ISN'T 3 THE MAGIC NUMBER?
They say that you should never place too much store by what critics write and yet I find it is often the grit that pushes me to advocate for the overlooked or neglected in our record collections. I find myself increasingly agitated by lists - you know the sort of thing (insert publication here)'s 500 best ever albums or 1001 albums to hear before you die - and yet I am always strangely drawn to them.
But the questions rage in my head - probably when I should really be thinking about other more important and personal issues.
Why is "Exile On Main Street" always (Always!) the top-ranked Rolling Stones album?
Why do they never include "Strangeways Here We Come" when both the Smiths and I think it's their best album?
Do people honestly listen to that many Grateful Dead albums?
Ok - you can't please all of the people all of the time and these lists exist to spark debate but the omission that always confuses me is when it comes to Led Zeppelin. Of course, "Presence" and "In Through The Out Door" cannot be expected to make it as they are already showing the marks of a band starting to fracture and the erratic nature of their quality control is marked, with band members exerting different amounts of influence and involvement according to their respective head-states.
The lists inevitably feature "Led Zeppelin" as the powering introduction to a new kind of hard hitting blues-rock; "Led Zeppelin II" as a more polished version of "I"; "Untitled" (IV) as one of the standout rock recordings of all time; and more often than not, "Houses Of The Holy" which despite having my favourite Zep track "The Rain Song" also features the cod-reggae piece "D'Yer Maker" and "The Crunge"(!), and the bloated "Physical Graffiti" which for every dazzling "Kashmir" had a torpid "Boogie With Stu".
But never ever "Led Zeppelin III".
Are they all mad?
To be fair, when it was released in the autumn of 1970, it was greeted with a very muted response as its (at the time) experimentation left much of the audience, who clearly expected another thumping recording, wondering what the spell in the Welsh countryside had done to their favourite band.
Whilst "Untitled" deserves all its plaudits and so do "I" and "II", I love "Led Zeppelin III" for its swerve and for its experimentation. It's wonderfully accessible and obviously influenced much of what would follow not just for Led Zeppelin but the path of rock music generally and yet even now, still has not received the kind of reappraisal it deserves.
Thank goodness, I'm here...
With the possible exception of "Brown Sugar" on "Sticky Fingers", I think you would be hard pressed to find such a colossal juggernaut of an album opener than "The Immigrant Song" - my second favourite of theirs. This tale of Viking warriors creates a soundscape of clashing longboats and flying axes and is pure testosterone on vinyl. Plant's banshee wail overrides the thundering bass-line and Bonham's drum battering.
I am always surprised that the album had such a difficult reception because if you wanted more of the Led Zep you had come to know and love then this opener must have had a stratospheric effect. Valhalla is most definitely calling as it thunders out of your speakers.
To back up this sense of continuity, the Side One closer "Out On The Tiles" which was written by John Bonham, has more riffs and drum crashes per square inch then any classic Zeppelin - itself being a little reminiscent of "Whole Lotta Love" from the previous album.
So far so Zep.
However, the record was put together almost as an antidote to the meteoric eighteen months that the band had just enjoyed. The first two albums had proved hugely successful all over the world and they had already toured the US five times in that time to increasingly bigger and more devoted crowds. They had even undertaken a short tour of Iceland which had inspired "The Immigrant Song" naturally enough.
So in order to have a proper break, Page and Plant went off to carry out the old rock cliche of "getting it together in the country" and so they both adjourned to a cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur, where Plant had holidayed as a child. There was no electricity or running water but that fact, together with the bucolic beauty around them, certainly seemed to move them to write in a deliberately different direction with far more acoustic folk elements brought into play.
The rest of the band joined them in Headley Grange in Hampshire to record and all of the music was played by the band, showing their multi-instrumental skills - especially John Paul Jones. Correspondingly, this entire album feels like a concerted handbrake pull on where they were going and should be admired for that.
There are all the elements that have been influencing their musical development up to that point classic blues and head-on rock but tracks like "Friends" brought in Eastern elements that you can hear Robert Plant use regularly in his work to this day - even on his latest title track the fantastically involving "Carry Fire". It segues into "Celebration Day" through a Moog synthesised drone that takes off into another paces blues but far more traditionally constructed.
And really the band get to explore their love of the blues throughout the album just without the constant "take no prisoners" approach of the two predecessors. The closing track "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" has been criticised as indulgent but for me it is an interesting experiment with Page putting his slide Blues riffs through one speaker and Plant's treated vocals - through a vibrato amp - of blues extracts through the other is the kind of in-joke that bands carry out where they look like they are having far more fun making it than we are listening to it. However, "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" makes for an unusual but not unenjoyable experience, for all that.
And an album with "Revolution 9" is always admitted into the Hall Of Fame. Just saying...
However it is with "Since I've Been Loving You" that Plant really lets his bluesy wail loose and creates what I think is the best slow blues song of their career and unlike "I Can't Quit You Baby" it is an original that feel as authentic as any classic cover. It would become a staple of their live set for most of their live career going forward.
Perhaps where the critics and fans became unsettled was the introduction of the English Folk elements which were heavily acoustic and certainly slowed down the entire atmosphere of the album. "Bron-Yr-Awr Stomp" was obviously a tribute to the place they had retreated to but captures the kind of countryside romp you might have expected on Fairport Convention's tremendous "Unhalfbricking". They even go on to revive an old folk song the dark "Gallow's Pole" which is one of the album's highlights that captures the sinister intention of the song without breaking into an unnecessary sweat.
Plant regularly returns to this in his live set even now.
"Tangerine" actually predates the band as Jimmy Page had written it when he was still in The Yardbirds so if anything it still carries the slightly hippyish psychedelic feel that you would imagine from early 1968. But the most beautiful off the originals is surely "That's The Way" which undoubtedly heralds what they would be capable of during "Untitled" a year later. It is an incredibly accomplished piece of music that perhaps gets lost in the excess we normally expect from the band until then.
It remains controlled and charming and shows the magic of a band that had really understood how to blend their talents and personalities into something greater.
Is "Led Zeppelin III" as good as "Untitled"?
But there is no doubt that the roots of that work lie in its predecessor very directly - "Immigrant Song" gets you to "Misty Mountain Hop", "Tangerine" to "Going To California" and without the 90 degree turn to folk influence I doubt they would have arrived anywhere near to "Stairway To Heaven".
The album was not met with great critical or fan acclaim despite being much anticipated. The release was held up also by the creation of the unique 'volvelle' cover which perhaps also hinted at the more varied and textured surprises that would lie on the vinyl within.
Regardless, the disappointment in the record's acceptance stopped Jimmy Page giving interviews for eighteen months. There has started to be a little more acknowledgement of the album in recent years but to my mind, nothing like enough.
It has all the impact and influence of their first album and was brave enough to stop a sonic juggernaut and seriously change their sound's constituent parts. They should be applauded for that as it justifies all the subsequent historical importance attributed to them. I am certainly far more likely to drag it out of the rack than, say, "Physical Graffiti" which actually has quite a lot of this album's off-cuts on it.
If that wasn't enough then consider how well Plant's seemingly unstoppable voice finds a sensitivity that can exist alongside Page's acoustic interactions as easily as it does with the rocking power chords- there's no less Blues and no less excitement just because there's no drum solos.
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