What happens when the power goes out? When there’s no electricity to the instruments but the creativity still sparks? If you write an album acoustically you don’t take that material and try and amp it up. You let its soul ride out whole and pure. Risky business for most bands but when you are Led Zeppelin and you have the most eagerly awaited album of 1970 the pressure is massive.
Unsurprisingly for a band that the British music press never took to, the album was critically panned. At the time at least. Hindsight is always 20/20 and shock of all shocks the modern interpretation is far more accurate and complimentary. Advance orders in the US alone we’re over the million mark and it would be easy to assume that after I and II there would be more of the same. Led Zeppelin III was to buck the trend completely.
After a hellaciously long tour in 1969 which included the writing and recording of II, the band needed a proper break. Robert Plant had holidayed with his family in the beauty and tranquility of Snowdonia, and he and Jimmy Page found themselves at Bron Yr Aur not far from Machynlleth. No electricity and no running water was one half of the story. The other was that the band had taken to listening to a number of folk guitarists; Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, and Fred Gerlach. Possibly as a reaction to their own music that they had toured and played relentlessly, definitely because they had always been into that style of play, and also because Jimmy enjoyed playing about with a variety of acoustic arrangements and they both wanted to prove that Zeppelin could do any style they wished with aplomb.
The next stage was Headley Grange, where the band got back together and John Paul Jones and John Bonham could blend their influences. They had power this time. Presumably running water too, and they utilized the mobile recording studio owned by the Rolling Stones so they weren’t simply jamming and writing before uprooting again to a separate studio in another city. Bonham played his drums in the massive hall rather than being recorded in a small enclosed booth in a studio tucked away a few feet from the rush hour traffic of London.
The rural setting relaxed the band somewhat and they enjoyed it in contrast to the hotel hopping, grueling tour schedule and fitting in recording and writing where they could. Peter Grant had done much to tip the scales in favor of the bands that toured and Led Zeppelin broke the oppressive yoke of promoters taking huge swathes of the gate receipts. Tours were massively profitable even taking into account the cost of drugs, the vintage guitars Jimmy liked to buy and the inevitable hotel fees that came from throwing TVs into pools and trashing entire floors. Creativity needs room to breathe and scheduling good ideas to arrive when you have the time to sit and write, or booked studio time rarely works. It’s an argument that I and II are so similar because the material was largely there already. It’s not to say the well was dry when the time to write III rolled around but the desire to push the boundaries a bit and break the cycle of what they had been performing for two years was strong.
Page had dominated the creative process of the first two albums but this time Robert Plant took on the greater share of lyrical responsibility. He wrote every song bar Tangerine. John Paul Jones showed his polymath tendencies playing a far greater range of instruments including the mandolin, double bass, and various synthesizers. That being said they had to go and show their contrary nature right out the gate. Immigrant Song, the favored song of Marvel’s Thor, and based on tales of Viking raids on the western lands, was as heavy as they come. It was inspired by a brief stop in Iceland on tour but it can be well supposed it wasn’t written and played at Bron Yr Aur.
Friends bring it back into a more acoustic vibe and show elements of the bands Marrakech visits with a Morrocan vibe. Plant sounds more convincing with the vocals he’s written and this track is the first to step out of the comfort zone of the first two albums. It’s not the best example on the album of this newer approach but it pushes them into what could be more described as the established Led Zeppelin sound and their work as a band as opposed to individuals led by Jimmy.
Celebration Day follows in the same vein as Friends. Bonham’s drums carry the song and features so heavily it almost becomes a separate melody in itself. This is apt considering this was the title of the recording of the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute concert in 2007 which featured Jason Bonham instead of his late father.
Since I’ve Been Loving You is a reminder of what has gone before. It could have cropped up on either of I or II and would have fit like a glove. Or a particularly tight dragon jumpsuit in Jimmy’s case. Classic rolling blues abound and it replaced “I Can’t Quit You Baby” in the live shows. It definitely has a slightly more evolved feel than other more bluesy numbers on I and II, and a yardstick for the band starting to sound greater than the sum of its parts.
Out on the Tiles was written by John Bonham and it shows. It’s a dressed-down, rhythm section heavy track about a night out drinking. Classic Bonzo. It’s simple, does exactly what it says on the tin and serves as a bit of light relief before you flip it over to side two.
Gallows Pole is the real folk track being a changed arrangement of an old English folk song called “The Maid freed from the Gallows”. It was, as mentioned above, the Fred Gerlach version that inspired this as a choice, and typifies the type of music the band had been listening to as a detox from constant touring.
Tangerine, the only song without lyrics written by Plant, is next up. This side of the album is much more of the acoustic side if you will, and Tangerine sounds like a hippy song about a breakup. With a guitar riff straight out of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds blended with banjo and pedal steel guitar, it’s a song that hits the mission statement of this album perfectly. It’s a song of depth, complexity, and skill that wouldn’t be able to share the same street as anything from I or II.
That’s The Way is a Bron Yr Aur song to its roots. You can hear the idyllic countryside in every strum of the acoustic guitar. It’s a rarity that Led Zeppelin allows songs on film soundtracks but these features in the film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s loving tribute to his days as a writer for Rolling Stone following the likes of Zeppelin on tour around the states. This became a staple for whenever Zeppelin performed unplugged and you can absolutely see why. It’s a comfort blanket of a song for any Zepp fan and Lester Bangs called it “beautiful and genuinely moving”.
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp features a spelling error (Y not Yr) for some reason and was to be originally called “Jennings Farm Blues”. It’s a rolling, down-home, country blues style song that talks of walks down country lanes, connecting with nature, and rides along on a good old foot-stomping beat. Genuinely as far away from Immigrant Song as you could get on one album.
The end is a weird tribute or thank you to a friend of the band Roy Harper. It’s a reworking of Bukka White’s “Shake it on Down” and is as old school blues as you can get, pre-electric of course. Plant’s vocals coming through a vibrato amplifier gives it a sound of the otherworld, like the dead bluesmen, are communicating from the other side. It’s not the strongest way to end an album, to say the least. Especially considering how the barn doors were utterly ripped off with the opener.
In a nutshell, the album has a transitional feel. It’s a marker for the band moving out of one style into another and yet have their feet in both camps. For now.
This is the true beginning of the band as a group of four rather than Jimmy employing the other three as essentially session musicians. It paves the way for IV and the most successful album the band would release, and the split nature of one side being different in style and sound to the next is typified on a larger scale with Physical Graffiti that comes later.
Objectively it’s not the band’s finest album. It lacks the sense of purpose of I or II, the hits of IV, and the brilliance of Physical Graffiti. What we get a taste of here is a change in styles and an exploration of the range of Led Zeppelin. The fact that it’s the first foray into exploring their collective abilities means that necessarily they are yet to clean up some of the rough edges and really push themselves as they do later on in their career.
That being said, of the 1 million Americans that pre-ordered the album, it is likely that none were disappointed.
Article by Jim Clinch