Album Review: Led Zeppelin – III (1970)

After recording two albums and being constantly on tour for the whole of their first year together Zeppelin decided to take a slightly more leisurely approach to recording their third album, the unimaginatively entitled III. Whilst the first album had been recorded on a shoestring in record time and the second one in fits and starts as and when touring allowed III was far more structured in its creation.

Shortly after New Year Page and Plant retreated to the now infamous Bron-Yr-Aur cottage overlooking the Dyfi Valley in Wales to write new material. The cottage had no electricity and no running water and both Page and Plant felt that the contrast to the high rolling rock lifestyle they had been leading would be good for creativity. At the time Page was being heavily influenced by Bert Jansch and Davey Graham whilst Plant was pre-occupied with John Fahey so the move made more than a little sense. With no electricity the material they came up with was obviously more suited to acoustic arrangement than electric but that doesn’t mean that III is without power or dynamism. Often referred to a Zeppelin’s folk album it is worth noting that it includes a track which is quite possibly regarded as their best and most important straight up blues track as well.

With the bulk of the material written Page and Plant met up with Bonham and Jones at Headley Grange in Hampshire and began the rehearsal sessions. The actual recording of the album was also done at Headley Grange during May and June along with other sessions at the Olympic Studios and Basing Street Studios in London.

“III” gets under way with ‘Immigrant Song’ a stomping Zeppelin classic with a chugging Page riff which is driven along by Bonham’s powerful drumming behind a battle cry wailing vocal from Plant. It had been written before Page and Plant went to Bron-Yr-Aur and is in stark contrast to the folky acoustic feel of the tracks written there. Lyrically telling the tale of the Viking invasion of Britain it had been conceived during the bands tour of Iceland the previous year and was already included in the live set before it was recorded in the studio. A short fast paced track it opened all of Zeppelin’s concerts from 1970 to 1972. The hiss at the beginning of the track before Plant lauches into his wailing cry is feedback from an echo unit.

‘Friends’ is the first of the Bron-Yr-Aur acoustic songs and although Page’s acoustic guitar is to the fore the song is very much driven along by John Paul Jones’ string arrangement, for which he incredibly recieved no writing credit. The track leads straight into the following ‘Celebration Day’ without any break. The reason for this was that the original intro was accidentally erased during mixdown. Initially the band were going to scrap the song as the recording sessions had finished but Page decided to run the moog outro from ‘Friends’ into the beginning of what was left of ‘Celebration Day’ thus giving it a new beginning. The song itself is a very busy one with lots of different riffing going on.

‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ is one of Zeppelin’s most well known and best loved tracks. It is arguably their purest and most original blues track too as it borrows nothing from any of the old blues pioneers and is all completely their own work. It was written initially as a live replacement for ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’. Page’s guitar solo has been described as the best rock blues solo ever recorded and Plant’s vocal is packed full of emotion and feeling and is far more the finished article than on the blues tracks of the first album. As with a number of tracks on that first album Jones plays the Hammond organ and uses the bass pedals rather than a bass guitar to play the bass line. Despite his superb drumming Bonham ends up as the villain of the piece thanks once again to his squeaky bass drum pedal which no-one noticed at the time but is infuriatingly evident on modern day remasters. ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ became an integral part of the Zeppelin live experience almost from the day of its conception and it was extended to a lengthy improvisational track, mostly for Page’s blues soloing. For some reason the song was dropped for the 1975 tour but was quckly re-established the following year.

‘Out On The Tiles’ may, along with the opener, be the most straight up rock track on the album. Chugging along at a fairly decent pace it is as ever driven by Bonham’s drumming and Page’s heavy riffing. Towards the end the track has an almost tribal feel to it but the over riding impression is of heavy space rock.

‘Gallow’s Pole’ is an arrangement of a traditional  old folk tune which has origins in many countries and is known under many different titles. The most common of these being ‘Maid Freed From The Gallows’. The Zeppelin version though takes more from the American variants of the song where the condemned soul is male rather than a maid. The Zeppelin version also differs in ending as in most versions the prisoner is freed after the bribes have been paid. Arrangement wise Zeppelin’s version builds up the pace gradually from a slow acoustic beginning to a frenetic almost hysterical crescendo for finale. Page played both acoustic and electric six and twelve string guitars whilst also adding a banjo track. Jones plays bass and mandolin, an instrument on which Plant initially came up with the idea at Bron-Y-Aur even though at the time he couldn’t actually play one. Personally I have never really liked the track.

‘Tangerine’ is the first of three country tinged largely acoustic folk tracks and for me is just about the best of the three. The melody and tune, which is beautiful, started life as ‘Knowing I’m Losing You’ a Yardbirds track. With the exception of one line Page completely re-wrote the lyric though for this version. Page plays a pedal steel guitar and Jones plays mandolin which gives the song a nice feel. Plant delivers a dreamy melancholy vocal and Bonham’s crisp sharp drum beat holds the song together superbly and gives it an unexpected dynamism. It is a worthy challenger to ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ for the accolade of album highlight for me.

The mood remains for ‘That’s The Way’ one of Zeppelin’s most gentle songs. The song was written halfway down a Welsh ravine after Page and Plant had taken a long walk whilst staying at Bron-Yr-Aur. Plant delivers another dreamy vocal whilst Page plays acoustic guitar, pedal steel and even a dulcimer. Page also plays the bass parts as Jones played the mandolin. Rarely for a Zeppelin track there are no drums at all and Bonham only contributes some gentle tambourine towards the end of the song. Lyrically it reflects Plant’s opinion on world affairs at the time and Page is of the belief that this track was the point at which Plant took his lyric writing to a higher level. For me it is the second best of the acoustic tracks being only marginally inferior to the preceeding ‘Tangerine’.

‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ is obviously one of the tracks conceived in Wales and is basically a country folk tune in which Plant sings about walking his dog in the woods. Bonham plays the castanets and spoons whilst Jones uses a five string fretless bass. A pleasant enough track but for me not of the quality of the other acoustic tracks on offer here. It is also mis-spelt as the cottage was actually called Bron-Yr-Aur but Page wrote it down wrong on the sleeve notes.

‘Hats Off To (Roy) Harper’ is a strange ending to the album and features performances from Page and Plant only. Jones and Bonham do not feature on the track at all. Page plays mostly slide guitar and Plant’s vocal was fed through a tremelo to give the strange under water effect. Leaning heavily on old time blues phrases and scales it is amuch a tribute to the old blues pioneers as English folk musician and band friend Roy Harper. For me it is a slightly dissapointing end to the album.

“III” was given worldwide release on 5th October 1970 and had almost one million pre orders in America alone. Upon release though it was met with mixed reaction in pretty much the same way as the debut had the year before. They were criticised for jumping on the acoustic wagon and abandoning the harder rock blues sound of the first two albums but it didn’t stop the album topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

The cover was also a peice of artwork in itself and featured random images on a volvelle inserted inside the front cover. The volvelle could than be rotated and different images would appear in the holes cut in the front of the sleeve. When seeing the finished piece Page didn’t like it and claimed it looked too “teenybopperish” for a serious rock band. However, it was to late to scrap the artwork and begin again so it stayed.

“III” is often referred to as Zeppelin’s folk or acoustic album, mainly because of the Bron-Yr-Aur connection, but in truth it only features a few more acoustic parts than most of the previous albums. It is an excellent album with three or maybe four Zeppelin classics. It is worth owning for ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, ‘Tangerine’ and ‘That’s The Way’ alone but for me it does not quite have the overall quality or consistency of the first two albums or the one that followed. But Zeppelin had set the bar high and despite falling short of the first two it is still a rock classic and an integral part of the Led Zeppelin legacy .

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM March 2012

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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