By Mick Wall
Led Zeppelin’s monumentally successful second album – simply titled “Led Zeppelin II” – had transformed them from promising hopefuls into fully-fledged superstars. The older, beard-stroking critics on Rolling Stone may not have gotten it, still too enthral to The Beatles and The Stones to take England’s latest hard-rocking exports even remotely as seriously, but the kids tuned into Zeppelin immediately. With monolithically heavy tracks like “Whole Lotta Love” and, from their first album, “Dazed And Confused now a staple of the hip new FM stations, for teenage, denim-clad, reefer-toking America, Zeppelin became the spearhead of a “second British invasion” that had begun with Cream and the Jeff Beck Group and would continue into the early 1970s with such no-quarter-giving rock goliaths as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Head-shaking, album-oriented outcasts from the pop mainstream, blasting out whiplash riffs and singing tripped-out anthems about war pigs, fireballs and witchy women that squeezed your lemon till the juice ran down your leg.
Had Zeppelin chosen to follow up its second album with more of the same, no one would have argued. Instead, Zep’s music took such an unexpected turn it resulted in an album that initially baffled all but their most ardent fans. Indeed, to this day “Led Zeppelin III” remains perhaps the most enigmatic of all the band’s albums: 10 tracks only one of which – the one-chord powerhouse wonder that is “Immigrant Song” — conforming to the previous heavy rock template; the rest an initially baffling but ultimately alluring amalgam of acoustic folk, west coast psychedelia, country rock, metropolitan blues, and that strange collusion of Celtic, Indian and Asian influences — what guitarist Jimmy Page called “My CIA” — unique to Zeppelin.
Until then the question was whether they would be able to come up with another “Whole Lotta Love”? But as Page later told me: “People that thought like that missed the point. The whole point was not to try and follow-up “Whole Lotta Love.” We recognized that it had been a milestone for us, but the idea was to try and do something different. To sum up where the band was now, not where it had been a year ago.”
Where the band was now – or where Page and vocalist Robert Plant were anyway – was halfway up a mountainside in Wales, the tiny principality that borders the west coast of England. Plant had told Page about a ramshackle 18th century cottage he remembered from a childhood vacation named Bron-Yr-Aur: Welsh for, variously, ‘golden hill’, ‘breast of gold’ or ‘hill of gold’, and pronounced Bron-raaar. Owned by a friend of his father’s and located a couple of miles outside the small market town of Machynlleth, Robert regaled Jimmy with tales of the mythical Welsh giant Idris Gawr, whose magical seat lay on nearby mountain Cader Idris, and how King Arthur had fought his final battle in nearby Ochr-yr-Bwlch.
So it was that in the spring of 1970 Page and Plant ended up together, with their partners – Charlotte and Maureen, respectively, plus Plant’s dog Strider and a couple of Zep roadies, Clive Coulson and Sandy Macgregor – living in the Welsh mountains. Both still under the influence of the debut album the year before from The Band, “Music from Big Pink,” named after the pink wooden house in Upstate New York it was made in, the idea of sitting before the fire, smoking weed and drinking the local cider, mulled by hot pokers, playing acoustic guitars and writing together was a compelling one for them.
It was also the first time they had actually sat and worked together. Plant had only begun contributing lyrics to Zeppelin on their second album – coming up with verses and lines as they interrupted constant touring to dash into a nearby studio and lay down a track or two. Working with Page at Bron-Yr-Aur would be completely different; a chance also for the two men to really get to know each other, away from the madness of life on the road.
“It was the tranquillity of the place that set the tone of the album,” Page recalled. “After all the heavy, intense vibe of touring which is reflected in the raw energy of the second album, it was just a totally different feeling.”
Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” which Robert was then obsessed with, was to be another influence on the new direction their songwriting took; similarly Joni Mitchell, who Jimmy had lately discovered and whose esoteric guitar tunings were almost a match for his own. Most of all, there was the influence of Crosby Stills & Nash, whose startling debut both men had been blown away by.
With no electricity, running water or sanitation, it was up to Coulson and Macgregor to fetch water from the stream and gather wood for a fire. At night, candles were the only light. “A bath was once a week in Machynlleth at the Owen Glendower pub,” Coulson remembered.
The songs came quickly, beginning with ‘Friends’, framed around some strange guitar scales Page had discovered on a previous trip to India, underpinned by a conga drum rhythm that recalled the opening stanza of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s “The Planets Suite.” Next to come was Plant’s summery “That’s The Way,” followed by an upbeat ode to their new stone dwelling, the misspelled “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” (the latter from an electric number originally titled “Jennings Farm Blues,” now transformed into a jug-band hoedown dedicated to Strider.