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Music

The improvised Led Zeppelin song that was lost by the BBC for over 40 years

@SamWKemp

During Led Zeppelin’s 12 years together, the group released eight studio albums, each composed of tracks Jimmy Page and company believed to be the best representation of the group at that specific moment in time. When amassed, these albums trace the evolution of Zeppelin’s style, approach to production, individual musical skills, and songwriting habits. And while we might have assumed this rendering of Zeppelin’s musical life to be complete, it would seem that we’ve not been given the full picture. Indeed, there are certain Led Zeppelin songs that even some of the group’s most die-hard fans never knew existed.

Following the release of the Led Zeppelin compilation album BBC Sessions in 1997, Jimmy Page began hearing a bootleg version of a song he hadn’t heard in just under 30 years. The band had never attempted it during an album session, and it never appeared on any of their records. After a bit of digging, Page realised that the track had come from a BBC performance Led Zeppelin made in the first months of 1969. Unfortuantely, it transpired that the BBC had managed to lose the tape from that day, meaning that Page was forced to track down a copy of the song a fan had recorded off the radio back in ’69.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the remastered version of The Complete BBC Sessions in 2016 that the track was given a proper release. Featured on a bonus disc of nine songs that weren’t included in the original two-CD release, ‘Sunshine Woman’ is a classic slice of pumped-up blues a la Howlin’ Wolf. Improvised in the studio for Alexis Korner’s rhythm and blues show, the track is underpinned by the resonant jangle of honky tonk piano and a furious riff from the hands of Jimmy Page.

“We did something that we made up on the spot, from a guitar riff,” Page told Rolling Stone in 2016. “It was done, I guess, for amusement really — although we were playing very seriously.” Zeppelin recorded ‘Sunshine Woman’ alongside ‘I Can’t Quit Baby’ and ‘You Shook Me’ in March 1969. The tracks aired on the BBC World Service the following April. Unfortuantely, the tape was lost shortly afterwards. Without a backup, it seemed as though the tracks had disappeared forever.

Thanks to one devoted listener, however, Page was able to salvage the recording: “From what I’m led to believe, it was recorded off the radio by someone in Eastern Europe,” Page said. “It managed to travel around,” he added, allowing Led Zeppelin to release the track officially – after a bit of studio wizardry, of course. But even now, one important mystery remains unsolved: who played the piano during the session? We’ve got John Bonham on drums, Robert Plant on vocals and harmonica, Jimmy Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass. However, when it comes to the pianist, we’re completely in the dark. It might be that Ian Steward, who played the piano on ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Boogie with Stu’, joined the group in the radio studio. Then again, it could be that the group had the chance to record an overdub. In that case, John Paul Jones would have been responsible, although the piano line seems far too interwoven to have been added in a different take. I suppose it’s these little enigmas that make music nerdery so hard to resist.

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