“If I played guitar, I’d be Jimmy Page…,” proclaimed Mike D on the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. A year and a half later, in the summer of ’88, Robert Plant sampled the line on a 12-inch remix of “Tall Cool One,” using the words to introduce a Page solo. By then, second-generation Zepmania was in full effect, not only with Def Jammers but with indie-rockers like Camper Van Beethoven—whose self-titled third album was as runes-obsessed as the Beasties’ disc—and on a host of AOR imitations like Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night,” Kingdom Come’s debut, and Page’s own uninspired Outrider.

In more recent years, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” became a Manhattan club fave in a techno version that pirated Plant’s vocal from the first Zep record. And even with earlier fans aging, teens still flock to CD bins to be bopped on the head with the divine hammer, as an Atlantic exec recently pointed out in a Billboard article plugging the new double-disc BBC Sessions.

Frequently bootlegged and now sonically improved by Page, these tapes capture a 25-month arc—from March 1969 to April 1971—during which the group’s sound grew to encompass both the speed rush and jazz/blues festival stuff of its 1969 debut and the fully developed folky musings of “That’s the Way,” “Going to California” (in which Plant vowed to make a hejira right up to Joni Mitchell’s front door; rumor has it she couldn’t let him in ’cause Dave Crosby was there), and the band’s modestly popular multilayered epic “Stairway to Heaven.”

Before that triumph, the Zep braintrust was already refining its approach so busily as to suggest that the boys hardly had time to sleep; instead of drowsiness, however, they produced sweetness such as “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “Thank You,” giant steps falling just a year after the definitive machismo of “How Many More Times”—which gets its BBC due in a lengthy June 1969 rendition that nonetheless misses some of the inadvertent hilarity of the cut that climaxed Led Zeppelin.

The Sessions also give us a glimpse of almost off-the-cuff invention in an intense take on Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” that was first officially released on Zeppelin’s 1990 boxed set. Most other white bluesers would’ve rushed to get this on vinyl; Page and Plant instead used it for parts, most notably taking its profound acoustic freneticism for the third Zep LP.

Although even some of the most strait-laced among us respond to the Zep in flight, the London audience seated for the hour-plus John Peel broadcast that fills the second half of this set sounds as if it remained just that: seated. Politely enthusiastic, the crowd goes wild neither for the unveiling of the then brand-new “Stairway” (with John Paul Jones’ organ subbing for the flute introduction) nor the raving “Whole Lotta Love” medley, the latter the kind of thing that led to the invention of headbanging on Zep’s first U.S. tour—if Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods is to be believed, anyway. One of the great Led Zeppelin stories recalls the band offering its services to Elvis for an album, and here its affection for the King is given full voice; the only possible improvement would be a complete reading of “A Mess of Blues.”

Both CDs, though necessarily not representative of the four-piece’s entire range—despite that organ, little of Jones’ keyboard frills are on display—do strike a happy balance between roots reinvention and the eclectic leanings that help keep Zeppelin alive as art (and I don’t just mean the band’s artiness). These days a source of inspiration as deep and wide as James Brown for musicians and fans alike, Led Zep never lets its own greatness be forgotten. That even a relatively small-scale excavation project like the BBC Sessions evokes wild smiles, however, is a reminder that in some ways, Zep’s heyday is still upon us.

“The girlies I like are underage” was the second half of that Beasties couplet. Two years before Plant began yelping about having his lemon squeezed, Page was already acknowledging such illicit proclivities on one of the Yardbirds’ final singles. On the surface, “Little Games” was another pop readymade ripe for the band’s attack and Keith Relf’s blasé sneer; just beneath lay a grinning nod to Swinging London orgies almost as subversive as the group’s Blow-Up cameo. Or at least it would have been, had the record gone past No. 51. Jeff Beck had aced himself out of the fold shortly after going before Antonioni’s cameras—”Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies,” two of a tiny handful of Beck/Page collaborations, are included as bonus tracks on another new Warner ‘Birds item, a reissue of their 1966 Roger the Engineer—but Page’s valiant leadership didn’t do much for what commercially was a sinking ship. Not much later, Yardbirds guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja was shooting the back cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut, and the rest was power, majesty, and 16-year-old boys throwing up on their shoes in arena parking lots. The Yardbirds’ BBC Sessions, then, is something more than a completist’s dream, something less than definitive, but a killer, killer time regardless. Dude.CP