Friday 16 November 2012

LED ZEPPELIN: In Through The Out Door

(#213: 8 September 1979, 2 weeks)

Track listing: In The Evening/South Bound Saurez/Fool In The Rain/Hot Dog/Carouselambra/All My Love/I’m Gonna Crawl

Some people in 1979 might have been forgiven for forgetting that Led Zeppelin still existed; I think the group were by now on a mission to remind everybody of their existence. Even on the evidence collected in this tale, it is clear that since Presence - let alone The Song Remains The Same - the world had changed, and Zeppelin no longer fit into it quite as securely. Hence, amongst other things, the title; ejected from Britain, or so they felt, and possibly from popularity, they were trying to prove that they could still matter; getting back in through the door by which they had exited some time before.

Things were in many ways worse for the group than they had been in 1976; Plant’s five-year-old son Karac had died of a stomach infection in 1977 while his father was out of the country on tour. They remained tax exiles. By now, Bonham was in the grip of the grog and Page’s heroin habit had blossomed fully.

The album was supposed to have been available to coincide with their two headlining gigs at Knebworth in early August of 1979, but various manufacturing delays meant that it shuffled out rather later. Plant confessed that he did not find the Knebworth concerts – in which they played to a crowd of about 200,000 people, and which they only agreed to step in and headline after Jeff Lynne’s ELO had turned the concerts down – a particularly enjoyable experience; not having played properly together as a band for some years, they were rusty, messy, speeding up where they needed to slow down and vice versa.

No doubt the complexity of the original album package explained the record’s delayed appearance; a plain brown bag, with the artist, title and track listing stencilled in red ink, concealing one of six possible alternative covers, different perspectives on the same New Orleans barroom scenario. The buyer didn’t necessarily know which one they were going to get until they got the record home, opened up the bag and took the album out. I am more than sure that a few people endeavoured to track down all six. Moreover, although the cover picture was sepia-toned, if cold water were run along the sleeve, colours would reveal themselves underneath (sleeve designers, the perennial Hipgnosis, kept very quiet about that particular “bonus”). The analogy was clear; old times being swept clean to reveal newer, better ones.

I must admit that I did not purchase any of them, eventually settling for the standard CD edition which features just four variants of the cover (every one of which reveals a new perspective; chairs uprooted indicate there’s been a fight, the seemingly besuited man at the bar is wearing only his underwear on his right side, etc.). For the prospect of a new Led Zeppelin album in 1979 was not going to automatically excite teenagers of my age, and it’s arguable whether it excited anyone at the time; reviews were almost uniformly hostile, generally in the old-fart-grandads-trying-to-do-the-Twist mode.

But listening to the album itself, as is pretty inevitable, reveals a more complex story. In Through The Out Door is the work of a group of people who have realised that the old ways won’t work any more, but have difficulty acclimatising to the new world they’re expected to inhabit. That it sounds disjointed can be ascribed to the band now basically settling into two camps; the industrious Plant and Jones, busy putting songs together, and the wasted Page and Bonham, who would come in late at night and lay their parts down. Hence the predominance of keyboards and synthesisers, particularly the new Yamaha GX-1 model which Jones eagerly brought in – have you heard this story before somewhere recently? – but perhaps of greater significance is the fact that the album was recorded in Polar Studios in Stockholm; the home of Abba, the same studio (and possibly even some of the same equipment) in which Voulez-Vous had been made.

A lot of old rockers wouldn’t stand for it. Abba??!!? I am sure that the studio’s sumptuous capacities drew the band to wanting to work there; it afforded the chance for a little holiday, and I’m certain that Bj√∂rn and Benny were thrilled and flattered to have Zeppelin’s company. But “In The Evening” almost instantly illustrates how the group seemed to want to wrongfoot its fans. Beginning with a long guitar/Mellotron drone with scalar improvisations from Page, the band then thunders in…or at least John Bonham does. But these keyboards! The seemingly scrubbed-down sound picture! Plant sounding rougher, grainier and deeper than ever before…what could it all mean, a bemused fanbase wondered?

In fact “In The Evening,” like much of the rest of the record, seems to be setting its stall out to welcome the eighties, and in particular eighties stadium rock; the mobile, probing bass and its relationship with drums and keyboards point yet another path to Simple Minds (does every 1979 number one album sound like Simple Minds? Meanwhile, the band themselves were on their second album, Real To Real Cacophony, where they were seemingly trying to sound as unlike Simple Minds as anything. You have to hand it to Arista Records; signing up Barry Manilow to pay the bills and then getting Patti Smith, the Alpha Band, Anthony Braxton and Simple Minds – amongst others – on their roster. Talk about lost ambition!). As the song settles down in its middle eight, Page’s somewhat mixed-back lead guitar lends it an air of proto-Guns N’ Roses. There are also yelps and clarion calls to be replicated and (partially) expanded in the work of U2. Everything, in fact, except the expected lowdown rock ‘n’ roll.

Listeners’ confusion mounted. “South Bound Saurez” is based on a nervy staccato piano shuffle, like 1972 Elton John avoiding an earthquake, in which Plant sings of his love of dancing as though he were…Barry Gibb. “Fool In The Rain,” which actually came out (albeit edited) as a single in the USA (it reached #21 on Billboard), finds the band veering between AoR – “Welcome Back” via Andrew Gold, anyone? – and a full-blown samba workout (as Bonham skilfully and slowly builds up the polyrhythms), Plant sounding exactly like Elton, and a general subtextual awareness of the contemporaneous work of Fleetwood Mac (the album is a subtler inducement to downright WTF?-ness than Tusk).

Finally – on side one – we’re suddenly back in the Sun studios, or at least with the band’s Swan Song label mate Dave Edmunds; “Hot Dog” essentially lays down the ground for the forthcoming rockabilly revival. The cry went up: “What the hell is going ON here?” But note that Plant’s habitual “baby”s don’t quite mean what they used to: when he (double-tracked high and low, like father and son) sings “Now my baby’s gone, I don’t know what to do,” there is something here that emotionally doesn’t quite fit.

“Carouselambra” is the record’s big epic, but its ten-and-a-half minutes are markedly less compelling than, say, “In My Time Of Dying”; in fact they seem to flit by very rapidly. The introduction, with its staccato synth riffs, sounds like Abba, and it looks as though Zeppelin are trying to make up a lot of lost ground; I’m not arguing that they were trying to get “hits” off this album, but here is the glorious pomp of Queen (Mercury could easily have sung this song, which is lyrically very silly but seems to link to earlier Zeppelin epics; “guard the seed” etc.), there is some skinny tie New Wave organ, over there…why, it’s a poppier Yes! The song slows down to gather breath before Jones’ sequencers usher in 1985 once again. Instead of climaxing, the song just potters on, though not disagreeably, towards its rather rapid fade.

Before pondering on whether the group are attempting to give birth to Asia or Bon Jovi, the album suddenly takes a sideways, then downward, step into two rather astonishing closing songs. “All My Love” begins exactly like Abba – one can easily imagine Agnetha singing the song (plus it is in the opposing key to “The Name Of The Game”; A minor to Abba’s A major) – and Plant’s voice lends the song and lyric an emotional candour which evidently counts for rather more than a girl who just done walked out on him; he puts an unusual emphasis on the line “He is a feather in the wind.” Meanwhile, Page in his solo is still channelling Hank Marvin, and as the song slowly disappears Plant’s hurt is superseded by a slowly coruscating grief; in its fading moments he appears to cry, again and again, “Stop dying!” (to which Bonham immediately responds with a cocked head tom-tom breakout). His parting call is a searing, extended “to YOU” – there is no doubt whom he is really singing about.

And, finally, there is “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the last word from Zeppelin – not that in 1979 anyone knew that; Page was already planning to follow it up with a return to The Rock Formula – and one of the greatest things they ever did.

It begins with a startling, possibly synthesised, string introduction; one almost expects Martin Fry, or even Scott Walker to step up to the microphone. Then the band, or Bonham plus the band, enter (it’s only through Bonham that the unwary listener is even reminded that this is a Led Zeppelin record), and it’s a slow, slow blues, though far more wracked and terminal than “Tea For One”; the song’s unsettling chord sequence sets us up for what in part appears to be an extended homage to Peter Green – the tune, tempo and arrangement recall “Need Your Love So Bad,” when they don’t venture into the territory of Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” (“Every little bit of my love…OHH!!”). All hope appears to have been eviscerated; Plant’s voice is as despairing and despondent as I have ever heard him, passing by ominous lyrical signposts – “she can never do wrong” is phrased to sound like “she can never grow old,” the line “somebody please bring me down” is topped by an elongated, agonised cry of “DOWN” as though there’s nowhere lower to go. Plant’s improvisations towards the end also conjure up James Brown – never wanting to let the song, or its subject, go – but the pain is too much, and the whole thing culminates in some terrifying primal screams that outdo even the Lennon of “Mother.” At last, when attending to and singing about things and people he really cares about, Plant reveals himself; the song, like its predecessor, is really about his departed son. The closing moments sound like a dozen years of hurt compacted into one apotheosis, or nadir, of betrayed emotion.

And yet the song is so peaceful, so disturbing in its deceiving amble, that one only eventually realises the other song that so strongly resembles it – “Pumpkin” by Tricky (“I smell of she” – oh yes, Plant would have got that in an instant). The nineties, not even the eighties, is where In Through The Out Door intends to go, and yet “I’m Gonna Crawl” was their final living word; a year or so later, Bonham was dead, and so were the band. I am fully aware that the imminent (at the time of writing) Celebration Day may well give them a late return to this tale, but as things stand, Led Zeppelin, the group who opened these seventies, now bow out of the decade with eight number one albums, not having scored any other number ones in any other decade. So it follows that, although there are still seven albums to go before we properly leave the seventies, the decade’s story must necessarily shadow their story, or vice versa. A decade that started out with such forceful promise, now finds itself…where? Where has it been? Where have they been?

Other albums released in August 1979 included Unknown Pleasures.