Inevitably, after the re-lived joy of Led Zeppelin’s first six albums released in all their “deluxe” glory, we come to this, the final triptych in the Zep legend. Here’s where the story ends.
The final three offerings, one of which is a compilation of outtakes that spans their career, have never been held in the same regard as their predecessors. Presence had the unenviable task of being the follow up to 1975’s magnum opus Physical Graffiti, an album brimming with ideas and spread over two disks. It was at this point where an almost tangible decline started for the hitherto biggest band on planet Earth.
Recorded amid the turmoil of being exiled from their own country for tax reasons, and after Plant had suffered a serious injury in a car crash (recording his vocals from a wheelchair), it differed greatly from its predecessor – eschewing the varying styles and lush instrumentation for more straightforward ensemble performance. Four lads, jamming together, making the rock noise.
The stripped back performance reveals the tightness and vim in Bonham and Jones’ playing, particularly the album opener ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’, where Jones’ high-end plucking propels the tempo of the track. While ‘Royal Orleans’ grooves with the rawness of Bonham’s drums, and Page pulls out the old blues idioms with the epic ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, the rest of album, rushed and exhausted sounding, is a shade of grey on the otherwise vibrant Zep spectrum. ‘Tea For One’ is an inexplicably wan facsimile of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ and Plant especially hated the process – seated and recuperating as he was throughout – and at times it shows.
If Zep thought they had problems going in to record Presence, they were nothing compared to those that preceded the recording of their next studio album, In Through The Out Door. During the US tour of 1977, Plant received the devastating news that his five year old son, Karac, had died suddenly of a viral infection. The tour was cancelled, and Plant returned to his family, adamant at the time that he was finished with rock and roll, going so far as to seriously consider a new career in education.
During this time, it was Bonzo Bonham who was there for Plant, something Plant himself attributes to Bonham’s Northern-ness. Page, Jones and manager Peter Grant failed to even turn up to Karac’s funeral, creating serious tension within the group and in order to keep the band going, Page had to admit to the grieving frontman that without him, Led Zeppelin couldn’t exist. As if to prove the point, In Through The Out Door featured less Jimmy Page than ever before and instead was driven by Plant’s vocals and Jones’s various keyboards.
Page had his own problems at the time. He was, according to tour manager Richard Cole, in the midst of heroin addiction. Page has never admitted to an addiction, although he has said that drugs were very much part of the band, and that cocaine had helped with the swift recording of Presence. Rumours abound that Page’s lack of ostensible input into In Through The Out Door was a result of his “addiction”, rumours that he has refuted, claiming that his main job was as producer. Who knows? What’s clearer is that Bonzo was at this stage in the throes of his own alcoholism, and unchecked, it would eventually lead to his death. His influence is notably muted.
Despite all this, In Through The Out Door does not sound like an insular or difficult album. The sharpness of Jones’s synths helps cut through the fug, and keeps things moving. Like old times, they put various musical tropes through their paces, though not always successfully. The countrified stomp of ‘Hot Dog’ fails to be quite as charming as it thinks, and Page’s guitar work is uneven throughout. It sounds like The Band warming up. The odd samba of ‘Fool In The Rain’ doesn’t work. It’s incongruous and weird, out of place even on this melange of a record. But there are moments of triumph. ‘In The Evening’ could open any Zeppelin record (post ‘III), and ‘South Bound Suarez’ has an infectious jaunt.
In the context of the record itself, ‘Carouselambra’ is the standout. But even in the context of their entire career, it’s still special. It features Bonzo’s last great drum performance. The stabbing synth sound would be borrowed from heavily during the next decade, by dodgy hair metal bands, mostly.
Page had ceded ground to Plant in his attempts to keep Zep a going concern. The result was an album he didn’t particularly rate. It was too soft for Jimmy’s tastes. He went so far as to claim that ‘All My Love’, Plant’s paean to his recently deceased son to be “not us” in an interview in 1998. You get the impression that Page is somehow stuck there, in 1980, having appeased Plant and before Bonzo died, plotting Led Zeppelin’s next step. More riffs. More loud. More guitar. More like the Zeppelin of old. It didn’t happen, as John Henry Bonham was found dead on September 25th 1980, after a day of rehearsals and booze. Bonzo, 32 at the time, had three pints of vodka in his system and choked on his own vomit as he slept. The group disbanded, rather than carry on. Enervated by touring and drugs and death, it seemed the natural reaction to the loss of their friend and drummer. Much to Page’s chagrin, you’d think, In Through the Out Door was to be Led Zeppelin’s last album.