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Music

Why 'In Through the Out Door' is Led Zeppelin's worst album

Following the release of the blustering Presence, Led Zeppelin embarked on a hiatus, offering vocalist Robert Plant the opportunity to grieve for his son Karac, who had died while he was on tour. Caught in the emotion of the grief, Plant returned to Led Zeppelin in 1978 a more hardened, if more world-weary, vocalist who recognised the next step the band needed to take to evolve.

Keyboardist John Paul Jones had also grown weary of the band’s steamier antics onstage and revelled in the chance on bringing something more fleshed out and keyboard centred to the mix. Drummer John Bonham was as notorious for his imbibing as he was for the thunderous fills he played behind Plant’s voice. To Bonham’s credit, whatever indiscretions that went on in his personal life did not hamper his ability to drum, the opposite of which could be said about Jimmy Page, the band’s musical director and lead guitarist.

Having dabbled with heroin since the mid-1970s, the guitarist was firmly addicted to the drug by the time the band prepared themselves to release their eighth album in 1979. He was proving unreliable in the studio, leading Jones to surmise, “There were two distinct camps by then, and we [Plant and I] were in the relatively clean one”.

For his part, Page cruises along with a strong pulse, although it’s hard to name any particular lick that could rival the blinding force of ‘Achilles Last Stand’, or the animal-spontaneity of ‘Trampled Under Foot’. Reverting to his back catalogue, he pulls a plodding solo on ‘South Bound Saurez’, tying the tune with a collection of passable power chords. Tellingly, he had no part in the writing of ‘South Bound Saurez’, although if he was holding back on creativity, it didn’t manifest on ‘Hot Dog’ a ghastly miscalculation of Western stomp melded with more contemporary groove.

Complete with a faux-Elvis style vocal from Plant, the song remains the single worst moment in the Zeppelin songbook, but thankfully the album quickly learns from its poor example with ‘Fool In The Rain’, a tidy Samba-tinted track that offered Bonham a rare excuse to play from all corners of his stately drum-set.

Strangely, the percussionist doesn’t have any writing credits on the album, which is a little unfair considering how often Plant’s vocals roll off his cymbals and back-pedals. Childhood friends since Birmingham, Bonham and Plant enjoyed a friendship that stretched beyond the professional, and it was the drummer who encouraged Plant back to the live stages at a time of great duress for the singer. And although ‘All My Love’ is no classic by any means, it barely counts as a good song, it does offer a fresh insight into their work together.

Purportedly written about the child he had lost, Plant waits for the beat to steady before opening on that fragile opening note. Satisfied with his working environment, Plant pours himself into the lyric, floating to the vibrancy of the words in question. It’s a brave vocal, and to him his due, Page offers one of the album’s more interesting guitar hooks during the instrumental section.

At six minutes, the song feels like a respite following the propulsive ‘Carouselambra’, a pedestrian rocker laced in the trappings of progressive rock that had unduly upset so many British teenagers. Driven by the keyboard hook, the band followed suit, amplified by the bravado of an impending tour. As it happens, the song was never performed live by the band, leading listeners with a rousing rock track that for all its bravado never transcends beyond the point of average. Inconceivably, Page takes another backseat, delivering only a smattering of melody lines to a piece that aches for a pummelling arpeggio to place it amongst the more shimmering anthems of the era.

All through the album, the band play as they are searching for a new sound, with neither the interest nor the expectation of hitting it. “I think it was very transitional,” Page conceded, clearly disappointed with his efforts. “[It was] a springboard for what could have been.”

There’s no need to go into Bonham’s untimely death in 1980, and there’s no point in speculating what the band might have recorded after In Through The Outdoor had they opted to pursue a more keyboard-heavy direction. But there’s no denying that the band’s eighth and final album was an unusually weak one, and undeserving of their title as the most accomplished from the 1970s. Tellingly, none of the songs from the album were performed at their 2007 reunion, making it the only album they decided to neglect.

This, of course, is a shame in one way, because the album does boast one astonishingly inventive number: ‘In The Evening’. Buoyed by the gizmotron, a guitar device patented by 10cc stalwarts Lol Creme & Kevin Godley, Page demonstrates an ominous guitar intro that focuses the listener’s attention on what is to follow. Because the minute the drums kick in, it’s all afloat, as the three musicians at the front wrestle with their instruments through a convoy of time signatures, tremolo guitars and cascading keyboard pieces.

The band sound committed, bringing gravitas to the work that has seen very little of it, as Plant plunges into the vocal melody, more determined than he’s ever been to show himself as the master of rock that he was, and still is. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one that shows that Zeppelin, even at their lowest ebb, were not a force to be reckoned with.