Led Zeppelin: "There were no horizons to what we could do..."
With Page’s film soundtrack frustrations, Plant’s car crash and Bonzo going AWOL, the run-up to Led Zeppelin’s Presence wasn’t exactly smooth. Then there was that damn obelisk...
Over thirty years on, the jury is still out on one of Led Zeppelin’s most controversial albums: Presence.
But there can be little doubt that it turned out to be the album that shaped the present, future and ultimate demise of the greatest hard rock band ever. As Zeppelin prepared to record their seventh studio album, there was nothing to suggest that (ab)normal service would continue for the biggest band in the world.
Having just finished their 1975 Stateside tour they were making plans for a future lived abroad due to the Labour Party government’s punishing tax rates. Manager Peter Grant aimed to keep them busy though, with a hectic schedule of recording and touring. But before that, Plant and Page were keen to sample another type of life on the road – holidaying in Morroco and elsewhere in Africa, sampling the food, drink and whatever else might come their way.
All went smoothly, and the band felt suitably invigorated for the bout of writing and recording that lay ahead. Before that, however, Plant had already planned to take a family holiday on the Greek island of Rhodes. Page, meanwhile, was engaged in a fractious relationship with film director Kenneth Anger over the soundtrack to the latter’s movie Lucifer Rising. Both Page and Anger were students of the occultist Aleister Crowley’s teachings. The director claimed to have grown tired of waiting for a finished soundtrack and pulled the plug: “The way he’s been behaving is totally contradictory to the teachings of Aleister Crowley and to the ethos of the film,” Anger said at the time. Page, for his part, referred to “the level of pure bitchiness he [Anger] was working on”.
All in all, Page was looking forward to the familiarity and security of recording a Led Zeppelin album. But that wasn’t to happen. On Monday, August 4, 1975, Plant was involved in a horrific car crash during his Rhodes holiday, suffering multiple leg and pelvis injuries. As Jimmy Page said, it was “touch and go”.
Tour and recording plans were scratched and the only priority was to get Plant out of Greece on a private jet, fixed, and put back on the road to full health. Recuperation took place over a lengthy period in Jersey – a tax haven for rich Brits – and when he was well enough, Plant travelled to Los Angeles, where he – with a fair percentage of his body still encased in plaster – began writing the new album with Page. By September of that year, rehearsals had begun at SIR Studios in Hollywood.
Though in serious discomfort, Plant, along with Page, wrote a blazing collection of hard-hitting rock that would come as close to the rawness of the early days as was possible. With Zeppelin now flying by the tail of their pants, a sense of urgency inspired every level of the writing, rehearsing and recording process.
A month later, the band returned to Europe to record at Musicland in Munich. They’d booked four weeks, cut to three when one of the band (not identified at the time) turned up late. With Plant at last approaching fitness, in spite of the enduring pain, Zeppelin knocked out what would be remembered as one of their finest albums.
Apart from the driving rock adrenaline at its heart, Presence (as the album was eventually called) would have all the components that’d make a blockbusting script – tragedy, comedy and passion.
The comedy? Well, I’d argue that it came from the palaver surrounding the design of the album sleeve. Renowned designers Hipgnosis (in the shape of director Storm Thorgerson) were brought in to come up with the artwork. Central to the finished design was an obelisk, featured sitting on a dining table being ogled at by a 1940s/50s family. The sleeve provoked many opinions as to what it was all about. Thorgerson argued that it represented Zeppelin’s power, which was central to the lifestyles of the band’s fans. The design, he said, was related to the band, yet “extremely tenuous”.
Anyone, though, who knows of Hipgnosis’ work will be aware that it was a design that would have sat more easily with Genesis or Pink Floyd (with whom Thorgerson worked at length), and really bore little relation to Zeppelin.
The band, however, were sold on the project; but not enough to call the album Obelisk, as suggested by Thorgerson. Appreciating that it was all about Zeppelin’s presence, Plant suggested that Presence would be a more appropriate name for the album.
And so, with said album ready for release… but not quite… I find myself trolling up and down the New King’s Road, in a grottier part of Chelsea, attempting to track down the offices that house Zeppelin’s label, Swan Song. Atlantic Records had bowed to Zeppelin’s wish to form their own label the year before, with Physical Graffiti the first album under the newly designed grand imprint.
There’s no sign of welcome to the home of the world’s greatest rock band for fear of enticing all manner of rock madness; you would have walked past Swan Song and not noticed it, with its façade of flaking cream paint with a humble nameplate proclaiming that this building is home to the Chelsea & Kensington Branch of the British Legion. Decaying elegance, you could say, though in this case decadent elegance would suit better.
Jimmy Page is due at the office to talk about Presence. Not one given to the ways of the clock, he rolls in over an hour late, but I’m to be grateful as people have waited longer for less. Once in through the out door, there’s no mistaking the aspirations Led Zeppelin have for Swan Song. Built as a label not only to house their own music but also that by artists they love and rate (Bad Company, The Pretty Things and Maggie Bell were early signings), the trappings of rock success are reflected in the phalanx of gold records adorning the walls.
Into this setting walks Page. Not like you’d expect – a guitar hero born of the most exorbitant and extravagant bands rock’n’roll has ever invented – but a man of surprising humility and not a little reservedness. He does, however, exude an air of supreme confidence.
One of the greatest guitarists of his generation has been out shopping. He rests a bunch of American compilation albums on the table; a collection of old rock’n’roll numbers. “I really love listening to these,” he enthuses. “All those guys were looking for something new among all the shit.”
Just like today, I muse.
“There are a lot of pessimists about,” he says (this is 1976, and contemporary rock isn’t exactly going through a golden period). “But I’m really optimistic. I can see something good coming out of it eventually.”
The whole awkward aura around the circumstances and recording of Presence is pretty much in evidence during the interview. Page’s conversation is allusive, and he’s reticent to talk in-depth about much of the album; he’s indecisive, as if he’s not quite made his mind up about what he thinks of it; and he point-blank refuses to talk about some of the events surrounding it. But he loosens up as he warms to the subject.
Robert Plant’s unfortunate car accident, for instance, is a sensitive subject. “We don’t make a big thing of it, cos it’s out of order, really. I don’t want to make too much of a hoo-hah about that, about the mending process. No, I wouldn’t really. I’ve got very superstitious after that. It was just strange that it happened within a week of rehearsals. It was just like something saying: ‘No, you’re not gonna do it’. It’s personal, that’s why I don’t wanna talk about it.”
It’s worth pointing out here that Page was engrossed in the work of Aleister Crowley around this time and seemed to be looking behind events to search for some sort of oblique raison d’être. Given what was to occur in the subsequent couple of years in Zeppelin circles, it wasn’t long before there was talk of The Curse of Led Zeppelin among fans and journalists. In retrospect, it’s hard to tell if that’s what Jimmy is referring to here.
“It’s bloody unpleasant,” he says about Plant’s accident. “I know you’re going to print it or I’d tell you the truth. It was touch and go. I don’t think these things should come out in print. Far be it from me, or you, to start delving in that. It’s personal. It really was touch and go.” And there he leaves the matter to rest.
He is in an irksome kind of mood… ready to challenge anybody and anything at odds with his own opinion. The album sleeve is next. He starts off by saying that the title of Presence has nothing to do with the music and is connected with the artwork. But wait a minute… “Well, I suppose it does in a way. There is a link between the artwork and the music. The artwork is such that you could look at it and put your own interpretation to it. It’s one of those…”
One of what? He pauses when asked for his own interpretation of the artwork.
“I’d rather that people saw it for themselves and see what they make of it, because it’s not a cut-and-dried situation. You can put a number of interpretations on it, so it’s best to leave it as an open book situation as far as people seeing it goes.
“It could either be viewed as past or present. If you look at it, it could be the 1940s and it could also be the 1970s. It’s got to be viewed in its entirety, otherwise the whole point would be lost.”
And the whole point is?
“I’m sorry to be elusive on it, but I don’t think I should say that it’s this, that or the other, because it’s an ambiguous thing. Photographically, it’s an ambitious statement, so it’s not the right thing to lay down my impression because somebody might have a more illuminating one.”
Whatever, that same sleeve was holding up the release of Presence. No pressing of the album was being done – for fear of bootlegging – until the sleeve was printed, and the printers were having trouble matching up the colours to the designer’s specifications. Page was considerably irked that an album finished four months previously – at breakneck record speed for Zeppelin – should be held up because of problems at the “bloody printers”.
Originally a month had been set aside to record the album in Munich, Page said, but one of the band turned up a week late for the sessions. He refused to name the guilty party (step forward from beyond the grave and admit your guilt, Bonzo!).
The whole method of recording Presence had been “a bit of a gamble”, says Page. “It’s a long time since we recorded like that, saying that this would be finished by such-and-such a date. We’d kicked over the tracks so we had – what would you call it? – a starting ground. Robert was still working on lyrics, and I hadn’t thought about too many of the overdubs, but one was pretty confident that we could do it. It was just a sort of test. We could have come dreadfully unstuck.”
And “the gamble”?
“A gamble to see whether we could meet the deadline or not. Fortunately we did. We worked practically every minute of every day. It was really great to be able to do it like that. At no other time, apart from the first LP [Page always refers to albums as ‘LPs’] have we had that stretch in the studio. We would usually record while on the road, and it was spread over a long time.”
That immediacy, he said, added a certain urgency to the texture of Presence.
“There is a lot of urgency to it. There’s a lot of attack to the music. I think that’s reflecting a state of mind of actually being constantly on the move. You know… no base. That is definitely reflected. I know it’s talking in a pretty nebulous fashion, but I think people will know what I mean when they hear it.
“It was uplifting to tackle a situation that we had with the new LP, finding that things were coming out fresh all the time, as opposed to being sort of clichéd because you were just concentrating on a certain period of time.”
Clichéd? Easy for Zeppelin to fall into, and often remarked on by detractors. Did Page really feel they were heading down that route before Presence? “The only way you can get clichéd is if you just follow a particular pattern to what you know is successful along your particular line, but I don’t think…” he pauses, not for effect but to get it right… “well, I know that we haven’t done that. We’ve been quite the opposite without consciously doing it.”
We wander through past albums and styles; how they’d done stuff before, and how with Physical Graffiti Zeppelin fans were glad to see the band take a more direct rock route after Houses Of The Holy.
“I really should explain how things are done,” he says. “The first LP really had material that had been played on stage before it was recorded. Then we felt at home. The second LP was recorded basically on the road and when we could get in the studio, so that’s got a very sort of rock’n’roll orientation.
“Now, following that, you have got the third LP, where a lot of it was written in the cottage, Bron Y Aur [in Wales], and the writing is far narrower in approach. But there was an outcry about doing it this way; that and the acoustic numbers. In fact, though, there were acoustic numbers on the first LP. It’s just that the mood was different. It was more dramatic and laid back.”
Meanwhile, back to Presence.
“I would say about this particular LP: it’s very controlled; there’s no blowing out or whatever. There’s a great level of control on the new one, and sympathy within the four.”
I ask him to take a broad view of where Presence sits in the Zep canon. “A bit subjective this,” he wonders. “Well, as far as laying down, I suppose the word is ‘orchestration’, guitar harmonies and stuff, I’ve usually immersed myself in it, laid down things and there’d be room to amplify it with extra harmonies or whatever. With this one, it comes straight up.
“There’s a lot of spontaneity about it. I think that’s the element. That aspect of it has to be taken into account when you start talking about the actual development of it, because that’s the whole key to the theme of it, the level of spontaneity.”
More spontaneity than on other Zeppelin albums?
“I think so. You see, in the past when it came to the point where we were getting an album together, there were always a number of frameworks that you would toy with at home. At this particular point in time, there were no sort of complete frameworks, just little bits kicking around. There have been phrases, melodies, rhythms that have been picked up on the travels through Morocco and places like that which all get consumed. You take it all in and it comes out in the music. One is always open to new influences and different concepts and approaches. I couldn’t say that there was a number built around a Moroccan rhythm on the LP, but I definitely learned a lot from Morocco which I can relate to on songs.”
For sure, Morocco had an impact on Zeppelin’s writers, and left a lasting impression, still evident to this day on solo and joint material from Plant and Page. “The whole thing that goes on in Morocco is incredible. It’s trance music, basically, and when you see the sort of things that are done by the power of music, one couldn’t help but sort of reassess what one thought one knew already.
“There’s an unmistakable identity about our music and whatever the piece is, you naturally say ‘that’s them’. I don’t mean clichéd writing by that, but certainly, as far as development goes, there’s more intense writing and unusual chord patterns on Presence. One wants to improve, and the only way that you can feel satisfied is by setting up certain milestones along the way as far as writing goes. All I know is that we’re really critical of our own stuff, probably over-critical as far as writing goes. If something starts to sound similar to something we have done before, it immediately gets rubbed out. It doesn’t get used.”
And in March 1976, this is the essence of Zeppelin’s Presence to Page.
“If the content was being difficult to write, you know, if it was hard to write and we sat in LA and nothing came out apart from a couple of numbers, then I would really start to question it, but when everything is coming out so fluently and there’s no problems coming up with new ideas, I feel pretty confident. As far as the playing side of it goes, I know that we can have a go at anything.”
“Yeah,” he answers defiantly. “Don’t forget that John Paul Jones was an arranger, and both of us worked on sessions. You never knew when you went into a session what was coming.”
So the future for Zeppelin is limitless? Page gets genuinely enthusiastic at this turn in the conversation, hands waving to reinforce his point.
“Crikey, yeah. I mean, we’re only scratching the surface. It depends how far you want to take it. There is such a wealth. There are no horizons as to what could be done. It just takes a lot of work, and a lot of writing and recording. You can bet your life that in the next five or ten years, there’ll be some amazing things happening, with new musicians coming up. For instance, we got most of our influences from the blues players and the early rock players. Well, the musicians that are coming through now have got such a great textbook to take it all from, that you just know and feel that there’s going to be some new and great music coming out. I wouldn’t accept in any way that music is going to be stagnant.”
As it happened, for Led Zeppelin, Page would have to leave it at “scratching the surface”. Presence – for this fan, at least – was their last great album, and the combination of tragic events that started with Plant’s car accident and would unfold in the next four years contrived to drive them to an early grave.
It’s little wonder that Jimmy Page’s superstitious streak got stronger the longer Led Zeppelin went on.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock Presents Led Zeppelin.
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