Adrift upon a sea of futile speech/And to fall to fate and make the ‘status plan’/Where was your word, where did you go? /Where was your helping, where was your bow?
The headline in Rolling Stone’s October 18, 1979 review of Led Zeppelin’s last studio album, In Through the Out Door, was harsh. “Sad Zep” is what it read. Rolling Stone’s scathing review of the album was just one of many small and large tragedies for the group that came before making the album. To say In Through the Out Door was unlike anything the band had previously recorded would be an understatement. The seemingly disparate songs that comprise the record left many fans and critics puzzled. Except for the album opener, “In the Evening,” the album lacks any power riffs from Jimmy Page. Indeed, “In the Evening” is the only song that channels the thunderous guitar hooks Page is known for, and part of why his usual showmanship was lacking on the record had a lot to do with his addiction to heroin and other drugs. Some bands can power through their demons like The Who when Townshend was having his own downward spiral with drugs, but Page was not only late to recording sessions, but seemingly left much of his creative spirit at home, too – save perhaps the use of the Gizmotron that created the eerie sounds on the intro of “In the Evening.” Musically, the return to a classic Zep sound on the album opener was more of a feint. The rest of the album amounted to a strange pastiche of songs that satisfied few in the band, but signified a kind of forward and backward musical direction. In Through the Out Door is an apt title, better than Robert Plant’s suggestion Tight But Loose, but more apt could have been Between Past and Future.
Take “Fool in the Rain,” for example. Musically, it’s built on a riff that comes not from the guitar, but keyboard. But more than that, it’s John Bonham’s drum parts that really signal the band was trying on different musical styles. Despite battling his own drug and alcohol addiction during the recording sessions, Bonham was able to create some imaginative drum parts that took elements from the Bernard Purdie shuffle to craft a memorable shuffle of his own. Moreover, Bonzo’s playing was more accomplished and less bombastic on the song, and when you add the samba section with that rolling beat and kettle drum overdubs, you have a very un-Zep sound on many levels. Ever the fans of football (soccer), both Plant and Jones were enthralled with the World Cup at the time – which was played in Argentina in 1978. So with “Fool in the Rain” the Latin/samba feel in the middle part was inspired by the sport spectacle they were watching on television and they wanted to capture the flavor of that moment.
“South Bound Saurez’s” boogie-woogie feel has a playful quality to it, but Page’s lead break is pretty uninspiring. Indeed, for the lion’s share of the record, Page is so muted on the record and his guitar parts are often buried in the mix – an odd thing to behold since Page mixed the album. “Hot Dog” is a tongue in cheek attempt at a country song that even includes a slightly crunched chord by Page in the intro. There some suggestion that Page’s drug addiction had affected his playing to such an extent during the recording, that he took a backseat playing, producing and writing. “Hot Dog” may have been just a rollicking toss off, but it does foreshadow Plant’s interest in roots music that he would eventually express with Alison Krauss in a more serious way. “I’m Gonna Crawl” channels some of the earlier Zeppelin in a way, but there’s also more than a hint of what’s to come with the Honeydrippers in both the guitar work from Page and even the synthesizer intro from Jones.
It’s not an accident that John Paul Jones took the lead on many of the musical ideas for the record. Jones was certainly aware and influenced by some of the nascent new wave synth music that would flower in the ‘80s, and he really shines in the sometimes strange of sounds and textures he brought to the album. However, the most uncharacteristic flourishes Jones creates is on the 10 minute, three-part song “Carouselambra.” Starting with a nasally synthesizer intro, the music starts off with a galloping, if not tinny synth riff that’s buttressed with an underbelly of busy bass work over Plant’s vocals – which are pushed back into the mix, making the lyrics difficult to understand. Page made an odd (but probably deliberate) mixing choice on the song since the lyrics, according to Plant, allude to the relationships in the group. “Parts of “Carouselambra” were really good, especially the darker minor dirges that Pagey developed,” Plant said to Barney Hoskyns in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band. “I rue it now because the lyrics on “Carouselambra” were about that environment and that situation [the recording of the album]. The whole story of Led Zeppelin in its later years is in that song, and I can’t even hear the words.”
Plant isn’t the only one whose instrument is barely heard on “Carouselambra.” Page is reduced to providing a guitar response to Jones’ dominant keyboard riff in part one. Part two cools down to a slower pace that (finally!) brings Page’s guitar work up front where the band sounds like Zep again. Part three is where things really turn contemporary – well, for 1978/79 – when the band launches into a kind of new wave/disco hybrid sound that’s so un-Zeppelin, it must have alienated many fans. However, it was either a bold move for the band in wanting to explore different, less hard rock sounds, or it was reflection of the musical landscape at the time. If you look at the charts in 1978/79, disco music was all the rage. In the U.K., much like the U.S. the charts were dominated with the likes of ABBA, the Bee Gees, and the Grease soundtrack. That kind of chart dominance of disco affected a number of rock bands. The Rolling Stones released “Miss You,” Rod Stewart took out his disco balls on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” Paul Stanley channeled his inner Studio 54 when KISS recorded “I Was Made for Loving You,” and Paul McCartney started slapping a disco groove on the bass with “Goodnight Tonight.” Except for KISS, all of these artists were contemporaries of Led Zeppelin, and given that Page and Bonham were not contributing to the record as they had in the past, influences like new wave and disco crept in – plus, for tax reasons, the band was recording the album at ABBA’s Polar studio in Stockholm that signaled a tacit acknowledgement of ABBA’s songwriting acumen. However, the biggest influence on Zeppelin’s music was a new “toy” Jones talked about in an interview with Uncut magazine “I had this big new keyboard (Yamaha GX-1). And Robert and I just got to rehearsals early… With Zeppelin writing, if you came up with good things, and everybody agreed that they were good things, they got used. There was no formula for writing. So Robert and I, by the time everybody turned up for rehearsals, we’d written three or four songs. So we started rehearsing those immediately, because they were something to be getting on with.”
This was a fundamental shift in the way the band worked with each other. According to Keith Shadwick in Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music, 1968-1980, the recording session in Stockholm saw a splintering of the group and new alliances forming: “Page was not the driving musical force that he had been on every Zeppelin album before. He had not been able to find the basic musical seeds that had always blossomed when he brought them into Led Zeppelin rehearsals in the past. There had been little or no creative dialogue with his regular songwriting partner Plant in the past month and scant creative impetus to give him a clear focus. Page was…still struggling with drug problems that were certainly damaging his health and diminishing his vitality…as was Bonham for similar reasons.” It was next to impossible to get all four of them in the studio early in the day, so Plant and Jones would arrive first and start working on music ideas – something of a novelty since the two of them rarely worked together in the past. Bonham would usually roll in in the afternoon, but Page would sometimes be absent for a couple of days. “There were two distinct camps by then,” According to John Paul Jones. “We’d [he and Plant] would turn up first…The thing is, when that situation occurs you either sit around waiting or get down to some playing. So that’s what we did in the studio…we made it happen.” And while Bonham and Page’s substance abuse issues made them late for the sessions, Jones said that it was difficult to judge them: “Everybody’s drug use became a problem,” Jones said with a laugh during his interview with Uncut. “We were all going off the rails in the late ’70s, one way or another. [But] in those days, it wasn’t the thing to comment on anybody else’s habits or proclivities.”
While Jones didn’t harbor any resentment toward Bonham and Page’s drug and alcohol problems, Page wasn’t so sanguine about the shift in power dynamics. “Jimmy would take the master tapes to his home studio and do all the overdubs over the weekend before he’d fly back Monday morning,” according to the band’s tour manager, Richard Cole. “Jimmy always resented the fact that when the writing credits came out, John Paul Jones was on every credit, because he had been working all the time. I think Jimmy kind of thought Jonesy was trying to take over as producer, which he wasn’t. He was just making use of the time until the other two turned up. The truth of the matter was we never turned up until the middle of the night until we had scored. The other two [Plant and Jones] got there when they were supposed to and just messed around doing stuff.”
Adding to his resentment of the change in the group’s dynamics, Page detested a song he couldn’t say anything about for personal reasons. “All of My Love” was Plant’s song to his son, Karac — who died suddenly from a viral infection on July 26, 1977 when Zeppelin was on tour in the United States. The song is built on Jones’ synthesizer work from his Yamaha GX-1, and its somber tones certainly added to the heartfelt testament Plant expressed to his deceased son. Despite the delicacy of the song, one of Page’s friends, Ross Halfin, said Page’s reaction to not only “All of My Love” but the entire album was harsh: “Jimmy is embarrassed by In Through the Out Door. He hated “All of My Love,” but because it was about Karac, he couldn’t criticize it.” One other thing Page couldn’t criticize was the fact that the album helped to revitalize a depressed music market. “At a time when U.S. record sales were slow, In Through the Out Door shifted four million copies in just three months, singlehandedly bringing the market back to life,” Paul Rees wrote in Robert Plant: A Life.” In doing so, it allowed [Peter] Grant [the band’s manager] to prove a point. Copies of the album…were slipped inside a brown paper bag with the title and the band’s name stamped on it. Grant had maintained that Zeppelin records could be sold in paper bags,” and he was right. The album was number one for seven weeks in the U.S. and was only knocked off the top spot by The Eagles.
Though In Through the Out Door is a very atypical album for Zeppelin, the original song order that Page put together after completing the mixes led with tracks that were eventually omitted and released in 1982 on the album Coda. “Ozone Baby,” “Darlene,” and “Wearing and Tearing” were to be side one of the record, or to be released as a special EP. Had those songs made the cut on the album, In Through the Out Door would have had less of an experimental feel and more of a traditional Led Zeppelin sound. Whatever transpired between the first mix of the record and what finally ended up as the final running order of songs, the more traditional sounding Zep songs got shelved for their next record (a common practice for the band). There was some talk among Page and Bonham that the next Zeppelin record would get back to the thunderous music the band was known for, but because of the untimely death of Bonham, that would never happen. All the large talk about getting back to the essence of Zep contrasted with Bonham’s alcoholism — which brought out a bitterness that was borne out of his addiction and his belief in his waning talent as a musician. As Plant recounted the day before Bonham died: “As we drove to rehearsal, [John] was not quite as happy as he could be. He said, “I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me.” We were driving in the car, and he pulled off the sun visor and threw it out the window as he was talking.” After being too drunk to play (it was reported that Bonham fell off his drum stool a few times), Plant called the session quits for the day. After Jones and Plant left the studio, Bonham and Page went to Page’s house and continued to celebrate by drinking until he passed out. The band’s roadie, Rex King, put him to bed in one of the guest rooms. Bonham later died early in the morning on September 25th after he choked on his own vomit while sleeping. The coroner who examined Bonham’s body said that the drummer drank about 40 ounces of vodka in the 24 hours before his death. John Paul Jones and Benji LeFevre found Bonham the next morning: “I remember after we found him,” Jones said. “I came out, and Jimmy and Robert were in the front room, laughing about something, and I had to go in and say “Hold it,” and tell them what happened. It was such a shock.” The band was devastated by the loss of their friend and integral member of the band. Much like the death of The Who’s Keith Moon two years prior, Bonham’s death left the members of Led Zeppelin in a similar situation. Should they find another drummer and carry on, or call it quits. They chose the latter, and issued a statement on December 4, 1980 that read: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”
And with that, the mighty Zep dissolved the band. There were one-off shows where the surviving members of the band regrouped for either a short set or a full concert, and rumors swirling for years about reunion tours, but to date, Plant has been reticent about going out on the road with the other members of Led Zeppelin. As he told Rolling Stone in May 2014: “You’re going back to the same old shit! A tour would have been an absolute menagerie of vested interests and the very essence of everything that’s shitty about big-time stadium rock. We were surrounded by a circus of people that would have had our souls on the fire. I’m not part of a jukebox!”
Some speculate that Plant’s refusal to tour with Zeppelin could be due to a number of factors: the guilt he felt at being ensconced in the Zep machine when his son died, his desire to explore new music (Plant is described in his biography as being one of the most passionate music fans of his generation, who often gets antsy when things get too predictable), getting out from under Jimmy Page’s control, or just the knowledge that with Bonham’s death, it was better to leave the Zep legend intact instead of sullying it with an old codger’s tour that’s bound to be a disappointment (like their Live Aid appearance in 1985). Whatever the case, it is clear that the post-Zeppelin career of Page and Plant is an example of regression and progression. “I spent that ten years with Zeppelin just developing a guitar style,” Jimmy Page said to Paul Rees. “Let’s face it, when Zeppelin was no more, that was my thing. I never wanted to change the way I played.” Plant, on the other hand, embraced new wave music in the ‘80s, revisited Zeppelin – adding a twist of world music — with Jimmy page on Unledded in the ‘90s, and then onto collaborations with Allison Krauss, Patty Griffin, and his current band The Sensational Space Shifters in the 2000s. Page remains wedded to the music Led Zeppelin created, while Plant is off exploring different cultures and musical styles. In his mid-60s now, Plant isn’t looking back at his salad days as the highpoint of his career. Rather, as he told his biographer when asked if he was interested in telling his story rather than having it cobbled together by music writers: “I think it’s too early in my career for me to be doing that – there’s so much more to come.”