As I alluded to with the Who’s release of “Who Are You”, Led Zeppelin also over-corrected a bit with the infusion of keyboards, trying to evolve their sound as the music world was changing around them. Part of it was the desire to be different, and part of it was borne out of necessity as the creative forces of Led Zeppelin were effectively reduced to the unusual pairing of Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. Group leader and guitarist Jimmy Page was mired in the depths of a suffocating heroin habit, and drummer John Bonham, while he was still playing with his consistent greatness, was also wrestling with a variety of substance abuse issues. The band gathered in Sweden to record “In Through the Out Door”, which would ultimately prove to be their last studio release prior to the death of Bonham and the tragic end of the band.
Led Zeppelin was reeling from one dark moment after another in the late 1970s. Starting with a terrifying auto accident for Plant and his wife in 1975, the band had to end their tour early in 1977 when Plant’s son died from a sudden viral infection. This coincided with Bonham and manager Peter Grant getting arrested for brutally beating a road crew member (not one of theirs) at a show in Oakland, and as noted, both Page and Bonham were struggling mightily with substance issues.
For the first time, Jones took the lead with most of the songwriting and production, assisted by Plant. The result was another inconsistent album, like “Presence”, which both have their high moments, but more than their share of mediocrity as well. I read in one review a line that says it all for this album. As talented as John Paul Jones is and was as a musician, the band was not better served with him playing “in front of” Jimmy Page.
The album starts with what could have been a titanic song instead of just a good one, “In The Evening”. It has a great riff and structure, but Plant’s vocals aren’t great, and are buried way too far in the mix. Technically Jimmy Page was still listed as the producer, and if so, this was not his best work. The second song, “South Bound Suarez”, is a throw away attempt at country ragtime on the piano. Again, the vocals are not great, and neither is the guitar work around the piano lead.
Even in their weakest moments, the band was so talented they could still deliver greatness. “Fool In The Rain” is one of their best songs ever, and absolutely one of Plant’s most inventive lyrics. The comical turn of a guy who thinks his girlfriend has dumped him until he realizes he is waiting for her in the wrong place, the music on this song is phenomenal, led by John Bonham and his amazing version of Bernie Purdie’s shuffle. Plant’s voice is much smoother and stronger here, and Jimmy Page rises up to deliver the best solo on the album, low on the fretboard with amazing tone. Jones leads the way with an infectious melody and an array of piano, keyboards, samba and whistles. It is just an outstanding song, their last really great recording.
Side one ends with the absurd track “Hot Dog”, which is a country mock-song that most Zeppelin fans detest. I actually love it, and two other people in my life love this song as well. My friend John from high school and college loved it dearly and we would listen to it endlessly, and even more so, it is possibly my Mom’s favorite song ever from all of the music from my era that she would embrace.
Side two starts with “Carouselambra”. I’m not sure what to make of this over-produced, poorly mixed, too-long, heavy-synthesizer track. It is as if they wanted to try and sound different and put the weight on Jones’ shoulders to carry the day. The drumming and instrumental performances aren’t awful, but the net sum of the parts just devolves into one of the true low points for the mighty Zeppelin.
They bounce back on the last two tracks. The first is “All My Love”, the song Robert Plant wrote for his young son Karac, who he tragically lost in 1977. Co-written with Jones, it is the only Led Zeppelin song authored by the band that Jimmy Page did not get a songwriting credit on, and it is one of the most popular songs from the album. Again, heavy on the keyboards, but Bonham is once again amazing, helping to elevate the song above the Foreigner/Journey soundalike Page was afraid the song represented. I love this song and what it represents, even if it truly is evidence of a band divided.
The final song of the Led Zeppelin catalog is “I’m Gonna Crawl”, the third and final part of their blues trilogy that started with “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and continued with “Tea for One”. Like the rest of this album, this song is fronted by keyboards, with the guitar coming in for support, but it is a gorgeous track and a sad, emotionally impactful and fitting end to the phenomenal run for this one-of-a-kind band.
Like Keith Moon, John Bonham would succumb the next year to alcohol, in this case, he just drank way too much and choked on his own vomit. Such a sad and pointless end to both of their lives, like so many others, and thus ended the run for the greatest rock band of their era. I can’t overstate the amount of influence this band has had on my life, and I will always be grateful for the collective contributions of Led Zeppelin, through good times and bad times.
“We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” – Led Zeppelin Statement, 12/4/1980.