Song 2) Friends 3) Celebration Day 4) Since I've Been
Loving You 5) Out On The Tiles 6) Gallows Pole 7) Tangerine
8) That's The Way 9) Bron-Y-Aur Stomp 10) Hats
Off To (Roy) Harper
Led Zeppelin spent fifteen
months on the road in 1969 and 1970, building both their fortune and their fan base.
And each was reaching astronomical heights. “Led Zeppelin
II” displaced “Abbey Road” on top of the charts towards the end of 1969 making
Zeppelin bigger than the Beatles! If that wasn’t enough, with Peter Grant’s
intimidating business techniques, the band was earning enough money to make their dreams come true. For Jimmy Page, that meant purchasing Aleister Crowley’s former residence off the shores of the foreboding
Loch Ness, furthering the rumors about his dealings with Black Magic. Maybe more
significantly, for Robert Plant, it meant buying a working farm and living the life of a country noble.
Beyond the superficial alterations
though, “Led Zeppelin II” changed the band. The
album was a virtual “How To Guide” in playing cock rock…brainless, furious music with simple choruses and
crude lyrics…the kind of music “serious” acts wouldn’t touch.
The kind of music that was tailor made for violent American teenaged boys. For
their next record, the band was more interested in producing music that was above the sellout of their second album. They wanted to make a record that would be taken seriously. They wanted an album that would give them the critical success the Stones, Beatles, and Who enjoyed. They wanted an album they could listen to with their families, ala Joni Mitchell and
With that as their goal,
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant went on a retreat to an old cottage Robert used to vacation at with his family in Wales. The ancient dwelling, known as Bron-Yr-Aur, was deep in the mountains and had no electricity. With Page playing acoustic, the two partners set out to add a new dynamic to the sound
of the band that was always hinted at, but never fully developed; an inoffensive, accessible sound that they hoped would earn
the respect of critics and fellow musicians. After a few weeks at Bron-Yr-Aur,
Page gathered the entire band, management, and their crew to an old country house outside of London (called Headley Grange)
to record their new album on the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. This
escape form the city, back to nature approach is saturated throughout “Led Zeppelin III.”
Song,” written on the road during their excessive touring, is musically every bit a return to the cock rock on
“II,” but the lyrical homage to Vikings and times of war belittle the cockiness. In fact, they make this song sound absurd, complete with Robert’s ridiculous howling. Even though the Norse God theme is stupid (and HAS to be tongue in cheek), this is Zeppelin’s
best rock song. Tallying only just over two minutes, it doesn’t overstay
its welcome and it hammers and thumps and bellows…and just flat out rules. So
does the subsequent track, “Friends” with that great sliding rhythm and stop/start action, and the completely
eerie strings and synthesizers curtsey of John Paul Jones. It introduces the
acoustic charms Page and Plant had worked on, but still manages to rock, with its strange combination of Eastern music and
bluegrass. Although it is slightly too long, the background is just so full and Plant’s vocals are just so caged, that
it is one of my all time favorite Zeppelin tracks, and one of their easiest to like.
The sonic moans
in the coda of the previous track segue into the crazy “Good Times Bad Times” like “Celebration
Day.” This is a rock song, sure, but it isn’t nearly as balls-to-the-walls,
boner-in-your-face as anything on “Zeppelin II.” It
is more mellow and less crude, with Robert’s voice in top form, Jones’s bass taking center stage, and Page’s
riffing still great (as is his short solo). Still, the tune just isn’t
up to scratch with the pervious numbers… Something that could never be said of the brilliant, slow wanderings of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the prettiest of all Zeppelin’s
takes on the blues, maintaining the goal of making this album as accessible and inoffensive as possible. Right from the opening delicate picking, Page’s guitar here is all feeling—goosebump giving,
misty eye causing. When the song gets rolling, Bonham’s drums hammer down
(they sound like they are right next to you), Robert’s voice soars above the structured wreckage, and Jones’s
little organ splashes take the tune to the next level of greatness. Seven and
a half minutes of pure emotion that every time I hear, wish would last just a little longer.
“Out On The Tiles” closes out the first side with a hoe-hum, dumb rock song, more raunchy than
the rest of the album, but still lacking that vulgar Zeppelin strut. The chorus
sounds like about a million hair metal bands from the 80s, but it is catchy, and the riff the tune is based on is decent enough. But the song doesn’t really perk my interest until the last two minutes where
the band builds a driving coda of layered greatness.
The second side
opens with “Gallows Pole,” a recycled Leadbelly tune Jimmy dug up that he turns into a hospitable folk
beauty. He plays it Brom-Yr-Aur style, with acoustic strumming, but it rocks
harder than most of their purely electric songs. The tune is a strange combination
of doom and light, with great lyrics. Listening to Bonham’s drumming towards
the middle (how he is able to pound that many beats out while still keeping time) shows the greatness of the man. Again, the fade out coda is a mash of noise with Page throwing in an electric guitar, which he plays in
unison with Plant’s voice. This coupled with the low “Ah—ha”
background voices and the rest of the band (including Page on banjo and Jones on mandolin) rocking out really builds the tension,
making the track hard not to like.
After a beautiful
false start, the ethereal “Tangerine,” just glides. It is
an old song Jimmy first attempted with the Yardbirds, but here it is one of his most accomplished pieces, mixing country with
psychedelics. The backwoodsy twang, amazing solo, and Robert’s best singing
on the album, really push this song into the upper echelons of the band’s output.
The coda features Page on pedal steel guitar and is simply stunning. “That’s
The Way” is way too long at almost six minutes, but it is a lovely acoustic ballad, featuring an enthralling melody,
great background guitar drones, and poignant lyrics about saving the environment. Page’s
coda again is spectacular, and the entire tune demonstrates exactly what Zeppelin was shooting for with this album: hospitality,
respect, and acclaim.
tune, the down home shuffle “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is perfectly named.
With lyrics about Plant’s dog Strider, this song is one of the few times Zeppelin plays a cheerful sounding tune. It really gets your foot tapping and your head bobbing, while the handclaps, Jimmy’s
expressive slide guitar fills, and overall stomp is just a good time. Unfortunately,
the closing “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper,” a song dedicated to one of my musical heroes, the brilliant Roy Harper, is terrible. Seemingly a joke, Robert’s vocals sound as if they were
recorded underwater and Jimmy’s slide playing is just outright annoying. In
fact the whole song is unlistenable, or at least impossible to like, and by far, the worst song Zeppelin ever released.
With their increased instrumentation, overabundance
of acoustic melodies, vastly improved lyrics devoid of the clichés from “II,” and genuine friendly
demeanor, this record is easily the most congenial Zeppelin effort. It was the
exact sound and style the band was after, but shockingly, the critics panned it to no end, something Page was still hurt by
years later. Plant too, claimed that it was the band’s best, most consistent
work. If it weren’t for the appalling closing track and the slightly ordinary,
but not bad, “Celebration Day” and “Out On The
Tiles,” I’d agree. As it is though, this album still has a great
feel and too many excellent songs to get anything less than a nine.