1975 was a pivotal year for Led Zeppelin. Having just released the most ambitious album of the groups’ twelve-year career in the double album Physical Graffiti
, the band had once again asserted themselves as the biggest act in rock and roll. After a North American tour in which they continued to break attendance records among others, and a quick performance at Earls’ Court in the United Kingdom, the band was forced into a life of tax exile, an emblem of the pitfalls of making too much money. Shortly after, tragedy struck on the Greek island of Rhodes when Robert Plants’ car collided with a tree, which severely injured himself, along with his wife and family. After months of painful recuperation, the band felt ready to write and record what would become their most under-appreciated album, 1976’s Presence
is a famous album, but not in the sense that most others with the name Led Zeppelin on the cover are. Widely known as the only Zeppelin album ever to find a home in your local music stores’ bargain bin, many people recognize it as the beginning of a downward spiral for the group, one which would continue until the groups’ abandonment in 1980. Upon first listen, it’s difficult to understand how the album could have garnered such negative publicity. Achilles Last Stand
plays like an epic biography of the group itself, with Jimmy’s ferocious riffing and harmonizing and Bonham’s frantic, pounding drums. The song exceeds the ten-minute mark, and yet somehow never loses its focus while simultaneously keeping a tight hold on mine. To a first time listener, this song could signal Zeppelin being stronger than ever. The problem for the album lies in its depth. While Zeppelin is famous for incorporating beautiful folk pieces in with the more vivacious blues-rock anthems, this album contains no acoustic songs, nor any keyboard work from John Paul Jones. While this lack of depth can be frustrating, it fits mysteriously well with the theme of the album; that epic, frantic, down-but-not-out vibe. Another contributing factor to the albums’ negative image is the sheer dullness of some of the tracks. Allow me to elaborate.
In years prior, Zeppelin had been known for releasing exciting rock tracks, and extraordinary acoustic ones. While they had also earned a reputation for, shall we say, stretching things (an example of this being Dazed and Confused
live, which routinely would stretch and snap the forty minute mark), the overall reputation that had been built was one of excitement, delivery, and competence. As the band began their musical evolution on albums such as 1973’s Houses of the Holy
and the aforementioned Physical Graffiti
, the experimentation was kept fresh and stimulating, worthy of the Zeppelin title. While Presence
is arguably a straight-forward rock and roll record, the group seems to be pushing the boundaries of the title “rock and roll”, and seeing what they can come up with. An example of this would be For Your Life
. While boasting some fairly contagious verses and bridges, etcetera, the song tends to get a bit tedious at times, no matter how exhilarating the chromatic run is.
The reputation of titan blues jammers had also been attached to the bands’ name, and for proof you can look no further than Tea For One
. While containing an over-dubbed, harmonious guitar introduction, the song quickly shifts into a slow, minor blues jam, painfully similar to 1970’s Since I’ve Been Loving You
. While the fact that the group had released such a similar song six years earlier does detract from the originality factor, the song still has fantastic playing by all members of the band, and the emotion presented is far more dire than its Led Zeppelin III
counter-part, probably as a result of the many trials and endeavors the band had faced in recent times. The song is a masterpiece of slow blues, no matter how grating it can become. By contrast, Nobody’s Fault But Mine
is a masterpiece of warped blues. The riff is one of the heaviest Zeppelin would ever record, and the twisted harmonica playing by Plant signals that, wheelchair or not, the man still knew exactly what he was doing.
By 1976, punk rock was in full swing. Bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols offered a new outlet for the angst they felt, one that didn’t require god-like musicianship. This appealed to many young people in the wake of the still fresh-in-mind Vietnam War, and the infamous Watergate Scandal. Perhaps most endearing of all about the new genre was that nearly anybody could play it. You didn’t have to be a formally trained musician or a natural at the guitar to become a punk rock idol. This obviously did not bode well for Led Zeppelin. Songs like Candy Store Rock
, which are songs that many fans of the band don’t particularly care for anyway, were marked as outdated, and began to garner even more negative publicity for the band that only three years before had spoken so coherently for the teenage masses. The key to the albums’ success at this point was that the band was already timeless. Even though the album didn’t contain any Stairway to Heaven
or any inkling of Kashmir
, Zeppelin had earned themselves enough credit to take quite a few mis-steps and still be revered as a seminal band.
While the album has many flaws musically, one thing that can be noted is its near-perfect production. The songs (especially Achilles Last Stand
) sound like an all-out assault on the listener. Indeed, it has been noted that Mr. Jimmy Page was an obsessed perfectionist when it came to producing. It has also been noted that the one time he left the studio completely satisfied was during the recording of this very album. While many of the songs could be labeled as over-dramatic or something of that ilk, there are still a few simple songs that get the job done. For example, Royal Orleans
. The song itself is about John Paul Jones, who accidentally set fire to a hotel bed while hitting a joint with a drag queen. Lyrical examples" Indeed.
A man I know, went down to Louisiana,
had himself a bad, bad fight
And when the sun peeked through
John Cameron with Suzanna,
He kissed the whiskers, left & right
If this isn’t revealing enough, perhaps this will quench your thirst"
Now, now, now, fright subsides
Out at a hotel in the quarter, our friends check in to pass the night
Now love gets hot, but fire preceded water
Poor whiskers set the room alight.
While the song is a straight-forward rock song with a twinge of rockabilly, it does boast an interesting, very uncharacteristic solo form Jimmy. The songs’ title was derived from the hotel where the alleged “whisker kissing” took place.
There are many Led Zeppelin albums I’d recommend over Presence
. But the fact remains that this album accomplished what needed to be accomplished. It proved that, for better or worse, Led Zeppelin was still vital in the high-staked game that is the Rock music industry. Musically, there are far more interesting and superior albums, but the fact remains that not one of them has a more interesting or troublesome story as Presence
. While Robert eventually recovered from his injuries, the pain he felt is still alive in these recordings; a snapshot in time. The record remains vital not only in the fact that it provides some good music, but also in the fact that it did
prove that, in a world full of anarchy, and with London calling, rock music was still imperative. And it still is.
Some great songs
Perfect representation of the times
Can become bland
Some songs drag on
No acoustics and/or keyboards
From Me To You
Achilles Last Stand
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Tea For One