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The Story of Led Zeppelin’s Best Live Album, ‘How the West Was Won’

Forget The Song Remains the Same. Led Zeppelin’s 1976 soundtrack and concert souvenir is bloated, boring and filled with zero musical tension. The best Led Zeppelin live album available (at least legally) is How the West Was Won, a three-record set culled from two concerts performed in California in June of 1972 and finally released on May 27, 2003.

Maybe it had to with the earlier tour (The Song Remains the Same was recorded during three shows at Madison Square Garden almost a year later), or maybe the audience just fueled the band better; whatever the case, Led Zeppelin sound like unbeatable monsters of rock on How the West Was Won.

Released at the same time as the excellent career-spanning self-titled DVD set that compiled tons of Zep concert footage, How the West Was Won marked the band’s first album of all-new material since 1997’s lackluster BBC Sessions. You have to go all the way back to 1982’s odds-and-ends swan song Coda for a Zeppelin album as relevant. Bootleg copies of the 1972 live shows had traded for years, but the remastered music on the three discs – supervised by Jimmy Page – brings them into a whole new light.

There aren’t too many surprises here. The 18 songs are common to Zeppelin set lists from the early ‘70s. “Heartbreaker,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Rock and Roll” – they’re all on How the West Was Won. But these are epic, mammoth performances, not just in length (“Dazed and Confused” checks in at more than 25 minutes, and “Whole Lotta Love,” stretched out with some blues and pop oldies, tops out at 23), but also in scope. Songs like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Bring It on Home” never sounded more monumental.

In the album’s booklet, Page notes that Led Zeppelin were at their peak during this era. And he may be right. How the West Was Won debuted at No. 1, making it the band’s first chart-topping album since their last studio record, 1979’s In Through the Out Door, and their seventh overall. It also went platinum, joining almost every other record in the group’s legendary catalog. And like those classic records, it’s now a hallowed part of Led Zeppelin’s storied history.

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