zeppelin" to "II" to "III" is the sound of the band submerging itself in American blues, then taking them to a new, heavier place. The great Chicago songwriter Willie Dixon would sue the band for royalties over the compositions it borrowed for "Bring It On Home" and "Whole Lotta Love." But nobody accused the propulsive "III" opener "Immigrant Song" of copying anything.
3 The bonus disc for "Led Zeppelin" is a 1969 "Live at the Olympia" show in Paris broadcast live on the radio. Page came across it at a Japanese record store and found the original tapes. From Plant's first "haaa haaaa haaas" at the beginning of "Good Times Bad Times/Communication Breakdown" to John Bonham's gloriously indulgent, nine-minute drum showcase "Moby Dick," Zep shows its albums were sketches for its true power.
4 Onstage at the Olympia for a listening party last week, Page declared the newly released live recordings "just so enthusiastic" and "real raw." On "White Summer/ Black Mountain Side," a centerpiece of Zeppelin sets at the time, he took a break from their electric set for a nine-minute solo jam that goes on about four minutes too long.
5 The backing tracks for "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" and "Thank You," from "Led Zeppelin II," are revelatory. They're removed from Plant's high-pitched histrionics and show the strength of Bonham, Page and bassist John Paul Jones as a tight, composed rhythm section. Check out the disciplined pauses throughout "Living Loving Maid."
6 Unreleased until now, the long-bootlegged "Jennings Farm Blues" is an electric-guitar jam named for Plant's Worcestershire farm, according to "The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin." The instrumental would later morph into "Bron-y-Aur Stomp" on "III."
7 The "Zeppelin III" evolution of the instrumental "Bathroom Sound" into "Out On the Tiles" shows how a band anchored on Page's distinctive rhythm guitar and Bonham's swinging, heavy foot went somewhere else when Plant added his vocals.
8 In the middle of "Keys to the Highway," a 1970 "Zeppelin III" outtake of the blues standard, Plant sings the "Lordy, mama!" section of "Trouble in Mind." "The subtleties in it were wonderful and reassuring to hear," Page told radio.com.
9 "Stairway to Heaven" outtakes are on the way. "Absolutely," Page told Rolling Stone, suggesting "Led Zeppelin IV" will be reissued later this year. But the celebratory nature of the release may be tainted: An attorney for the songwriting trust of the late Spirit guitarist Randy California claims Zep ripped off the band's "Taurus."
10 The set doesn't mean you should expect a reunion anytime soon. Page and Jones have said they're willing, but Plant told Rolling Stone the idea is "an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that's about big-time stadium rock." Page responded in The New York Times: "Everyone would love to play more concerts for the band. He's just playing games, and I'm fed up with it, to be honest with you." So 50-50, then?
Bottling that sound in studio sessions
Although Eddie Kramer didn't work on the new Led Zeppelin reissues, he was the original engineer for "II" and mixed "Gallows Pole" for "III." By phone from his home in Los Angeles, he talks about working with the band and producer Jimmy Page:
What type of sound was Zeppelin trying to achieve for the second album?
We were running about in different studios, trying to get studio time, because they were on the road, and they had to try to slot us in between their tour. I'm not sure how much time there was for discussion, other than, "Let's just bloody well mix it and get on with it." We hardly had time to breathe.
During the "II" and "III" period in the early '70s, how did you approach recording Zeppelin's music?
The whole concept is to record them with as much power as one could possibly summon -- and do an imaginative job in interpreting what Jimmy wanted to hear.
What was the secret to capturing that power in a studio?
The key to any Zeppelin track is how to record John Bonham. And Bonzo's sound was the basic foundation of everything that goes on around it. If it started there, the next thing would be how to integrate John Paul Jones. ... And Jimmy's guitar tones were very critical. The whole band is so critical -- you take away one tiny piece of that, and the whole thing falls apart.