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Presence—7

 

Released: 1976

1) Achilles Last Stand  2) For Your Life  3) Royal Orleans  4) Nobody's Fault But Mine  5) Candy Store Rock  6) Hots On For Nowhere  7) Tea For One

 

In the aftermath of “Physical Graffiti,” Led Zeppelin were at their peak.  A tremendous energy was following the band, and they were suddenly playing better than ever.  Besides completing their triumphant tenth American tour, they were put on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine for the first time in their career, they played five sold out nights in a tremendous homecoming at Earl’s Court Arena in England, and the band was making more money than they ever dreamed possible.  Riding that energy, they planned elaborate tours of South America and Asia, and return visits to Australia and Japan, all in an attempt to tap wallets previously neglected by rock bands.  But they never got that chance…

 

While vacationing with his family in Greece, Robert Plant was involved in a terrible car accident.  Though his children were lucky to escape with only minor scrapes and bruises, Robert’s wife (who was driving), shattered her pelvis, fractured her skull, lost a lot of blood, and almost died.  Robert himself suffered from a badly broken elbow and an even worse break of his ankle.  The break was so severe that we could not walk without the use of a cane for over half a year.

 

Obviously, the luxurious tours had to be canceled so Plant could undergo the long rehabilitation process.  However, to make up for the lost touring, Plant and Jimmy Page decided to go to Malibu to begin writing a new album.  This record already had a few things going against it that previous Zeppelin efforts never had to face: (1) They had to create the new material from scratch since they had just used almost all their previous outtakes on “Physical Graffiti.”  (2) They decided to make this album out of necessity rather than inspiration, which will almost always lead to inferior product.  (3) Probably resulting from the pressure to get healthy and suffering from minor writer’s block, Robert Plant experienced some type of nervous breakdown while working on the record.  (4) Jimmy Page was beginning his serious addiction to heroine that would last for the rest of the decade.  (5) When John Paul Jones flew out to assist with the writing, he was suffering from a broken hand that severely limited his usefulness and ability to play the organ… and (6) John Bonham’s alcoholism was getting to the point that it was beginning to hinder his performance.

       

Add all these to the homesickness the band felt living in tax exile from England and the fact that they couldn’t even stay in their beloved America, or face its taxes, and Led Zeppelin quickly fell from their peak.  Although they were not even done writing most of the songs that were to make up “Presence,” the band were on a tight schedule and flew to the then highly in-demand Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany to begin recording.  Since every English band in exile used the studio, Zeppelin couldn’t afford to reschedule their slot and were forced to record the entire album in just eighteen days.

 

What is truly remarkable about “Presence” though, is that despite all of this, each member played better than they ever had.  Robert Plant was forced to sing each song sitting in a wheelchair and lost some of his high falsetto screeching, but he made up for this by adding a depth he previously had never even hinted at.  On each track he sings with deep emotion and sounds absolutely compelling, making this his best album.  John Paul Jones incorporated the eight-string bass on the album and along with John Bonham, created strange, jazz-like time signatures that anchored the new songs, making this easily Bonham’s most impressive work, and rivaling “Led Zeppelin II” as Jones’s best.  And this is Jimmy Page’s best album as well, because it is almost entirely his.  Making up for the lack of keyboards to fill out the sound, Page had never played with such furious aggression before and the guitars are so fast and forceful that this is as close to heavy metal that he ever ventured.       

 

However, how well you play means nothing if the songs are below standard, and “Presence” had some of the worst material the band ever created.  Royal Orleans” is a generic attempt at funk that falls flatter than Dil from The Crying Game.  Apparently the lyrics discuss Jones’s late night escapades in New Orleans when he picked up a transvestite not knowing the hard truth until he already got her/him back to the hotel.  Side note: If the only interesting thing you can think of about a song is its lyrics, which tell a story you only know because you read Hammer of the Gods when you were twelve, then the song must really be forgettable.  This would easily be the second worse song of their career (behind “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper”) if it weren’t for the revolting, 1950s inspired boogie, “Candy Store Rock.”  Although it starts fairly cool, it soon transforms into a seemingly never-ending blend of Elvis with “Four Sticks.”  At least “Royal Orleans” was under three minutes, but this atrocity lasts over four.  The band claimed to have written it in an hour...I’m not surprised.  It absolutely sucks.  And amazingly it was released as a single.  Perhaps Robert should have checked for a concussion following the accident… 

 

Another tune written in an hour, “Hots On For Nowhere” is slightly better, but still only average.  The bouncy, stop and start rhythm is irritatingly catchy, while Plant’s clichéd, but reluctantly likeable “La, la, la, yeah” and “Oh, oh, oh” callings are just a little too cute.  The one clever thing about the tune is that Page continues playing his guitar in the background of what was previously silence in the first few verses making for an unsettling noise that I have never heard done before…but that still couldn’t save this song from mediocrity.  Another tune that just doesn’t do it for me is the nine and a half minute closing “Tea For One.”  I am in the minority here though, as many consider it to be one of the band’s best-kept secrets and blues masterpieces.  While there are some stark moments of sheer brilliance and this is their saddest blues, the tune sounds too similar to the much better “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”  It is more varied, but the diversity makes it seem cluttered.  I’d never go as far to say that it isn’t good, but it doesn’t really have much impact until about five minutes in, when Plant’s perfectly downtrodden vocals and Page’s expert cooing generate some distance from their previous work.

 

The album isn’t all bad however.  For Your Life” is a mid-tempo rocker that never takes off, but has attitude and that “Physical Graffiti” strut.  It wasn’t recorded as murky and isn’t taken at a fast pace, but it has all the grime and swagger necessary for inclusion on that album.  This must be one of Les Claypool’s favorite records, as John Paul Jones’s bass on this track, and really the whole album, is just so Primus sounding.  To match Jones’s odd cadence, Page’s solo is gut wrenching, but in a good way.  Overall, this is an underrated song on Zeppelin’s forgotten album.  And, things actually did get better…   

           

The second side opens with Page’s electric wailing intro to “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a tune inspired by (but not credited to) Blind Willie Johnson and similar to “Black Dog.”  Soon, Plant joins Page’s moaning, and they are then met by the rest of the band, forming a hard pounding, later day classic.  Jones and Bonham each perfectly play off each other for some of the sweetest fills of their career, and Plant’s vocals are typically excellent.  Many have criticized the harmonica solo, but it has a great blend of backwoods fumbling that fits the track well and sets the stage for Page’s aggressive onslaught towards the end.  While this is a fine piece of work, the album thankfully got even better…

 

The opening epic “Achilles Last Stand” begins like every Metallic song should…with a quiet, ominous electric guitar run, before blasting off.  Despite their reputation for having founded the genre, this song and “Dazed and Confused” are really Zeppelin’s only foray into what would become heavy metal.  But it isn’t riff bashing that makes this heavy…it is the whiplash speed and sheer ferocity that every member uses to instigate their attack.  This intense masterpiece never gets boring in its ten and a half minutes, and Plant’s vocals are the most interesting of his tenure with the band; they just sound so bottled, like he is at the point of breaking.  The tension in his voice is supported by the blistering assault Page flaunts on guitar—easily the most aggressive playing of his career.  Not to be outdone, Bonham’s drums are lightning and Jones plays an eight-string bass that is unjustly overlooked for its part in creating the menacing backdrop.  This is their hardest rock song, bar none, and surely one of their best.        

 

Overall, this album is the most difficult to rate of the band’s output because it truly does contain their best playing, but their worst string of songs.  Jimmy Page should be commended for creating a new sound, further distancing himself from his cock-rock label, and his guitar playing on the album is otherworldly, but there is simply too much filler for me to recommend “Presence” to anyone that isn’t a fan of the band.  Interestingly though, long time lovers of Zeppelin undoubtedly could appreciate, and even except, the new uncompromising approach heard here, but on the band’s next album, they probably had a hard time believing it even was Led Zeppelin…

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