I have a lot to say about today’s album, “Presence” by Led Zeppelin. Most of you know I am a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan, and for most of their first seven years, there was very little they could do wrong. However, misfortune, questionable choices, and wear and tear began to take their toll on the band, and in August of 1975, singer Robert Plant and his wife and family were involved in an auto accident that left Plant in a wheelchair with several broken bones as the band gathered to record their next album.
The album was by comparison, a relatively unsuccessful album for the band, both commercially and in review and radio play, and I will explore some of my theories as to what went wrong on this album before I look more closely at the individual songs. First off, to be clear, this is an album creatively dominated by guitarist Jimmy Page. Unlike their first six albums, John Paul Jones plays bass and only bass on this album. No keyboards, no arranged strings, no mandolins, no anything other than Page’s guitar and Jones on bass. I feel this led to a creative imbalance and disruption to the four-part harmony of the band. We already know Plant wasn’t in a great place for this record, and I can’t imagine Jones welcomed this relegated role either. This imbalance would shift too far the other direction on their next record, for different reasons.
Even though I have listened to this record hundreds of times, I reached my second conclusion just today after another listen. As a guitar-heavy album where Page was trying to restore and extend Led Zeppelin as the premier hard rock band in the world, I realized that Plant was no longer the vocalist they needed to sing most of the songs on this album. The intensity of these songs needed 1969 Robert Plant. He was no longer that singer, and he wasn’t yet 1982 Robert Plant either, singing “Sea of Love” or “In The Mood”. What we have is him straining to keep pace, and it just doesn’t work the same way. Not only did he struggle in-studio, his live work from 1975 through the end of the band in 1980 was marred by consistent cracks and missed notes. As difficult as I think this record may have been for him vocally due to loss of range, it also was exacerbated by his injuries and what I would consider to be an overall lack of joy and fun on this record, a big change from the last several albums. There is only one song on this entire album where I hear that happiness unleashed, and not surprisingly, it is my favorite overall song on the record.
The album opens with the gigantic song, “Achilles Last Stand”. Considered by many to be their last epic track, in the same vein as “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir”, there is some great commentary on this song and album on a recent podcast by Plant. He hits on two key points. The first, as noted above, is that “Presence” and this song in particular, is not a “comfortable listen”. Intense and fierce, if somewhat devoid of passion and emotion, this song also highlights Plant’s other point. As one who doesn’t frequently look back with fondness, he marvels at the “insane musicality” of Page, Jones, and drummer John Bonham. Within this genre and most others, there just wasn’t a more talented and powerful trio of musicians, and it is on full display on this 10-minute adventure.
Next comes “For Your Life”, and this song is a continuation of my theme. Grinding and thundering in its delivery, the song lacks much melody or range, as well as an appealing hook. The last song of side one is “Royal Orleans”, one of the lighter moments on the album, at least lyrically, as the band laughs at an alleged late-night encounter with a pretty girl in New Orleans who turned out not to be a girl after all.
“A man I know, went down to Louisiana, Had himself a bad, bad fight. And when the sun peeked through, John Cameron with Suzanna, He kissed the whiskers, left and right… Whiskers.”
It was supposedly John Paul Jones who made this famous misstep, but who knows where the truth ends and the myth begins.
Side two opens with another track that displays that the band, at its best, was still capable of greatness. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, a remake of an old blues track by Blind Willie Johnson, features an incredible opening guitar buzz from Page, more outrageous drumming from Bonham, and a surprisingly strong harmonica solo from Plant. As great as this track is, going back to my point above, imagine if you can, 1969 Robert Plant singing this same song.
Plant finally gets his rockabilly knock-off song, “Candy Store Rock”, and while the attempt is noble, somehow the actual result isn’t nearly as much fun as it was intended to be. Thankfully, they really got it right on the next song; the one song I noted above, where I think past, present and future Robert Plant shows up at the same time, along with the band having fun and playing loose and tight all at once. The track is “Hots on for Nowhere”. Unless you are a die-hard, you probably won’t recognize it, but it is definitely worth a listen, and great flashback to the happiness and diverse sounds of “Houses of the Holy” and “Physical Graffiti”.
The album ends with the extended blues track “Tea for One”, which is a restructured replication of “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, just darker and more despondent. Gone is Jones’ melodic organ, it is just him on bass next to Page’s guitar, with Plant lamenting his desperate loneliness as “twenty-four hours slips into days, a minute feels like a lifetime, when I feel this way”
A dark ending to a dark album, and sadly the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s descent from their peak of greatness. There would still be moments of magic here and there, but more or less, the best days of this band were behind them as a group, with tougher days ahead.