LED ZEP: What is the most misunderstood Led Zep album?

JIMMY T writes:

Wow, I had to think for a very long time about this. The reception every album has gotten, after all, has been extremely mixed. Just a side note, I’ll chiefly be using Rolling Stone Magazine’s reviews as they helpfully archive them and are easily accessible. I’m also excluding 1982’s Coda because it was post-Bonham and post-Zeppelin. I’ve also been writing this answer for two full days and I’m exhausted.

The debut (12 January 1969) was attacked for being packed with “weak, unimaginative songs”, powered by “prissy Robert Plant’s howled vocals”, and Jimmy Page’s “limited” production. Despite this, the punk-rock roar of Communication Breakdown crashes through the listeners ears like a ton of bricks, the doomy psychedelic blues of Dazed And Confused washes over you like a waterfall on acid, and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You depicts a gentle cottage in Wales that we may come back to.

The same man (John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone magazine) claimed that he couldn’t listen to Led Zeppelin II (22 October 1969) sober because “I don’t think a group this heavy is best enjoyed that way”. He also calls Jimmy Page “the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world” (Page is 5′11″). This is despite hard rock classics like Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker, as well as the rolling blues of Bring It On Home and the titanic drum solo that is Moby Dick.

Led Zeppelin III (5 October 1970) was bombarded with abuse after Zeppelin left the boundaries of their usual hard rock and slid in with some acoustic numbers such as Friends (which “gives itself over almost entirely to monotonously shrill Plant breast-beatings”, yet still leaves room for the electrifying blues of Since I’ve Been Loving You, (which Lester Bangs decries as “lethally dull”).

Led Zeppelin’s long awaited and untitled fourth album, known by the four symbols chosen to represent the four members, was (for the first time) acclaimed by Rolling Stone, as (what many including myself consider) the greatest album of all time deserves. The “rhythm section [soars] underneath” Rock And Roll, with a “nice lead during the break” to boot. Black Dog and Misty Mountain Hop are “authentic Zeppelinania”. There’s also the “dazzling” blues of When The Levee Breaks and the gentle acoustic numbers, Going To California, The Battle Of Evermore. We’ll gently brush over possibly the greatest song ever written - the band’s magnum opus, the quite simply incredible Stairway To Heaven.

The fifth collection, known as Houses Of The Holy (28 March 1973), was packed with new and interesting ideas, such as the George Harrison inspired ballad The Rain Song, the multi-tracked guitars of The Song Remains The Same, and John Paul Jones’ magical and mysterious No Quarter. The critics, however, were not so lenient. With easy fodder like D’yer Mak’er and The Crunge on offer, the reviewers even in Melody Maker (usually very pro-Zeppelin) attacked the album as a poor attempt to follow up their titanic fourth album, shouting “Zeppelin lose their way”. Rolling Stones in particular crushed them, Gordon Fletcher stating “Houses of the Holy is one of the dullest and most confusing albums I’ve heard this year”.

1975’s mammoth double album Physical Graffiti (24 February 1975) was dropped like a ton of bricks on the music audiences of the world. Heavier than anything they had ever released, the album was also broader than any other they’d attempted. The album roars through the blues rock of Custard Pie, the groaning slide of In My Time Of Dying, the funk of Trampled Under Foot, Kashmir’s magnificent Middle Eastern orchestral strings (courtesy of the Marrakech Symphony Orchestra as well as JPJ’s mellotron magic) combined with mind-bindingly heavy drums, the prog rock keyboards on John Paul Jones’ In The Light, the gentle acoustic guitar of Bron-Yr-Aur, and the soft country romp Boogie With Stu before closing with the low-slung Les Paul rock ‘n’ roll of Sick Again. The band work together as a unit more than ever, my personal shout out being Trampled, which really shows how tight the group are, and the incredible ballad Ten Years Gone, where Page excels with his layered “guitar army”.
The music magazines, yet again (surprise surprise) still found ways to critique Zeppelin at every move they made. Rolling Stone’s Jim Miller called Page a “facile soloist”, claiming he was “playing off stock riffs”. He says Kashmir and In My Time Of Dying “succumb to monotony”, claims Robert Plant’s vocals on The Rover are “indefinite”, and Ten Years Gone (Page’s fourteen guitar miracle) is “a fragmentary composition that never quite jells”, calling one particular run in the song “more stilted than stately”.

Presence (31 March 1976) was one of the worst for it (my original choice, in fact). With its stripped down sound of just drums, guitar, bass, and vocals, the album uses no acoustic guitar (save for one rhythm track on Candy Store Rock). Naturally, the album is bullied mercilessly by Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis. The tone of his writing implies that he doesn’t want to hate it, but can’t help doing so. He says “a few bars from one piece convince the listener he’s hearing the greatest of rock & roll, then the very next few place him in a nightmarish 1970 movie about deranged hippies”. Davis almost sounds sad that Zeppelin aren’t pumping out blues rock hit after blues rock hit like they were in the beginning. The listener has to accept how much the band has been through - they’re no longer young men just discovering America. They’ve been around the block a bit, and Robert recorded most of this album when he was confined to a wheelchair.
Despite the critical assault, however, the album is incredible. The ten minute opener, Achilles Last Stand, contains twenty six guitar tracks, and Page is incredibly (suitably) proud of the monster of a song. For Your Life marks the first time Page played his Fender Stratocaster for recording with the band, and Royal Orleans was penned about an incident which occurred with John Paul Jones when he went for a joint or two with a transvestite and fell asleep, setting his hotel room on fire. Page and Plant shine with their work on the blues standard, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, held together by Jones and Bonham’s devastating rhythm work. Candy Store Rock is a brilliant hats off to the 50s rock ’n’ roll of Elvis Presley’s day, while Hots On For Nowhere is written about Plant's time in Malibu, on which Page played his Stratocaster. The closing number, a nine minute blues jam titled Tea For One, was written by Plant as he sat in a café drinking tea for one.

The band’s final studio album, In Through The Out Door, was released on 15 August 1979. The response was awful. As Page was off his head on heroin for most of the recording sessions, it was left to Jones (an incredibly accomplished studio musician and arranger) to produce the record and ensure it was fully recorded in time. With Jones dominating the writing process, the songs were mostly keyboard dominated. From Page’s In The Evening with it’s immense intro penned by Jones, to the entirely keyboard Carouselambra. The closing track, I’m Gonna Crawl, is Page’s shining moment, stepping out from the fog to deliver a stunning solo that shows that even at his very lowest, Page still blows any other guitarist clean out of the water.
Rolling Stone destroyed the album upon release. Claiming Plant “was never a power as a lyric writer” and suggesting he can only write good melodies when Page gives him good riffs to base them off, and claiming he has an “appetite for inanity”, Charles M. Young debases the final attempt of Zeppelin’s to the third degree, going so far as to say that “best number is the one in which you can understand the least words” (referring, of course, to the slurred lyrical work of In The Evening).

In my opinion, the most misunderstood has to be (drum roll please) 1976’s Presence. Plant referred to the album as “a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do”. Though critics and audiences alike didn’t quite grasp what the band was trying to say at the time, it’s now revered as a masterpiece, packing the heavy metal of Achilles Last Stand, the bluesy Nobody’s Fault But Mine, and the slow jam that is Tea For One. All magnificent songs, but misunderstood nonetheless.

That’s my opinion, anyway. Make of that what you will.

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