Saturday, December 29, 2012

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

Listening to Led Zeppelin was a perennial right of passage, starting in Junior High School, for most adolescence boys and girls, and I should qualify, for most male teens. I remember back in Junior High while living in Rohnert Park, picking up Zeppelin II and IV (The Zoso album). At the time, I was exploring what I liked, and from my initial exposure to rock and pop music, I was eclectic, absorbing everything like a sponge, and for those reasons, the passion for Zeppelin didn’t fully kick in until my Freshmen year of High School. Nevertheless, eventually, the entire body of Zeppelin’s work had a profound impact on me. Many of the songs, and the range of the songs pointed to what was possible, to new directions. Sadly, too many metal musicians would only focus on narrow aspects of Zeppelin; The hypnotic grooves of the first two records or the invention of the epic power ballad with “Stairway To Heaven” or “Ten Years Gone,” while missing far too many of the ingredients, a profound knowledge of Blues, Folk, Arabian, and classical from Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham. This deep foundation, like many 60s acts, set them apart.

My discovery of Led Zeppelin III came about in cassette form as a Freshman, and it stood out as a clear demarcation and bridge between II and IV. The music evokes certain mental images, and puts one into a particular place. For myself, it just doesn’t evoke my imagination, but recollections of my room in Corte Madera. The combination bunk bed and desk, and wall shelves to compensate for a very small room. The move from Rohnert Park back to Corte Madera had allowed for a clean slate in my life, and a complete reinvention of myself at the start of high school, after being a social outcast in Junior High, I had a wider circle of friends and the climate of High School allowed me the space to find myself, and the strength to carve my own nitch.

Of course, I became aware of the vinyl edition of Led Zeppelin III with the rolling wheel cover art. The cover represented an aspect of the band that people tended to gloss over -- their humor. There’s a sense of whimsy to be found with the designs of II and III, before the mystical aspect of the band took over. The album represented a demarcation, a breaking point from what could have been a predictable formula, and in a baffling sense both critically and commercially, the band wasn’t rewarded. Yet in hindsight, it became clear to see the third album opened the band up to other possibilities. In a 1990 interview by J.D. Considine, he commented on the bands wide range of styles, and John Paul Jones said:

It wasn’t a purist band, as you get nowadays, where the entire band listens to the same type of music. Between the blues influences of Robert and the roll & roll influences of Jimmy, who also had strong influences, the soul influences of Bonzo and my soul and jazz influences, there seemed to be a common area, which was Led Zeppelin. The fusion of all types of music and interests.

The story of the band’s origin has been told to the point of exhaustion, How Jimmy Page, an ace session guitarist, joined the Yardbirds at the tail end of Jeff Beck’s tenure when the band briefly existed as a two-guitar outfit for a millisecond before Beck’s departure, and Page recorded the Little Games album, which would act as a template of ideas that Page would further explore with Zeppelin, only to have the Yardbirds disintegrate before the start of a Scandinavian tour in 1968, yet to have Peter Grant, the fifth member, manage the band and help put the pieces together that became Zeppelin. Hints of the band’s creation could be found with “Beck’s Bolero” a track from the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth album that featured Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, and Keith Moon. There has been a dispute between Page and Beck about the arrangement for “Bolero,” but by most accounts Page was responsible for the core arrangement, which makes sense, “Bolero” has certain dynamics that fit Page’s sensibilities. In fact, Page would use a similar Bolero march for one section of Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” But whereas The Jeff Beck Group would act as a showcase for Beck, and would quickly splinter due to ego conflicts, Page’s Zeppelin would remain a cohesive outfit with all of the band members equal contributors.

Once they formed, and fatefully played “Train Kept A Rolling” on their first rehearsal, the band barnstormed across Europe and America with their debut album in January 1969, and followed up with Zeppelin II in October of that year. What developed with Zeppelin III was hinted at with the first and second albums – “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Your Time is Gonna Come”, the alternative tuning raga of “Black Mountain Side”, the song craft sensibility of “Thank You”, or “Ramble On”. But the mellow side of the band made them hard to pin down for critics who wanted to focus on the amped-up blues, hypnotic riffing, and for lack of a better term, the cock rock bluster that could be found on certain tracks. But acknowledging the song craft of the band, the band’s nod to The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, or Joni Mitchell, was a more dicey proposition for critics, as acknowledged by Page in Cameron Crowe’s 1975 interview:
“That’s it! When the third LP came out and got its reviews, Crosby, Stills and Nash had just formed. That LP had just come out and because acoustic guitars had come to the forefront, all of a sudden: Led Zeppelin Go Acoustic! I thought Christ, where are their heads and ears? There were three acoustic songs on the first album and two on the second.”

While accusations of hype surrounded the band, the same label of hype could be attached to Crosby, Stills and Nash, an outfit that enjoyed its elite 1960s pedigree largely due to being involved with the Woodstock festival, and this isn’t to take away anything from CSN, just an aside point. Zeppelin III’s demarcation is evidenced with the duel sides, the heavy rock and acoustic side. But that tends to simplify the intent of the material, as “Friends” is an acoustic number and the second half of “Gallows Pole” swings like mad, nothing was ever cut and dried with a Zeppelin LP.
“The element of change has been the thing, really. We put out the first one, then the second…then a third LP totally different from them. It’s the reason we were able to keep it together.” – Page 1990

In a 1971 interview with Rick McGrath, prior to the fourth LP, this is what Robert Plant had to say on the issue of the album:
“The third album, to me, was a disappointment in the way it was accepted because it wasn't given enough of a chance. After ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, and thunder which was what is was. So we say try this for size and I thought when we were doing it that I was able to get inside myself a little more and give a little more on the album. I thought the whole thing felt like that. I was pleased with it, and I’d play it now without hesitation and dig it. And you can’t always do that to an album you’ve played a million times. But I really thought it stood up and then everybody was saying, well, no, and they’d leave it and then come back in a couple of weeks time and say, well, we can see…but nevertheless, we think it’s best. But that’s what people want because the simple, heavy thunder is much easier to assimilate, much easier to react to in every way. But you can’t just do that, otherwise you become stagnant and you’re not really doing anything, you’re just pleasing everybody else.”

The album opens with “Immigrant Song.” a white noise count-off leads to the main riff, with some spry bass work by Jones. In spite of its references to Nordic Viking legends, the track was inspired by the band’s concert in Iceland, June 1970, Plant has acknowledged it was ‘supposed to be powerful and funny’. Which also brings up to another aspect, and misconception of the band, that they lacked humor on account of the mystique and mysticism that had been built up about them. There’s a certain whimsy to be found on the Zeppelin II and III albums, and while that humor might have been more sly and didn’t fit the mold of the Beatles / Monty Python sense of humor, it was still there.

After another chattering false start, “Friends” features an alternative acoustic tuning by Page. The strings aren’t played by Jones, but was arranged and conducted by Jones with Indian musicians at a studio in India. Its lyric’s seem to be a plaintive appeal for connection. A sliding synth drone connects the track to “Celebration Day”, a technique that was cleverly utilized to mask a recording debacle. Page seems to use a baritone Guitar for the spry introduction. It has been recalled that members of Zeppelin’s road crew, in a drunken stupor while listening to the playback of “Celebration Day” late one night with the band not present, accidently erased the opening bass and drum tracks, forcing Page to do some clever editing. Its lyrics, in the tradition of “Living Loving Maid,” seem to be a scathing critique on an aging groupie, but it could also be acknowledging the price paid for the life of a touring band.

For a band that was noted, or accused of being over-produced with the instrumental layering that Page was keen on displaying in the records, it is surprising to find most of the rock numbers are fairly spare with guitar tracks. Page seemed to always understand that a song will eventually tell you what is needed, and to his credit the tracks on side one aren’t dense with sound, unlike many metal bands that double the rhythm guitars to such a degree that there’s no room to breathe. It should be noted, that while the albums, and Page’s production innovations were important, the real measure of any band was in their live performance, and the band was fairly consistent in that area. Yet, it is important to note that Improvisation was a crucial component, and the band, following in the tradition of great Blues and Jazz improvisation, excelled in this area, often with a fearlessness that most contemporary bands never display.

Page has described “Since I’ve Been Loving You” as progressive blues, and the track remained a concert staple, even appearing in their 2007 reunion London gig. Jones Organ work anchors the track while Page delivers a hybrid of blues and Spanish flamenco with fire and flare.

“Out on the Tiles” is something else altogether, a boisterous rocker with an interesting origin. The main riff was actually written by John Bonham, as recounted by Jason Bonham, a vocal melody sung by Bonham in his barroom carousing that the band transformed with a new vocal line from Plant.

Before I continue with the second half of the album, I feel that context is in order, and to offer speculation about situations that might have impacted the meaning of certain songs. Plant had commented in the Cameron Crowe interview from ’75, regarding their first tour in ‘69:
The states were much more fun. L.A. was what L.A isn’t now: L.A. infested with jaded 12-year-olds is not the L.A. that I really dug. It was the first place I ever landed in America; the first time I ever saw a cop with a gun, the first time I ever saw a 20-foot-long car.

But the band also experienced the flipside of that American experience–they had been spit on, had guns drawn on them and were heckled at airports, as well as witnessed the treatment of Viet Nam protesters by Police, as well as fans being mistreated by Police at their shows. Robert Plant had acknowledged thus:
“We’ve been to America so much and seen so many things that we don’t agree with, that our feelings of protest have to reflect this in our music.”

Based on examples of their tour itinerary from ‘69 through early 1970, it stands to reason they toured several southern states in America, and probably witnessed, not only racial tension, but the hostility towards long-haired hippies in certain southern cities, which was effectively illustrated in the 1969 film Easy Rider. These experiences probably formed the intent that one could find in several of the acoustic songs that comprise side two of the album.

I would be remiss to not address the cottage location in Wales that Page and Plant used for inspiration, the name Bron-Y-Aur which means “The Golden Breast”. As Plant clarified to Cameron Crowe in 1975:
“It was time to step back, take stock and not get lost in it all. Zeppelin was starting to get very big, and we wanted the rest of our journey to take a pretty level course. Hence, the trip to the mountains and the beginning of the eternal Page and Plant. I thought we’d be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, Marin County blues, which we managed to do in Wales rather than San Francisco. It was a great place.”

One important feature was the role of Jones’ mandolin, which would remain an important standard feature on future Zeppelin tracks. “Gallows Pole”, which was based on the folk song “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” opens fairly plaintively, changes tempo and builds up to a manic pace, along with Page’s debut on Banjo, and ends with his lead fuzz box guitar. “Gallows Pole” offered a template for what would follow with “Stairway To Heaven”. It is surprising that “Tangerine” was never released as a follow up single to “Immigrant Song.” After a false start, the track laments about the loss of innocent love. The origin of the track dates back to a song written by Page and Keith Relf titled “Knowing That I’m losing You” from the final Yardbirds sessions. The band’s song craft can be found in spades with this material, and it would be difficult to argue that they lacked substance or melody.

My personal favorite, and probably the album’s highlight was “That’s The Way”, another atmospheric tune with another alternative tuning from Page, and some distinct electric dobro slide work, addressing southern segregation and conservation issues. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” opens with some nimble guitar work from Page before kicking into jaunty gear, in an homage to Plant’s dog. “Hat’s Off To (Roy) Harper” is a slide blues credited to Charles Obscure, a duet with Plant’s vocal treated with a vibrato for an eerie effect, and a somewhat cryptic closure yet one that falls in line with the band’s blues tradition. Roy Harper was already a rising name on the music scene when the band issued their nod to him in 1970. Many might remember that Harper eventually sang the lead vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” within the space of five years later.

Yet the story about Zeppelin III isn’t exactly complete: at least three other tracks were written and recorded during this period. The “Immigrant Song” B-side, “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” was a sought after track for years, and I have heard it in rotation of classic rock radio stations. It’s also a highly radio-friendly, catchy acoustic rock number that reflects their love of melodic folk rock.

“Bron-Y-Aur” is a Page acoustic fingerpicked instrumental that eventually appeared on Physical Graffiti, and “Poor Tom” was a guitar and Harmonica folk number driven by a New Orleans shuffle that appeared on Coda. Like The Beatles there has been so much erroneous mythologizing about the band, and a lot of negative assumptions built up, it becomes hard to discern where the truth lies within that myth. I have seen Zeppelin III lumped in with the more mystical aspects of the band, whereas the evidence doesn’t support that assumption. There are no references to the occult in the lyrics, other than the Crowley quote to be found in the inside groove of the Vinyl edition–Do What Thou Wilt. I would argue that the mystical aspects of the band didn’t really come into play until Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti.

Certainly Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods helped to codify some of the more negative perceptions and feed certain myths while not offering much context. Then there was the music press, and notoriously Rolling Stone, that heaped scorn on the band from the outset. I could understand Lester Bangs’ mixed review for Zeppelin III, as Bangs held little affinity for a lot of progressive rock, and preferred the directness of the 3-minute single format.

But John Mendelsohn’s ’69 reviews were inexcusable, dismissing the band with accusations of them lacking wit, melody, vocal harmony, and expression, Mendelsohn seemed to hold a benchmark that every band needed to follow The Beatles’ melodic power pop format, which was a ridiculous standard indeed. Mendelsohn also displays an ignorance about the very idiom of the blues, which often holds a limited musical vocabulary, but often focuses on emotion, mood, and placing the listener into a certain mental state, all aspects that Zeppelin utilized effectively.

On a simplistic level, Zeppelin represented a changing of the guard in 1969, and to the elite music press and critics that had propped up many of the stars of the late sixties, this change was a threat. But the press, driven by ideals, wasn’t accessing the merit of the music, which should have been their role to do so, but used Zeppelin to make a sociological argument.

Some of the accusations of ‘hype’ might have had a fraction of merit, but there was a deeper issue at hand there. Zeppelin faced an image problem driven by Peter Grant’s business deals and record contract terms that gave Page and the band creative control. They set the terms of when they would tour, selection of album art, and which tracks would be chosen as potential singles. For the elite underground scene, who mistrusted power and wealth, the critics viewed the band as mercenaries before a note was played. Shunned by the English underground elite, Peter Grant and the band had to rely on America.

There was also a trickier element to the Zeppelin story; the band captivated a younger audience than the generation that embraced the cultural and political sensibilities of 60s artists. As noted by critic Jon Landau, who would go on to manage Bruce Springsteen by the 70s:
“Zeppelin forced a revival of the distinction between popularity and quality. As long as the bands most admired aesthetically were also the bands most successful commercially (Cream, for instance), the distinction was irrelevant. But Zeppelin’s enormous commercial success, in spite of critical opposition, reveals the deep division in what was once thought to be a homogeneous audience.”

Speaking for myself, these issues have prompted a deep distrust for critics, and a complete lack of regard for their role. Music, Film, Novels, Art and Theatre are subjective in nature, and individualistic, and I never vault a critic any higher than someone who is merely paid to offer an opinion. Frankly, In my personal travels, I have known a couple of established critics, and have found most to be thin-skinned, and self-important, easily driven by hubris after the praise of sycophants, and while many might begin their careers with the intent to serve the public, they seem to serve their own self interest and write for their fellow peers more often than not. The deep, dirty secret, that most critics bluster over, is the fact that their role won’t be important in the annals of time. They operate with a self-delusion they cannot admit openly.

Therefore, I cannot blame Zeppelin’s hostility towards the music press. Having said that, the band wasn’t immune to criticism. Peter Grant’s circle of employees did behave thuggishly and it was documented that writers and hangers-on were manhandled. The band did indulge in their excess with parties, drink, and drug use. Page allowed his dalliances with Crowley to feed the occult rumors, which members of the band probably sensed was good for business, and to cultivate the mystique. The problems that developed for the band after 1976, with countless setbacks, might be viewed as karmic payment, but might have been just random happenstance. Nevertheless, there had been so many distortions and embellishments about the mystique of Zeppelin from Groupie Mud-Shark antics, underage dating, Robert Johnson-flavored deals with the devil, backwards masking, and Tolkien references, that it has only been in the last two decades that their music, and its important role, has been accessed.

Their legacy should never be in doubt, and Led Zeppelin III serves as part of that legacy.

Producer: Jimmy Page
Arrangers and Composers: Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham
Engineer: Andy Johns
Cover: Zacrom

Side One:
Immigrant Song
Celebration Day
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Out On The Tiles  

Side Two:
Gallows Pole
That’s The Way
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
Hat’s Off To (Roy) Harper  

Next up: Queen II (1974)

You can download the album from iTunes, or order it from Barnes and Nobel.

The bulk of the information comes from a series of Rolling Stone articles by Mikal Gilmore, Cameron Crowe, J.D. Considine, Andy Green, the on-line reprint of Rick McGrath’s work, and the 1990 Box Set. Special thank you to XScribe for editorial proofing.