The Meridian Garden Tapes

A Celebration of Celebration Day
by Eddie Edwards

The Garden Tapes » The Meridian Garden Tapes


Led Zeppelin showed a disappointing lack of foresight in staging their Ahmet Ertegun tribute gig at the O2 Arena instead of the Royal Opera House. True, the ROH is hardly the most suitable venue for a rock concert, and barely a tenth as many fans could have been accommodated, but "The Covent Garden Tapes" would have had such a nice ring to it. An opportunity like that would never have gone begging if Peter Grant had still been at the controls. But all is not lost. Although lacking the illustrious heritage of the former fruit and veg market in WC2, there is an area of the O2 complex situated between the Arena itself and the Thames Path that fits the bill nicely enough. Welcome, then, to The Meridian Garden Tapes.

As readers of previous Garden Tapes features will know, the object of the exercise is to examine an official Led Zeppelin live release and to determine exactly what it is that we're listening to. "The Song Remains The Same", for example, was cunningly constructed from three 1973 concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York. "How The West Was Won" included material from concerts a year earlier in L.A. and Long Beach. The Earls Court feature on "DVD" had five 1975 concerts to draw from (although only three were used) and the Knebworth segment of that release had the two 1979 shows.

On 10th December 2007, the diverse strands of Led Zeppelin were woven together again for just a single concert, a tribute to the late and very great Ahmet Ertegun, and a mere five years later "Celebration Day" found its way into our lives and into our various devices, purporting to be a recording of that very event. But four days before the show, the band had played a full rehearsal at Shepperton Studios, a professional recording of which was leaked into collecting circles and even released officially as a Bonus DVD on one of the formats of "Celebration Day". Enquiring minds could not help but wonder whether parts of that rehearsal recording might perhaps have served a secondary purpose and been edited into the main "Celebration Day" feature.

All will, as the song goes, be revealed. But let's address a different question first. Long before the details of the music in the film "The Song Remains The Same" and on the album of the same title were documented in The Garden Tapes, just about every Led Zeppelin fan had spotted that there were differences. So what about the various formats of "Celebration Day"? Are there any variations in the music contained on CD, DVD, Blu-ray and vinyl? As far as the musical material is concerned, the answer is no. There are differences in the editing between songs, which is perfectly understandable, as prolonged applause and intervals can be ok on a video when there's something to watch, but are best trimmed down on an audio-only presentation. The music itself, though, is exactly the same on all formats.

With that important fact established, let's begin our adventure not at the beginning, but a little before it. The Tampa News Report that was played as a prelude to the concert is included on the DVD, although not quite in complete form as the remark comparing "Robert, Jimmy, John and John" to "John, Paul, George and Ringo" has been edited out. The News Report does not appear at all on the CD.

The concert itself began with three numbers played in quick succession, the first two of which had never been regulars in Led Zeppelin's live set list. A surprising decision, but perhaps a clever one as it helped to avoid any immediate, direct comparisons with days of old when magic filled the air. We have to sit through "Good Times Bad Times" and much of "Ramble On" before the excitement of the first musical edits is upon us, as a couple of Robert's utterances - "Oh" at 4:58 and "Yeah" at 5:19 - are removed from the mix for no apparent reason. "Black Dog", the third volume of the opening trilogy, is free of any edits.

Several weeks before the O2 show took place, guitar maker Hugh Manson revealed that a custom bass guitar would be used by John Paul Jones on some songs, in order to allow them to be played in a lower key than usual. Of course, it's possible to play in a different key on a normally-tuned instrument simply by playing different notes, although this is not really feasible with most Zep songs, where the riffs, licks and chords are based around the tuning of the instrument, particularly the low E. It's also perfectly possible to tune a standard guitar or bass down to a lower key, but this affects the tone and feel of the instrument. If you have somebody such as Hugh Manson available to provide you with an instrument specially designed and built for the purpose, so much the better!

"Good Times Bad Times", "Ramble On" and "Black Dog" were all played lower than normal; the first two songs in D instead of E and the last in G instead of A. The purpose, of course, was to make life a little easier for Robert Plant and to give him some headroom within which the original melodies would be more manageable. This was without doubt a sensible decision, as Robert sounded comfortable and in control all night. Inevitable side-effects were that the mood of the songs would be darker, the guitar riffs would lack a little punch and definition and the solos would lose some of their soaring and uplifting quality.

After Robert has wished the audience a good evening, the wait for "In My Time Of Dying" to start is reduced from 35 seconds to about 20. The editing here is the same on the CD and DVD. Following the unaccompanied slide guitar introduction, Jason Bonham did a full 5-beat count-in on the hi-hat, but somehow Jimmy Page still managed to miss the entry. The three big chords at 0:30 are therefore patched in. At 6:29, Robert's "Oh" is removed from the mix. At 8:22 the most significant edit so far occurs, as the Muddy Waters lines, "You know, I hear a lotta buzzin', sounds like my little honey bee," and some guitar/vocal interplay are removed, shortening proceedings by 20 seconds.

Although "In My Time Of Dying" was in the key of A minor on "Physical Graffiti", Led Zeppelin always played it in G minor in their 1975 and 1977 live sets. It was played in G minor at The O2, and this can be considered its right and proper key as far as live performance is concerned. Pagey chose to play a Gibson ES-350 for this number instead of the Danelectro that can be seen in the Earls Court feature of Led Zeppelin DVD, but of course the same open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) is used in both cases.

At 4:44 in "In My Time Of Dying", a feedback squeal that lasted several seconds has been eliminated from the mix, and similar filtering treatment has been applied to further unwanted noises between 7:21 and 7:34. I mention these just as examples of the many ways in which the mix has been cleaned up throughout the whole show but I have no intention of attempting to list everything of this nature. Documenting this aspect of mixing and production does not fall within the scope of The Garden Tapes analyses - and in any case, it would be completely impossible! There was a fascinating article in the January 2013 issue of "Sound On Sound" magazine that gave an insight into the work done on the mix by engineer Alan Moulder - well worth a read if you're interested in that sort of thing - but here and now we're just dealing with cuts and other clear alterations to what was actually played or sung, so let's get back to that.

After "In My Time Of Dying" Robert made his first speech to the audience. This appears unedited on the DVD but most of it has been removed on the CD. The main cut of about a minute occurs at 11:02, and there's another brief one at 11:08 to remove Robert's "eek" after announcing that the forthcoming song has never before been played in public by the band. The song in question is, of course, "For Your Life". In this number, Robert's descending "Oh" at 1:36 and his "Ah, ah, yeah" between 3:10 and 3:12 have been disposed of. At 5:37 there's a guitar fix where Jimmy hit an E that should have been an E flat.

At 06:30 Plant's speech that cites Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" as the template for "Trampled Underfoot" is shortened by about 13 seconds on the CD. On the DVD it appears in full. There's just one edit in "Trampled" as the word "size" is retuned from F to G at 1:31.

At 6:19 another Plant speech is deemed unsuitable for CD listeners. The missing 40 seconds can be heard on the DVD as another legendary Johnson gets a mention, Blind Willie this time. There are no edits in "Nobody's Fault But Mine" although there was a potential candidate for a bass fix as Jonesey hit a G sharp when aiming for a G at 4:36!

"For Your Life" and "Trampled" were played in their normal keys but "Nobody's Fault" was played in D instead of its original E. Robert would therefore have played a G harmonica in this song instead of a the A variety that he would have used between 1977 and 1980 (blues harmonica is played on an instrument that is tuned a 4th above the key of the song).

A 50 second pause between "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and "No Quarter" is reduced to 35 seconds on the DVD and 20 seconds on the CD. In both cases, it's only audience noise that is lost. In "No Quarter" there are just a couple of adjustments to the vocals, as "and true" is tuned up from C to D at 6:49 and "you" is tuned down from G sharp to G at 6:56. The vocal echo effects between 7:23 and 8:01 have been much reduced.

No Quarter was played in C minor instead of the usual D minor. The video footage reveals that the keyboard has been tuned down so that Jonesey could play the song as if it were in the familiar D minor. Lowering the key of this song was pushing the limits a bit, as it's already one of the darkest numbers and the low D played in the usual tuning is already lower than the lowest note on a standard bass guitar. Reports claiming that the ghosts of Barry White and Lee Marvin emerged from the dry ice at the end of the guitar solo and added backing vocals in the second verse have not been confirmed.

A 30 second interval before "Since I've Been Loving You" has been reduced to about 20 seconds on both formats. Again, we lose nothing other than audience noise, which is faded out and in on the CD format as this is where the disc transition occurs. "Since I've Been Loving You" was played in its normal key of C minor and features just one edit at 6:31 where a slight crack in Robert's most ambitious scream of the night has been smoothed over.

The speech introducing "Dazed and Confused" appears unedited on the DVD but has been removed on the CD. 40 seconds have been cut, leaving behind just 10 seconds of applause which is faded down as the bass guitar begins the song not in the usual E minor, but deeper down in D minor.

The transition from the fast middle section of "Dazed and Confused" back to the main theme resulted in the band's only serious mistake of the night. Jimmy got a few bars ahead of Jason, and by the time Jason had played his furious climax and stopped to let Jimmy play the connecting riff, Jimmy had already played the riff a couple of times. The re-entry of the drums was therefore out of synch with the guitar, and a few uncertain bars followed as Page backed off and just improvised with a few chords and harmonics while allowing the rhythm section to find its way back into line. Fixing this section to sound as it should have been played would clearly have been impossible, so it's just been tidied up a bit. The first two runs through the interim guitar riff have been repeated, so that it at least sounds like the riff was played cleanly four times, and some of the drum fury has also been repeated so that it finishes at about the same time as the riffing. The editing action takes place between 8:42 and 8:47 and the chaotic few seconds following that have simply been removed. It still sounds a bit messy and unsatisfactory but there was really nothing more that could have been done. There are no other edits in the song.

The 50 second interval between "Dazed and Confused" and "Stairway To Heaven" is halved on the CD but reduced by only about 10 seconds on the DVD. There are no casualties other than audience noise. In "Stairway" there's a minor smoothing operation at 4:04 where there was a very slight hesitation in the guitar arpeggio, and at 6:09 the intonation of the first note of the guitar solo is corrected, Pagey having applied a little too much string-bend as his left hand completed its rapid journey from the twelve-string neck of that most iconic of instruments to the six. Perhaps he was momentarily caught out by the strings being looser than usual in order to allow the song to be played in G minor instead of its customary A minor.

No need for any cuts between songs here, as the band wasted no time in moving on to another double-neck classic, "The Song Remains The Same". The instrument had been tuned down for "Stairway", and even the deity known to us as James Patrick Page would have found it a challenging task to retune 12 strings in 20 seconds, so this song is played in the key of C rather than the D of its seventies heyday. At 3:21 the words "song" and "remains" have been retuned from B flat to G and A respectively, although there seems to be something of the original notes in the mix as well, producing a haunting double-tracked effect reminiscent of the overdub at almost the exact same moment in the same song on another well known Led Zeppelin live album. Coincidence? I think not. The echo treatment on the vocals has been reduced between 3:28 and 3:35, and the "Woo-ooh yeah" and "Come on now" phrases between 5:17 and 5:27 have been taken out of the mix, although you can still hear ghostly traces of them.

Robert spoke about the Bonham family and their love of singing before introducing Jason on vocals for "Misty Mountain Hop". A 75 second cut removes all of this from the CD but on the DVD most of it can be heard, although there are still 20 seconds missing including Jason's rendition of "I Can't Quit You Baby". A fix to a small keyboard fumble on the very first note is the only edit in "Misty Mountain Hop".

A 45 second cut removes the speech before "Kashmir" on both formats. The only editing in the song itself is some strengthening of Robert's voice, which is feeling the strain just a little by this point in the proceedings. "Oh" at 1:50, "All I see" at 3:27, "Pilot of the storm" at 4:44 and "Shangri-La" at 5:03 are all beneficiaries from a touch of pitch uplift. Of course, it would be foolish to imagine that every subtle adjustment of this type can be identified. The Garden Tapes has its limitations!

The audience were kept waiting for 3 minutes and 45 seconds for the first encore. Those reliving the occasion via DVD need wait only half as long, and for those listening to the CD the band are back in action after just 20 seconds. In "Whole Lotta Love" the second syllable of "inside" has been retuned from A to B at 4:01 and 25 seconds of "Boogie Chillen" teasing has been removed at 4:36.

Led Zeppelin demonstrated their unrivalled stature by having the audacity to detain a 21st century audience by a further 2 minutes and 55 seconds before the second encore. Those who resisted the urge to beat the rush to North Greenwich tube station were rewarded with a brief speech from Mr. Page. Not only are DVD watchers able to enjoy that moment, but they only have to wait about a minute for it. CD listeners have only a 10 second wait for the final song of the night but they miss out on the speech. Such is life.

Robert started to speak just as Jason began the "Rock and Roll" drum intro, but if you want to try to work out what it was that he was about to say then you'll have to get hold of an audience recording, as it has been removed on the official release by an edit that turns out to be the last of the night.

The last two numbers of the main set, "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Kashmir", and the first encore, "Whole Lotta Love", were played in their normal keys. This was very welcome, as it helped to lift the excitement level up a notch. But for the final number, "Rock and Roll", it was back to tuned-down mode as the song was played in G instead of A.

Of the 16 songs performed at the O2 and presented on "Celebration Day", 7 were played in their original keys and 9 were played with the instruments tuned one whole tone lower. Most listeners would not consciously notice these key changes, but without a doubt they do have an effect on the overall impact of the show. It would be an overstatement to say that any songs were entirely spoiled by the changes, but without exception the songs that were played in their "proper" keys carried a more natural cutting edge. It's impossible not to wish that the changes could have been avoided, but they were made for a good reason so let's dwell on the matter no further.

We can now return to the subject of the rehearsal recording and confirm that the main concert feature has not been corrupted by patching in anything from Shepperton. Perhaps the differences in sound characteristics between the two recordings would have made it quite difficult to do that, but a simpler explanation is that it wasn't necessary. The O2 show might have been a very long way from being Led Zeppelin's greatest night, but the performance was very clean and tidy.

This Garden Tapes feature would not be complete, though, without considering the Shepperton rehearsal as an event in its own right. The recording of it was somehow leaked and bootlegged before the release of "Celebration Day", so does that mean we can tell whether it has been edited and doctored for the official release? Not really. The officially released recording of the rehearsal is the same musically as the leaked copy, but of course we don't know for sure whether the leaked version had already undergone surgery in preparation for potential release. So what are the facts of the case? It's a mono mix, apart from some obligatory panning of violin bow and theremin. There are a few vocal and instrumental imperfections and a missed cue here and there which might have been fixed if anybody had been inclined to do so, although this would only have been feasible if the recording was a multi-track one, which is not confirmed. In a curious reversal of the usual order of things, there are some flaws that can be heard on the official release but have been edited out or tidied up on unofficially circulated copies; these include interference and distortion in the "Dazed and Confused" bow solo, some scratchy noises at the beginning of "Stairway" and an aborted start to "Misty Mountain Hop". There are also some comments between songs on the Bonus Disc that were not present on the leaked version; "Just the two people get free prescriptions at the moment," remarks Robert at one point, doubtless looking forward just a few short months to a time when he too would qualify for that privilege. The evidence points persuasively towards a conclusion that the Bonus Disc feature is a straightforward, rough and ready presentation without alterations, but unless somebody comes up with a Shepperton audience recording, which seems an unlikely prospect as the audience there was somewhat smaller than at the O2, we are compelled to record an open verdict. Before we close the case, we must sum up by returning to where we started our quest, some 4,400 miles from London on the west coast of Florida, and observing that, at the beginning of the Rehearsal feature, the Tampa News Report includes the section that has been cut on the main concert DVD!

Thank you to all those who got in touch after the release of "Celebration Day" asking if a Garden Tapes feature was in the making. You convinced me eventually that it was a worthwhile endeavour, so I dedicate The Meridian Garden Tapes to you, to Messrs. Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham (senior and junior) and most of all to the man whose life was extraordinary enough to be worthy of such a remarkable Celebration.

Hey, Ahmet - they did it.

The Garden Tapes