I keep nursing this love-hate attitude toward Led Zeppelin. Partly from genuine interest and mostly indefensible hopes, in part from the conviction that nobody that crass could be all that bad, I turn to each fresh album expecting — what? Certainly not subtle echoes of the monolithic Yardbirds, or authentic blues experiments, or even much variety. Maybe it's just that they seem like the ultimate Seventies Calf of Gold.
The Zep, of all bands surviving, are today — their music is as ephemeral as Marvel comix, and as vivid as an old Technicolor cartoon. It doesn't challenge anybody's intelligence or sensibilities, relying instead on a pat visceral impact that will insure absolute stardom for many moons to come. Their albums refine the crude public tools of all dull white blues bands into something awesome in its very insensitive grossness, like a Cecil B. DeMille epic. If I rely so much on visual and filmic metaphors, it's because they apply so exactly. I've never made a Zep show, but friends (most of them the type, admittedly, who will listen- to anything so long's it's loud and they're destroyed) describe a thunderous, near-undifferentiated tidal wave of sound that doesn't engross but envelops to snuff any possible distraction.
Their third album deviates little from the track laid by the first two, even though they go acoustic on several numbers. Most of the acoustic stuff sounds like standard Zep graded down decibelwise, and the heavy blitzes could've been outtakes from Zeppelin II. In fact, when I first heard the album my main impression was the consistent anonymity of most of the songs — no one could mistake the band, but no gimmicks stand out with any special outrageousness, as did the great, gleefully absurd Orangutang Plant-cum-wheezing guitar freak-out that made "Whole Lotta Love" such a pulp classic. "Immigrant Song" comes closest, with its bulldozer rhythms and Bobby Plant's double-tracked wordless vocal croonings echoing behind the main vocal like some cannibal chorus wailing in the infernal light of a savage fertility rite. What's great about it, though, the Zep's special genius, is that the whole effect is so utterly two-dimensional and unreal. You could play it, as I did, while watching a pagan priestess performing the ritual dance of Ka before the flaming sacrificial altar in Fire Maidens of Outer Space with the TV sound turned off. And believe me, the Zep made my blood throb to those jungle rhythms even more frenziedly.
Unfortunately, precious little of Z III's remaining hysteria is as useful or as effectively melodramatic. "Friends" has a fine bitter acoustic lead, but gives itself over almost entirely to monotonously shrill Plant breast-beatings. Rob, give a listen to Iggy Stooge.
"Celebration Day" and "Out On the Tiles" are production-line Zep churners that no fan could fault and no one else could even hear without an effort. "Since I've Been Loving You" represents the obligatory slow and lethally dull seven-minute blues jam, and "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper" dedicates a bottleneck-&-shimmering echo-chamber vocal salad to a British minstrel who, I am told, leans more towards the music-hall tradition.
Much of the rest, after a couple of listenings to distinguish between songs, is not bad at all, because the disc Zeppelin are at least creative enough to apply an occasional pleasing fillip to their uninspiring material, and professional enough to keep all their recorded work relatively clean and clear — you can hear all the parts, which is more than you can say for many of their peers.
Finally I must mention a song called "That's the Way," because it's the first song they've ever done that has truly moved me. Son of a gun, it's beautiful. Above a very simple and appropriately everyday acoustic riff, Plant sings a touching picture of two youngsters who can no longer be playmates because one's parents and peers disapprove of the other because of long hair and being generally from "the dark side of town." The vocal is restrained for once — in fact, Plant's intonations are as plaintively gentle as some of the Rascals' best ballad work — and a perfectly modulated electronic drone wails in the background like melancholy harbor scows as the words fall soft as sooty snow: "And yesterday I saw you standing by the river / I read those tears that filled your eyes / And all the fish that lay in dirty water dying / Had they got you hypnotized?" Beautiful, and strangely enough Zep. As sage Berry declared eons ago, it shore goes to show you never can tell.