50 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Mostly Unplugs for ‘III’
When Jimmy Page and Robert Plant decamped to the isolated cottage Bron-Yr-Aur in the North Wales region of Snowdonia in the spring of 1970, their band Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads. It was time to make their third album and, having brought their families along with them, the two decided to flesh out some ideas in the primitive enclave devoid of running water and electricity.
Zeppelin had already done an album tinted with an unheard-of-until-then heaviness, which paid homage to their blues influences, in 1968’s eponymous debut. The 1969 follow-up, Led Zeppelin II, expanded upon its predecessor and infused into it the chaos they had encountered while touring the world.
But for what would become Led Zeppelin III, released Oct. 4, 1970, a conscious decision was made to go in the opposite direction. Hence the trek to Bron-Yr-Aur, which was about as much a contrast as could be from the frenzied composition of the second album. Besides, a much-needed rest was long overdue after the outfit’s fifth tour of North America, which finished in mid-April.
The relaxed acoustic sessions produced a completed version of the delicate “That’s the Way,” and arrangements were settled upon for “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” a sort of country hoedown; “Friends,” which would later include strings; the wistful “Tangerine” and rollicking “Gallows Pole,” the latter three for which ideas had already been simmering in Page’s wheelhouse. “Tangerine” went back to his days in the Yardbirds.
It’s also worth noting that during the term spent at the cottage, the pair wrote songs that would show up on subsequent recordings, including “Poor Tom,” “Down by the Seaside” and the acoustic instrumental named after Bron-Yr-Aur. Initial groundwork was also laid for “Stairway to Heaven” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
The songs from Bron-Yr-Aur were brought to the rhythm section of the band, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, at rehearsals and later recording sessions commenced at the East Hampshire mansion Headley Grange and then Olympic Studios in London. The album's heavier pieces, “Out on the Tiles” and “Celebration Day,” spawned from more of a concentrated group effort during this period, as did eventual album opener “Immigrant Song,” which was famously inspired by Zeppelin’s visit to Iceland in late-June 1970.
Aside from the experimental oddity and album closer “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” which has Plant singing Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” in the left speaker while Page plays slide guitar in the right speaker, the most conspicuous moment on Led Zeppelin III is the seven-and-a-half minute blues epic “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
Listen to Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song'
Originally worked up during the recording of Led Zeppelin II, the song proved too intricate to complete amid such frantic circumstances, so it ended up as one of the first to be focused on finalizing for III. Essentially recorded live in the studio, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” features one of Page’s greatest guitar solos, punctuated by a chilling howl from Plant, who showcases his own prowess on vocals throughout the track. Neither acoustic nor entirely heavy, it further confounded critics who didn’t know what to make of Zeppelin as a whole or the third album specifically.
Yet for the first occasion in the band’s brief history, the Zeppelin fan base was just as puzzled as the critics when Led Zeppelin III hit shelves – and it wasn’t just because of the intricate die-cut, fully-functional pinwheel cover design which at the time was incredibly expensive to produce.
Where was the crunch of “Good Times Bad Times?” The feverish intensity of “Communication Breakdown?” The industrial peculiarities of “Whole Lotta Love’s” middle section? Had their beloved quartet of rowdy pillagers from the U.K. gone soft?
Journalists accused Zeppelin of jumping on the bandwagon of the singer-songwriter explosion of the late-'60s, conveniently forgetting previous lighter fare the band provided such as “Black Mountain Side” and at least portions of tracks like “Ramble On,” “Your Time is Gonna Come” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Granted, those songs typified the “light and shade” for which Page was continuously striving, whereas the bulk of III’s material was just “light.”
The ensuing tours cleared up any confusion over Zeppelin’s abilities to deliver bombast, leaving worried fan reservations ultimately unfounded. The band was still a relentless powerhouse live, and the sit-down acoustic sets which featured material from III were a welcome respite for both the band and audience.
Retrospectively, while Led Zeppelin III may have been considered a sharp left in the fall of 1970, it’s since become recognized as one of the most representative creations of the wide musical spectrum the band was able to traverse.