Led Zeppelin: Presence (Swan Song)
Sounds, 10 April 1976
AFTER THIS PLATTER had spun incessantly for an afternoon on the office phonogram I asked a non-Zep fan what he thought.
"Oh, it's okay I guess. They're just the best at what they do."
Well of course. But what they do is also the best. More than almost any other band they maintain the roughshod energy, vulgarity and spirit of rock 'n' roll that extends from Elvis' pelvis and Gene Vincent and Little Richard through the early Kinks and Yardbirds and Troggs ('Wild Thing' definitely helped pave the way). This album is a monument to that spirit.
The rumours were right: this album is unadulterated rock and roll. It's fantabulous.
The music is really basic and simple, almost every song an archetypal Zeppo riff, but while they've kept the basic framework, everything within has been stripped down, polished, and reassembled. The sound is monolithic, with a definite feel of the room they're in.
But within that hammer of sound is a lot of separation, Page building multi-guitar passages and bridges all over the place, and Plant sounding very upfront and audible until you start trying to listen to the words. With the exception of 'Achilles Last Stand' they're as buried as ever, though the understandable snippets sound intriguing.
But the real star of the show is Bonzo, who is dynamite. He's everwhere, bulldozing songs along mercilessly. Between him and Page... Whether it's due to being recorded so fast, or also because of their return to rock and roll's roots, this album is very reminiscent of the first album. The only song to break the mould is 'Achilles Last Stand', which opens the set.
If ever a song succeeds 'Stairway To Heaven' this is it. Opening with a low profile solo guitar it soon hits speed of sound stride, with all the Olympian grandeur the title implies. From the first bar Bonzo is incredible, storming and charging and generally carrying on like a madman. The pace doesn't let up for the entire ten minutes, dynamics building and falling away as Page builds up batteries of guitars, with some amazing twin leads, and Robert weaves a quite bizarre tale heavily influenced by his accident. This song is going to be a mother-fucker live.
'For Your Life' is the Zep we're basically familiar with. While Bonzo and John Paul Jones hold down a metronome rhythm Robert pouts and struts and Jimmy builds up the guitars again. Apart from subtle changes in tempo and the odd outburst from Page, the tune sticks very methodically to its riff.
'Royal Orleans' is the only song written by the group (the rest are Page-Plant), choosing this time to demonstrate their knowledge of funk. Again Bonzo is way out front, pushing things along with some very nice hi-speed hi-hat, supported by some great rhythm guitar chops. Robert gives a guided tour of sorts of New Orleans, and the band are very basic. This is a great dance tune.
Side two opens with another solo guitar excursion before hitting what might be called Zeppelin's Steamhammer Boogie Riff. Great powerhouse rock and roll and the break is just a treat, Plant screeching away on harp and Page and Bonzo ripping it all apart while J-P saws on a really groinal bass. This is the song that bedroom popstars will really be able to play along with, Robert doing lots of deep-echo 'oohs' and 'aahs' and the guitar very simple and spaced out, the drums a madman-drummer's delight.
'Candy Store Rock' is 'Lemon Song' circa 1976. Which is to say, more subtlety. That time it's Zep's Jump Blues Riff, the music very simple, Robert sounding like a cross between Ricky Nelson and Elvis with lots of heavily echoed "Baby, baby". Although the instrumentation is sparse, with very little overdubbing, the energy is terrific.
'Hots On For Nowhere' continues the energy. After 'Achilles' this is my favourite, with a great bouncing rhythm and some beautiful guitar work. Basically this tune is Jimmy's trip, building up from one guitar into an incredible flow of interweaving solos and bridges, shifting into overdrive with the most ridiculous twang. The whole time he sticks to the most basic rock and roll licks, ending with a great cliched false ending that works really well.
'Tea For One' is the eight minute blues that Page mentioned in the interview of a few weeks ago, saying he was really pleased with the way the band holds back and that his solos didn't fall into cliches. Naturally, he's right. Starting with yet another archetypal Zep mid-speeder the band suddenly slow into a relaxed, rolling blues highly reminiscent of the slow numbers on the first album. Page plays some magnificent guitar, again building up multiple guitars, and yes, the band just sit back and relax without once letting loose. I don't know if pleasant is the right word to describe a Led Zeppelin song, but that's what this song is.
As for the cover...This is probably Hipgnosis’ best in several years capturing the mysticism and uneasiness of their earlier covers (Saucerful, Elegy) while also being one of the funniest covers ever. Each of those scenes looks so incredibly weird, the situations and the intensity of the colour, and at the same looks incredibly ludicrous. Nice one.
Hmm, one thing I haven't seemed to mention is the rather awesome power that this record blasts out. In terms of urgency and aggression and an all-out attack on rock and roll, this is Zeppelin's best album yet. It sounds best really loud, with your head really close to the speakers.
© J Ingham, 2007