Led Zeppelin: Presence – [Record 70]
Presence is the seventh studio album by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, released by Swan Song Records on 31 March 1976. It was written and recorded during a tumultuous time in the band’s history, as singer Robert Plant was recuperating from serious injuries he had sustained in a recent car accident. The album received mixed reviews from critics and is also the slowest-selling studio album by the band (other than the outtake album Coda), only managing to achieve triple-platinum certification in the United States. Nonetheless, guitarist Jimmy Page describes Presence as the band’s “most important” album, proving they would continue despite their turmoil.
1. Achilles Last Stand.
2. For Your Life.
3. Royal Orleans.
4. Nobody’s Fault but Mine.
5. Candy Store Rock.
6. Hots on for Nowhere.
7. Tea for One.
Background: Jimmy Page made the decision to record the album after Robert Plant sustained serious injuries from a car accident on the Greek island of Rhodes on 5 August 1975, which forced the band to cancel a proposed world tour that was due to commence on 23 August. At this point, Led Zeppelin were arguably at the height of their popularity. When he was taken to a Greek hospital after the accident, Plant recalled:
“I was lying there in some pain trying to get cockroaches off the bed and the guy next to me, this drunken soldier, started singing “The Ocean” from Houses of the Holy.”
During a convalescent period on the Channel Island of Jersey and in Malibu, California, Plant wrote some lyrics, and when Page joined him at Malibu, these compositions were fleshed out. The two prepared enough material for rehearsals to begin at Hollywood’s SIR Studio, where drummer John Bonham and bass player John Paul Jones joined them.
After a month of rehearsals, the album was recorded in just eighteen days at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany, with Plant in a wheelchair. This was the fastest recording turnaround time achieved by the band since their debut album. The rushed recording sessions were in part a result of Led Zeppelin having booked the studio immediately prior to The Rolling Stones, who were shortly to record songs for their album Black and Blue. Upon their arrival, the Stones were amazed that Zeppelin’s album had indeed been completed (both recorded and mixed) in a mere eighteen days. Page had simply stayed awake for two days straight to perform all of the guitar overdubs. As he later explained:
“I just had to lay it down, more or less: first track… second track – you know, really fast working on that. And all the guitar overdubs on Presence were done in one night. But I didn’t think I would be able to do it in one night, I thought I’d have to do it across maybe three different nights to get the individual sections. Everything sort of crystallised and you’ll notice everything was just pouring out. I was very happy with the guitar playing on that whole album, you know as far as the maturity of playing goes.”
In an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine in 1998, Page stated that he worked an average of 18 to 20 hours per day during the mixing period at Musicland Studios:
“After the band finished recording all its parts, me and the engineer, Keith Harwood, just started mixing until we would fall asleep. Then whoever would wake up first would call the other and we’d go back in and continue to work until we passed out again.”
The recording sessions for Presence were also particularly challenging for Plant. The studio was in a basement of an old hotel, and the singer felt claustrophobic. He also experienced physical difficulties as a result of his car accident, and missed his family. He later explained:
“I spent the whole process in a wheelchair, so physically I was really frustrated. I think my vocal performance on it is pretty poor. It sounds tired and strained. The saving grace of the album was “Candy Store Rock” and “Achilles Last Stand”. The rhythm section on that it was so inspired … I was furious with Page and [band manager] Peter Grant. I was just furious that I couldn’t get back to the woman and the children that I loved. And I was thinking, is all this rock’n’roll worth anything at all?”
The album was completed on 26 November 1975. This was the day before Thanksgiving, and in a telephone call to Swan Song Records, Page suggested the album be named Thanksgiving. This idea was quickly dropped, in favour of a title that was thought would represent the powerful force and presence that the band members felt surrounded the group.
Composition: Six of the seven songs on the album are Page and Plant compositions; the remaining song being credited to all four band members. This can be explained by the fact that the majority of the songs were formulated at Malibu, where Page (but not Bonham and Jones) had initially joined a recuperating Plant. With Plant at less than full fitness, Page took responsibility for the album’s completion, and his playing dominates the album’s tracks.
Both Page and Plant had planned this album’s recording session as a return to hard rock, much like their debut album, except at a new level of complexity. It marked a change in the Led Zeppelin sound towards more straightforward, guitar-based jams. Whereas their previous albums up to and including the previous year’s Physical Graffiti contain electric hard rock anthems balanced with acoustic ballads and intricate arrangements, Presence was seen to include more simplified riffs, and is Led Zeppelin’s only studio album that features no keyboards, and with the exception of a rhythm track on “Candy Store Rock”, no acoustic guitar. The record stands in sharp contrast to their next album In Through the Out Door, which features keyboards on all tracks and pushes Page’s guitar into the background on several songs (most notably on “Carouselambra”, where Jones takes the lead on a synthesizer for most of the song, and Page is not truly heard until four minutes into the song).
The changed stylistic emphasis on this album was a direct result of the troubled circumstances experienced by the band around the time of its recording. As Page said at the time:
“I think it was just a reflection of the total anxiety and emotion of that period. There’s a hell of a lot of spontaneity about that album. We went in with virtually nothing and everything just came pouring out.”
Plant expressed similar views, stating:
“It was really like a cry of survival. There won’t be another album like it, put it like that. It was a cry from the depths, the only thing that we could do.”
In contrast to earlier albums that contained several tracks that the band chose to play live at Led Zeppelin concerts, only two tracks from Presence were played in full on stage while the band was active. “Achilles Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” were added to the setlist for the 1977 tour of the United States and stayed through the band’s final concerts in 1980. Some of the guitar solo from “Tea for One” was also incorporated into “Since I’ve Been Loving You” in these shows, but the actual song was never performed live until the Page and Plant tour of Japan in 1996, where it received three airings backed by an orchestra. “For Your Life” was played in full by Led Zeppelin for the first time at the Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert on 10 December 2007.
The lack of live interpretations of the Presence material is perhaps understandable given that it would be a full year before they would return to the road.
Album sleeve design: The cover and inside sleeve of this album, created by Hipgnosis, features various images of people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped object. Inside the album sleeve, the item is referred to simply as “The Object.” It was intended to represent the “force and presence” of Led Zeppelin. In the liner notes of the first Led Zeppelin boxed set, Page explained:
“There was no working title for the album. The record-jacket designer said ‘When I think of the group, I always think of power and force. There’s a definite presence there.’ That was it. He wanted to call it ‘Obelisk.’ To me, it was more important what was behind the obelisk. The cover is very tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest. Sort of a joke on [the film] 2001. I think it’s quite amusing.”
The background used in the cover photograph is of an artificial marina that was installed inside London’s Earl’s Court Arena for the annual Earl’s Court Boat Show that was held in the winter of 1974–75. This was the same venue where the band played a series of concerts a few months after the boat show, in May 1975.
In 1977 Hipgnosis and George Hardie were nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package.
Release and critical reception: The album was released on 31 March 1976, having been delayed by the completion of the album sleeve. In Britain it attained one of the highest ever advance orders, shipping gold on the day of release. It peaked at #1 on the US Billboard Pop Albums chart, leaping from #24 inside two weeks. However, this album has not been one of the band’s biggest sellers, and it received lukewarm reviews upon its release. In late 1976 the album was also overshadowed by the release of the band’s movie and soundtrack The Song Remains the Same.
According to Dave Lewis, “The direct, hard-hitting nature of the seven recordings failed to connect with a fan base more accustomed to the diversity and experimental edge of their previous work. Page later acknowledged that, because the album conveys a sense of urgency resulting from the troubled circumstances in which it was recorded, “it’s not an easy album for a lot of people to access … It’s not an easy album for a lot of people to listen to.”
However, despite its initially subdued reception, Lewis considers that Presence has become a much underrated element of their catalogue. The basic drums-bass-guitars formula may lack the diversity of previous Zeppelin sets, but in terms of sheer energy, ‘Presence’ packs a considerable punch, and has emerged as one of their most potent performances… This album is also a triumph for Jimmy Page. His production and dominant guitar style has an urgency and passion that reflects the troubled period that the group were going through at the time. ‘Presence’ is Led Zeppelin with their backs against the wall.
Music journalist Stephen Davis (author of Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods) gave Presence a mixed review in Rolling Stone when it was released but revised his opinion over the years, declaring Presence his favourite Led Zeppelin album and the best on-record studio representation of the band’s elemental sound.