Sunday, 6 May 2012

LED ZEPPELIN: Presence


(#168: 24 April 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Achilles Last Stand/For Your Life/Royal Orleans/Nobody’s Fault But Mine/Candy Store Rock/Hots On For Nowhere/Tea For One

The circumstances surrounding the conception and recording of Presence differ slightly in the telling, depending on whose history you read, so the best way to tell the story is to itemise:

1. Following the success of Physical Graffiti and their successful run of shows at Earls Court, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant decide the time is right for a major Zeppelin world tour. This is tentatively scheduled to begin on 23 August 1975; meanwhile there is time for Page and Robert Plant to take a holiday with their families.

2. Page and Plant first travel to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in order to realise a long-cherished dream of recording with the Berber tribes there; this is directly referenced on “Achilles Last Stand.”

3. Page then travels to Sicily as he has heard that a farmhouse there which once belonged to Aleister Crowley is up for sale. Plant, his then wife Maureen, and his children, as well as Page’s daughter Scarlett, settle on the island of Rhodes.

4. On 5 August 1975, eighteen days before the start of their tour, Plant and his wife are involved in a major road accident when their car crashes in Rhodes. Plant’s wife is not expected to survive, but pulls through. The children are miraculously unhurt. Meanwhile, Plant has suffered multiple leg fractures and is under doctors’ orders not to walk for the next six months; there is the risk that he may never be able to walk again.

5. Page and Grant decide that, since a tour is now out of the question, the band should devote their energies to recording a new album. For various bureaucratic reasons the Plants have to wait for some time before they can leave Rhodes, and for a while lodge in Jersey. As “Hots On For Nowhere” implies, Plant in part blames Page and Grant for the hold-up.

6. The band rent a beach house in Malibu and work on some material. While they are doing this, a freak storm washes half the house away. Not to be deterred, they move to a recording studio in Hollywood where they do more writing and rehearsing.

7. They eventually relocate to Musicland Studios, situated in the basement of a hotel in Munich. Plant is in a wheelchair, claustrophobic and severely homesick. If you believe the account in Hammer Of The Gods, a taste for heroin starts to infiltrate the sessions.

8. Zeppelin can only use Musicland for eighteen days, as the Stones have booked the same studio to come in and work on Black And Blue. Realising that he is not quite going to make the deadline, Page telephones Jagger and asks for and gets two days’ grace. He and engineer Keith Harwood stay up for 20 hours a day to finish all the guitar overdubs and mixing. When the Stones come to town, they can’t believe that the album is finished and mixed. On listening to the final product, Keith Richards comments that the band should seriously consider hiring a second guitarist since Page is now in his opinion the most overworked guitarist in rock. But how can they? They are Led Zeppelin; their “fourness” is unique and indivisible.

The main reason for telling this story is to underline how much of a reaction against everything surrounding them Presence was; it really was a case of Zeppelin versus the world. I am still unsure whether the record has ever been completely understood; it alternately baffled and annoyed reviewers when it came out, and if Wikipedia is to be trusted it remains Zeppelin’s lowest-selling studio album. Much of the commentary at the time was to do with the alleged enigma of the black mini-obelisk which Hipgnosis had added to stock fifties photographs on the outer and inner sleeves; Page has spoken of a force, an aura, that was Zeppelin and was there wherever you went, but being Zeppelin I am sure there was at least one private joke at work.

Nevertheless, the puzzle effectively detoured any proper addressing of the record itself, and in the Zeppelin discography it has remained something of a puzzle. On the contrary: Presence contains some of the most brutal and direct music Zeppelin ever made, and had to represent a war against the chain of disasters detailed above.

For Zeppelin were not only battling their own misfortunes but the wider notion that they were slowly slipping from favour, that they weren’t quite as immutable as they had been even a year previously; that they represented some kind of unwelcome decadence and opulence in rock, getting further and further away from the things which originally powered them. One question would be: what would Pink Floyd have done if the same things had happened to them, and why didn’t they? The answer is that Pink Floyd stayed in Britain and Zeppelin didn’t. It’s true that much of Zeppelin’s situation arose from their tax exile status, but it was their decision, and it’s far too late to quibble whether the record could have been done at Olympic or Wessex, and if so – given infinitely more time and resources to make it – the record would have carried quite the same degree of urgency that it does.

It’s very rare that I come across a number one album that was made because it absolutely needed to be made, but Presence is one of those, and there are fewer opening tracks to any album which carry the same degree of uncompromising desperation as the ten-and-a-half minutes of “Achilles Last Stand.” As extreme a piece of music as any band of Zeppelin’s status would have dared to record in 1976, it is the sound of four men fighting to bring down the world. The rhythm rocks like a not-quite-out-of-control train. Bonham’s drums exceed thunder; they are as pitiless and single-minded as anything he ever played – at one point you can clearly hear his cymbals cracking in half. Plant ostensibly sings about his adventures in Morocco, but his tone betrays a greater message, one of weariness with the world, and of the suspicion that what he and the band have worked for these past eight years may amount to nothing. The Albion reference inevitably conjures up Blake, the analogy of Atlas the mountains and Atlas the god is not overcooked, and Page intelligently varies his approach so as not to overload the track; his first solo is slow and pensive but undoubtedly heartfelt. But the song grinds on relentlessly with a terrible yet compelling certainty. While Plant again points the way to Jeff Buckley (the “I know the way…” sequence), Page is busy setting up his stalls for the future; the military staccatos – almost inhuman – pave a path to Metallica. It’s also the case that Heart – big Zeppelin fans, and about to break big themselves – got some inspiration from here (as “Barracuda” would soon demonstrate). Moreover, as the surprising but logical quiet guitar interlude makes clear, there is unfinished sixties business; that the song contains elements of both “The Green Manalishi” and “Rhiannon” confirms that the band are building something of a bridge between Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac, between what has come and what has yet to pass. This being borne in mind, it is entirely correct that so seemingly unforgiving a piece of music should conclude, or fade, with a carillon of guitars that could have come straight out of the Byrds.

The attendant irony of a band once known as the New Yardbirds should now record a song entitled “For Your Life” need not be underlined, since there is no real connection between the two songs (the composer of “For Your Love” at this time being involved in such affairs as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”) and there is certainly no jolly sixties optimism at work here; against a backdrop skilfully constructed to sound random and ungainly, Plant cites “The Lemon Song” before going into a long rant against cocaine, and the difference between drugs and love, using none too subtle sexual metaphors. Page’s soloing is more agitated than has ever been heard on a Zeppelin record, while Plant’s own delivery veers from the disinterested (his second “damned” in “Oh, oh, babe, damned”) to the vulnerable (his voice wavers in the “flow” of “I said, just go with the flow”). Once more recalling Buckley fils, Plant’s vocal culminates in a long, piercing, upward, drawn-out cry.

“Royal Orleans,” a shaggy dog tale in the recent tradition of “Lola,” attempts some light relief (Plant’s exasperated hisses of “Whiskers!”), but nobody told Bonham, who rumbles on like an express train jammed with nuclear chemicals. Furthermore, Page’s needling guitar and John Paul Jones’ sighing bass musically make me wonder whether this isn’t 1981 and Josef K.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a Blind Willie Johnson derivé which may or may not be about drug addiction (“The m-m-m-monkey on my back-back-back”), complicates the picture further. Page begins the track with a phased wasp drone of chattering guitars akin to splintering glass. After a brief wordless voice and guitar unison, the track settles down into the blues – except that it never seems to settle, stopping and starting almost at random while Plant describes his story of woe (he grits his teeth on the line “Gonna change my ways tonight” as though he knows he’s never going to do it). Page’s guitar fights not to bury itself with its own feedback. Indeed, the whole structure of the track suggests to me that Steve Albini must have been listening; specifically, the relationship between guitar, drums and silence is further explored in Albini’s work with the Breeders (Pod) and PJ Harvey (Rid Of Me - and we know that the younger Polly grew up listening to this stuff). And there is still a pitilessness in the track’s approach that leads directly into Big Black, even if Albini used a drum machine there rather than a Bonham (Then again, the quiet-loud-quiet-loud format was about to be kick started by Boston, whose debut album came out at around this time; also largely masterminded by a studio-obsessed guitarist with pictures flowing through his mind).

The whole album plays like an indie Zeppelin; there is only the briefest of gaps between tracks (I note Frank Black is at this time twelve) and the attempted throwback of “Candy Store Rock” might be the record’s most Albini-esque track; it pretends to go back to fifties Elvis (and, having deposited a get well telegram to meet Plant at the airport as he flew to California, it’s inconceivable that Presley wouldn’t have heard this). Plant cheerfully goes through every “baby baby” cliché/double entendre he can conjure up, but the drumming is out of place, the guitar is more reminiscent of Hendrix than of Scotty Moore, and some of the desperation even transmits to Plant (“Don’t make me sta-harve!” he wails at one point; and his repeated assurances that “it’s alright” are maybe the least convincing I have ever heard).

“Hots On For Nowhere” gets steadily more disturbing as it goes on, particularly the nonsensical “La la la” chorus which gets more menacing and prominent with each repeat. A fairly standard Zeppelin strut of a shuffle, periodically intercepted by sudden scrabbling noises, Plant expresses his frustration and disgust at the whole situation (“I’ve got friends who will give me fuck all,” and he tries to sing it as “fluck” but nobody was convinced); he is getting older and the old games won’t work any more.

As indeed they do not on the closing track, “Tea For One,” one of the most moving things Zeppelin ever recorded. The sprightly opening is deceptive, for the track swiftly settles for a long and mournful blues workout. Bonham seems to be drumming a million miles away, yet his rising snare rolls under Page’s guitar and his general air of compassionate rectitude put me in mind of the late Levon Helm. Jones’ deep but resigned bass holds the track together. And in the middle of all this, or to one side of it, there is Plant; while this does not literally repeat the trope of previous number one albums in concluding with the singer alone at sea, miles from shore, it as good as defines it.

Plant is alone, impatient, sad, watching the clock that never changes, wanting, aching to go back to his woman; memories slip through his unglued mind and not once does he explode, emotionally; he sits back and lets the song come to him. But he knows this whole business may always have been for nothing, and is not comfortable in this knowledge. He is plainly asking us: this rock ‘n’ roll thing…what was it ever supposed to be about, and if it were ever supposed to be about anything, but primarily making us feel better and more alive, then how come it has brought us here? Here, where it might as well still be 1968, Page standing on a provincial stage, playing the blues…and “Tea For One” is anything but rock ‘n’ roll, and everything to do with the blues. There are two abrupt moments of hammering grief from Page and Bonham, but otherwise nobody does so much as raise his voice. There is an impatience at work here, but also a balancing wisdom which says that all this anguish about waiting is only going to make you wait more. With his endless perfectionism, overdubs and overall sonic vision, Page perhaps isn’t that far away from Brian Wilson, and “Tea For One” only (only?) a close neighbour of “Caroline No.” But Page’s solos here are among his most nakedly emotional and articulate; in his first (and main) solo he combines the explosive efficiency of Hubert Sumlin with the declamatory yet compassionate eloquence of BB King, while at track’s end he nods to Freddie King – somewhere in between these, an overlap with Mike Oldfield cannot be overlooked. His playing throughout this track is like a parade of ghosts – shadows (capital or small “s”) from the sixties, that decade that just won’t leave this decade alone, come filtering through in solemn procession…and what is this song, in the end, if not another cry to go home?

I feel a kinship between Presence and another major British rock album which came out at around the same time, another record of relatively few (but long) songs concerning alienation and the questioning of one’s role in the world, let alone in rock, and which concludes with a long, meditative wander through an old movie ballad. That record is Station To Station - those who don’t feel the relationship between the reserved pain of “Tea For One” and the expressive restraint of “Wild Is The Wind” aren’t really listening to either – and, in common with Presence, and so many other records under consideration in this year, their fear and resolution (not a contradicting pair) are based on knowing that time is running out and that something else is coming. But Zeppelin weren’t going to go down without a fight, even if on a personal level there was much, much worse to come; that this is not their last appearance in this tale suggests that the will to fight was unquenchable, regardless of whatever came along to try to quench it.

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