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In defence of Led Zeppelin album 'Presence'

By the time Physical Graffiti came out in 1975, Led Zeppelin had exhausted their barrel of outtakes and underdeveloped ideas, leading the band to question how they could write a follow-up album in 1976. Worse still, vocalist Robert Plant nearly perished in a car crash as he drove his family around Greece, causing him to question himself as he tended to the wounds in Malibu, California, where he engaged with the process of the album. Guitarist Jimmy Page joined him in Malibu, the pair of them on tax exile for the period of composition, and the two of them pooled their heads together to write an album.

The finished product features Robert Plant heavily and, during ‘Tea For One’, the vocalist sings with bellowing gusto as if channelling the sense of isolation that had washed over him during his period of recovery. By and large, Presence is a florid affair, but that was an unmistakable part of their trajectory, but there’s something impressively orchestral about this album, as Page luxuriates in the domain that had previously acted as a gateway for their live shows, lacing the songs with a series of urgent, elaborate demonstrations of guitar exhibition.

Side one starts with a bristling guitar hook cascading across the microphones, before the drums kick in and ‘Achilles Last Stand’ notches up a gear, earmarking one of Plant’s most committed vocal performances. John Paul Jones uses an eight-string bass on the track, which makes it sound like he’s playing a rhythm guitar, giving the recording a palpable sense of urgency and danger. Elsewhere, Page decorates the song with a number of buzzing guitars, chipping in and out of the mixes, making it one of the most emotive guitar creations of his career.

Drummer John Bonham gets a go on ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, working a fast beat that simultaneously roars and stomps, bouncing off the cylinders, Plant’s harmonica ricocheting off the pedals. Then comes ‘Candy Store Rock’, a swampier rock number bolstered by Plant’s scintillating falsetto, complete with a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of a place on a Sex Pistols record. The album both pre-empts and reviles punk, beautifully layering the guitars in a dense, demonic fashion (a la Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), before demonstrating the complexities of the band’s orbit in a number of blinding instrumental passages.

‘For Your Life’ starts off like ‘Good Times, Bad Times’, before the pulsating bass enters, leading the tune to a euphoric peak, as the drums and guitars come crashing down, like rain landing on an unsuspecting person. Jones’ bass trades licks with Page’s grizzled, frenzied guitar, making it one of the standout performances at the 2007 reunion concert at the London O2. Inexplicably, it was the first and only time Led Zeppelin performed it onstage.

‘Hots On for Nowhere’ is mostly Page’s work, and might as well have been released under his name alone, as the other three work as sidemen to the mosaic he presents. Sandwiched between two grander works, this low-key, lo-fi track proves a real treat, the piercing, pummelling filling the speakers. Breezily produced, the album was recorded in less than three weeks, making it their fastest turnaround since their debut.

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The band had only grown in confidence since that time, although the album lacked some of the diversity of Houses of The Holy or Physical Graffiti. Fans favouring the group’s pastoral output would have been better off listening to Led Zeppelin III, and for the first time, Jones did not play a keyboard on any of the tracks. Nothing was as jaw-droppingly inventive as their cover of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, or quite as infectious as ‘Heartbreaker’, and only the most curmudgeonly Zeppelin fan would consider it their finest work.

But measured outside of their canon, it was a very fine work unto itself, showing the band at their most impulsive, urbane and ferocious, capturing the band’s technical acumen, as all four men burn through the mixes, echoing the conflict and turbulence that had attached itself to Plant and his family. It was also the last time the band sounded like they were playing together in one room, as future songs were the result of taping disparate performances to complete a song.

Besides the poorly produced In Through The Outdoor, or the hastily-cobbled patchiness of Coda, this serves as the band’s swansong, showing the four men performing for one last time, their music soaring from the cylinders, every hook, chord and riff pieced together with affection and love. Everyone’s impressive, but if the album can claim a hero, it’s Page, who fires through the songs with a herculean level of commitment, and authority. In the 40 (nearly 50) years since Presence, Page has worked on a number of interesting projects – his collaboration with Whitesnake’s David Coverdale is certainly worth a listen – but he never played with such creative spontaneity again.

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