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The Freedom of Music: Presence 35 Years On

April 10th, 2011


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“Their first two albums are OK,” said Rick, a casual friend who was older and patiently explaining Led Zeppelin to me. “3 is great, 4 is the best, the next two good as well.”

It was 1980, and I had just mentioned that Led Zeppelin where the greatest band in the world. “Presence is crap, In Through The Out Door I never even bothered listening too.”imgp1295

I cringed. “I’m not so sure about Presence being crap,” I said.

“Don’t tell me I don’t understand it,” he interrupted me sharply. “I was there, I bought it on the first day. I understand it, and it’s crap.”

The fact is, it’s not that I disagreed with him, but I didn’t agree either. “I wasn’t going to say that,” I answered him defensively. “I don’t really like it either, but off hand, I don’t know why I don’t like it.”

It was as true as far as it goes. Why didn’t I like it? I couldn’t think of a song I didn’t like. Sure Achilles Last Stand was 10 minutes long, and who did 10 minute songs anymore? So too was Tea For One, which was a pale imitation of Since I’ve Been Loving You anyway. For Your Life was a hard song to grasp: it was heavy handed with lots of stops and time changes throughout.

On the other hand Royal Orleans is a great rocker, Hots on for Nowhere and Candy Store Rock are both good fun rock and roll. And Nobody’s Fault But Mine was destined to be a classic, that was obvious even then.

So why the ambivalence? What’s not to like?

I suspect the answer is that Presence was a dark album. It was heavy not musically, but in character. It weighed on you, almost oppressively. That means, I’m sorry to say Rick, that if you don’t understand it, you will never get it.

Presence, however, has aged well. Knowing what we know now, the darkness that was beginning to surround that band, it’s easier to understand Presence. No longer being affected by current styles, the length of a song is not so important. Thus, we return to the point, what’s not to like?

Achilles Last Stand is an epic masterwork: Jimmy Page at his very best, both creatively and as a guitar player. His layered lines, chromatic runs and one of the best guitar solos of all time all contribute. The unbelievable rhythm section, Jones and Bonham simply pounding behind Page’s layers, is a tour de force. Lyrically, Achilles Last Stand is brilliant. Robert Plant’s sense of humour, which baffles and frustrates fans to this day, is all over this elegant and poetic opus.

The year before Presence had been a tough one for Led Zeppelin. Their 1975 American tour didn’t go as well as hoped, drugs had crept into the Zeppelin family and were taking their toll. From the balcony of the Hyatt House hotel in Los Angeles, Plant yelled out during a photo shoot, “I am a golden God.” The remark was well reported and much maligned. After returning in triumph to England with five nights at the Royal Albert Hall, Plant had a car accident on vacation in Greece. He suffered a severely broken ankle while his wife suffered life threatening injuries. That’s the backstory behind Achilles Last Stand, Plant’s ode to himself, the golden God with the broken ankle.

For Your Life is, as noted earlier, a musically complex song. Stops and starts with time changes throughout, set to a dirge tempo that makes it ponderously heavy. It is a hard song to like: not a bad song, possibly even a great song, but inaccessible on casual listening. A song about drug addiction, couched in Plant’s more usual sexual innuendo, it is a song that reveals itself upon repetitive listening.

For it’s heaviness, Presence has a group of songs that are almost pop. Heavy handed and demanding, yes, but with definite pop sensibilities. Royal Orleans, about bassist John Paul Jones encounter with a transvestite at the Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans is the first of these. The other two, Candy Store Rock and Hots on for Nowhere center the second side. Candy Store Rock is a 50’s style straight up rock and roll number. Hots on for Nowhere features one of my favorite lines in a Led Zeppelin song:

(On the) corner of Bleeker and nowhere,
In the land of not quite day…

Every time I go to New York, I can’t help wandering down to Bleeker Street and singing this line to myself.

Those two songs are sandwiched between some standard blues, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Tea for One. Tea for One is an original Led Zeppelin slow blues in the style of Since I’ve Been Loving You. Written by Plant in a New York hotel while on tour, Tea for One has a literal meaning: the lonely Plant, away from his family.

Nobody’s Fault But Mine is an old blues that has been covered by many artists since the 1960s. Other than the title and lyrics, Led Zeppelin’s version is unrecognizable as the original.

Presence, the first Led Zeppelin album without an acoustic guitar son, was a backwards album for Led Zeppelin. When it was released 35 years ago this week, the critics liked it, the fans less so. Every previous Led Zeppelin album had been received opposite to that: loved by the fans, hated by critics.

It has also aged very well, improving on listening through the years. A powerful, dynamic album, it was Led Zeppelin at their best. It has aged well and has become over the years, my personal favourite Led Zeppelin album.

No Rick, it is not crap and yes, if you just understood it you would know that.

The Freedom of Music, The Mighty Zep ,

  1. April 10th, 2011 at 12:42 | #1

    When it first came out I didn’t like it all and to be honest i have not listened to it since then. I guess i am going to have to give it another listen, after all it has to have aged better than most STYX albums.

  2. April 10th, 2011 at 19:37 | #2

    Listen to Achilles three or four times Jim, it’s truly an amazing piece. Even better, find a live version of it, it really came out how great a song it was live. Once you have your head around Achilles Last Stand, the rest of the album comes easier.

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