Back in their heydays, you would never confuse Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, nor their audiences: In high schools around the country, Zepheads hung out in the bathrooms, while Eagles fans brought their guitars to school and played them in the hallways. Yet the two bands had zeitgeist in common. Each epitomized a musical style of the time (hammer-of-the-gods metal and fast-lane country rock, respectively), and both bands wisely called it quits at the right time — the dawn of the ’80s, right when new wave was about to make them extinct.
Over the years, the mystique of the two groups has grown to formidable proportions, in part because they didn’t re-form — until now. Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who have reunited for a few one-off concert appearances, committed full-time this summer to some TV tapings that led to a high- rated MTV special, Unledded, and now their first joint album, No Quarter (Atlantic). The Eagles put aside more than a dozen years of ill will and regrouped for a summer tour, and found that more than enough old fans were willing to pay up to $115 to see their heroes reprise ”Desperado.” And even after nearly 15 years, some things never change: Plant still has ringlets down to his shoulders, and the Eagles (Don Henley in particular) still despise the media so much that they wouldn’t send Entertainment Weekly a review copy of their reunion album, Hell Freezes Over, only granting us the pleasure of hearing the single ”Get Over It”(Geffen).
Watching Unledded on MTV last month was a little jarring. Their faces jowly and pumpkin-wide, both Page, the band’s guitarist and sound architect, and Plant, its pioneer of bare-chested metal stud posturing, are starting to show the wear and tear of 20 years of Zeppelin-sized rock & roll high life. And as rock reunions go, No Quarter, the album version of the MTV special, plays it safe, offering only three new songs and devoting the rest to live, primarily unplugged remakes of Zeppelin songs.
For the most part, they pull it off, since Plant and Page smartly avoid warhorses like ”Stairway to Heaven” in favor of more arcane Zep ballads. With Page strumming away energetically and Plant hitting most of his old mystic-hippie high notes, they and their band offer up sharp remakes of the likes of ”Gallows Pole” and ”Thank You” and play ”Four Sticks” as an acoustic rave-up. In doing so, Page and Plant do more than just dip back into their Celtic folk roots. By augmenting their band with Egyptian and Moroccan musicians, they show the connection between the folk music of the British Isles and of the Middle East — pretty ambitious for a rock reunion album. They only overdo it on ”Kashmir,” which sounds too earnest without the battering-ram guitars and synthesizers of the original.
As for the new songs, ”Yallah” grinds and drones in a way that actually hints at industrial rock (it also supplied the TV special with its most unintentionally hilarious moment, as Moroccans covered their ears from Page’s feedback assault), while the unabashed acid-folk love song ”Wonderful One” could well be an outtake from Led Zeppelin III. No Quarter isn’t groundbreaking — those days are gone — but by showing that Page and Plant can age their music gracefully and are still willing to take risks, it manages to escape the worthless-nostalgia trap.
We can only judge the Eagles’ first new album in 14 years, Hell Freezes Over, by its initial single, ”Get Over It,” a lunkheaded shout-along that plays to base anti-lawyer/anti-therapy sentiments and sounds like a mediocre line-dance country song. Like No Quarter, the album is a spin-off of an MTV special, which had its moments (like Henley’s solo hit ”Heart of the Matter” performed by the group, or the Mexican-restaurant-band version of ”Hotel California”). Other new songs performed that night that will be on the album include Henley’s ”Learn to Be Still” (typically solemn); an ersatz country song from Glenn Frey, ”The Girl From Yesterday”; and a wimpier-than-usual ballad from Timothy B. Schmit with the actual title ”Love Will Keep Us Alive.” We’d love to tell you how they sound on CD (knowing the Eagles as we do, probably immaculate), but when it comes to being difficult and press-wary, the Eagles themselves apparently haven’t gotten over it. No Quarter: B+ Get Over It: C-