By the time Led Zeppelin released their third album they could do no wrong. Their previous two records had been bigger than Ben Hur, whose blend of blues and rock and roll were of Promethean proportions. And had the Vikings ever invaded the Mississippi Delta, this is then perhaps the sort of music we might have heard.
Opening with the aggressive, rape and pillage riff of “Immigrant Song”, the band thrust their way through your stereo. Robert Plant is in full battle cry mode (in high falsetto of course), while the rest of his horde are getting ready to kill your dog and steal your wife (or in Zep’s case, snort all your cocaine and drink the cabinet dry). Obviously the group are providing us with a somewhat romanticised view of what was an extremely organised yet occasionally barbaric culture (which could describe pretty much the entire human race really). Nevertheless it’s one of the most powerful openers I’ve ever heard, and just like their Viking ancestors, the band would indeed go on to conquer “new lands’, namely America, and prove to be just as invincible.
“Friends” would mark the beginning of the group’s affair with Eastern music, something which would reach its zenith several years later with the epic “Kashmir”. Here things are more subdued but no less intense. The strings were written by John Paul Jones, Zeppelin’s secret weapon, and the magician of the band if you will, someone who could always be relied upon to pull a few extra rabbits out of the hat as and when required. Plant’s vocals are as ever at testicle-squeezing pitch, while Page’s open chord tuning is what gives the song the necessary drive as well as edge to make it work. A moog synthesiser leads the listener into the next track, “Celebration Day”, which begins with a frantic, bluesy guitar workout, before the rest of the band come crashing in like a wrecking ball through your living room.
Now while Zeppelin’s sound may have seemed reasonably modern (for its day), underneath all that high-powered testosterone was the blues. And “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is one of the bands finest in terms of that particular genre. Some critics have delicately commented on the over the top nature of Plant’s voice (histrionic maybe, but disingenuous? I doubt it), yet theatrics is what Zeppelin were all about in the first place and what set them apart from every other hard rock outfit in the world (i.e. Humble Pie, Masters Apprentices, Black Sabbath etc). What cannot be denied is that the song is nothing less than an exercise in sheer versatility. John Bonham’s drumming is not only forceful, but authoritative. And if Dave Grohl could trade his soul, I’m sure it would to be Bonham for a day. Such was the man’s skill at bringing the necessary thunder to what was already an impressive dynamic. “Out On the Tiles” finishes off side one in fine fashion, and remains another example of their ability to blend all four elements of the group to become the musical equivalent of a human tornado, replete with orgasmic high notes from the Norse God himself.
Turn the record and we have an almost completely different band. Here they want to show you their Celtic roots, and it’s no coincidence. The group had spent some time in Wales in a remote Cottage known as Bron-Yr-Aur, writing and composing (no doubt deriving inspiration from more than just the natural surroundings). “Gallows Pole” retains the intensity of the first side, but in a more acoustic setting. For such dark subject matter, the arrangement itself is rather upbeat and distracting from the topic Plant is supposedly lamenting about. But who’s complaining? For this is the sort of upbeat tune that would make both victim and executioner feel jolly. And on the topic of lamenting, we have the melancholic and reflective “Tangerine”, where Plant sings about some lost love, as Page twangs away on the pedal steel, pulling at the old heart-strings while he’s at it. About half way through we have a demonic yet melodic guitar solo, followed by some more of exquisite pedal steel to round things off. “That’s the Way” is another sad and sentimental piece, which finds Robert ruminating on another relationship gone awry, but for the listener in the best possible way, as the combination of mandolin and acoustic guitar is simply first class throughout. Page gets all bluegrass on “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp”, as Plant begins a bluesy sing-along while the others are gathered around the camp fire. There are some interesting time signatures as well as hand claps and castanets to give it that gypsy atmosphere. “Hats Off to Roy Harper” may well be the weakest link of the album, but the blues was always at the centre of any Rock band worth their weight in Mississippi water, from the Bluesbreakers to the Yardbirds, as well as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. The blues was also the blood supply which not only fuelled but provided inspiration, whether it be Bukka White or Robert Johnson. So why shouldn’t they finish things with an homage to their musical elders? It works for me.
Though Led Zeppelin III may not have been their most volcanic and hard-hitting, it was certainly the band’s most thoughtful to date, without which “Stairway to Heaven” might never have come into being, which is the one thing people seem to forget. That people don’t just suddenly walk from the Iron Age into the Bronze Age without a great deal of experimentation taking place. A transition if you will of musical styles and alchemic elements to see what works. And based on that principle, Led Zeppelin brought something magical into this world.