Led Zeppelin is a top ten classic rock band. This is not a ranking blog, it’s a re-look at Led Zeppelin’s final studio album. Why? This is the age of the proctology exam of classic rock albums. There are many video and written blogs devoted to this process, and surprisingly the audience is more than old farts (pardon the pun) like me.
In Through the Out Door is one of the albums getting the poke with the doctor’s finger. Any work by a classic musical group is certainly open to considerable discussion and periodic reassessment. The album was remastered a couple of years ago which brought new attention.
In my own review of In Through the Out Door, my criticism has been pretty frank – I place this album at or near the bottom of Zeppelin’s work.
Rolling Stone interview with Jimmy Page.
Rolling Stone: “I’ve read that after you did In Through the Out Door, you and Bonham wanted to make a heavier Led Zeppelin album. What was your vision for that?”
Jimmy Page: “Well, yeah, we were already doing stuff in 1980. We did a tour of Europe. I think the way to put it is like this: Presence was a guitar album. After that record, John Paul Jones had acquired a “Dream Machine,” a Yamaha [synthesizer]. Stevie Wonder also had one. So it had given him a lot of inspiration. He suddenly actually wrote whole numbers, which he hadn’t done before, and I thought the way to go with this is to feature John Paul Jones on the keyboard. He’d written some stuff with Robert. I thought, “Well, that’s great.” Obviously, at that time, I thought I knew how this album [In Through the Out Door] is shaping up, but the next album is going to be a departure from the keyboard album. After the sessions for In Through the Out Door, John Bonham and I were discussing how we wanted to do a sort of more riff-based entity, and harder and trickier. And then, of course, I know what sort of drums he liked to play. He liked to play, like, really hard; he liked to play stuff that people heard it, they’d go, “Wow, what’s that?” I like to do that as well with the guitar parts. We had a bit of an idea of what we might do, but basically, it was not going to be a keyboard album. There would be keyboards on it maybe, but it was going to go more into another vein. It would be different to anything that had been there before. We didn’t get a chance to do that, obviously, because we lost John.”
This is a very interesting interview as it points out a number of issues, problems I have with In Through the Out Door.
As I write this, I listened to the album in the car. I have a very good sound system, so I listened carefully to the album. Here are my thoughts.
In Through the Out Door is very much Robert Plant and John Paul Jones’s album. Jones gets more songwriting credits than on any other Zeppelin album. He and Plant wrote together in the absence of Page and John Bonham. In the interview above, Page alludes to Jones’s new synthesizer, which added a new variation to the band’s sound. Jones had used various keyboards on other album, including the organ, clavinet and Mellotron, to great atmospheric effect. The sound of this new synth would become popular with bands but for my money, sounds out of place here.
In Through the Out Door is the merging of two different sounds: the old Zeppelin sludgy, bottom-heavy sonic attack; and the bright, New Wavish synthetic poppy keyboards. It was the collision of two sounds, not the integration of the old and new.
In the 1977-78 period, the band had taken an extended time off, and Plant was mourning the death of his son, Karac. The remainder of their American tour was canceled. It would be 1979 when they would take the stage, two years between live shows.
The band were persuaded to retreated to Clearwell Castle in the Forest of Dean on the Wales border, in hopes of musical inspiration and to shake off some performance rust. Bad Company, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath had recorded there. Robert Spitz in his biography of Led Zeppelin says that the progress made was work on what would become “Carouselumbra,” otherwise, the stay did not yield much for a much anticipated new recording.
The last years of the band’s existence were filled with a potpourri of personal and professional challenges. If you want the sordid details, Robert Spitz’s book on the band talks about the hotel robbery in America, the vicious assault on promoter Bill Graham’s employee, the drug and alcohol abuse, manager Peter Grant’s decline, poor business decisions, band infighting and other assorted problems. It is my opinion that the cohesion of the band’s creative sinew was fracturing beyond repair. No matter the personal relationships and substance abuse, the band could become an interconnected energy cell when they played together, at least in the past. After their long layoff, the connective tissue was significantly frayed.
Plans were then to rehearse in London, then later move the sessions to Stockholm, Sweden. ABBA’s new recording studio, Polar Studios, offered Page three free weeks of recording time. Page snapped up the offer. To be efficient in Stockholm, they would rehearse in London first. Instead of staying in Stockholm the entire time, the flew back to London for the weekends to be with their families.
In Paul Rees’ book about Robert Plant, the band took up residency in a Stockholm hotel, each band member stayed in a corner room on the same floor: together, but not together. Jones brought his new synth and song ideas, and Plant joined him in the songwriting process. Rees says that Plant and Jones worked days, or afternoons after their walk and lunch at a pub. Page and Bonham turned up nights. According to Rees and other sources, Bonham was locked in a heroin and alcohol addiction, and Page was battling his own drug dependency.
What Page was saying, but not saying in the Rolling Stone interview was that he did not bring much material to the sessions, hence the Jones/Plant songs. According to Spitz, Jones came up with rough instrumental versions of “Carouselumbra,” which they had already worked on, “South Bound Suarez,” “In the Evening” and what would become “All of My Love.” Page had no riveting guitar riffs that he was building into songs, and without Page and Bonham around to help develop the sonic tone and musical infrastructure, the songs were built in a vacuum. “Fool in the Rain” and “I’m Gonna Crawl” took shape in the studio in much the same way. Page was said to take the tapes home to his studio in England each weekend and work on the songs there. He recorded, he edited, he shaped the final versions. Very workmanlike, but much less creative band energy.
- “In the Evening” Jones/Page/Plant 6:48 Page was on his game here. Not a classic, but very good. A great lead off to the album. The effects Page used give the song a memorable opening, and his guitar work is superb. Jones creates the basic structure of the song which has a great reoccurring riff.
- “South Bound Suarez” JonesPlant 4:11 A very nice, bouncy song, but not particularly riveting. Plant’s vocals sound good, but Page’s production is routine and does not do anything to lift this song.
- “Fool in the Rain” Jones/Page/Plant 6:08 The single from the album even though Led Zeppelin did not release singles. A nice syncopated riff made this song popular on the radio. At first, Page’s solos sound good, very page-esque. Years later, that’s kind of what disappointments me about this album. Aside from Jones’s new synth, there’s nothing new or stylistic about this album. The musical world had changes while these guys were away.
- “Hot Dog” PagePlant 3:15
Many people like this rockabilly song. I do not. The production does not fit the song at all.
- “Carouselambra” Jones/Page/Plant 10:28 My favorite song on the album. Yes, it’s long and meandering, a song that feels like several separate songs welded together. Not a classic like “Achilles Last Stand” but in that vein. I would have preferred the old-style keyboard sounds on this one instead of the new wave synths.
- “All My Love” JonesPlant 5:51 A heartfelt song to Plant’s son. An outpouring of love from a parent. Not one of my favorites. The song could be shaved by a minute and be stronger.
- “I’m Gonna Crawl” Jones/Page/Plant 5:28 Listening to this song recently, I like it more than I did. A throwback to early Zeppelin. Doing what they do better than anyone, playing British blues.
In Through the Out Door would sell well, but not so much in the U.K. Punk rock was sizzling in England at the time and as the band saw when they played Knebworth, later in 1979, the public did not embrace Zeppelin like the old days. It had been four years since they had played a concert in England, an eternity in those days.
Whatever Jimmy Page and John Bonham had planned for the future, the future had other plans. Would a heavy, guitar-riff album work in the early 1980’s? It certainly did for other bands not named Led Zeppelin.
In Through the Out Door is not a bad set of songs, but the album represents Led Zeppelin at the weakest point in their career. It’s fun to hear and wonder, what might have been.