Tuesday, 27 April 2010

LED ZEPPELIN: Led Zeppelin III



(#85: 7 November 1970, 3 weeks; 12 December 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: Immigrant Song/Friends/Celebration Day/Since I’ve Been Loving You/Out On The Tiles/Gallows Pole/Tangerine/That’s The Way/Bron-Y-Aur Stomp/Hats Off To (Roy) Harper

The brief sleevenote speaks of “painting a somewhat forgotten picture of true completeness which acted as an incentive to some of these musical statements” and it is easy to forget that we are now but a dozen years away from South Pacific. Easy, that is, until the unmistakable melody from “Bali Ha’I” returns, resurrected and terrible, at the beginning of “Immigrant Song,” over a riff funky enough to satisfy Sly Stone and a beat so sharp Genghis Khan could have honed his fiercest sabres against it. Rampaging out of a beginning which sounds like a gravedigger attempting to reverse time, and life, the number has remained one of Zeppelin’s signature rockers, but its disturbances outweigh its undeniable power. Plant delivers his words, typically, at half the speed of the band; at the end of the line “we are your overlords,” he turns the “lords” into a multisyllabic bouillabase which engender doubt as to what exactly his gods’ hammers are bringing to the newly conquered land. The South Pacific reference is pertinent since in the original musical the air is sung as a regretful farewell, their object knowing that he will perhaps never see these sirens again, that everything will be swept away in war, blood and confusion. The tone of conquest, too, is ambivalent; Plant concludes, after the overlords have overrun the land, “So now you’d better stop and rebuild your ruins/For peace and trust can win the day/Despite all your losing.” Meanwhile, Page breaks up the song’s F# mode with G minor “jazz” chords which become increasingly frequent, like a Morse code mule endeavouring to remember Mark Twain. “Our only goal will be the Western shore” – since the West is where the sun is fated to set.

Of course, “Immigrant Song” can also be read as a declaration of victory from a band who were indeed conquering all; commercially, Zeppelin were 1970’s largest-grossing and largest-selling act worldwide and essentially ruled. But they utilised this rule, not to tread down all other hopefuls, but to expand their own ideas of the universe. This puzzled many at the time, who looked through Zarcon’s rotating wheel cover expecting even firmer and harder rock.

But “Friends” immediately takes off from what “Immigrant Song” implied; Incredible String Band acoustic guitar and bongos provide a slightly deceptive introduction, at the “black night” of the line “Black night still there shining,” John Paul Jones’ ominously keening Eastern strings enter the picture and convert the song into full bitonality. Plant is singing a variant on “Nature Boy” (“The greatest thing you ever can do now/Is trade a smile with someone who’s blue now”). His repeated “It’s very eeeeeeee-asy”s are scathing and hurting; Jeff Buckley was at this stage four years old. The strings finally become dominant in the song – anticipating not just “Kashmir” but also Massive Attack – and Jones’ alien Moog materialises from the undercarriage to slow the song down to a terrible finality.

The Moog segues into a backwards growl which roars “Celebration Day” into being. Over Page’s aggressive guitar cotton-picking, Plant wanders, like the hard-rained-on traveller, through a devastated world of weeping women wondering why their doors have been broken down by their alleged protectors; the irony of the tag “We’re in the Promised Land” is underscored by two descending half-tone chords. Interestingly both voice and guitar seem to follow the Beatles’ White Album example, both melodically and harmonically, while bass and drums appear more inspired by the Stones (for instance, Bonham’s Watts-esque foursquare rhetorical snare crashes). Plant’s concluding “My,” however, screeches on forever; “My, my, my, I’m so happy” – but what is this destination that’s coming up on the horizon? “You will wring your hands and moan.” There are, as yet, virtually no “baby” imprecations on this record.

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” is the record’s big blues setpiece, very carefully paced with guitar, drums and Jones on Hammond organ and bass pedal. Page begins with carefully selected single notes before suddenly bursting out into pain unspecified, provoking a delighted “Oh!” from Plant. Suddenly – especially with the use of the organ – we are back in 1964; Plant’s humbly accusatory “I don’t think that’s right” returns us firmly to the smokestack-filled world of Eric Burdon, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the old Yardbirds. Well, reasonably firmly, since Plant wastes little time on taking the template back out again; his vocals here are arguably more remarkable than Page's solo work, since at times he's capable of taking the human voice as far out as Jeff Buckley's father (compare with, for example, "Monterey" on the latter's contemporaneous Starsailor). Four "away"s are answered by a roar of "LAAAAWDD!!" and a hiccuping downhill slide of "DRAG DRAG DOWN!" (to which latter Bonham immediately responds). In contrast, Page as an improvising guitarist is formalist, little short of impenetrable - what is he thinking? Unlike Clapton, he keeps his cards close to his chest as he casually runs through the three Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie). Plant screeches Page's main solo to an end and the drums drop out, although this interlude does not last long before Bonham's snare hammers its way back into, and in some ways through, the picture; Plant scribbles words like “seven” and “every” into pictures as abstract as the record’s cover, and his unearthly whine of “LOSE lose lose” ushers in a supercharged arserocket of a climax, Bonham’s snare as deliberately dramatic as Wolfit. Then the whole cools down and the lament closes down with a wheeze of hissing cymbal and funereal organ.

“Out On The Tiles” steams in on a monolith of a riff – wasn’t there supposed to be no hard rock on this record? – which appears to exist independently of the rest of the song and group. Plant’s vocal verges on the androgynous – witness the labial confusion stirred up between the nouns “woman” and “man” – and Bonham’s triple snare/floor tom figures will eventually set the scene for “When The Levee Breaks.” In many ways, as Lena suggested, this represents a kind of feminisation of hard rock; although Bonham’s original lyric, involving such tropes as “rubbers” and “scrubbers,” was appropriately and swiftly cleaned up, Plant’s exultation is difficult to pin down to Percyism alone; his is a cry of welcome, encompassing both genders and a panoply of emotions and responses.

Side two concentrates on the work Page and Plant did while holed up at the semi-derelict cottage in the shadow of Snowdonia; bereft of running water or electricity, they were obliged to work on songs acoustically, derive inspiration from the hues of the air surrounding them, as well as from the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and the then virtually unknown John Fahey (the latter at the time was Plant’s main musical passion). Although it is this side which caused the consternation at the time – what is all this folk stuff, chaps? We’re waiting for you to, um, ROCK – it is a very cunning sequence which managed to widen their general appeal as well as their overall musical template, and while the songs largely depend on acoustics, their power is not the type which can safely be contained in any box. “Gallows Pole,” derived from the traditional folk ballad “The Maid I Saved From The Gallows,” remains an extraordinary piece of work; superficially similar to Fairport workouts of the period (such as “A Sailor’s Tale”; the silver, the gold, the mandolin), its gradual build-up from contemplation to hideous celebration conceals something far more sinister. To start with, the maid is now a man, and his nearest and dearest are even less helpful as they arrive to watch him hang. Drums and banjo take up the central body of the song, which accordingly turns heavier in texture and intent. Plant turns and fondles the word “pole” into so many failed thesaurus/synonym entries that it is indecent; he is practically harassing, if not actually whipping, the pole itself as well as the word. The strange “ah-hah” backing vocals also suggest that the ending here is unlikely to be a happy one. Swarbrick-esque violin comes in and the tune works towards its stomping, omniphonic climax (Plant even ad libs “Seesaw, Margery Daw” at one point here) as it is revealed that the cackling hangman, having accepted all of the bribes offered, has gone ahead and hung the man anyway; this is arguably one step beyond the devilry of the Stones (“But now I laugh and pull so hard/And see you swinging on the gallows pole”). All the while, threads intertwine and repeat; this is folk music as imagined by Steve Reich.

“Tangerine,” a subdued, brief love song originating from Page’s Yardbird days, is the album’s least demonstrative track but also points the way forward to the next album most forcibly. Acoustic guitar and sonorous violin again conjure a prophecy of R.E.M. and the song’s general structure and performance point very directly towards the “Stairway” to come, even utilising the same bridge of triples (Lena compares this to “someone ringing a doorbell”). Page’s solo is distant, and a pedal steel makes the first of several surprising appearances.

“That’s The Way” is perhaps the album’s most remarkable track, a long meditation on ecology and the state of the world. Again, acoustic guitar and pedal steel set up the song’s arrangement, as Plant ranges out from an elegy for “the boy next door” before expanding to cite his generation’s would-be accusers: “You’re gonna let your hair hang down!” he sings with immense sorrow. The “town” of the succeeding “dark side of town” merges seamlessly with Page’s steel; the “be” of “ought to be” is an irretrievable weep. In Plant’s vocal there is some gesturing in the direction of Jagger – “Yeah, yea-eah” “Ooo-woo-woo” – but the impression is not dissimilar to that of “Slim Slow Slider,” the epitaph which ended Astral Weeks; he sees her disappearing and knows that no one, least of all he, can ever hope to get her back. But then he turns his attention to the wider world; his “fish that lay in dirty water dying” is a startling counterpoint to the “fish full of mercury” of whom Marvin Gaye would lament only a few months later. Everything shimmers towards a collective, aqueous (as in drowning?) climax before ebbing out towards an unfathomable sea. Bass and tambourine join in at the end, and Page’s pedal steel swirls in a manner (along with the song’s subject matter) which once more points the way towards R.E.M. and in particular the Reckoning album; hear those Stipe-like wordless chorales which herald the song’s regretful end.

“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” sees a resolved Plant, walking his dog out in the woods and feeling entirely contented. Page picks his folky way and there are “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” foot stomping rhythms and handclaps. Page has a brief but expansive cadenza before the band lunges back in; I note that, despite the nimble acousticity of the song – there are even castanets - Plant is still delivering what is essentially a hard rock vocal.

Finally, and most strangely, a backwards flip of bottleneck noise tosses us into “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper,” which could be said to be as much a tribute to the 1966 of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” Like Beefheart’s “China Pig,” this is a dissolute improvisation on the blues – specifically Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down,” which is extensively quoted throughout – with tape gaps, varispeed antics and Plant’s galactic field holler coming at us via a Leslie cabinet. “I AIN’T NO MONKEY!” he bellows before gargling the consonants into Gertrude Stein land (“NNNNNN!!!”). Plant concludes by considering the merits of picking up his shotgun and shooting his babe while Page’s loops ricochet all around him like premature bullets.

While of necessity a transitional record, Led Zeppelin III nonetheless baffled and perhaps unloaded some of the more hardcore rock heads of the period – huh? Where’s “Whole Lotta Love”? – who may simply have transferred their loyalties to Sabbath and/or Purple. In retrospect, however, it seems if anything louder, more forthright, than its predecessor, while simultaneously widening out its scope of feelings and approaches to attract whole new groups of listeners; the mellow progressive rock fans who realised that there was more to Zeppelin than their (admittedly titanic) bombast, and even a fair number of female followers – only on the last-named track does Plant go mentalist with the “baby”s. It is clear, however, that the Welsh retreat was needed for the “true completeness” that this record desired, and that the album’s subsequent stream of influence would flow more unpredictably, but in the end wider, than anyone at the time could have assumed, not least towards Zeppelin’s next unarguable peak.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

Hope my YouTube link to it the other day - from one of those contexts with which you have to remind yourself that this stuff co-existed; one past cannot be presented alone without a reminder of another - gave this one a few more hits.

I think there's a Fairport/Crimson confusion here but for me that works better, as a lot of accidental confusions (especially of song titles) do.