Led Zeppelin III first landed on a public that had been clamoring for it on October 5, 1970.
Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant composed most of the album’s songs while holed up in a Welsh woodland cottage called “Bron-Yr-Aur” (meaning “Breast of Gold”) that contained no electricity or indoor plumbing. The full group then rehearsed the material at Headley Grange, a battered old mansion, and recorded in London during the spring of 1970.
The finished Led Zeppelin III arrived three months later.
Boasting way-out psychedelic packaging replete with a spinning wheel that changed images, fans and critics alike tore open LZIII, dropped the needle on track one, and rapturously experienced a “hammer of the gods” pummeling by way of “Immigrant Song.”
The titans who wrought forth “Whole Lotta Love” had upped their sonic assault. Watch out Black Sabbath!
Then came the acoustic-riffed track two (“Friends”), along with tracks six through nine (“Gallows Pole,” “Tangerine,” “That’s the Way”, “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”). Immediately, no small swath of the Led Zep audience completely freaked, bellowing: “What the folk is this?”
Acoustic songs had featured prominently on the first two Zeppelin LPs, but many listeners found their prominence such compositions on III overwhelming—at first.
In time and after countless thousands of listens, of course, Led Zeppelin III proved to be as essential and beloved as any other album in the group’s canon. It also uniquely showcased the depth and vision of the band’s creativity, along with the technical mastery they possessed to bring it to life.
So for the 45th anniversary of Led Zeppelin III, here’s an opinionated ranking of all ten songs, from “merely great” to “most great.” Long may each one of these masterworks fly.
“That’s the Way”
Deceptively soft sounding, “That’s the Way” addresses human violence against Earth’s eco-system, human violence against other humans, and even human violence against Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page plays an acoustic guitar lead, backed by himself on pedal steel, bass, and dulcimer. John Paul Jones provides mandolin. Drummer John Bonham may have sat out “That’s the Way” entirely, but somebody’s tapping a tambourine on there.
“Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”
Similar to how Physical Graffiti’s “Boogie With Stu” is Led Zep’s loving nod to Rolling Stones sideman Ian Stewart, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” sees Jimmy Page and Robert Plant saluting their friend, British folk rocker Roy Harper.
It’s a groovy but still jolting mood pastiche that features only Page on slide guitar and Plant singing through a weird vibrato amplifier, glomming together bits of old blues numbers amidst a trippy dust storm of studio effects. Forget your hats—hang on to your head!
Jimmy Page dipped into his trunk of unfinished Yardbirds materials and plucked out “Tangerine.” Gorgeously simple in terms of lyrics, the song drips with passion and pain. Many attribute Page’s particularly heartfelt playing on “Tangerine” to his tumultuous romance with American songbird Jackie DeShannon.
For all the song’s myriad merits, the most memorable is its “false start”—about eight seconds of Page strumming that suddenly stops and is followed by silence that, inevitably, makes everyone thing something’s wrong with the record the first time they hear it.
“It was a tempo guide,” Page explained, “and it seemed like a good idea to leave it in – at the time. I was trying to keep the tempo down a bit. I’m not so sure now it was a good idea. Everybody asks what the hell is going on.”
Building a mystery, as Led Zeppelin repeatedly proved, is always a good idea.
“Friends” may be acoustic, but it’s a bruiser. Jimmy Page’s open-C6 chord tuning is strange and his Harmony guitar, played through Altair Tube Limiter, leaves deep marks. John Paul Jones handles a string arrangement that imbues everything with a sense of the cosmic, as does his Moog syth at the end (going into “Celebration Day”). Early in the track, Zep’s strongman manger Peter Grant even drops an audible f-bomb.
The Zeppelin arrangement grew out of Page’s noodling about with John Paul Jones’ mandolin. The finished version also features Page on banjo.
With its upward tempo trajectory and Plant’s increasingly panicked vocals, “Gallows Pole” proves to be one of the most intense numbers in the whole Zep canon—and that is saying something.
The urgent backwoods guitar fingering of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” opens the path for jug band percussion, handclaps, lyrics about walking country lanes with your old dog and declaring your love in conversation with Mother Nature, all of which headily brews into a joyful guise of an open-air hoedown. All that alone makes “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” stand out in the Zep catalog. It also stands out, however, in the catalog of general hoedowns.
“Out on the Tiles”
For all the minimally percussive LZIII tracks, here’s one that’s pure Bonzo. Led Zep’s destroyer drum deity often spoke of going “out on the tiles,” UK slang for hitting the town, and reportedly even made up a little song about it: “I’ve had a pint of bitter and now I’m feeling better and I’m out on the tiles/We’re going down the rubbers and we’re going to pull some scrubbers because we’re out on the tiles.”
The group fully fleshes out that notion and lets Bonham run wild—and how—on “Out on the Tiles.” It’s a mega-tilt rock-and-roll blast hurled heavenward by Bonzo’s crazy syncopation and thunder beats. The song even contains its own mysterious moment at one-minute, 26-seconds when a very British voice faintly commands, “Stop!”
The band, sensibly, does not abide any such instruction.
“Celebration Day” charges forward like a locomotive powered by sheer dynamic vision and unrelenting human force. There are no monolithic metal beat-downs a la “Communication Breakdown” or “Rock and Roll,” but the song showcases Led Zeppelin at its most visceral and explosive nonetheless.
Page is on fire from his first guitar chord, veering from heavy to funky throughout. John Paul Jones adds a droning Moog synthesizer floor. Bonham fury-slams a multilayered wall of drums. Plant wails with all he’s got, then finds more, and he wails with that, too.
By the end, you’re steamrolled, but you still hope that “Celebration Day” can rage on into eternity and it feels great to know that, indeed, it has.
“Since I’ve Been Loving You”
Everybody in Led Zeppelin gets his moment on “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” The song is a blistering ballad marked by John Bonham’s brilliant rhythms and unpredictable beats; John Paul Jones conjuring the entire history of human romance through his keyboards, Robert Plant at his most simultaneously raw and polished; and Jimmy Page unhurriedly spewing guitar lava out through the most searing licks and solos any mere mortal could ever hope to experience, let alone create.
They come from the land of the ice and snow, of the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow, and where the Viking dragon boat piloted by Led Zeppelin on “Immigrant Song” takes us is directly and with savage grandeur to heavy metal Valhalla, every time.
That riff is the thing, with Page, Jones, and Bonham performing as one, smack up until Plant howls, “Ahh-ah-ahhhhh-AH!” Then that’s the thing.
“Immigrant Song” invokes the hammer of the gods lyrically, but no such words would have been necessary. Same goes for when Plant drops it down to announce, “We are your overlords.”
Yeah, we’re listening to “Immigrant Song.” We already know. Now and forever. Huzzah!