Since the first Led Zeppelin bootleg CD appeared way back in 1988, there have been dozens of labels, now mostly defunct, that have issued Live Led Zeppelin recordings to the present day. We shall examine a few of the most important ones. A complete list, with the titles issued, has been very conveniently gathered together in a catalogue of titles, on the Bootledz Website: http://www.bootledz.com/labellist.htm
Akashic & Tarantura.Both these labels are from the same stable, and are generally of an extremely high standard in sound quality, and often with a completely new show or source tape as well. But it is in the packaging that these labels are unsurpassed, quite simply they are the most beautiful CD releases extant, and are often very limited numbered releases, and very quickly sell out, making them highly collectable and very expensive.
Antrabata. This label released a number of really nicely packaged and usually excellently sounding shows in the mid 1990s. It was started up as a rival to the mighty Tarantura label from Japan, and the releases were all limited to 325 numbered copies, in jewel cases inside a glossy card slipcase. All five Earls Court concerts were released by them, although strangely the final night came out in a card gatefold package and did not fit in with the previous four nights, a great pity. Their releases of four of the 1980 Tour Over Europe concerts from stereo soundboard tapes, remain the best sounding, although they are not complete. If the cuts in the soundboard recordings had been filled with the relevant audience tapes these would remain the definitive versions for these shows.
Cobla/Cobra. This label issued quite a number of concerts, all packaged in miniature replica card sleeves of the original vinyl bootlegs. Unfortunately this label were very heavy handed at times with the equalization of their source tapes so great care must be taken in collecting certain titles. The last few titles of their releases came out on CDRs.
Electric Magic. Another label that, while still current, can be overtly overenthusiastic with equalization of the source tapes (why can’t these people leave the tapes alone and let the fans EQ them to their own satisfaction and liking?). Probably their main claim to fame is their 12 CD box set Landover (with facile titles to each of the four concerts, the second night is called One Nation Dancing Groove, one of the most stupid CD titles ever). There was a mastering fault on one of the discs that was replaced with a new CD (disc 3 of the third night Crossfire Hurricane).
Empress Valley. A successor to the original Tarantura label, started by one of the persons responsible for that label, this label is a prolific one.. However great care must be taken in collecting or trading for this label’s releases. They have a knack of either doing something really well, or absolutely atrociously. There seems to be no in between with Empress Valley. They also have a very nasty habit of spreading a concert across an extra disc, to milk more money out of collectors. This is a totally despicable thing to do. Classic examples of this are the LA Forum 27 June 1977 Deep Striker (four discs rather than three), Ipswich 16 November 1971 Feelin’ Groovy Definitive Version (3 discs rather than 2), Seattle 17 July 1977 Year Of The Dragon (4 discs rather than 3), and finally Copenhagen 23 & 24 July 1979 Complete Copenhagen Warm-Ups (5 discs rather than 4). What is probably the label’s finest release, the beautiful 22 CD box set Demand Unprecedented In The History Of Rock Music is flawed this way too. The first two nights are spread over 4 discs when they easily fit onto 3, and there is a 2 CD release No Quarter included, claiming to be off a vinyl acetate. However most of this recording is off an audience tape, so this is a fake. If this had come out as an 18 CD set it would have quite rightly gone down as one of the all time great Led Zeppelin Live releases. Also Empress Valley can’t resist showing off their alleged EQ skills, and often end up with a really poor sound. A good example of this is their Triumphant UK Return single CD, from London on 12 October 1969, which is very poor sounding indeed and is ruined by harsh EQ.
Another very nasty habit this label have is to introduce bits from completely different concerts to fill gaps in the main source. My candidate for the worst CD release ever is their Black Velvet, a 4 CD box set of Belfast 5 March and Dublin 6 March 1971. The Belfast concert is of great historical importance as it was the first time that Stairway To Heaven was played live on stage. What do Empress Valley do to fill the gaps in the newly surfaced audience recording? They use fragments from Dublin the next night and even Ipswich from November the same year slipped in, and they do not even remove the tape squeal for the last part of the concert, which happens when the tape recorder batteries run low on power. One other example illustrates Empress Valley’s hit and miss attitude, the soundboard recording from Madison Square Garden in New York on 29 July 1973. Rather than use the audience recording to fill the gaps, the idiots use the previous night’s soundboard tape, as they wanted to keep a similar sound quality throughout. This label is inconsistent in its treatment of source tapes. The superb sounding and professionally mixed soundboard recording from Madison Square Garden on 12 February 1975 was released as Led Zeppelin’s Flying Circus. Whilst all the songs are complete, the opening announcements and some of Robert Plant’s talking between songs are missing. There is a superb sounding audience recording that could easily have been used to fill the gaps, but wasn’t. However in their Landover 26 May 1977 release Bringing The House Down an excellent soundboard tape was unearthed, and the gaps were filled from the audience recording. No consistency in any of their releases.
Flying Disc & Ghost. These two labels produced a considerable number of releases in the early 1990s, most of which all played at the wrong speed. Many of the source tapes for these titles were stolen from Jimmy Page’s personal collection, and these were no doubt copied on high speed cassette dubbing machines, hence the incorrect running speeds. None of the releases have stood the test of time.
Genuine Masters. A label that specialises in DVD Audio releases, (and also video to DVD) using the best possible audience recording source, and linking it to a collage of pertinent photographs and memorabilia. A unique presentation, and to be commended for trying to do something different.
Image Quality. Another label that released quite a number of titles, few of which were particularly good, with some exceptions. The two Graham’s Superb titles for the 26 & 27 April 1969 San Francisco audience recordings are notable, and A Gram Is A Gram Is A Gram, the opening LA Forum concert in March 1975 is a complete alternate source tape release, rather than the more well known Millard recording.
Immigrant. An overlooked and very under rated label, which released a number of excellent sounding titles that have stood the test of time extremely well. Their Lyceum Preview is infinitely better sounding than the atrocious Empress Valley version. Their release of the mono (Blimp/TMOQ) audience recording of the classic LA Forum 4 September 1970 concert, Return To Blueberry Hill, is the definitive release. They also very usefully made a number of the 1973 European tour audience recordings available, and their 18 May 1975 Earls Court Complete Earl’s Court Arena ‘75 release is in excellent and untampered stereo (and very nicely packaged too).
Jelly Roll. Another ‘quality not quantity’ label, they produced some really excellent sounding and nicely packaged releases. Their two San Francisco April 1969 titles Cracker Jack Blues (24, AUD) and Simplistic Atomosphere (27, SBD) remain very worthwhile versions. They have produced at the time the definitive sounding (although not quite as complete as the subsequent Empress Valley version) of the legendary superb Mike Millard recording from the opening night at the LA Forum in 1977 Listen To This Eddie Definitive Complete Version (on gold discs). Sadly there is a mastering problem at the end of disc 1 (No Quarter). It took me some time to notice this as I invariably play this release at maximum volume on my stereo system and it was not discernable easily unless listened to at a lower volume.
Last Stand Disc. This label went to pains to point out that their releases were from the master with no equalising, rather unlikely on both counts in many cases. However quite a number of their titles are outstanding versions, often limited to 300 copies. Live On Blueberry Hill contains the original mono and stereo tapes on 2 CDs each, untampered with. If Empress Valley release this they will paste in tape from other sources to fill the gaps, rather than let the originals shine on their own merits (as they did with the Ipswich 1971 release Feelin’ Groovy. Last Stand’s greatest moments were the release in numbered box sets of the complete 1971 and 1972 Japan concerts Live In Japan 1971 & Live In Japan 1972. Excellent sound and beautifully packaged, both these sets were subsequently released in a massive box set for all the 1971 and 1972 concerts.
Silver Rarities. One of the earliest and most prolific CD labels, a number of their original releases were subsequently re-released using better sounding source tapes. The best example of this is their Listen To This Eddie (Master Series), taken from a genuine first generation Millard tape, without any meddling and equalising. The packaging is superb in its stark simplicity, reminding one of how the TMOQ vinyl used to be. Nowadays when a CD is released it must have an expensive and elaborate package, glossy covers and some gimmick to attract people to part with a great deal of money. We have forgotten that the most important thing is how the CDs sound, not how they look.
Tarantura. The original and easily the best luxury label to have come out of Japan. From 1993 to 1997 this label was THE one to collect, and the fact that many of their releases command staggering sums in the collectors market is a testimony to this. Unfortunately it took this label a while to realise that tape hiss is not easily removed without a loss of overall sound quality, so care has to be taken in collecting a number of titles. However certain releases from their prodigious catalogue remain definitive examples of what can be achieved when money and high standards are no object. These titles, whilst sound wise have been superseded, will remain probably the finest Led Zeppelin Live CD releases ever. The Campaign, the complete Japan 1972 concerts in a stunningly beautiful hard box; Get Back To L.A., all three LA Forum 1975 shows in a beautiful shuffle pack slipcase; The Destroyers, both Cleveland 1977 concerts housed in a gorgeous red box; A Week For Badge Holders, all six LA Forum 1977 concerts housed in a long box; and finally Knebworth, the two 1979 Knebworth Festival concerts from excellent audience recordings in an oversized hard backed book, with book of photos from the concerts.
The Diagrams Of Led Zeppelin (TDOLZ). The most prodigious Led Zeppelin label, now sadly defunct. TDOLZ produced a mass of releases, many of them still the definitive version for a particular concert. There was no consistency in the packaging, varying from a standard jewel case to a glossy gatefold package. This label also jumped on the limited edition box set packaged bandwagon, with varied amounts of success. A very good example of this was their Live In Tokyo 1971, which was a nicely packaged box, housing the two remastered Tokyo September 1971 shows, together with the reissue on CD of two very rare vinyl albums (including all the crackles) from the two concerts. Fortunately both the remastered shows were later separately released in very attractively packaged jewel cases. Another reissue in remastered form which is the definitive audience recording version for Madison Square Garden on 12 February 1975 Can’t Take Your Evil Ways Un-cut Complete Version.
Watch Tower. This label was set up in competition to Empress Valley, and throughout 2002 both labels each released the same concert in opposition to each other, a rather silly and sad thing to do. Ironically it was the Watch Tower version of the concert that was the better sounding in certain cases, noticeably the last two nights at Earls Court in 1975, To Be A Rock And Not To Roll (24, SBD/AUD) and Conquistador (25, SBD/AUD). The last night in particular, from a newly surfaced and near complete soundboard recording, was one of the most exciting discoveries of 2002. Watch Tower’s other noteworthy release, better sounding and longer than the Empress Valley version, was their 6CD Welcome To The 1979 Knebworth Festival, from excellent and near complete soundboard tapes, the gaps neatly filled from the audience recordings. Unfortunately some of Watch Tower’s releases are marred by sloppy digital mastering, and often digital ‘clicks’ and ‘pops’ can be heard. Some enterprising fans have carefully gone through the releases removing these imperfections. As is often the case, Led Zeppelin fans do a far better job in producing CD releases than the commercial releases, at minimal cost.