Top of the Pops: Presence

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June 21, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Despite the fact that Led Zeppelin I, III, and Houses of the Holy were all met with underwhelming reviews, revisionist history has been incredibly kind to them, insofar as all later reviews laud them as seminal albums.  History and hindsight haven’t been as kind to Presence however, the band’s penultimate album.  Although not as reviled as In Through the Out Door, Presence is the most neglected and overlooked all of Led Zeppelin’s albums.

Part of the reason for the disregard that Presence garners is because even though there are some great cuts on the album, all the songs never come together to form a fully functional album.  The other reason for the lukewarm reaction towards Presence is that this album marks the beginning of the end for the band.  The album was recorded shortly after Robert Plant almost died in a car accident, and just as Jimmy Page was beginning his descent into heroin addiction.  Right in the middle of their U.S. tour in support of the album, Page’s son tragically passed away due to a stomach infection.  It was also at this time that John Bonham’s alcoholism began to become a serious liability to the band and to himself.  Despite itself, Presence is automatically linked to a bunch of bad memories of the band, which lends themselves to the poor reception of the band.  The biggest fault of Presence isn’t bad luck or poor timing, it’s the fact that this is the sound of Physical Graffiti Led Zeppelin trying to be Led Zeppelin II Led Zeppelin.  By 1976 no one needed Led Zeppelin II part two, especially coming off the heels of Physical Graffiti.

The first four songs are all plus to amazing songs.  The album starts off the last canonical Led Zeppelin epic, “Achilles Last Stand”.  This song in its entirety represents the band at the very end of their creative peak and talent.  The guitar work is perfect, the drumming will put you into cardiac arrest and Plant’s vocals (sung from a wheelchair) will blow you away.  The only other song on the album that rivals “Achilles Last Stand” is “Nobody Fault but Mine” with its blistering harmonica solo and crunching bassline that will grind your bones into powder.  Objectively these are the two best songs on the album, but despite being only seven tracks deep, a few hidden gems remain.

“For Your Life”, the band’s collective dark horse favorite, is also one of the most forgotten and unknown of all the band’s songs.  If it’s even possible to hold the title of most underrated Led Zeppelin song, it would go to “For Your Life” a rocker with a western twang to layer its heavy groove.  Sandwiched between “For Your Life” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is “Royal Orleans” the most fun and laid back song on the album.  The first of two Zeppelin songs to infuse Latin dance beats, “Royal Orleans” tells the story of a certain bassist who mistook a transvestite prostitute for a real woman, got high with him (her?) and then accidently burnt down their hotel.

The rest of the album, the final three tracks, range between decent (“Candy Store Rock”) to unbearable (“Tea for One”).  Had more songs been recorded for Presence, it’s entirely imaginable that “Candy Store Rock”, essentially a C-prequel to “Rock and Roll”, and “Hots on for Nowhere”, arguably the most superfluous Led Zeppelin song, to have been B-sides instead.  The only track that is a pure failure though is “Tea for One”, a track that quite literally chokes and suffocates on its own girth.  Of all their ballads, “Tea for One” is the weakest and and most useless.  Unlike “Achilles Last Stand”, which clocks in at over 10 minutes, “Tea for One” drags its feet all throughout the final nine minutes of the album bringing Presence to an unsatisfying and anticlimactic end to the album.

Because it’s an album that is focused on stripping down Led Zeppelin’s sounds and bring it back to what it was before 1971, it’s an album that is too focused on electric hard rocking songs.  This simple formula was not only too simple for Led Zeppelin in 1976, but it wasn’t executed properly throughout the album.  The biggest stumbling block though is finishing the album with “Tea for One”, an unwelcomed and mistimed ballad that tries to drown us all in misery and loneliness.  To put it bluntly, it’s a boring song that harkens back to the timing and pacing issues that plagued Led Zeppelin I.  Overall, Presence is an album that will only be listened to and appreciated by Led Zeppelin fans, not the casual listener.  And even after it’s all been said and done, it’ll take a few listens to really grasp and appreciate the good that the albums achieves.  Achilles last stand came in battle within the walls of the city of Troy; Led Zeppelin’s last stand began in Greece with the production of Presence, the marker of the beginning of the end of the world’s greatest rock band.

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