When Led Zeppelin’s third album was released 50 years ago, it was greeted with a combination of enthusiasm and bewilderment. Why had the stacks of face-melting Marshalls been traded for a 12-string acoustic?
Bandleader Jimmy Page was so infuriated by reviews of his folksy left turn that he refused to talk to the press for more than a year afterward. He’s probably still pissed. The thing is, the general public also cooled on the album fairly quickly and it didn’t chart for as long nor sell as many copies as the first two albums.
Led Zeppelin III is largely beloved today but it remains a difficult transitional album. A lot of the songs sound confused, as if the band wasn’t quite sure where it was headed. They definitely got it sorted out, however, and the remainder of Zeppelin’s catalog is an ideal blend of mayhem and gentle asides.
But there is one absolutely undeniable thing about III: It has one of the best opening tracks in rock and roll history.
“Immigrant Song” isn’t extraordinary just because it can make your blood boil over within seconds. It’s also special because it perfectly encapsulates Zeppelin’s entire existence, from the almost physically imposing qualities of the music to the epic imagery. It’s the literal sound of the hammer of the gods.
Zeppelin has a gift for opening songs so “Immigrant Song” is in outstanding company.
The debut album gave us “Good Times Bad Times” and the second upped the ante with “Whole Lotta Love.” Not bad. But while “Whole Lotta Love” is clearly an overall greater achievement than “Immigrant Song,” it can’t match the latter’s impact. “Whole Lotta Love” is almost a slow burn compared to “Immigrant Song,” which feels like it starts in the middle of an already raging performance. It’s like getting slapped.
Everyone is at peak head-banging efficiency. Page’s simple guitar riff is scorching, Robert Plant’s banshee wail has never been more imposing, and John Paul Jones’ fat bass line is a jackhammer. But drummer John Bonham is the real hero here, his combination of power and precision operating at a super-human level (even more so in live versions; check out the 1972 version on “How the West Was Won”).
The lyrics are Plant at his most glorious and ridiculous, pretty much in equal parts, as he tells the story of world-conquering Vikings bearing down on fresh meat.
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods
We’ll drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!
What spectacular looniness, and absolutely irresistible to teenage boys worldwide. Every kid who ever read a Conan the Barbarian paperback must have lost his shit when “Immigrant Song” came in hot, slinging battle axes and taking names. “We are your overlords,” intones Plant in the second verse, and no one is arguing.
Yes, yes, you’re saying, of course, “Immigrant Song” is a monster. We all know that. But what’s wrong with the rest of the album?
There’s actually nothing horribly wrong with III but it isn’t a great Led Zeppelin album. There are too many songs that feel undercooked and too few moments where the acoustic elements are fully integrated into the Zeppelin universe. The band was changing but was still a work in progress.
There are several songs that sound cool enough but don’t really go anywhere, with arrangements that are either too static or melodies that are missing in action. Page, a session pro since he was in grade school, seems awfully stingy with the hooks.
“Celebration Day” makes an effort but every time you think there’s going to be a trademark Zeppelin surprise it instead just keeps going until it becomes a dullish blur. “Friends” is a fascinating production effort with a lot of layers, including several that flirt with psychedelia, but it stops short of actually being memorable. It’s a lot of dazzling ideas in search of a song, which you have to admit is a problem.
“Out On the Tiles” starts with a legitimate jolt but quickly turns monochromatic and its chorus fails to deliver; there’s never a pure moment of release, and Zeppelin is known for being highly orgasmic. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” and “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” are for guitarists only, which is fine but far from essential. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is especially annoying as it regurgitates a lot of folk-blues tropes without achieving any kind of lift-off. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a seductive blues but at least two minutes too long.
|1. Immigrant Song||2:26|
|3. Celebration Day||3:29|
|4. Since I’ve Been Loving You||7:25|
|5. Out On The Tiles||4:04|
|6. Gallows Pole||4:58|
|8. That’s The Way||5:38|
|9. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp||4:20|
|10. Hats Off To (Roy) Harperp||3:41|
There are some other genuinely exceptional songs, however.
“Gallows Pole” is terrific and starts side two with a sinister jolt. Page’s arrangement of a traditional folk tune is pure Zeppelin, which we have to assume is the vibe he was going for when making the album. “Tangerine” is an impossibly sweet reflection on lost love. “That’s the Way” is tremendous. Multiple guitar tracks run rings around each other with an almost dizzying momentum and musicality while Plant crushes it with one of his finest vocals.
Transitional albums are tough, which is likely why Van Morrison named one of his worst albums “A Period of Transition,” but III suffers mostly in comparison to the rest of Zeppelin’s early catalog, which was game-changing. Plus, it did its job.
By the time Led Zeppelin IV (AKA Untitled) arrived, the band had perfected its use of folk elements and gave us one of the best-known, best-selling albums in the history of music. We wouldn’t have “Going to California” or, arguably, “Stairway to Heaven” without the templates explored on Led Zeppelin III.
So happy birthday, buddy. You’re not perfect but what is? At the end of the day, you gave us one of rock’s most stunning opening tracks, which then went on to give us the soundtrack to one of the best movie battle scenes ever in Thor: Ragnarok. Your sins aren’t significant but they’re real, and we don’t care because whenever “Immigrant Song” is playing it’s all that matters.