Presence by Led Zeppelin

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Presence by Led ZeppelinIn late 1975, Led Zeppelin had planned a world tour to capitalize of the phenomenal success of their latest album Physical Graffiti. The band was at the absolute zenith of their popularity with a string on top-selling albums going back to 1969. However, a serious car accident involving lead singer Robert Plant while he was vacationing on the island of Rhodes with his wife, made the tour impossible. Plant was confined to a wheelchair for nearly six months and this tilted the band towards writing and recording a new “unplanned” album. The result was Presence, the least successful album in the Zeppelin catalog commercially and one with very mixed reviews critically. However, Presence is the album that the band themselves consider to be their “most important”.

During his recovery period in Malibu, CA following the accident, Plant began to write some lyrics. He was soon joined by guitarist and producer Jimmy Page to further work on these compositions. When enough material had been written, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham were summoned to rehearsals in California. The band then migrated to Munich, Germany for recording, all with Plant still in a wheelchair. The studio was small, in a basement, and very difficult for Plant to work in. Further, the band found out that they had just 18 days for the entire production as the Rolling Stones had the very same studio booked for their next album, Black and Blue. As producer, Page pretty much stayed awake for the entire 18 days in order to complete the album in Munich.

The result is, perhaps, the most unusual Led Zeppelin album (although each of their albums are quite distinct). Page developed a cleaner, “twang-ier” guitar sound in contrast to his signature “crunch” riffs of earlier days. Bonham’s drumming is furious and strong with a sound extended from that on Physical Graffiti, while Jones continued his migration from a dynamic blues to that of a more standard rock bass player. As Plant himself admits, his vocals dynamics suffered a bit due to his confinement. Further, he was a bit upset with the band’s management for keeping him from his wife, who was also seriously injured in the car wreck and recovering back in England, mainly due to tax reasons. Still, Robert Plant at 50% is superior to most rock singers and his performance on Presence is far from embarrassing.

The album was completed on November 26, 1975, the day before Thanksgiving, and that American holiday was considered as the title for the album. This title was rejected in favor of “Presence”, a representative force surrounding the band. The cover artwork features various images of random people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped “object”, a sort of play on the space object in the film 2001.

 


Presence by Led Zeppelin
Released: March 31, 1976 (Swan Song)
Produced by: Jimmy Page
Recorded: Musicland Studios, Munich, November 1975
Side One Side Two
Achilles Last Stand
For Your Life
Royal Orleans
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Candy Store Rock
Hots On For Nowhere
Tea For One
Group Musicians
Robert Plant – Lead Vocals, Harmonica
Jimmy Page – Guitars
John Paul Jones – Bass
John Bonham – Drums & Percussion

 

Presence is the only Led Zeppelin album with neither acoustic or keyboard tracks, as the band made a concerted effort to forge and updated version of their earliest “raw” sound. This strategy succeeds well on the first side but is less successful on the second side as the three songs on the first side are far superior to the four on the second. Still, it is refreshing that the band never lost their capacity for experimentation even with this quickly rushed album.

Unlike most albums which tend to build towards an epic song late on either sides this album kicks off right away with “Achilles Last Stand”, the tour de force of Presence. The song starts with dreamy, flanged guitar intro by Page which gives way to a rapid trigger-like riff that gets variated throughout. It is a true journey of a song lead by Plant’s lyric and vocal telling of his misfortune in the land of the Greek heroes. One flaw with the song is that it lasts just a bit too long and becomes a little repetitive towards the end. It perhaps would have worked better as a 7-minute song than this 10½ minute goliath.

Led Zeppelin in 1976

This last point is magnified with the album’s closer “Tea For One”, another extended cut but with a lot less action. The truth is, the best part of this 9-plus-minute song is the first 21 seconds when the band does a riff completely out of context with the rest of the song, which is a slow and depressing diddy that wallows in misery and desperately cries for a kick into a higher gear at some point. Some have pointed to the shorter songs on the album as “filler”, but I believe the filler actually lies within the longer compositions themselves by virtue of repetitiveness. Which begs the question – if the band didn’t feel like they had enough material, why not add some older material like they had with Physical Graffiti? We know now that there were some fine, unreleased songs out there like “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “Poor Tom”, and “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?”

Royal Orleans by Led ZeppelinRounding out side one is a couple of unique Zeppelin gems. “For Your Life” is the quintessential Led Zeppelin song, filled with bluesy licks over a catchy riff and dynamic, much-improvised vocals by Plant belting out lyrics that are hard to decipher completely, but with a vibe “felt” to the bone. The song contains nice changes, an interesting bridge, and a precise, simple, and strong beat throughout by Bonham. “Royal Orleans” is a fun and funky tune allegedly retelling a story involving John Paul Jones and a transvestite.

Launching the second side, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, Plant’s guilt-ridden song about bad things befalling him (presumably the car wreck) due to his own actions. The song contains an excellent blues harp solo, unlike anything he had done since “When the Levee Breaks” on Led Zeppelin IV, five years earlier. It is the first of two distinct leads, followed by Page’s own bluesy guitar lead, combined these make up the best part of the song. Much like “Achilles”, this composition would be better if more succinct and less repetitive, but it is still a fine track.
 

 
The heart of the second side contains two fine sounding throwback songs. “Candy Store Rock” is an Elvis tribute, which uses the candy store as an analogy for sex in the same fashion that “Trampled Underfoot” used the car on the previous album. It is not a terrible listen but just a little disappointing in the minimalist approach of Page and Jones. Bonham, on the other hand plays a very interesting beat with entertaining variations throughout. “Hots On for Nowhere” is one of the forgotten gems of the Zeppelin catalog, a stop-start rockabilly riff and beat with some nice changes. It is a song with a very upbeat vibe despite the mainly depressing lyrics.

Presence did initially rush to #1 on the Billboard charts (probably due to the band’s popularity alone) but quickly fell and tracks from this album have rarely received airplay. Also, because of it being completely built in the studio, few songs from the album were played live on subsequent tours. Still, despite this initial subdued reception, Presence is an excellent listen that has held up well over the decades and cannot be overlooked by any true fans of Led Zeppelin today.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

5 thoughts on “Presence by Led Zeppelin”

  1. I think the Presence album is Zeppelin’s best. It’s a forgotten album. Just like the first album it was recorded in a short time frame. The critic refers to side two as filler tracks. I disagree. The entire album flows together. To this day it is my favorite rock album and favorite Zeppelin album. I lived outside of NYC when this album was released. It received a huge amount of airplay. It saw more airplay than Physical Graffiti.

  2. love love this album!

    …maybe my favorite Zep from start to finish. Holds up very well on repeated listens.

    At least twice a year I love to play the CD until I get sick of it. But its a tough one to get sick of. Its like being a chocoholic: cant get enough.

    I also grew up in a suburb of NYC and a lot of the songs from it were played on the radio, especially “achilles” and “nobodys fault”….also “candy store” & “royal Orleans” were played, just not as much.

    “for your life” is a song about the dangers of coke. find the lyrics on line. its all there as well as near the beginning of the song “c-c-coka-coka-k-kaine….” “try and fry it”

    “heard a cry for mercy in the city of the damned.”

    “fall on the ground…” ” ‘hello ground’ ”

    “faking it for your life” “do it if you wanna” call and response. good angel vs bad angel suggestions (being temped) for & against doing it. The guitar is wonderful: Twangorama!

    There is some kind of growl when he says “paying through the nose”….””crystal” is also mentioned somewhere.

    “Tea for One” has many GREAT guitar phrases/licks providing aural coloring throughout. You think its a bit slow because all of the other songs rock or swing but this is fantastic mid-1970s Led Zep blues….but with a bit of a psi-fi vibe to it. Don’t listen to it only once. I never noticed right away all of its good points. But once I got into it, I really enjoyed. Its not like the earlier slow blues songs, based off of more standard blues cords & sounds. More abstract and “modern” feeling to it. Like listening to british blues in a late 20th century Scandinavian living room :)

    ….a great vibe arrives when Plant signs…”to sing a song to you”…then bonhamn’s thud thud on the bass drum, guitar and bass lock into a low end groove & swagger….”this one is for we two”….”many hours slip into day”…”a minute seems like a lifetime…baby, when I feel this way”…. simply perfect.

    ….also some of the better songs are long and repetitious because you want to hang out and socialize to them. And after you are talking and hanging out, the song is still playing. Its very cool how the best grooves are repeated, and these sequences of sound, like in Kashmir, where the original riff & groove comes & then go away and then comes around again, especially in “Achilles Last Stand”and “Nobodys Fault”. These are some of Zeps most original grooves and playing so you really don’t mind if they go on long. More of a good thing :)

    Its called “Presence” for a reason: Its an album with a lot of vibe to it. Just a really cool CD to soak up. Its a glorious version of Zep being a garage band and jamming out….

    enjoy

  3. One I went thru my 2nd Zep phase it was 1985. I had went thru the first Zep phase in ’82 when I went out and bought ‘CODA’. Loved that record, and subsequently bought IV. Thats about all the Zep I had. I was going thru a HARDCORE WHO phase, and primarily listened to ONLY them when I was so inclined to ‘ROCK OUT’. Well, about that time I was hanging with a friend of a friend WHO was the BIGGEST ZEP fan I’d ever met!! He had this HUGE ZEP poster on his wall in his apartment. And like EVERY ZEP record including boots. So, we would go over after work the summer of ’85 and hang. Of course the tea would come out and then the music. ZEP!! He had a decent sound system and because his pad was in the basement, he could CRANK IT most nights!
    So, after going over to his house about 3 days a week and hanging for around 3-4 hours, and at least two of those hours being non stop ZEP, I was so hooked! For awhile (like a lot of dudes who rocked ZEP) I couldn’t get enough of ZEP II, and ‘Whole Lotta Love’. I listened to that EVERY day for at least a month. Anyhoo, so looking thru his LP’s one night I see ‘PRESENCE’. And I’m like “hey, whats this one?” And he goes “yeah, that album is ok…” I said ‘whatya mean..ok?” He goes ‘Well, it ZEP but it’s just not one I listen to that much”. So, I says “Can I borrow it?” And he goes “Bro, you know I never let anyone borrow my ZEP albums!” So, I was pretty downhearted. So, he goes well…’Shit, I guess you can borrow it, but man, IF YOU PUT ONE SCRATCH ON IT, I’ll KILL YA!!”
    I said, “Dude, gimme some respect man..” If you ever come check out my records, you’ll see NO SCRATCHES!!’ Se he let me borrow it.
    I listened to it a day or so later, by myself. I had some tea and put it on. WOW WOWOWOWOW!!!!
    Holy Shit!! I was blown away!! What I loved was it sounded so raw compared to other ZEP records. Almost a live one cut and we’re through type vibe. I know there was probably overdubs, but it didn’t sound like very many. Thats what I first loved about PRESENCE was the mix. It too is my favorite ZEP record. ‘Physical Graffitti’ maybe ZEP’s swan song, but PRESENCE is their opus.

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