If you’ve been down in the Led Zeppelin trenches for as long as I have, and you’ve been through the flashy studio stuff and the more garage-rock sound of their precious few live albums (you knew I love live music, right?), then you’re probably able to step back and take a 30,000-foot view of the band’s output.
I’ve thought a lot about which Zeppelin album contains the most valuable musical content, and also which is my favorite. I still don’t really have an answer to either of these questions.
But one strong contender for my favorite album is 1976’s Presence, an uneven mix of good and just-okay rock songs.
Presence Is an Odd One Out
My immediate thought on the “Why Presence?” question is because it’s kind of an oddball among the group’s eight studio efforts (so is 1979’s In Through the Out Door, I guess, but in a different way).
Unlike with In Through the Out Door, Led Zeppelin founder and guitarist Jimmy Page was fully involved with creating Presence, so there really should be no excuses for sub-par work, right?
Well, not fully. Presence was made during a rocky time for the proclaimed biggest band in the 1970s world.
In August 1975, singer Robert Plant got into a bad car accident in Greece and was in a wheelchair for a while. Led Zeppelin therefore had to cancel a huge U.S. tour that had been scheduled to start soon.
The band was also forced out of England during this time due to being tax exiles, so they had to record the album away from home, in Munich, Germany.
With their sudden influx of free time, then, Led Zeppelin wrote and recorded a new album, Presence, with Plant singing it all from his wheelchair.
So, this thing came out in early 1976 to pretty good reviews and sales, but those sales soon dried up, and the record ultimately became the band’s lowest seller.
Now, my question is: why does Presence feel like such a drop-off from Led Zeppelin’s previously lofty work, such as the amazing 1975 double album Physical Graffiti?
The Songs Are Mostly Forgettable
Page wanted Presence to be more of a straightforward rock album to distinguish it from the blends of electric rock and acoustic ballads of previous records. So it’s a guitar-heavy album and has some fantastic moments, but for the most part, the songs seem rushed and messy.
The ten-minute “Achilles Last Stand” is as strong an opener as Led Zeppelin ever did, with its numerous musical changes and mythical, travel-based lyrics. But then we drop into mediocre territory with deep, deep cuts such as “For Your Life” and “Royal Orleans.”
I’ve listened to this album many times, but I can’t easily hum these tunes or tell you what they’re about. I guess “clunky” is how I’d describe them.
There’s another flash of greatness in the band’s cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” an old gospel blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. Fans consider this one a minor Zeppelin classic, right? It’s pretty good, with Plant wailing on harmonica about halfway through. I like it.
But then we’re back to filler-type stuff with the Elvis-y “Candy Store Rock” and the frivolous “Hots on For Nowhere.”
Spare me. This isn’t really Led Zeppelin, is it?
However, we do get a fairly strong closing with the nine-minute slow blues “Tea for One.” Fans, and I think the band itself, consider this one a kind of companion to their earlier slow blues, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970).
I prefer “Tea.” Plant wrote it about missing his family while being away with the band. The time grinds on endlessly when he’s homesick, and he’s once again out somewhere getting tea just for himself.
The connection between music and emotions? Full display here, very human.
There’s also a tasteful Page solo that gets me every time. “Tea for One” is all right, man.
So, What’s the Verdict?
What’s the verdict?
My view of Presence is that the band members were troubled and probably eager to fill the lost and empty days of late 1975 with some musical activity, so they made this.
I think they had one great idea (“Achilles”), two good ideas (“Tea” and “Nobody’s Fault”), and four slipshod, middling ideas that filled out the album.
But if that’s the case, why does Presence occupy such a sweet spot in my musical heart?
It must be the uniqueness of it all.
For maybe the first time in the band’s brief career, the rock gods Led Zeppelin were showing signs of their humanity, their need to submit to external stimuli. Canceling a U.S. tour. Singing from a wheelchair. Making just so-so music.
Viewed from hindsight, it’s so bare-all. And yet Presence covers the range of everything the band was at the time: still astonishingly talented and creative and yet susceptible to weaknesses.
Taken altogether like this, Presence appears as an artwork rich with character. Make no mistake, there are some quality tunes on here. But you have to take the great with the trivial.
I think that’s just fine.