Graded on a Curve:
Led Zeppelin,
In Through the Out Door

Now listen here: Once upon a time there was a band called Led Zeppelin, and they laid down more barbaric heavy metal riffs than anybody, ever. They came from the land of ice and snow, and produced a Hun-like din, and if you heard them approaching your castle walls the wisest move was to flee via the back door. Guitarist Jimmy Page seemed to possess an inexhaustible repertoire of battering ram riffs designed to smash through castle gates, and what he couldn’t turn to splinters John Bonham, his catapult-fisted drummer, could. There was nobody quite like them when it came to the employment of brute and unremitting force, and there never will be.

But in case you haven’t noticed there are no Huns rampaging across the countryside raping and repining, haven’t been for centuries. Because nothing lasts forever, and so it went for Led Zeppelin, who officially disbanded in December 1980, several months after Bonham died from asphyxiation of vomit following a day of supernatural drinking (four quadruple vodkas—and that was just breakfast!).

Led Zeppelin’s first six LPs are unimpeachably great; the debate over quality arises only in relation to their final three albums, one of which (1982’s Coda) was a collection of unreleased odds and sods from sessions that took place years before. Me, I’m primarily interested in their final studio LP, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Critical reaction was at first lukewarm at best. Over the years, however, there has been a reappraisal, with many a critic eating his words. So which is it? Led Zeppelin at their best, or worst? Or somewhere in that vast middle ground, where the bustle in the hedgerow is just the spring clean of the May Queen?

Well, let me tell you. The album doesn’t exactly suck, but it’s subpar by Zep standards, and the reason is simple; both Page and Bonham were virtually side-lined by their addictions to heroin and alcohol, respectively, leaving singer Robert Plant and bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones to do the bulk of the creative lifting. The result was a softer, more pop-oriented sound, to say nothing of a 10-and-a-half minute tune that pushed Page to the background while Jones dominated with his keyboards and synthesizer. The litmus test for one’s liking In Through the Out Door is the romantic ballad “All My Love.” If you like it, you will probably like the LP; if it strikes you as treacle, your reaction to the album is likely to vary from indifference to disgust. I’ll give you two guesses as to which side I’m on.

Proof that the old Led Zeppelin still had legs is right there in the opening track, “In the Evening.” It opens with some Middle Eastern paradiddle produced by Jones, Plant sings, “In the evening,” and then the song explodes, thanks to one of Page’s patented pummeling riffs. Plant may be unintelligible except on the choruses, but it doesn’t matter much, what with Page knocking off power chords, Bonham beating his drums the way he was prone to beat innocents when in a drunken frenzy, and Jones providing a nice wash of synthesizers to back up Page. There’s a brief interlude during which the band plays nice, but it doesn’t last; they quickly return to destroying eardrums, while Plant sings about how he wants, needs, has to have, and can’t live without your love.

“South Bound Saurez” is a fast-paced romp, with Plant and Jones’ honky-tonk piano dominating. Page remains pretty much in the background (it was one of two songs in Zep history where he received no songwriting credit) until he takes from and center to play a phenomenal solo, while Jones’ piano provides excellent backing. As for Plant, he’s at the top of his form, and sings up a storm until the song goes out with Jones really going at the old 88s. As for the spritely “Fool in the Rain,” it boasts a samba beat and I think of it as Zep lite, with Page more or less missing in action. Where are those Big Bertha guitar riffs? Nobody knows. Jones dominates the sound with his keyboards, and even Bonham sounds civilized. It’s not until a whistle sounds and the tempo kicks up a notch or two that things get interesting; Jones plays some great piano, and Bonham hammers away on the percussion, and I hear steel drums, although the album credits make no mention of them. Meanwhile, Page plays a solo using utilizing an MXR Blue Box pedal, which gives his guitar a synthesizer-like sound. Personally, I don’t like it. Gimme rape and pillage! Gimme the Dark Ages of primal guitar! The LP was already top-heavy with keyboards and synthesizers; who needs more?

“Hot Dog” is an old-school guitar and piano rave-up, saloon music, and by anybody else would sound great. But by Led Zeppelin standards it’s a lightweight thing, despite Plant’s stutter and the excellent chorus. Page plays a raucous guitar solo, Plant comes on like Jerry Lee Lewis, and it’s thoroughly likeable even if it is a trifle. It’s just that I prefer my hot dogs topped by heavy metal. It’s followed by the epic “Carouselambra,” a multi-part tune that is more prog than rock, thanks to Jones’ synthesizers, which take the place of Page’s guitar.

Jones does some real showing off, and why am I haunted by the ghostly visage of Keith Emerson? The second part features Page but is a slow slog, with a few faster passages interspersed through it. The song then segues into a perkier section that I’m tempted to label fusion, during which Page’s Gizmotron—a guitar attachment that produces a synthesized sound—dominates, while Bonham supplies some big drum crash. It’s perky and bubbly and works to a climax, and frankly I’m not a fan, because why have Page play a guitar that sounds like a synthesizer when a) the song could use some toughening up and b) the tune is already dominated by Jones’ synthesizers? But synthesizers aside, the song fails because it isn’t catchy enough, and only its first section is particularly captivating. It sounds more like an Frankenstein’s monster of virtuosity than a well-put together song, and as we all know exercises in virtuosity are what prog rock is all about, and this is the only Led Zeppelin song I can think of where the playing takes precedence over the tune.

I’ve never liked “All My Love” and I’m not alone; Page (who had no part in writing it) would later say, “I was not really very keen on ‘All My Love’… I thought, ‘That is not us. That is not us.’” Agreed. What it is, ultimately, is a synth-driven ballad; good for wooing your girl, perhaps, but not a bone-crushing Zep tune of yore. Even the instrumental passage is weak-kneed, and while I like Jones’ synthesizer solo and Page’s brief solo, the song remains the shame, and too squishy for words. Could this really be the band that gave us “The Immigrant Song”? Small wonder Page would later say that the entire LP “was a little soft” and that both he and Bonham were determined to make their next effort “a hard-driving rock album.”

As for LP closer “The Crawl,” it’s a partial success. Jones’ synthesizer opening is too pretty by far, and the title is appropriate, and if it weren’t for the occasional big guitar riffs, the climaxes during which Plant repeats, “Every little bit/Every little bit/Of my love,” and Page’s guitar solo, I would write it off. Even with the climaxes it doesn’t measure up to Led Zeppelin’s best work, but it’s far from a disgrace, and saves the band from going out on “All My Love.”

I will maintain until the end of my days that In Through the Out Door was a sad finale for the band that ruled the world, although there are a billion Zep fans out there who will no doubt disagree with me. It’s a pity that Bonham and Page never got around to making that “hard-driving rock album” they were intent upon creating, but given their titanic substance abuse it may never have been, even had Bonham lived. Page, in particular, had lost the thread, and his use of both heroin and cocaine at least through the early eighties seemed sure to have, despite his adamant denials, severely curtailed his creative input to the band. One need only look at his shameful membership in The Firm to know that he was no longer the God of Riffs he once was, regardless of whether drugs were to blame or not.

But no matter. It’s the rare band that goes out at the top of its game. Lynyrd Skynyrd pulled it off, and all it took was a tragic plane crash. At least Led Zeppelin isn’t still around like The Who, who have sullied their reputation beyond repair in exchange for filthy lucre. I will always admire Led Zeppelin for calling it quits after Bonzo’s death; not only did they rock harder than perhaps any band ever, they also demonstrated the most integrity. They found themselves at that crossroads that Plant sings about in “Stairway to Heaven,” and they took the right path. Hurrah for them, says I, and long live the Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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