I don’t think there’s a more famous band where I host more unpopular opinions (“hot takes”) than Led Zeppelin: III is my second-favorite Zeppelin player. After Physical Graffiti.
Part of my love for both records stems from the fact that I had played the best songs from I and IV to death from a copy of Early Days & Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volumes One and Two obtained from Best Buy in my middle school years; many of the best songs from III and Graffiti aren’t available there (“Gallows Pole” and “Tangerine” from this one; “Custard Pie” and “Down By the Seaside” from that one).
But the other reason why I love III is actually the reason why apparently some critics were lukewarm or less (cf. Rolling Stone‘s Lester Bangs) to the record, which caused lower sales than their previous albums. Here’s a few pull-quotes, from Robert Plant:
~”The third album was the album of albums. If anybody had labeled us a heavy metal group, that destroyed them.”
~”Led Zeppelin III was not one of the best sellers in the catalogue because the audience turned round and said ‘What are we supposed to do with this?’—’Where is our ‘Whole Lotta Love Part 2’? They wanted something like Paranoid by Black Sabbath! But we wanted to go acoustic and a piece like “Gallows Pole” still had all the power of “Whole Lotta Love” because it allowed us to be dynamic.”
When Robert Plant claims it’s dynamic, it might seem like a stretch, but it’s as diverse a Led Zeppelin record up to this point. The structure actually closely resembles Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home: both albums begin with the artist’s most primal, and there’s a noticeable shift on the second half of both albums where the electric guitar takes a backseat to acoustic. (The band’s defense against then-critics who didn’t like the prominence of the latter instrument was that their first two records had acoustic songs. Well, yes, but not this many, nor grouped together like this.) Conceivably, one can argue that Led Zeppelin were better at hard rock songs like “Immigrant Song” than they were the folksy stuff. Me, I think they excelled at both: both “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way” are warm (through Robert Plant’s double-tracked harmonies on the former) and colourful (through the pedal steel guitar and mandolin shading on both).
True to the band’s nature, there’s a lot of emphasis on sound, whether it’s the ominous intervals of the strings on “Friends”; the crunch of “Celebration Day” and how the electric guitar squirms and squiggles around on “Out on the Tiles”; how every member seems so exaggerated on “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (did Plant going “drag… drag… drag… drag… LAWWWWWWWWYEAH!” give birth to Prince?). Closer “Hats Off To (Roy Harper)” is essentially two sound effects (Jimmy Page on slide guitar; Robert Plant’s vocals fed into a vibrato amp) in a rather non-functional song.
But the two best songs are positioned at the start of each side. “Gallows Pole” is essentially a 5-minute climax as more instruments are added into the fray, including the surprise of Jimmy Page on banjo guitar (apparently having never played it before hand) entering in tandem with Jon Bonham halfway through. The climax gets to the point that nearing the end when Robert Plant riles up the crowd, the volume of sound from the other instruments seem to answer right back. And then there’s “Immigrant Song.” I probably played that song some hundreds of times as I instructed it to play on loop while I did nothing else in my adolescent summers but play Starcraft. (Terran, because I had to wall up; I had no idea how to defend myself from a 6-ling rush at the time excepting by hoping that they didn’t discover me by the time I was able to pop out a marine. 20 min no rush, am I right? Wrong.) The whole thing is just one great sound after another, from the vinyl sound that opens it getting louder and exploding into the staccato riff to Robert Plant’s war cry. And I’ve always loved how Plant delivers “Hammer of the Gods…” after the opening salvo, like he had actually witnessed Thor wielding Mjolnir.