Posted in First Take

[1963] How The West Was Won

The opening track to Led Zeppelin’s 2003-released/1972-recorded live cut, How The West Was Won, is aptly titled “L.A. Drone” and it’s 15 seconds of crowd recordings that serves as a buffer from silence to the all out gut-punch that is Immigrant Song, the opening cut from Led Zeppelin III, released in 1970 as the third installment of Led Zeppelin’s four-part domination of psychedelia, hard rock, metal, folk from 1969 through 1972. The How The West Was Won soundboard-recorded and Jimmy Page produced record draws material from several concerts recorded straight to the mixing board in Los Angeles on the leg of Led Zeppelin’s 1972 tour of the United States. There is a zero percent chance that titling this album How The West Was Won is a coincidence of the most ironic standards.

The music album is almost certainly a reference to 1963’s loose compilation film of the same name.  Forty years before the music world got a taste of Led Zeppelin at their creative and artistic peak, the film sphere tracked a star-studded film documenting a series of decades from the early 1840s through the late 1880s. With a cast of 1960s most recognizable, including James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne (and more!), How The West Was Won, the film, tells in film what Led Zeppelin did in song: a snippet of the epoch recorded for the history books. Though one is literally about westward expansion, the other’s metaphor for world takeover (and cementing themselves as one of the premier rock’n’roll bands of all time) is the logical expansion of the themes in the film. While our cast, littered with stars, makes its way from the regimented eastern seaboard out past the Mississippi to the left coast, the biggest rock band in the world crossed the brusque Atlantic to tour the United States and record was to become a composite concert album. Through the different media, we begin to understand the lore of The West and its place in Earth’s history.

Both the film and the album are told through a composite methodology: the film in a series of vignettes and the album, a mix of two or more performances from which producer/guitarist Jimmy Page drew the sounds and recordings. Both executions serve their purposes clearly and cleanly, though the added benefit of 2000s electronic technology helped Page master and mix the album – technology not available to the director(s) of the film. While wholesome and presenting a clear and connected narrative for the expansiveness of the project, the pacing feels rushed and the editing tends more towards a hack-and-slash job. Three different filmmakers shared directorial duty of the half-hour vignettes (which share characters) so it’s not surprising, that some parts seem to feel disjointed. This is not a problem Led Zeppelin’s album had. But two similar approaches to similar concepts does beg a question: what variables have determined why both pieces of art have held stature over the decades?

Led Zeppelin pay homage to the film How The West Was Won by titling their compilation after it – but not just in name or technique. There’s also a theme and motif, as well as emotion associated with the concept of The West, and it means different things depending on who you ask and when you ask it. For example, within the realm of American history, the west was considered wilderness and dangerous and those who would travel past the Mississippi were considered vanguards and nomads, explorers and dreamers, and insane and malcontent. For Asian countries, which for eons were isolated from Europe and the Americas, The West is the Occident, the place of backwards traditions, bizarre customs and language. We constantly hear of Eastern Province and Eastern Medicine and Eastern Religion, but we’re not referring to Bayonne, New Jersey. For the film, The West is a literal interpretation, a nod to those who allowed the United States to manifest and a tribute to those still alive who remember the 19th century. The West was a special place for glory and for the most Western ideal, greed. For the album, The West refers to all of Europe and The Americas, how Led Zeppelin conquered opinion to become the greatest band The West had ever seen, at least according to Jimmy Page. Both sentiments are of a similar feeling, and to the keen, 21st-century observer, of a similar pathos.

I bet Kanye thinks it’s about himself.

1963 was Tom Jones’ year, earning 10 nominations and 4 wins, but 1963 really was about a landmark award – Best Actor given to Sidney Poitier for his performance in Best Picture nominated Lilies Of The Field. (Poitier subsequently went on to star in several films involving racial equality, including 1967’s Best Picture winner, In The Heat Of The Night.) But of the five films nominated – including Tom JonesCleopatraAmerica, America, and Lilies Of The Field, and How The West Was WonTom Jones is the one remembered as the best representation of 1963 America. It’s puzzling, considering a) comedy is such a rarely appreciated form of SERIOUS ART, b) two films are literally about America, c) race in 1963 (today, too) was such a hotly contested subject and d) Cleopatra is 4 hours long, was $40 million over budget and only took home 4 minor awards, making it 1963’s equivalent to 2009’s Fern Gully remake, Avatar.

As a piece of SERIOUS ART, How The West Was Won (the film) was not, which, inconclusively separates it from Led Zeppelin’s masterstroke of the same name, which is considered a forefather to the modern live album and a transcendent experience among all music albums, ever. We can remember both fondly, but only one will survive the cut as a piece of world history in the centuries that come, when “The West” becomes the name of our most recently colonized galaxy.

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