In 24 months, Led Zeppelin played several hundred shows, and recorded and released three albums. It always amazes me how much high-quality material these bands (Led Zep, The Doors, CCR, The Beatles, The Beach Boys) among others could write, record and release in a compressed time frame. “Led Zeppelin III” was inspired by a visit to a Scottish cottage (Bron-Yr-Aur) that included Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, where they got back to the simplicities of nature with acoustic guitars and limited accommodations. The third album is considered their “acoustic” album, and while there is some validity to this, it is a bit of a misnomer because A), they have lots of acoustic-based songs on the first two albums, and B), there are several electric guitar-based rockers on this album as well.
Many people look at this album as a bit of a step back from the first two albums in overall enduring quality, and I would tend to agree, although the band would consider it more of a continuous change and evolution of their music. I believe this album has two timeless classics, one really good song, and the rest of the album is good, but not great. There is one song at the end I would swap out if I could, and I will explain more shortly.
Side one opens with “Immigrant Song”, one of their most famous short, riff-based anthems. It has never been a big favorite of mine, and I think that the main reason is the production somehow has the bass and drums, a trademark of Led Zeppelin heaviness, buried and softer in the mix. Next come “Friends” and “Celebration Day”, both of which are in that good but not great category. In particular, I think “Celebration Day” is one of the few Led Zeppelin songs that is significantly stronger performed live than this studio version. They do hit a home run with the next song, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, their first true original blues anthem. This formula, which they would revisit two more times in their catalog, is primarily a Page and Plant showcase, and both are at their very best here, but the drum performance is noticeably great, which once again separates John Bonham to a level above others. How many blues tracks do you listen to and hone in on the crispness and standout sound of the drums? Exactly. John Paul Jones layers in a perfect organ and bass accompaniment; this is Led Zeppelin at their creative and most powerful best. Side one ends with another short rocker, “Out On The Tiles”, which like a lot of the album, just doesn’t seem to have the intense depth and powerful impact as similar tracks on their first two albums.
Side two, the “acoustic” side, opens with “Gallows Pole”, a remake of a traditional song focusing on a person’s last moments leading up to his execution by hanging. I do love the tempo increase and one-off banjo from Jimmy Page on this song. “Tangerine” follows, a bit on the melancholy side and not a great song, but then comes “That’s The Way”, one of their two best acoustic songs ever that is amazing here and performed live as a trio, with Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on mandolin. I also love “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”, which comes next, another acoustic song but up-tempo with John Bonham’s thumping drums as Robert Plant sings a love song to his beloved dog, “Strider”. Bonzo sings a great harmony vocal on this when they play it live.
The last song on the album is my least favorite, and the one I would have swapped out. Let me explain. The song, “Hats off To (Roy) Harper”, is named in tribute to their eclectic friend, UK folk-rock singer Roy Harper, but is a distorted, unusual remake of the Bukka White blues song “Shake ‘Em On Down”. It is just a bit too much reverberation and Plant wailing for my tastes. What I believe they should have done is inserted their classic song “Hey, Hey What Can I Do” as the perfect closer for this album, which they instead released as a B side to “Immigrant Song”. “Hey, Hey What Can I Do” is in my opinion, one of the very greatest Led Zeppelin songs of all time, allowing them to deliver that light-and-shade within a song, as an acoustic song that hits heavy and powerful at the same time. Unfortunately, they did not consult with me before finalizing the album.
“Led Zeppelin III” will never by my favorite Zeppelin album, but like all of them, it does have its moments of greatness, and really branches out their reach across many different genres of music beyond just hard guitar rock.