No one knew it at the time but Swan Song Records flagship band/brand put out its own swan song on this day in 1979. Led Zeppelin put out their 8th album (9th if you include the live The Song Remains The Same) , In Through The Out Door 39 years ago. As it turned out, it would be the last thing the band would do while still a band and with drummer John Bonham still alive.
The album came well over 3 years after their 7th album, Presence, by far the longest gap in their history. So long was the wait in fact that displaying the same sense of humor they used to settle on their band name, they thought the struggle to get the public to notice them after that long would be akin to trying to do that – go in through the out door. Turns out they were wrong!
The reason for the wait was varied but generally not good. Bonham and the band’s “brains” up until that point, guitarist Jimmy Page, were battling substance abuse demons. Singer Robert Plant’s little boy died suddenly at home while Plant was on tour in the States. And the onerous tax rates in the UK at that time had caused them to go into “exile” from their homeland, meaning they couldn’t perform there for some length of time. The latter no doubt influenced their decision to record this record at Abba’s own studios up in Sweden!
The personal turmoils, the members growing maturity and the changing musical scene all played a part in making this album quite unlike the previous ones. It was, as I remember thinking back then, the Zeppelin album for people who didn’t like Zeppelin. (And though I’ve certainly grown to like a number of their earlier songs like “Kashmir” and “Misty Mountain Hop” and to admire their talent, at that point I would have fallen in that category, thinking them the loud drug music of my older brother’s cohort.) Although as per usual, Jimmy Page produced it, he had far less input in the record than any other release of theirs… in fact “All My Love” and “Southbound Suarez” on it are the only 2 original Zep songs he had no part in writing.
With Bonham presumably too raging drunk most of the time to contribute a great deal beyond his actual drumming, the bulk of the creation of the album fell on multi-talented John Paul Jones and Plant. Jones did a good deal more writing than before and enjoyed working closely with Plant. He also enjoyed playing around with his brand new synthesizer, which altered the flavor of the record – and not in a good way in many diehard fans opinion.
While all Led Zeppelin albums had been diverse sonically, perhaps none were more so than this one, which jumped around from an early-rock throwback (“Hot Dog”) to a smooth pop ballad that wouldn’t have sounded altogether out of place on a Little River Band or Doobie Brothers record of the day (“All My Love”, written as a tribute to Plant’s son Karac) to some old-fashioned New Orleans boogie (“Soutbound Suarez”). The hit “Fool In The Rain”‘s sound was inspired by South American Samba Page had heard when watching the World Cup in Argentina.
Whether or not they were altogether satisfied with the results, they didn’t have to worry about the public reaction. It quickly sold three million copies in the US and went straight to #1 there, in their homeland, Canada and quite a few other countries. So great was the response and interest that for 2 weeks, every Led Zeppelin album made its way back onto the Billboard albums chart. Eventually it went 6X platinum in the US, about double the sales of Presence, helped out by the heavy radio play of “All My Love” and “Fool in the Rain.” That one was put out as a 7” single that made it to #12 in Canada and #21 in the US, but like Pink Floyd, Led Zep had never been much on releasing singles or relying on AM hit radio to drive sales.
If the public ate it up, the critics didn’t as easily. Most reviews seemed confused by the shift in sound and, frequently, displeased by it. Rolling Stone liked Plant’s singing just fine, but thought he had little to work with due to Page’s “diminishing creativity”. Melody Maker were harsher, calling them “out of touch” and saying the record was so bad it had everyone in their office laughing at it. Time has been kind to it, but not too much so- Rolling Stone would later grade it a middling 3-stars in their Album Guide and The Daily Telegraph some 35 years after would rate it a mere 1-star, lowest of their career (even below the 1982 Coda which was a mishmash of outtakes and old unreleased tracks) . They noted it was a “bit of a mess” with “muddy production (and) jaunty pop rhythms” that didn’t sit well with them, and lamented Plant and Jones had been saddled with a “sinking balloon” to fly.
In retrospect, it was probably neither their finest hour nor their worst. It certainly showed a new level of talent from John Paul Jones and demonstrated that Jimmy Page didn’t have to run the whole show to make the band effective. On the other hand, fans had grown to love Page’s guitar licks and big sound, something he says they would have gone back to had Bonzo lived. “We wanted to make something hard-hitting and riff-based again. Of course we never got to make that album.”