By the end of the 1970s, Led Zeppelin were in a state of discombobulation. Having survived the onslaught of punk and disco, the mighty Zeppelin emerged intact as rock and roll’s truest survivors. Nothing could bring them down: not changing tastes, not harsh critical reviews, and not even car accidents or family tragedies. The only thing that could eventually land the ship was death.
But even before that, the rock-solid Zeppelin were beginning to show cracks. After over a decade together, the new car smell had fully worn off, and the differences in lifestyles and work habits began to become more pronounced. An unlikely split formed between Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, previously the closest bond in the group through their shared songwriting duties. Even the strong teenage friendship of Plant and John Bonham was starting to wear, thanks to Plant’s renewed commitment to his family following his son Karac’s death in 1977 and Bonham’s continued struggle with alcoholism.
Additionally, the mutual respect that formed the solid pairing of Page and John Paul Jones, which originated from their shared time as ace studio musicians, was beginning to fall away as well. Two new factions emerged – with Plant and Jones as the relatively clean family men on one side and the less reliable addicts of Bonham and Page on the other. When the foursome assembled to record 1979’s In Through the Out Door, the band members found that they were on different sides and schedules.
“There were two distinct camps by then, and we [Plant and I] were in the relatively clean ones,” Jones told Rolling Stone in 2006. “[As a result], I was working closely with Robert, which was something that had not happened before.” Only one song from the album was written without Jones’ involvement, and for the first time ever, Page is absent from the songwriting credits, having failed to contribute to the songs ‘South Bend Suarez’ and ‘All My Love’. For his part, Bonham doesn’t have a single songwriting credit.
The divisions were most clearly explored on ‘Carouselambra’, the ten-minute synthesiser-led track that kicks off side two. Aside from featuring Jones’ keyboards as the lead instrument, the song also directly dealt with the internal strife going on in the band at the time. It’s hard to tell, considering how low Plant’s vocals are in the mix, but Plant confirmed the inspiration in a 2003 interview with Mojo Magazine.
“I thought parts of ‘Carouselambra’ were good, especially the darker dirges that Pagey developed,” Plant explained. “And I rue it so much now, because the lyrics on ‘Carouselambra’ were actually about that environment and that situation. The whole story of Led Zeppelin in its latter years is in that song… and I can’t hear the words!”
Even though they were reaching a breaking point, there was cause to be optimistic for the future. The band renewed their commitment to each other as the band approached the 1980s, and a planned North American tour would return the band to their primary market for the first time since 1977. However, the good feelings were dashed when Bonham choked on his own vomit and died in September, just before the tour was set to begin.