“Albumwise, it usually takes a year for people to catch up with what we’re doing,” Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone in 1975. But listeners needed at least a decade to fully absorb the stylistic change-ups on Led Zeppelin III. But listeners needed at least a decade to fully absorb the stylistic change-ups on Led Zeppelin III. The elephant-balled blues rock that had defined Zeppelin’s sound was now tempered down, replaced by a heady strain of wispy, mystic folk rock. Even the album cover was more laid-back, with the band’s trademark down-in-flames Hindenburg imagery replaced by a trippy collage of butterflies and smiling teeth.
“They just couldn’t understand it,” Page vented. “All of a sudden, [the headlines were], ‘Led Zeppelin Go Acoustic!’ I thought, ‘Christ, where are their heads and ears? There were three acoustic songs on the first album, and two on the second.'”
He’s right. But while the mellower tunes from Zeppelin’s early catalog (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Ramble On”) had hints of menace, Led Zeppelin III found Page and Robert Plant fully embracing their softer side – not a surprising move, given the album’s relaxed genesis. By early 1970, the group members had been on the road almost nonstop, and after years of groupie-gobbling decadence, everyone needed a break.
“It was time to step back, take stock and not get lost in it all,” Plant later recalled. “Zeppelin was starting to get very big, and we wanted the rest of our journey to take a pretty level course.”
Page had become enamored with California’s growing singer-songwriter movement – particularly Joni Mitchell – and initially, he and Plant considered holing up in Marin County to be close to the scene. But Plant recalled a childhood trip to a cozy Welsh cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur, so in early 1970, the two men headed to the country, loved ones in tow. The va- cation was originally intended to clear their heads, but Page and Plant spent hours taking long walks and sitting by the night fire, and eventually began churning out the songs that would dominate III.
All those hours of rustic seclusion in the primordial countryside must’ve flipped a switch in them; III isn’t just their most California-folk-influenced album, it’s also their most English – steeped in traditional folk music and ancient history, from the mournful days-gone-by balladry of “That’s the Way” or the folk-tilt boogie of “Gallows Pole,” a centuries-old ballad rebooted by Page and Plant.
By the time they’d returned to England and set up camp at Headley Grange – the remote country house where they’d later work on Led Zeppelin IV – they had an album’s worth of material, some of which predated their Bron-Yr-Aur outing. One such number was “Immigrant Song,” a relentless chug-a-lug of wailing vocals and volcanic viking drama that would kick off not only the album but many of the band’s live shows. “Immigrant” was just one of the album’s memorable electric moments, which also included the brooding slow-blues jam “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the steady-metal throttler “Out on the Tiles” and the splatter-guitar frenzy of “Celebration Day.”
But it’s the all-acoustic second side that initially tripped up Zeppelin fans. The daydream shimmer of “Tangerine” – which would later be memorably employed in Cameron Crowe’s rock saga Almost Famous – demonstrated ￼￼￼￼￼just how closely Page and Plant had been watching the Laurel Canyon scene, while the inexplicably misspelled “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” sounded like a furious hoedown. The album ended with “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” in which the titular folk singer is celebrated with a clamor of spooky slide guitars. For the kids expecting “A Whole Lotta More Love,” listening to Led Zeppelin III must have been a jarring experience – the hard-rock inverse to what Dylan fans felt when he first started plugging in.
Reviewers pounced on the record’s perceived mushiness (it probably didn’t help that “Stomp” was written about Plant’s dog), and sales quickly tapered off. For years, III was considered if not the weakest entry in the group’s catalog, then at least the most disorienting – banshee shrieks one minute, hushed campfire paeans the next. What fans and critics missed, though, was that the album’s heart-on-sleeve, dick-in-pants sincerity wasn’t some cynical bid for credibility, but a necessary survival measure.
“The key to Zeppelin’s longevity,” Page told Rolling Stone, “has been change.” Songs like “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way” were the first that proved Zeppelin capable of that change, and that they weren’t just a group of comically alpha-male riff monsters.
It’d be a stretch to think of III as Zeppelin’s “mature” album – this is, after all, a record that opens with a first-person tale of Nordic conquest – but, at the very least, it proved they could write songs that match the depth and emotional power of the blues and folk they loved and borrowed from. “The third album was the album of albums,” Plant would later say. “If anybody had us labeled as a heavy-metal group, that destroyed them.”
Led Zeppelin may have borrowed liberally from their influences, but plenty of artists co-opted their sound as well. Watch here.