For Led Zeppelin, third time was the charm

On the anniversary of the much-loved Led Zeppelin III album, Mick Wall lifts the veil of its mystique
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Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Photo courtesy Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Photo Agency

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Photo courtesy Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Photo Agency

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.

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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.

JIMMY PAGE was an incredibly insightful musician and very little happened by accident. Photo by Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Photo Agency

JIMMY PAGE was an incredibly insightful musician and very little happened by accident. Photo by Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Photo Agency

Another older song reinvented for the Bron-Yr-Aur vibe was the country-tinged “Tangerine,” with its stuttering, low-key intro: from an abandoned Yardbirds demo called “My Baby.” There were also a number of tunes begun now that would not become fully-formed Zeppelin tracks until much later, including fragmentary early sketches of “Stairway To Heaven,” “Over The Hills And Far Away,” “Down By The Seaside,” “The Rover,” “Poor Tom” and “Bron-Y-Aur.”

The song that best summed up the casual mood though was “That’s The Way,” which came from a ramble Page and Plant took one afternoon through the surrounding hills. Pausing while Robert rolled a joint, Jimmy – who’d carried his guitar on his back – began strumming some chords, extemporizing on a traditional folk song called “The Waggoners Lad.” With Robert singing along in a much quieter voice than usual, within minutes they had an arrangement they dubbed “The Boy Next Door” – renamed later, “That’s The Way.” Taking a cassette recorder from a knapsack, they recorded what they had then celebrated by sharing some cake, the sun beaming down on their peacefully stoned, upturned faces.

“We wrote those songs and walked and talked and thought and went off to the Abbey where they hid the Grail,” Plant would smilingly recall. “No matter how cute and comical it might be now to look back at that, it gave us so much energy, because we were really close to something. We believed. It was absolutely wonderful, and my heart was so light and happy. At that time, at that age, 1970 was like the biggest blue sky I ever saw.”

Returning to London, time was booked at Olympic Studios where Jones and Bonham joined them to record the ideas. The vibe was so different from that at Bron-Yr-Aur though they decamped once again – this time en masse – to a rundown mansion just outside London called Headley Grange, bringing the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio with them. Originally known as Headley Workhouse, it was a three-storey stone manor built in 1795 to “shelter the infirm, aged paupers, orphans or illegitimate children of Headley.”

While Jones found the reputedly haunted house “fairly horrible” and Bonham was simply “bored out of my mind” – that is, until he discovered the nearby pub – both Page and Plant were taken by the bleak mansion, soaking up the atmosphere as they had done in Wales. “It really looked to me as if it had hardly been lived in,” Page recalled. “It was quite interesting considering the tests we were going to put it to.” Plant: “We were living in this falling down mansion in the country. The mood was incredible.”

Paul Rodgers, whose band, Bad Company, would record their debut album at Headley a couple of years later, recalled a similar feeling. “It was definitely haunted,” he said, “All kinds of weird things going on. I remember this painting on the stairs. One day it would be of sheep, the next day you’d look and it would be wolves.”

To the acoustic-based material they had returned from Wales with were added some more amped-up numbers. The first, “Immigrant Song,” came about when the band temporarily broke off recording to play two shows in Iceland, in June, performing in a college gymnasium in Reykjavic. As Plant related, with the usual staff away on strike, “the students took over, and got the whole thing going and it was just amazing. When we played there it really did feel like we were inhabiting a parallel universe, quite apart from everything else, including the rock world of the times.”

The following weekend they headlined the Saturday night spot at the weekend-long Bath festival, in England. It was here Page first met folk troubadour and poetic roisterer Roy Harper. A typical English hippie-eccentric who would become firm friends with both Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (appearing on the latter’s “Wish You Were Here” album). Jimmy had been much taken by Harper’s debut album, “Blackpool.” When he spotted him wandering around at Bath he introduced himself. They hit it off immediately – Page would guest later that year on Harper’s “Stormcock” album – and when Zeppelin returned to Headley to continue work on the album they did so with the bones of another new song: “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” – a spontaneous jam piece initiated by Page one night channelling the febrile slide guitar of Bukka White’s “Shake ’Em On Down” (credited on the album sleeve to Charles Obscure),.

Harper recalls how, when, some months later, Page presented him with a finished copy of the album, he merely tucked it under his arm without paying too much attention. “Well, look at it then!” Page told him. “Very nice and all that,” said Roy. “So he went, ‘Look at it!’ Then I discovered “Hats off to Harper.” I was very touched.” As Jimmy would later tell me, “As far as I’m concerned, hats off to anybody who does what they think is right and refuses to sell out.”

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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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