The Songs Remains the Same is either loved or loathed. In the former category, Led Zeppelin devotees raise their glass to a glimpse of a band in all its ragged glory and ‘70s excess, captured in the live arena, bashing and brutalizing the air with its four-pronged sonic assault. In the latter, even some stalwart supporters point to the LP and the film for which it served as a soundtrack as indicators of all that had gone wrong with rock ‘n’ roll just before punk shook the world.

Recorded in 1973 but not issued until 1976, the set has actually aged well and proves a delicious artifact of the band and its music. You’ve heard the studio renditions of these tracks to the point of tedium. Virtually every rivet rock station in the United States plays a block that features “Dazed and Confused” and/or “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Black Dog” et al. several times a day. Virtually every kid with peach fuzz and rising testosterone levels has busted into his dad’s record collection to hear “Heartbreaker” and dream his dreams of one day being a golden god.

Through it all Led Zeppelin has dodged becoming a cliché. There’s an adventurousness to the music. You can’t mistake Jimmy Page’s guitar playing, John Paul Jones’ bass lines, Robert Plant’s vocals or John Bonham’s drumming for anyone or anything else, but the British quartet was stylistically restless, moving from blues to folk to sounds that had more in common with Fairport Convention than Blue Cheer. Perhaps that eclecticism accounts for some of the enduring popularity. Then again, the simplest explanation may actually be the best. Above all, Led Zeppelin was a killer band that, at the end of the day, was just really damn good.

The original album didn’t feature all the material performed in the film, though the 2007 reissue corrected some of that, making for a more nuanced and palatable stroll. Whereas 1976 edition featured four songs, the latter added a definitive “Over The Hills and Far Away,” which spotlights some powerhouse playing from Page, Jones and Bonham as the work into something that can best be described as English blues funk.

The simple addition of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and a chilling “No Quarter” to the front end of the set took away the bloat the ’76 rendering eased into by having a 26-minute reading of “Dazed and Confused” occupy the whole of the second side. It’s still here, of course, but by the time we get to it, we’re eased into it, coaxed by if not entirely faithful then frequently exhilarating takes on “The Rain Song” and a walloping “The Ocean.”

As a stand-alone set (forget the film), The Song Remains the Same was transformed from a stopgap souvenir to righteously deft entry into Zeppelin’s studio-heavy oeuvre. Plant ad libs here and there as do his mates, with Page reminding us how wickedly playful and innovative he could be in the moment. For all the chatter about Bonham playing only with force, we’re also witness to some of his most subtle flourishes and his ability to play with incredible sensitivity within the framework of the group.

As good as he is, “Moby Dick” remains about as interesting in the audio-only setting as touring a cardboard museum. Sure, you can raise an eyebrow and appreciate him for his mastery but it’s hard to keep your eyes open without the film’s stunning (or are they corny?) visuals. One could also just easily spend much of their life without ever needing to hear “Stairway to Heaven,” whether or not the men performing the song are fully invested and keen on displaying the track’s compositional marvels. Truth be told, “Whole Lotta Love” seems a little sluggish here, a drawn out stab at blues authenticity that would be better off were the track rendered in the svelte manner of its studio counterpart.

There are only a handful of official Zeppelin live sets out there, the definitive one being 2003’s How the West Was Won. Captured Los Angeles in 1972, the quartet’s set offerings weren’t radically different (there’s even a nearly 20-minute cut of “Moby Dick”) but somehow the younger Zep was just a little more filled with fire, fury and focus.

Still, The Songs Remains the Same is an important chapter in rock ‘n’ roll history and not to be missed even if one sees it more as a curiosity than a statement as mighty as Bonham’s left foot.

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