By the end of their stay at Headley they had 17 tracks near completion. Of those that would make the final cut was added one final acoustic number: a fulsome reworking of a centuries-old English folk song called “The Maid Freed From The Gallows,” re-titled here as “Gallows Pole,” a modern version of which Page had first heard sung by Dorris Henderson. A black American singer of Appalachian mountain songs whose 1965 debut single, a soulful version of Paul Simon’s “The Leaves That Are Green,” had been uneventful but whose B-side, a new arrangement of “The Maid…” that Henderson had dubbed “Hangman,” had impressed the young guitarist.
Credited on “Led Zeppelin III” as ‘Trad arrangement: Page, Plant’, it is usually cited as drawing its main inspiration from the Leadbelly arrangement “Gallis Tree”; Page himself has sometimes claimed his inspiration actually came from a Fred Gerlach album of Leadbelly covers, “12 String Guitar,” which also featured a version of the track. A cursory listen of the ancient original, though, dispels all doubt. Not to mention the lyrics, which Plant stays immensely faithful to.
To the count of fully-amped up numbers, along with “Immigrant Song,”were added two upbeat, more typically Zep-sounding head-shakers in “Celebration Day” and “Out On The Tiles” (the latter originally titled “The Bathroom Song” because Bonham joked the drums sounded like they recorded them in the bathroom). Most significant though was a lengthy track now recognized as one of Zeppelin’s most finely wrought ballads: the exquisite, BB King-style blues, “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
They had been working on an arrangement of the song for many months, in fact, playing it live in truncated form at Bath and other shows, but never quite able to resolve the problem of how to finish it in the studio. Now with the clock ticking to the start of their next US tour, Plant drew on his new Van Morrison-style influences for a scatted vocal that was both moving and edgy. You can hear Bonham’s bass-drum pedal squeaking on the track, over a sumptuous bed of jazz-inflected keyboards from Jones, and – the piece-de-resistance – a truly spine-tingling guitar solo from Page.
Former tape-op Richard Digby Smith recalled watching Plant record his vocal. “He was so passionate. Lived every line. What you got on the record is what happened. His only preparation was a [joint] and a couple of shots of Jack Daniel’s… I remember Pagey pushing him, ‘Let’s try the outro chorus again, improvise a bit more’.” There was, he said, “a hugeness about everything Zeppelin did. I mean, look behind you and there was Peter Grant sitting on the sofa – the whole sofa.”
For all its finer points, however, “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” like so many of Zeppelin’s best-known songs, later became the subject of plagiarism claims. And, as in many of these cases, they turned out to be at least partly justified. The track in question this time was an unaccredited blues jam by Moby Grape titled “Never,” from the bonus “Grape Jam” disc that came with debut album, “Wow,” in 1968. One of Plant’s favorite San Franciscan outfits of the era, he was clearly acquainted with “Never.” The opening lines of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” – “Working from seven to eleven every night, it really makes life a drag, I don’t think that’s right” – are almost identical to those on “Never”: “Working from eleven to seven every night, ought to make life a drag, yeah, and I know that ain’t right.” Other similar vocal extrapolations follow. There are also clear echoes in the music. The big difference is that while the Grape mosey around with their jam, Page turns Zeppelin’s into a stately epic.
With the album still unfinished at the start of their next American tour, in Cincinnati on August 5, Page decided to enlist old friend Terry Manning to help him complete the final overdubs and all-important mix, jetting to Manning’s Ardent studios, in Memphis, between Zeppelin shows.
Manning recalls being impressed how Jimmy’s “loose approach,” as evinced by the tape-echo at the start of “Immigrant Song,” the accidental segue between “Friends” and “Celebration Day” and the muffled voices occasionally audible; what these days would be characterized as ‘lo-fi’.
Says Manning: “Jimmy was an incredibly insightful, true musical genius, in my opinion – very little happened by accident. Yes, there would be the occasional take that you can’t repeat so you go with that but it did take the insight to know that. He studied everything. When it says ‘produced by Jimmy Page’ it seriously was. He asked me, ‘What do you think about leaving the beginning of the
‘Celebration Day’ thing on?” (Referring to the sound of Bonham shouting ‘F*ck!’) “No one ever seemed to pick up on it. But he said, ‘That’s not why I wanna leave it, not cos that’s cool. I like the sonic texture of everything. I like the feel that you’re really there’. We really talked all that through.”
It was also Manning who would help Page add something that has since gone down in Zeppelin folklore: a scratched message in the run-out grooves of the original vinyl.
“Working with Big Star, we had added some messages of our own on there,” Manning recalls. “I mentioned this to Jimmy and said, ‘Anything you wanna write?’ and he said, ‘Ooh, yeah…’” Because of the enormous quantities of Zeppelin albums the record company would need to fulfil its advance orders, two masters of the finished album were actually made. Manning recalls how Page came up with messages for each of the four sides.
“We’d been talking about the Aleister Crowley thing, so he said ‘Give me a few minutes’, and he sat down and he thought and he scribbled some things out and he finally came up with ‘Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law’ and ‘So Mote It Be’ and one other one which I’ve forgotten.”
Whatever they were, it’s the ones Manning remembers that have now become the most famous. Says Manning, “Once he’d figured out what he wanted to say, I took this little metal pencil-like thing and wrote them very carefully, because if you drop that thing you’ve ruined your master. You can’t touch the grooves, you have to lean over. Very difficult to do, that’s why they don’t really like you doing that. But we did it.”
He laughingly recalls how, “After we had written them we had the biggest laugh in the world. It was such a funny joke. We said, ‘Ha ha, maybe some day collectors will be trying to buy both sets so they can have everything. Ha ha ha! That’s hilarious; no one would ever do that!’”
Something else the album is chiefly remembered for now is its remarkable gatefold sleeve. Designed by an old art school pal of Jimmy’s, named simply Zacron, who had been asked to come up with something that suggested the more reflective quality of the music therein. In response, Zacron delivered a frankly baffling, if colorful, collection of apparently random images on a white background – butterflies, stars, zeppelins, strange smudges. All contained on a rotatable inner disc card, or volvelle, based on crop rotation charts, onto which were scrawled more enigmatic images, plus single pictures of the four band members.
Now regarded as a work of art in its own, Page admits he wasn’t exactly bowled over with the sleeve when he first saw it. Zacron had “disappeared off with it… I thought it looked very teeny-bopperish – little chunks of corn and nonsense like that.”
Released on October 9, 1970, “Led Zeppelin III” was already at No. 1 in the US album chart when reviewers began pouring scorn on it. Jimmy told me: “Even the record company said, ‘But there’s no “Whole Lotta Love” on it.’ We said, ‘That’s right, there was never meant to be!’” For Page it was simple: “All of the albums were a reflection of what we were doing, how we were living, or where we were, at that point in time. I mean, geographically where we were as well as musically. So, basically, you’ve got the idea of what [the third album] was. We were living-in – first at the cottage then at Headley Grange – and it was a question of getting up and kicking it off, getting the ball rolling, and getting the tape running.”
Even Zep fans were surprised by the album, and though it would eventually sell more than six million copies in the US it remains one of weakest sellers in the Zeppelin canon. By the beginning of 1971 it had vanished from the Top 40.
Nevertheless, it was an outstanding achievement: a combination of Page’s occult blues and Plant’s swirling Welsh mists; the first proof that – unlike contemporaries like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple – there was more to Led Zeppelin than anyone could possibly have imagined; going a long way to cementing their reputation beyond the heavy metal audience; the cornerstone of a legend that continues to live on long after others have been extinguished by recycled ideas and faltering line-ups.
Or as Jimmy Page would later tell me: “People said we’d blown it not coming up with another album like the second one. But in some ways, the third album was the real beginning of the band.”
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