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Album Of The Week Club Review: Led Zeppelin - Presence

Presence is an album Jimmy Page rates as one of Led Zeppelin's best... but it was made under very difficult circumstances

Led Zeppelin - Presence

1. Achilles Last Stand
2. For Your Life
3. Royal Orleans
4. Nobody's Fault But Mine
5. Candy Store Rock
6. Hots On For Nowhere
7. Tea For One

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When Led Zeppelin's Presence was released on March 31, 1976 it was another instant No.1 hit, going gold in the UK (platinum in the US) on advance sales alone, and becoming the fastest-selling album in the Atlantic Records group’s history. Reviews were generally good too.

But sales soon tailed off, just as they had for Led Zeppelin III and Houses Of The Holy, initial excitement failing to translate into wider general interest among non-partisan record buyers as what was – correctly – perceived as the album’s generally depressing ambience became known.

Depressing was hardly surprising. Before Presence Zeppelin were at the very top of the mountain, able to look down on nearest rivals such as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd from a considerable height. Unstoppable, unbreachable, invulnerable, nothing could go wrong. Until suddenly it did. And nothing would ever be the same again. 

Listen to Presence:

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. Join the group now.

Here’s what we learned about Presence…

Background

Just a few short months after their record-breaking, five-night run at London's legendary Earls Court venue, it all went wrong for Led Zeppelin. A car being driven by Plant's wife Maureen on the Greek island of Rhodes plunged off a precipice and into a tree. She suffered a fractured skull and broke her pelvis and leg, while Plant shattered his right ankle and elbow and snapped several bones in his right leg. 

"This could be the end of Led Zeppelin,” said Zeppelin manager Peter Grant. “This might be the end of the line.”

Jimmy Page was also devastated by the news. “I was shattered,” he said. He had “always felt”, though, “that no matter what happened, provided he could still play and sing, and even if we could only make albums, that we’d go on forever”. 

With the band’s ambitious touring plans put on indefinite hold, it was decided to get to work on the next Zeppelin album. By the end of September, Plant, his wheelchair and his crutches were being boarded onto a British Airways flight to Los Angeles, where Page was waiting for him in a rented beach house in Malibu Colony.

Work described by Page as “gruelling” because, he said, “nobody else really came up with song ideas. It was really up to me to come up with all the riffs, which is probably why [the songs were] guitar-heavy. But I don’t blame anybody. We were all kind of down.”

But it might explain why it's one of Page's favourites. “It was the first album all over again, with Jimmy in total control of everything and hardly anyone else getting a say," says Tight But Loose editor Dave Lewis. "That’s why there was no Boogie With Stu or Hats Off To Harper on that album, no Mellotrons, acoustic guitars or keyboards of any kind – no Jonesy! It was all Jimmy. No one else really got a look in.”

Other albums released in March 1976

  • Slade - Nobody's Fools
  • Kiss - Destroyer
  • Judas Priest - Sad Wings Of Destiny
  • Santana - Amigos
  • Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak
  • Camel - Moonmadness
  • Three Dog Night - American Pastime
  • Status Quo - Blue For You
  • Nazareth - Close Enough For Rock 'n' Roll
  • Sweet - Give Us A Wink
  • Steven Stills - Illegal Stills
  • Wishbone Ash - Locked In
  • Joe Walsh - You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind

What they said

"Zeppelin's main concern here is to establish a reliable riff and stick to it, without complicating things too much with melody or nuance. At their best, the riffs are clean and purifying. The two dreary examples of blooze ("Tea for One," "For Your Life") may stretch even the diehards' loyalty, but make no mistake: Presence is another monster in what by now is a continuing tradition of battles won by this band of survivors." (Rolling Stone)

"Same Old Same Old. Do you care?" (Creem)

"Although well-documented personal adversities and escalating habits had put the band on the back foot, 1976’s Presence was both the nearest Zeppelin ever got to recreating their live power in a studio setting, and the album that bears closest inspection and repeated listening when the familiarity of earlier high spots has been exhausted... It’s far more in keeping with the milieu-reflecting mindset of In Through The Out Door than the album whose cut it just missed. It’s impressive and not a little disquieting. While it might be a stretch to say the history books have to be rewritten, it raises questions about its pedigree, and why it has been hibernating all these years." (Classic Rock)

"Presence was Led Zeppelin’s most human album, and for some that may be off-putting. But it was an album that they themselves needed to record at the time to prove that they would be able to rebound from inner turmoil as resiliently as they recovered from external strife. Because of this indestructibility and their ability to make perfect records, the band gained this aura of divinity and mysticism. Long has Led Zeppelin been portrayed as gods; on Presence the gods came down from Olympus." (PopMatters)

What you said

James Utvandraren: All streaks must end. As in sports, so also in music. Led Zeppelin had a solid good run with IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, creating some of the more exciting and adventurous classic rock staples of all time in the process, and by the time Presence came out, they were the ones to beat. Their genius was unquestioned, their musicianship well respected and their legacy cemented in the bedrock of history already. Presence was the first Zep release on their own label, Swan Song, and it gave the band full creative control of the band’s input and output. More so, it put Jimmy Page in the driver’s seat, and basically let him run the show. Was that a good thing? You would think.

All in all, Presence afforded the band all the opportunities in the world to make this album their most profound musical statement yet. However, it seems they lost sight of the prize, and they choked and coughed up a mediocre and forgetful hairball instead. Save for Achilles Last Stand and Tea for One, this record remains their most disappointing release. (Yes, by the time the softer In Through the Out Door came out, expectations were not exactly sky high.)

Still, three classics in a row, before this one, is pretty damn good.

Olav Martin Bjørnsen: For me, Presence comes across as an uneven album. A production where mix and production comes across as rushed at times, where too many of the songs feels more like sketches and unfinished material than properly developed songs. The musicians are great of course, which sees to it that even the weakest songs manage to come across as pleasing, but for me at least this is in sum a bit more of an average album, but where the presence of Tea For One, Nobody's Fault But Mine and the majestic beauty of Achilles Last Stand manages to elevate the final impression somewhat.

Sean W Vandeman: For me the music was superb, but the lyrics always hit a hard place in my life that really helped to get thru some tough junk. Really kinda what could've been kinda writing. They lost a lot in this time and still carried the torch! Amen to Zep!

Pepe Sedergren: Jimmy is on peak form here. Inspired, bluesy, raw but deep. Brilliant album, one of their finest.

Andrew Williams: The early Zep catalogue is awesome but sounds of its time. Presence still sounds modern but not in a bad way like ITTOD. It's bloody fantastic!

Jim Linning: To my ears the best-produced Led Zep album with a lovely clear sound. I do think however that the cover is somehow out of keeping with previous albums and slightly jars with me. The contents are brilliant though; Achilles Last Stand, Nobody's Fault But Mine and Tea For One are bona fide classics. Only Candy Store Rock sounds like 'filler' to me.  Solid 9/10 here

Nathan Anastassiou: Achillies Last Stand justifies the album on it's own. A lot of people don't like the album, but a lot of people don't like it when Zeppelin doesn't fit neatly into the Whole Lotta Love box that vulture music journalists put them in during 70's.

Vinnie Evanko: I love it. It's clear that it's a Jimmy Page album as it's loaded with guitar. It's probably Zeppelin's hardest rocking album from beginning to end. Sure, it wouldn't have been a bad thing to stick an acoustic number in there somewhere or add a little more light to some of the shade, but next to PG and the fourth album, it's probably my next favorite, right up there with LZ II.

Kev Moore: My God, what an album this is. I bought it at the time, and I was blown away by it. It hasn't dated at all. If it finished after Achilles Last Stand it would be better than most rock albums. But there are some blistering tracks on here. The songs just keep on coming - For Your Life, what riffage! And the funk of Royal Orleans, glorious. Then, that otherworldly slide on amphetamines, and Bonzo and JPJ with a brilliantly epileptic staccato funk counterpoise to the swirling beauty of Plant's eastern wail. It's bloody marvellous. When I put Achilles on, I am transported back to that magical night when I saw them open with it at a secret gig in Copenhagen, pre-Knebworth. They were on fire. Soon, Bonham would be gone. But that night, and on this album - they were Gods.

Sören Eriksson: The good stuff (Achilles... Nobody’s Fault... Great! And For Your Life is one of my all time Zep favourites!) is as good as anything else they did, but there are a couple of others that, to me, doesn’t reach those highs.

Iain Macaulay: Four guys. Drums, bass, guitar and voice. A great raw, stripped down, crunchy hard rock album with the most amazing rhythm section performance adorning every song. For me, Tea For One breaks the momentum a bit, but it’s a moot point. The album sounds great and, to me, thrives for the production values. It’s almost a garage band made up of virtuoso musicians rather than punks. And if you think, seven months later the UK musical landscape changed seismically, you could argue.... well, maybe not. Cover is a bit naff though.

Andy Price: I love it. Tea For One is even better than Since I’ve Been Loving You for me. And it’s got Achilles Last Stand and Nobody’s Fault But Mine. What’s not to love?

Drew Goldberg: It's not their best, still a solid record-much better than many albums that were released in '76. With the band in tax exile and Plant in a wheelchair, it's quite forgivable. Achilles Last Stand, Nobody's Fault But Mine and For Your Life are great tunes, the rest seem fillerish.

Dikshit Srikumar: While I value LZ most of the Big Three British hard rock bands, this is the album I despise entirely. Even In Through The Out Door has some bright spots and even masterpieces such as I'm Gonna Crawl — but not this one. I just don't dig the riffs at all (I even fail to remember them despite many attempts to understand the album) and I think the key issue is poor production and dull arrangement. What I especially like about Led Zeppelin (and, for that matter, their successors such as Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots) is their rich and vivid guitar sound which is absent in Presence, being too raw and uninteresting.

Ben L. Connor: This album always seems better in my memory than when I actually listen to it. Achilles Last Stand is of course unbeatable. But after that, the thin sound is pretty alienating, and the songs mostly meander, lacking the dynamism of other Zep albums. Of course, a second-tier Zep album is still better than most other bands’ entire catalogues

Shane Hall: Recorded in just over 2 weeks while Robert Plant was still recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident in Greece, Presence may not be Zeppelin's best, but it is a better album than it's often given credit for being. With Plant still recovering, Jimmy Page's guitars take centerstage, resulting in one of Zeppelin's heaviest albums (personally, I found the absence of an acoustic track to be conspicuous). The highlight far and away is the epic Achilles Last Stand, with its multiple guitar tracks and furious drumming. This track alone should erase any doubts that John Bonham was one of the best at his craft, equaled only by Ginger Baker. Nobody's Fault But Mine is another standout on this album. The rest is a mixed bag. Candy Store Rock has an almost rockabilly groove, while Tea For One is a return to the band's blues roots, but not a particularly memorable one.

Vinnie Evanko: Achilles Last Stand and Nobody's Fault But Mine are two of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs from their entire catalog and the rest of the album very good. For Your Life and Tea For One are killer blues numbers and Royal Orleans is a fun, short rocker. I think Hots On For Nowhere might have been the first track I heard from the album on the radio and I liked it and it's held a warm spot with me since then. Candy Store Rock is one of those fun rockers that is still pretty good considering it's my least favorite song on the album.

Troy Geitman: This record has grown on me over the years. Although not my favorite, Tea For One is stunning. Throw in Achilles Last Stand and Nobody’s Fault But Mine and you’ve got a solid release. Maybe if they would have spent more than a couple of weeks on this it could have been even better.

Boris Bregmen: It probably wouldn’t be the Led Zeppelin album you would play someone to convert them to Zep, but it is a great album. High point being Achilles Last Stand, Nobody’s Fault, Candy Store Rock. Not sure if it is just me but the mix seems way different to the earlier ones. Overall i’d probably rate it third behind II and Physical, because I prefer the Zeppelin stuff that isn’t thrashed on the radio. The cover was just weird.

Hannah Wolfe: Not the band's greatest offering, I think that this record was the beginning of the end of the Led Zeppelin that was once the biggest band in the world. It's clear that Page was obviously in the driver's seat the whole way through with prolonged guitar solos and a lot of focus placed on the lead guitar throughout the whole thing. I think the only two highlights where each member of the band sounds tight and evenly balanced are Achilles Last Stand and Nobody's Fault But Mine. Other than that, this album is fairly underwhelming as far as Zeppelin is concerned.

Mike Knoop: I have said it before and I'll say it again, Achilles Last Stand is the best song the band ever recorded, the most epic of their many epics. The rest of Presence, not so much. Given the circumstances it was recorded under, I can appreciate it, but it’s not so easy to like. Weirdly, most of the other songs are OK on their own, but as a cohesive album, it’s a downer. All of Page’s “light and shade” seems to be tucked into the majestic first track. Royal Orleans and Hots On For Nowhere are fun trifles, but both sandwiched between longer songs that vary between dire and dour. Candy Store Rock rumbles along well enough, but now Plant sounds more like a dirty old man than a “golden god.” Like others have said, Led Zeppelin never released a really bad album, but Presence was the first to need some sort of qualifier.

Jim Rowland: This is an album that I didn’t care for much initially but it grew on me over the years. Nobody’s Fault and Achilles Last Stand are epic, the latter being one of my all time favorites. For Your Life is a kicking groove. The one thing I still don’t care for much is the sound of Plant’s voice but this was the time right after his car accident and I think he recorded much of the record in a prone position.

Ed Brown: I wasn't exactly looking forward to this because I am just so burned out on Led Zeppelin but to my surprise I found myself really, really enjoying this album. It was never my go to for The Zep, that has all changed now. Thank you for opening my eyes to what I considered one of my least favorite Zep albums only beat out by In Through The Out Door. I made the mistake of revisiting that album as well, it still sucks but Presence has officially become my favorite Led Zeppelin album if only because I just can't listen to the first six albums anymore.

Gary Krick: I was a sophomore in college when this came out and I was waiting eagerly (to say the least) for this one after the tremendous, bible of rock, Physical Graffiti. Disappointed was a huge understatement at the time. I think, "Crap" was a term I used then even though Achilles was great. Now, after tons of listens, Tea For One is a constant play and Achilles is a classic. But, overall, still their seventh best studio effort for me.

Final Score: 7.31⁄10 (209 votes cast, with a total score of 1528)

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