In early August 1975 Robert Plant sustained serious injuries in a car crash on the Greek Island of Rhodes and subsequently the world tour which was due to start at the end of the month had to be cancelled. Plant went to Malibu to recover and began writing lyrics for a new album. He was soon joined by Jimmy Page and the two began to formulate the ideas for Zeppelin’s seventh studio album. When enough material was conceived they moved to the SIR rehearsal studios in Hollywood and were joined by John Bonham and John Paul Jones. With the material pretty much written before their arrival Jones and Bonham only got one writing credit on the album on the one ‘band’ composition ‘Royal Orleans’. The other six tracks were all credited to Page/Plant.
With the rehearsals complete the band returned to Europe and the Musicland Studios in Munich to record the album. Even this though was not without problems during what was a troubled period for Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones were booked in to the studio to record their next album and Zeppelin had less than three weeks to complete the recording and final mixing process. With Plant spending most of his time in a wheelchair and Bonham and Jones not as involved in the writing “Presence” virtually became Page’s album. The raw blues of the opening album and the quaint English folkiness of the third are but a distant memory here and “Presence” is very much a straight up rock album and is dominated by Page’s electric guitar far more than any other Zeppelin album. In fact there is only one acoustic guitar part during the whole album and the minimal keyboards are so low in the mix as to be virtually undetectable. This may expalin why many Zeppelin purists think of it as a weak link in the Zeppelin catalogue whilst fans of a much heavier rock sound often cite it as a favourite.
With the time constraints upon them Page was forced to do all of the guitar overdubs in one night and at one point went two solid days without sleep during the final mixdown process. From the start of recording to the final mixing session Page worked eighteen to twenty hours a day and the whole album was completed inside eighteen days. Despite all this Page was extremely pleased with the final results and later claimed it was his most mature playing to date. Plant though was not happy and was very critical of his vocal performance claiming he sounded tired and strained. After his accident he wanted to return home to his family but this was not allowed by Page and manager Peter Grant who felt that impetus would be lost if the band took too long a break. At the time Zeppelin were the biggest selling rock act in the world and in those days a year was a long time in music. They had already taken what was then considered a long time between albums four and five and five and six so a swift follow up to “Physical Graffiti” was deemed necessary.
Opening track ‘Achilles Last Stand’ was at the time the second longest studio recording of Zeppelin’s career clocking in at almost ten and a half minutes (it was overtaken by the much maligned ‘Carouselambra’ from the final album). The song itself is a masterpeice and many including Page himself cite it as their favourite Zeppelin track. Featuring some incredibly fast and powerful drumming from Bonham, a steamrollering bass line from Jones, played on an eight string bass, a typically mystical and imaginative lyric and vocal from Plant and no less than a dozen seperate guitar tracks from Page it is the archetypal embodiement of everything Zeppelin ever stood for.
‘For Your Life’ is probably as straight up heavy rock as Zeppelin ever performed and has a great strutting majesty driven along by Bonhams thunderous drumming and Page’s guitar histrionics as much as Plant’s pouting vocal. Page used a Fender Stratocaster and makes good use of the tremolo arm throughout the track. Plant’s snort shortly after the five and a half minute mark and the constant references to cocaine use throughout the lyric where a sign of his growing frustration with the over use of the substance in the industry. It has always been one of my favourite Zeppelin tracks and is very much the blueprint for Page’s collaboration with David Coverdale many years later.
‘Royal Orleans’ is the only track on the album to be credited as a band composition and is a curious little oddity. It features a good funky riff and some frantic jazzy riffing and whilst it is enjoyable enough it really fails to go anywhere and has the feeling of filler about it. Lyrically it tells the tale of an incident in the Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans which saw a stoned John Paul Jones and a transvestite falling asleep and setting a bedroom on fire. Various versions of the tale exist and whose is correct is anyone’s guess. It has been suggested Plant wrote the lyric to get back at Jones who had stated that the vocals and lyrics were the least important part of a band in an interview some time earlier. Whatever the case, the stories surrounding the song are far better than the actual recorded product and it is one of the album’s low points.
‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ is the third of the four absolute classics on the album for me and although it harks back to the early practise of adapting old blues tunes this one is done in a far more straight up rock way. Page plays some marvellous slide guitar and at times the guitar sound gives the feeling that the floor is dropping beneath you. Bonham and Jones hold the rhythm and structure together perfectly and Bonhams machine gun drumming is wonderful. Despite all this though it is Plant’s performance that is the highlight for me. The cries, groans and vocal delivery led to a multitude of copycats and he even threw in a harmonica solo midway to good effect. This is undoubtedly the finest example of the rock call and response method of composition.
‘Candy Store Rock’ vies with ‘Royal Orleans’ to be the weakest track on the album although Plant often states it is his favourite. Almost a pre-cursor to ‘Hot Dog’ from “In Through The Out Door” it is basically fifties rock and roll with a heavier drum beat and more frantic guitar sound. It is the only track to feature an acoustic guitar but the overal sound of the track is such a mush it is difficult to pick it out. For me it is the low point of the album as it lacks the feel good funkiness of the earlier track.
‘Hots On For Nowhere’ is the middle ground for me on this album. Not quite being of the same calibre as the four standout tracks but considerably better than the two inferior ones. Another fast paced song it is as ever driven along by Bonham’s thunderous drumming. Page plays a nice jangly guitar and Plant’s slightly affected vocal is a nice touch. The lyric allegedly refers to Plant’s displeasure at being forced to record the album whilst still recovering from his injuries but in classic Plant style it is wrapped in surrealism. There is also the suggestion of a deliberatly mispronounced expletive in the early part of the song.
The final track on the album is the superb ‘Tea For One’. Unfairly referred to on occasions as ‘Since I Been Loving You Part Two’ it is the slowest and bluesiest track on the album and despite its similarities in structure to that song it is far too good to be referred to as part two of anything. Had it been recorded on one of the earlier albums it would undoubtedly have achieved the same classic status as some of their earlier blues tracks. For me it is good as anything from the early albums and comfortably sits alongside ‘Since I Been Loving You’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’ as one of their best slow blues tracks. With its more rock like feel it has quite clearly been used as a blueprint for many rock blues crossover artists of modern times including Joe Bonamassa who covered it on his 2006 album “You and Me”.
“Presence”, which Robert Plant wanted to call Thanksgiving as it was completed around Thanksgiving time, was eventually released worldwide on 31st March 1976. It was delayed due to problems with the artwork. At the time it had the highest ever number of pre-release orders in the UK and was certified Gold on the day of release. Despite this it was not recieved particularly well as many felt it lacked the diversity of the earlier Zeppelin albums. A lack of experimentation and very little light and shade on the album, with no acoustic tracks saw it alienating the more folky Zeppelin follower. As time and tastes have changed though it has become a favourite of the more straight up rock fan and is often cited as a favourite by musicians and fans of the heavier bands of more recent times. For me it is a rare five star classic and is easily one of my favourite Zeppelin albums.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM March 2012