Led Zeppelin were enduring a period meant to be spent celebrating their mid-’70s successes that instead had turned into a maze of tax issues, injury and drug use.
They pushed forward, writing and recording an emotion-packed seventh album that returned the group to its hard-blues roots. This focus on urgency ran counter to the sense of experimentalism that drove their more recent albums, but there didn’t seem to be any other way.
In some ways, nothing was going right. They wrote in Malibu and recorded in Germany, since the group had become tax exiles from their native U.K. Robert Plant arrived for the sessions in a wheelchair, while still recovering from a scary automobile crash in Greece. When time grew short, Jimmy Page was forced into a marathon of dubbing and mixing.
“Nobody else really came up with song ideas,” the guitarist said in Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page. “It was really up to me to come up with all the riffs, which is probably why [the songs were] guitar-heavy. But I don’t blame anybody. We were all kind of down.”
Pushed up against a deadline, they’d finish recording and mixing Presence in less than 20 days, the fastest any record had come together since Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut. The Rolling Stones had booked the same Musicland studio in Munich with their own time constraints: This was the Black and Blue era, when the band was auditioning replacements for Mick Taylor. That meant Page had to spend 14 hours straight in the studio at one point.
The results arrived like an uppercut meant to knock back personal issues that surrounded the band, but also time and timelines. Led Zeppelin never again sounded this fiercely focused. Or this fierce, period.
“Presence was pure anxiety and emotion,” Page told Rolling Stone in 2006. “We didn’t know if we’d ever be able to play in the same way again. It might have been a very dramatic change, if the worst had happened to Robert. Presence is our best in terms of uninterrupted emotion.”
Along the way, however, John Paul Jones receded into the musical background. He was moving toward a breakthrough on the Yamaha GX-1 synth, something that would define the next Zeppelin album, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. But in the meantime, his quieter demeanor served to hardened the album’s edges.
The three-times platinum Presence shipped gold in the U.K., and topped the U.S. chart a week later. But it seemed to have become too personal a project, and only two songs – “Achilles Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – were ever performed onstage before Led Zeppelin’s 1980 split.
Here’s a deeper dive into those tracks, as well as the five additional songs that make up Presence.
“Achilles Last Stand”
Plant alluded to Zeppelin’s tax-exile status in the song’s opening line, the first hint at how autobiographical Presence would become: “It was an April morning when they told us we should go, and as I turned to you, you smiled at me, how could we say no.”
He and Page had traveled to Morocco in the summer of 1975, drinking in exotic local settings and music that inspired the guitar parts – and some of Plant’s more esoteric musings on this track. But Plant’s working name for it (“The Wheelchair Song”) served as a sad admission. He also ultimately chose a title that winked at his car accident, which severely injured his ankle: Achilles, a hero of the Trojan War, was brought down by an arrow to the heel.
A one-of-a-kind Led Zeppelin studio project was underway. “There won’t be another album like it, put it like that,” Plant told Circus magazine at the time. “It was a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do.”
Part of Page’s brisk post-production work included piling up no less than six guitars on “Achilles Last Stand.” “It was so focused,” Page said of the sessions in a 2015 talk with the Toronto Sun. “And it was defiant, if you like, to the set of circumstances.”
Jones, in a rare spotlight moment, added a distinctive alembic eight-string bass line. But they were no match for John Bonham, whose eruptive drum work serves as the lead instrument for roughly the first half of “Achilles Last Stand.” It’s a crowning musical achievement that opened the door for the kind of shifting time signatures that would dominate the next wave of British heavy metal.
“For Your Life”
Bonham was still front and center, unleashing monstrous but surprisingly limber polyrhythms on this heavy studio improv. With little unused material in hand, the narrative also dealt in the here and now. In fact, “For Your Life” was mostly arranged at Musicland, though it remained a furious attack on the now-empty excesses of the Los Angeles-era setting where Plant and Page composed the bulk of Presence.
Plant darkly references plasticine relationships and rampant drug use that were so widespread in the “city of the damned.” He later described “For Your Life” as “a bitter treaty with rock ‘n’ roll.” Page matches Plant’s venomous attitude strum for angry strum.
Six of the seven songs on Presence were composed by Plant and Page, while the rumbling stop-start “Royal Orleans” is credited to all four members. In Led Zeppelin: The ‘Tight but Loose’ Files, Page said moments like this “proved to us once and for all that there was no reason for us to split up. I can’t think of many groups who have been going as long as we have, [and] who still have that spontaneity about them.”
Lyrically, Plant returns to raucous times out on the concert trail, with a title that references a signature French Quarter inn and a narrative that recounts a particularly salacious road story. “We rolled a joint or two, and I fell asleep and set fire to the hotel room, as you do,” Jones told Mojo in 2007, with a laugh. “And when I woke up, it was full of firemen!”
Still, there’s something almost wistful in the retelling by a hobbled and homebound Plant.
“Nobody’s Fault but Mine”
In the 1928 original, Blind Willie Johnson worried that his sightlessness would draw the wrath of God, since he’d been rendered unable to read the Bible. Plant and Page transformed “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” into the stammering retelling of their own fall from grace.
If all of this sounds rather nostalgic, too, there’s no indication in the music: Plant’s positively vitriolic harmonica solo is anything but introspective. “‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine,'” he admitted in Jon Bream’s Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin, “was very spiky – a lot of clinched teeth.”
Meanwhile, Page seemed to have based this new arrangement on an acoustic version released in the late-’60s by the late John Renbourn. But he took things up a notch – actually several notches – by triple-tracking the intro, using a phaser while playing one guitar an octave higher. A song that can came off at times like a loose jam was actually a carefully constructed bit of choreography.
“Candy Store Rock”
Led Zeppelin had been carrying around the seeds of this song since their Houses of the Holy dates. Back then, they’d dabble in an improvisation during “Over the Hills and Far Away” that now found a home as the middle section of the ’50s-influenced “Candy Store Rock.”
Plant’s echo-heavy rockabilly approach is in tribute to Ral Donner, an unabashed Elvis Presley clone, and a needed moment of levity on such a serrated, brutally honest album. For Plant, it represented another kind of push back against the fates.
“Against the odds, sitting in a fucking chair, pushed everywhere for months and months, we were still able to look the devil in the eye and say: ‘We’re as strong as you and stronger, and we should not only write, we should record,'” Plant told Creem at the time. “I took a very good, close scrutiny of myself and transcended the death vibe – and now I’m here again.”
Though clearly an odd man out, “Candy Store Rock” ultimately points to the throwback sensibility that powered succeeding post-Zeppelin projects like 1984’s The Honeydrippers: Volume One and 2002’s Dreamland.
“Hots On for Nowhere”
One of the most hooky Led Zeppelin moments ever, “Hots On for Nowhere” also developed from an earlier scrap of an idea. Page’s riff appeared on the then-unreleased “Walter’s Walk,” but otherwise the track was the product – both literally and figuratively – of time spent in Malibu.
Plant clearly felt abandoned during his time of convalescence, mentioning friends who “give me their shoulder” or (worse) “who will give me fuck all.” No surprise that he’d subsequently describe Presence as “really like a cry of survival.”
Page then quickly crafted a tough, if customary, solo – that is, until he unleashed an eye-popping twang in the middle, courtesy of the tremolo arm on a Lake Placid Stratocaster that was reportedly borrowed from Gene Parsons of the Byrds. The song’s odd time signature was later refashioned for “Pride and Joy,” from 1993’s Coverdale/Page collaboration. Page also returned to “Hots On for Nowhere” during U.S. tour dates with the Black Crowes in 2000.
“Tea for One”
Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut found Page in firm control, as the band rekindled the purpose and fire of blues without resorting to the genre’s basic structures. Same here, as Led Zeppelin end a hard-charging album in the only way they could: with a harrowing exploration into the depths of alienation while separated from family.
“I was just sitting in that wheelchair and getting morose,” Plant later admitted. “‘Tea for One’ was very personal. I couldn’t get back to the woman and children I loved. It was like, Is this rock ’n’ roll thing really anything at all?”
Loose early tries found Plant quoting Willie Dixon and Cab Calloway, before the band leveled it up into a menacing blues. That meant a return to brutally honest autobiographical themes, while a double-tracked Page amplified every anguished cry.
“All our pent-up energy and passion went into making it,” Page said of Presence in Led Zeppelin: The ‘Tight but Loose’ Files. “That’s why there was no acoustic material there. The mechanism was perfectly oiled. We started screaming in rehearsals and never stopped.”
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