Thursday, September 17, 2020

Led Zeppelin III

Modern culture has ripped the Mona Lisa right out of us; her image so ingrained in our collective psyche that we barely stop to even look. In the 1919 Marcel DuChamp recreated the Mona Lisa with a moustache and the caption "L.H.O.O.Q." which when pronounced phonetically (in French, of course) translates as, "She's got a hot ass." It was his way of making us look again. Often ignored in favor of the second and fourth albums, LZIII (AM7) is an unrecognized jewel. Zep fans who don't migrate here when ZOSO is just one listen away from intolerable, when "Stairway" is as timeworn as La Gioconda, have missed out on their fave band's most accessible LP. III is the Mona Lisa with a hot ass.

Riff rock along the lines of "Immigrant Song", "Celebration Day" and "Out on the Tiles" is in check, but the word of the day is subtlety. "Friends," "Tangerine" and "That's the Way" are acoustic highlights, celebrating English folk, nonstandard guitar tunings and a general adoration for the rustic life. If you've never heard this one, you owe it to yourself to pick it up and discover a whole different side of Led Zeppelin. This one's not there to rock you senseless.

Pretty ironic that fans and critics in 1971 were so mortified by Zep's turn toward the Dark Side (i.e. the scandalous use of, gulp, acoustic instrumentation). After all, the true roots music for an English musician isn't the harmonicas and dobros of the Mississippi Delta, it comes from the lutes and dulcimers of traditional English folk. In that context, Led Zeppelin III is as close as the band ever got to putting out an "English Soul" LP. "Gallows Pole" is the best example of traditional folk of the Zeppelin ilk. How many other hard rocking numbers can you name that feature banjo, for God's sake? III is arguably Zeppelin's most consistently listenable album, if only because the songs haven't been ruined by incessant FM airplay over the years. 

Led Zeppelin III was part a response to critics who called the band one-sided and over the top and part a product of Jimmy Paige's and Robert Plant's love of "music for hippie bookstores" such as American songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Love's Arthur Lee or Brit folk bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. After nearly two years of constant touring, the band retreated to the cottage where Robert Plant summered with his family when young. According to music journalist Jonathan Wingate, Led Zeppelin III's "folky" feel could only have been created somewhere like Bron Yr Aur (pron. bron-rar): "After Led Zeppelin I and II, the fans were expecting another beefy album driven by heavy guitar riffs. But without any electricity to power big amplifiers, what they actually came up with was something which sounded much more acoustic and pastoral," he said. "When you listen to it you just have to close your eyes and you can hear the echoes of this remote country house. It's an album which you can imagine being performed around a crate of beer in front of a roaring log fire." Yeah, I'm going to try that. Led Zeppelin III is like finding a long forgotten LP among the stacks and never before realizing its power and subtlety.