Led Zeppelin: "Presence" (1976)

-Brian Costello

Let's call "Presence" the great underrated album in Led Zeppelin's recorded output rather than overlooked, because, despite how you never seem to hear anything from it on classic rock radio, not even when they're "Gettin' the Led Out," it's a safe bet "Presence" outsold every single release from every single band ever reviewed in Terminal Boredom times 100,000. Still, it's not the record people think of when they get to thinking about dear old Led Zep.

It's a crying shame, because it's not without merit. So I'm like: What better place to rectify this sad state of affairs than the fussbuckety e-pages of the mighty Terminal Boredom? I'm sure John Paul Jones has some bills to pay, and so anything this intrepid columnist can do to help out is the least I can do as thanks for everything Zeppelin has ever done for me.

The "problem" with "Presence" as it pertains to a record-buying public keen on "Communication Breakdown," "Whole Lotta Love," and the rest of Zep's faerie and lemon-squeezing mojoish good-time heavy oeurvre, and what makes it stand out from the other nine albums released between 69-82, is the sheer Darkness of it. Not Darkness in a Black Sabbath way; no, more like the darkness of the soul waiting there after an all-nite whiskey and coke binge going on for year after year after year. It's not really depressing, just pensive and introverted.

"Presence" gives you the idea something's not right with the people making the record, right down to the cool-creepy Hipgnosis cover with that black obelisk like a mini version of the "2001: A Space Odyssey" monolith plopped right in the middle of a well-dressed family sitting down to dinner.

Speaking of Hipgnosis, I like the "Presence" cover the best of all their fantastic record artwork. I dig 70's album art made by Hipgnosis and Roger Dean way more than anything done before or since. There's a real pursuit of quality and hardearned creativity unmatched since punk's mindless gluestick n' crayola ethic cheapened and degraded the whole culture to the point where 98% of the mass production of arrested adolescents is less an inheritance of a musical tradition and more of a rehash of the same exhausted music and attitude we've heard a kajillion times before.

But it's really the music where this feeling comes. Jimmy Page's guitar sounds positively satanic in "Achille's Last Stand," perhaps Zeppelin's best song of their "Wizard and Warlock Mystickal" genre. Heart later ripped off this gallopy rhythm for their song "Barracuda," but why this ten minute jam isn't in some ultraviolent modern-day noir film is a mystery I cannot fathom. The triplet militaristic breakdowns are way heavier than similar breakdowns attempted in the Avengers' cover of "Paint It, Black" or "California Uber Alles." Never has Jimmy Page's self-indulgent yet excessive guitar overdubs sounded so freakin' sublime. And Bonham? He never sucked, and the cymbal/drum fills in "Achille's Last Stand" have influenced this drummer in ways I refuse to acknowledge.

If the rest of "Presence" was a dud, "Achille's Last Stand" would still carry the rest of "Presence" by its lonesome, but every song on here is not without merit. With the next song on Side One, "For Your Life," we get the beginning of the reflective quality weaving a rich tapestry (I always wanted to use that phrase..."rich tapestry"...I can write ad copy for the Chicago radio station "The Drive" now...) of the perils of excess. Just before going in to record "Presence," Robert Plant broke his leg in a car accident and around that same time, his son died. These tragic events surely tempered his ultra-annoying caterwauling infecting the repeat-and-fades (another unique element lacking in "Presence" unlike other Zep LPs) of most early Zeppelin, all that "BABY BABY PUSH NO YEAH EWWW NO MAMA YEAH LOVE GIMME PUSH YEAH!"

In its place are reflective songs about too much coke use like "For Your Life," or the hazards of "whisker kissing" in "Royal Orleans," a song I remember from my voracious reading of the Led Zeppelin bio "Hammer of the Gods" back when I was 14 as being about John Paul Jones's accidental liason with a transvestite in New Orleans. "Royal Orleans" could have fit nicely as an '82-era Minutemen song with its bent-ass angular syncopated funk groove.

Now we go to Side Two, and "Nobody's Fault But Mine." "Hammer of the Gods" author Stephen Davis insisted this song was about Robert Plant's lament over selling his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth and fame and women. (If that's all it takes, why isn't Deicide topping both the Forbes and Billboard 500 Lists while living in a golden mansion in Tampa with a harem of 10,000 nubile virgins?) That's some malarkey to debate another time, but be that as it may, "Nobody's Fault But Mine" is a sweet classic Zeppelin jam with all the elements we love about Zeppelin--the ponderous arrangements, the solos, the loud as fuck drums, the total ball-dragging heaviness of the whole thing while still never forgetting the musicality. It could almost fit in as a "Physical Graffiti" track, but no. It epitomizes "Presence" in its heaviness, in its lack of folksy, acoustic wussy sap which always polluted earlier Led Zeppelin releases (except for "Bron-Yr-Aur" and the wonderful "Tangerine," especially when played at parties by Dusty Mistreater) or problematic experiements with other genres like reggae and hoedowns ("D'yer Maker" and "Hot Dog," respectively).

The next song is "Candy Store Rock." It's the token "Let Robert Plant break out his Elvis impersonation" track required on every single Led Zeppelin release." (Musta been a contractual obligation.) Despite this, it's still quite good, and in fact, it would be truly amazing to see one of these One Man Bands attempt it. It has that stripped-down potentiality there if you can ignore the usual Zeppelin excessiveness.

"Hots on for Nowhere" is almost a throwaway track, except the coda at the end makes it enjoyable, especially with the Bonham/Page interplay, but really, by this point, I just wanna hear "Tea for One."

"Tea for One" is the usual "blues" song (there's always one or more) on every Zeppelin record. It starts out real wicked and heavy on the guitar with a "Kashmir"-style rockbeat, but then it switches to slow blues like "Since I've Been Lovin' You." The song's about down time--of waiting for the show to start in some strange town, of "watching for the hands to move, til I just can't look no more." It's also about the precariousness of the musician's life, especially the successful musician. Again, the reflective quality like you only hear in great songs like "Sunday Morning", "Sunday Morning Coming Down," or "Swingin' Party." In a bastard artform like rocknroll, Led Zeppelin were the biggest bastards, but in "Tea for One," Robert Plant actually has soul, instead of just a voice approximating soul, a maturity and maybe actual suffering, definitely not Ledbelly suffering, but it's there and tangible where before it was mere imitation.

It's a sad and reflective way to end a record that isn't a rocknroll party like we usually expect from Led Zep. But despite this, there isn't a single acoustic guitar on "Presence," and very little mention of wizards, hobbits, mayqueens, and all that corny shit. This is Zeppelin just past the peak of Their Time, and everything there afterwards would be a reaction and reckoning with punk rock and other vastly different musical aesthetics than the rules Page and Co. created by. But "Presence" is a record where these guys seem almost...almost...human.

'Closet Cases' is devoted to staff member's ramblings on albums either overlooked, critically maligned, universlly hated, generally thought to be shitty, lame, and/or just plain old b-a-d. It will look at records that perhaps fall out of scope of TB's ususal underground ghetto, mainstream releases that are reviled for no good reason, popular artists' worst outings (or what are conceived to be), supposedly unlistenable genre fare, and other such things. The title refers to the fact that we all have a few records on our closets that need to come out and have their cases heard. Stay tuned, and if you've built a convincing case for a closet record, drop us a line: termibore-at-aol-dot-com.