Rescuing Led Zeppelin's 'Presence' from the bargain bin
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Winding up on a week-long kick for an artist is always an interesting experience. Moving through the ups and downs of a catalog, analyzing phases and reveling in musical history is one of the perks of being a fan with any kind of time to spare.
And being a fan of Led Zeppelin, that means moving through hours of brilliance when the mood strikes. It also leads listeners down the path of less-heralded albums, and when Zeppelin is considered, that nearly always means their seventh record, 1976’s Presence.
The album is something of a punchline among my record-collecting friends and myself, a staple of every flea market, yard sale and record store bargain bin, always listed for less than $10 and, simply, always there. It was probably the first record I found when I began my mission to find every Zeppelin record on vinyl, and I could have had 30 copies if I just kept buying it every time I found a good one.
It also has the bad luck of following an incredible string of six incendiary albums, from Led Zeppelin to the sprawling genius of Physical Graffiti, 14 sides of vinyl that spawned enough copycat bands and late-night high school arguments to fill five planets. After all that, all the repeated spins of “When the Levee Breaks” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Stairway to Heaven,” all the mental flexibility needed to process just how much was happening in the space between Led Zeppelin III and Houses of the Holy, this record, Presence, didn’t stand a chance.
But it’s rather unfair to dismiss the album in this way. Considering the circumstances that preceded its recording, or simply taking in the music in a vacuum, Presence should stand on its own as a fantastic work. Truly, just putting on the album, without pretense, and allowing the music to hold court is something of an experience.
Try to process what the band was going through at the time of this recording. They had recently finished a world tour and were still in the process of readying their concert film and soundtrack album, The Song Remains the Same, and were coming off a seven-year run of work that had been a nearly constant cycle of writing, recording and touring. All the while, they had become the biggest band in the world, rivaled only by the Rolling Stones as a draw of concert-goers, album sales and hysteria.
Because that wasn’t enough, singer Robert Plant had recently been sidelined by a broken ankle thanks to a car crash, scrawling lyrics while strung-up in bed to heal. Jimmy Page had been brainstorming concepts and composing guitar pieces along the way, before the four headed to Munich for a manic 18 November days of recording, capped by Page staying up for nearly 72 hours to record all the guitar overdubs and mix the entire record. Zeppelin usually took their time in recording, letting ideas and jams flow out organically and without regard to deadlines or schedules. Here, they let loose with what now serves as an amazing testament to what they were capable with their backs against the wall.
With or without knowing that this was the result of a frenetic process, the music itself stands on its own, paced as epic compositions buffered by shorter bursts of aggressive interplay. For the shorter numbers, “Hots on for Nowhere,” “Candy Store Rock” and “Royal Orleans” share a vibe in stutter-strut rock, sort of continuing on the style the band had pursued on “Houses of the Holy” or “The Rover” on Physical Graffiti. They thought enough to bring “For Your Life” and it’s unique stop-time motion out of the mothballs for their 2007 reunion concert, playing it live for the first time amidst a collection of well-defined classics.
Of course, the real meat here are the three epics. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a reclaimed blues from the Mississippi Delta, driven by an army of Page guitars and punctuated by Plant’s distorted harmonica. It kicks off side two, which closes with “Tea For One,” one of the better explorations of slow blues in the Zeppelin cannon. Those hours in the studio are revealed here, as Page’s tone and complexion are in full force. Both songs benefit from John Paul Jones and John Bonham’s heavy as heaven rhythm, which at this point was no secret. The bedrock they would lay at the feet of Page and Plant are what gave so many recordings their heavy majesty, and what separated Zeppelin from so many bands.
But the discussion begins and ends with “Achilles Last Stand,” a track that stands on Zeppelin’s shortlist for their greatest moment. Running slightly longer than 10 minutes, it’s a powerhouse that centers on Bonham’s powerhouse drums and is propelled by what sounds like 30 guitars stacked on top of one another by Page. Here, he takes his years of trials in guitar composition to its peak, creating a soundscape that sounds at once futuristic and timeless. Just on its own, it’s a testament to all that was great about the band, a tremendous display of grit and musicality that pushes through rapidly and endlessly. A friend of mine summed up this song and album best: “If Presence was just ‘Achilles Last Stand’ and ‘Hot Dog’ seven times, it’s still a five-star album.”
Fortunately, this is not a record that sits on 10 minutes of brilliance and pads it out with 30 of monkeys banging tambourines. Taken on its own, it’s a brilliant record that stands the test of time and contains more than a few moments of jaw-dropping genius.
That it tends to pale in comparison to the rest of the Zeppelin cannon is a testament to the strength and quality of the other records, and should not be a condemnation of the music here. Reality being what it is, though, this record isn’t hard to find, and typically, it won’t cost much to add it to the collection.
Nov. 12, 2012
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com