By 1976, Led Zeppelin’s popularity was so immense that they could have released an album consisting of nothing but dodgy Christmas Carols and it would still have gone to number one. Such was the power of the group, that even with the arrival of the nascent Punk movement, some critics were beginning to lament at how these “dinosaurs” were continuing to outsell the majority of younger and more modern acts which were beginning to emerge.
After releasing the colossal Physical Graffiti, Robert Plant was involved in a serious car accident while holidaying in Greece, so when it came to recording their next album, Presence, he had to do so while confined to a wheelchair, something which he was naturally quite unhappy with, as he felt that it restricted his vocal performance. Jimmy Page meanwhile was imbibing near industrial amounts of alcohol along with an assortment of illicit substances, which perhaps goes some way to explain why the song writing wasn’t quite up to their usual standards. However, all that aside, at least performance wise the band is in top form, with some superhuman interplay between all four members, especially John Paul Jones (bass) and John Bonham (drums), and it is arguably that more than anything which lifts the album above what it otherwise might have been.
Opener “Achilles Last Stand” is another one of those take no prisoners balls to the wall numbers which Zep were famous for. The sheer sound and synergy of the group is simply awesome. Jones and Bonham pound away like warriors charging into battle, while Page provides some fire-power of his own. Of course Plant is the song’s bold and mystical narrator, offering up images of the “Sweet refrain/Soothes the soul and calms the pain/Oh Albion remains/Sleeping now to rise again”, where “The mighty arms of Atlas/Hold the heavens from the earth”. At ten minutes and twenty seconds it is indeed an epic and exhaustive journey, and if you’ve ever wanted to experience the effects of an earthquake in the comfort of your very own living room, you now know how.
Thankfully the second track “For Your Life” is a little more forgiving on the Earth’s crust, although at nearly six and a half minutes it probably begins to outstay its welcome by about the five-minute mark. Apparently the tune was to all extents created in the studio, perhaps the band thinking that they could pull off another “Black Dog”. And while the song does have its moments (Page’s playing is particularly lively), after “Achilles…” it remains little more than an agreeable distraction. The sprightly funk of “Royal Orleans” is reminiscent of some of the material on Houses of the Holy. And while it doesn’t quite recapture the spark of that earlier period, it’s a fun song all the same, with enormous energy only a band such as Zeppelin knew how to deliver.
Side two opens with the formidable cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. Whether Blind Willie actually wrote the song is a matter for historians, but Led Zeppelin manage to turn this traditional gospel blues tune into a blues-rock behemoth, powerful enough to shake Mount Sinai itself. Jones and Bonham are the mighty engine room, and when you throw in Plant and Page, the effects are devastating, especially Bonham, whose drums sound like heavy artillery, while Plant’s guitar cuts like a knife through your speakers. On “Candy Store Rock” the group reach back to their early Elvis Presley days, except that Presley never had a rhythm section like this behind him, and if he did, it would have no doubt frightened the shit out of him. This is one of Plant’s favourite songs from the album, and I’m not surprised, as it’s an enjoyable composition, and sounds as though it was just as equally pleasurable to record. “Hots On for Nowhere” is just that, all hot riffs and great playing but with nowhere to go. And as lacklustre as it might be song wise, it’s difficult to argue with the tremendous output of expressive vigour each member displays, as if their very hearts were pumping through the amplifiers.
The final track “Tea for One” begins with a riff many heavy metal guitarists would give their eye teeth for, and when Bonham joins in, you really know you’re in for an engaging journey. Comparisons to the song “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, off their third album, are common place amongst both fans and critics alike, and one would have to be nearly in a coma not to notice the similarity. But who can blame the band for not wanting to go back to their roots, and to what made them great in the first place. Personally I find it a fine way to end the LP. As broad as it is reflective, Presence offers a deep and philosophical insight into a band which had pretty much done it all and had nothing left to prove, all executed in an intelligent and honest way. For if there was one thing Led Zeppelin would never do, and that is knowingly mislead their devoted followers. If each member didn’t believe in what they were doing, then none of this material would ever have seen the light of day. And while what they chose to give us may not be as impressive as what came before, even in certain moments of mediocrity, the group still knew how to party, and prove that not only was rock and roll not dead, but that they had become the masters of their own destiny. No matter what the critics said.