The Class of 1970: Led Zeppelin III

For a good time, get half a dozen or so friends together and ask them which is their favorite Led Zeppelin album. You’ll spark lots of great discussion, with likely votes for their debut (1969), Led Zeppelin II (also 1969), IV / Runes / unnamed (1971), Houses of the Holy (1973), and Physical Graffiti (1975). We love all of those and more, but let us suggest that Led Zeppelin III is an unsung masterpiece, a story in two distinct parts.

Led Zeppelin III inside gatefold

Led Zep released their second album October 22, 1969, and by November they were working on the next album. They would complete work on it in August and release Led Zeppelin III on October 5, 1970. It marked a departure from the first two albums; those were primarily blues- and rock tinged. That certainly describes side one of this new album, but with a very acoustic side two, the quartet showed that they were capable of a much wider range of sounds.

Led Zeppelin

The original band were: Robert Plant, vocals; Jimmy Page, guitars, pedal steel guitar, banjo, backing vocals in “Tangerine,” production; John Paul Jones, bass, Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, mandolin, double bass in “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” string arrangement in “Friends”; and John Bonham, drums, percussion. Peter Grant was executive producer; Andy Johns was recording and mixing engineer; Terry Manning was mixing and mastering engineer.

Led Zeppelin III deluxe reissue

 

The cover

Oh, for the glorious days of vinyl records with their magnificent covers! Atlantic SD 7201 boasted a gatefold cover, and the front part contained a volvelle: a wheel inside the double-fold with a collage of images that could be turned at the album opening; portions of the images were visible through eleven circle cutouts on the front. Zacron was the artist who designed it. The complexities of the cover caused a two-month delay in the album’s release. [It was worth it!]

Led Zeppelin III volvelle

 

Led Zeppelin III

Side One

This album made a marked departure from the group’s first two album. Up to this point, Zep’s acoustic music consisted of “Black Mountain Side,” “White Summer,” and “Thank You.” Led Zeppelin III would show that the group was not a one-trick pony, and this album delved deeply into psychedelia as well.

The voice and echo feedback before the guitar flails immediately identifies “Immigrant Song,” nasty bass, reversed guitar, and Plant’s voice extended to its full range, and those “AAHEEHAAH”s! Valhalla for the win. This one is short but brilliant radio fare.

More unusual sounds and background conversation introduce “Friends.” Page’s acoustic guitar is superb, the bass droning, and Plant wailing. Jones did the string arrangements here. Plant’s chameleon-like voiceis magic as he sings this great chorus:

Mmm, I’m telling you now
The greatest thing you ever can do now
Is trade a smile with someone who’s blue now
It’s very easy, just-

  As the song winds down, the strings, bass drone, guitar, and vocals all build to a crescendo before yielding to the mesmerizing Moog synthesizer drone that gets deeper and slower and then suddenly explodes into…

“Celebration Day,” Page’s guitar and Jones’ wicked bass grabbing you before Bonham kicks the song into overdrive, twisting the beat around. Page’s double-tracked guitars are so good here, especially the James Brown-style rhythm.

Led Zeppelin

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” follows in the footsteps of the blues songs that lit up the first two Zep albums. This is deep-down, honestly delivered blues, Jones on organ and bass pedals coloring the track as Page pulls out all the stops. This song quickly became a concert staple.

For an all-out aural assault, dig Page’s use of violin bow on guitar on “Out On the Tiles,” matching up with the bass. Bonham’s drums roll around inside your headphones. Plant and Page are also credited, but this is Bonham’s baby.

 

Side Two

“Gallows Pole” is a traditional song arranged by Page and Plant. Side two is a light year away from side one, making this such a great departure from their previous work. The beautiful acoustic guitar, echoes, is joined by Plant telling the story of a man hoping to cheat the hangman. Jones enters next on mandolin and then overdubbed on bass. Then it’s time for Page on banjo and Bonham on kit to heat it way up. That’s Page on electric guitar, too.

“Tangerine” is the only song on the album that is Page’s alone. He and Plant wrote all the others (except for “Hat Off to (Roy) Harper”), three with Jones, one with Bonham. Acoustic guitar and Plant’s vocals are heard before Jones, Bonham, and Page on pedal steel guitar jump in. Page also takes an electric guitar solo. They have successful entered the realm of folk and country folk music, paving the way for songs on Led Zeppelin IV.

Plant’s voice sounds so tender on songs such as “That’s the Way” and the others on this side on the vinyl record. More pedal steel here as well. Page offers backing vocals. Page’s deft touch with the acoustic guitar again stands out.

Inside the album cover, there is a dedication:

Credit must be given to BRON-Y-AUR, a small derelict cottage in South Snowdonia for painting a somewhat forgotten picture of true completeness which acted as an incentive to some of these musical statements — August 1970

“That’s the Way” was one of those songs, “about the problems two people faced in a relationship and the clashes with their families.” [Wikipedia] “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” was another, originally an electric tune they redid as an acoustic romp. Acoustic guitar is again out front, before Bonham’s front porch stomp sets the pace. Jones offers a great bass line. Plant’s double-track vocals are perfection. The hand-clapping screams country folk.

“Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is a tribute to their friend, folk singer Roy Harper. It is built on Bukka White’s “Shake ’Em On Down.” Plant’s voice was altered by means of a vibrato amplifier to magical effect. Page’s acoustic slide guitar matches it perfectly.

Led Zeppelin III back cover

Many still regard Led Zeppelin III as their favorite. At the very least, it made it possible for the group to achieve everlasting stardom with the release of their next album the following year.

 

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