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Led Zeppelin
Presence, In Through The Outdoor, Coda (Reissues) Julian Marszalek , July 28th, 2015 11:18

Though widely and justifiably regarded as Led Zeppelin's three least satisfying albums, these re-mastered, re-packaged and re-released editions of Presence, In Through The Outdoor and Coda actually contain some of the most interesting moments of the band's recent re-issue campaign. Indeed, who'd have thought that Coda, a ragtag collection of outtakes released posthumously in 1982, would yield such a treasure trove of previously unreleased gems?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Listening once again to Presence and In Through The Outdoor is to be familiarised with a band losing its way in the way face of the pearls it had previously released. Recorded while the band took an extended hiatus from the UK, and in the wake of a serious car accident in Rhodes that left Robert Plant's leg shattered, Presence is an oddly cold album. Devoid of the light and shade that had highlighted the many musical facets of the band, Led Zeppelin's seventh studio album remains a difficult album to take in a single sitting. For sure, it contains some incredible individual moments – the epic opener 'Achilles Last Stand', a pulverising reading of Blind Willie McTell's 'Nobody's Fault But Mine', 'Candy Store Rock''s mutant rockabilly – but taken as a whole, its relentless delivery and metallic sheen offers very little warmth, even on the introspective electric blues of 'Tea For One'. There's a sense of boredom, loneliness and resignation that runs through the lyrics. Witness Plant's verdict of Los Angeles – the band's spiritual home and the scene of some of their worst excess – that on 'For Your Life' becomes "the city of the damned" as he becomes aware of the deadening effect of hard drugs and emotionless sex.

It therefore comes as a surprise to become acquainted with 'Pod', the only piece of unreleased material on the album's companion disc. Sat among references mixes that offer little in the way of the creative process, 'Pod' is a real anomaly. A piano led instrumental dominated by the under-rated John Paul Jones and complete with some of Jimmy Page's most understated guitar playing, this is beautifully reflective music sharply at odds with what's contained on the parent album and worthy of investigation.

According to Jimmy Page, 'Pod' might well have been used on 1979's In Through The Outdoor had it not been for the music composed largely by Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. The intervening years between Presence and In Through The Outdoor had been the worst of times for the band, and most of all for Robert Plant. Relations within the group were worsening as levels of drug abuse reached frightening levels in certain quarters. Their last tour in 1977 was marred by a shocking amount of violence thanks to some questionable decisions regarding personal security. But it was the tragic death of Robert Plant's five-year-old son that brought Led Zeppelin to a sudden and understandable halt.

By the time the band reconvened in Abba's Polar Studios in Stockholm to record In Through The Outdoor, the band had effectively split into the daytime camps of Plant and Jones and the nocturnal gang of Page and drummer John Bonham with all that that implied. With Plant and Jones seizing the reigns for the bulk of the songwriting, In Through The Outdoor is an album that stands very much apart from its predecessors. Though Plant and Jones kept their ears to the ground with what was happening on the musical landscape, some of the efforts on the album have dated horribly. Despite Jones' best efforts to harness the new technology at his fingertips, the parping synths of 'Carouselambra' grate though broken down into component parts the track still has its moments. Elsewhere, the faux rockabilly of 'Hot Dog' makes Shakin' Stevens feel like an innovator. But there are documents of true greatness contained here. 'In The Evening' is one of the finest things the band ever recorded; ushered in a by a magnificent drone created by Jones, the track is bolstered by Page's woozy guitar and the effect is as hypnotic as 'Kashmir'. 'All My Love' is up there with the best of them too. Confronting love and the repercussions of death and mourning, this is Plant's most personal vocal delivery.

Released two years after the death of John Bonham in 1980 into a world that was moving inexorably on, Coda has always been regarded as the band's weakest release. Made up of eight tracks that spanned Led Zeppelin's lifetime, it refused to flow as an album. Devoid of a coherent narrative, it felt tossed together to make up for contractual obligations. Yet here, in 2015, it becomes something else altogether as it largely brings together all the loose ends and strands that have been obviously missing from this re-issue series so far. While the first disc replicates the original album, the real meat is to be found on the remaining discs. Some tracks – the glorious blue-eyed soul of 'Baby Come On Home' (an out-take from the first album) and 'Immigrant Song' b-side, the country blues 'Hey Hey What Can I Do' – have been released on CD before and since deleted but the hitherto unreleased material offers another side of the band.

Of greatest interest is the much-bootlegged 1972 session recorded by Page and Plant with the Bombay Orchestra. Using various instruments such the shehnai, the sernagi, tabla drums and violins as well as Page's acoustic guitar, the mystical and droning elements of Led Zeppelin III and the untitled fourth album are brought vividly to life. 'Four Sticks', here re-named 'Four Hands', is splendidly hypnotic as it displays that there was always so much more to their music then simple bombast. But it's with 'Friends' that they hit pay dirt. The open tuning of Page's guitar and the dream-like quality of Jones' Moog work on the original was stunning enough but here the song takes on another character altogether. There's a ritualistic quality at play here is as if the players are tapping into an energy source that's elusive to Western hands. Plant's voice feels parched by the Bombay heat but this juxtaposition of the frailty of the flesh and strength of the spirit bonds remarkably well. It's a side of Led Zeppelin that until this point was implicit and that wouldn't be made totally explicit until Page & Plant's No Quarter project two decades later.

But of all the works-in-progress pieces that have come to characterise this re-issue series, it's with 'If It Keeps On Raining' that eyebrows are properly raised. An early version of what would become the monumental 'When The Levee Breaks', this groove driven reading is much lighter than what we've become accustomed to. What it displays is the role that Headley Grange - the former east Hampshire poorhouse turned rehearsal and recording studio - and its acoustics played in capturing John Bonham's colossal drum sound that in turn altered the song from its original rendition into a powerfully monolithic dirge.

The instrumental 'St Tristan's Sword', and out-take 'Sugar Mama' show once again the funk that lay at the heart of Led Zeppelin's finest music. But there are caveats attached to the deluxe edition of Coda. Do we really need another version of 'Everybody Makes It Through' – an early rendition of 'In The Light' – or a rough mix of 'The Wanton Song' when material such as 'Swan Song' still languishes in the vaults?  

Minor gripes aside, this is a fine way to close a story that's been told so often before. For the all the whispered tales of what happened behind closed doors, with Led Zeppelin it always boils down to the music. These albums may not be their finest hours but they do at least show a band whose dexterity was beyond the reach of so many of the copyists that followed in their wake. The re-mastering work once again raises the low-end at the root of their music and the overall fizz and brightness of these re-issues breathes new life into familiar material. A genuine one-off, even with these releases – and especially with some of the unreleased material - you can understand why they still continue to enthrall subsequent generations 35 years after their demise. Still tight, still loose.