Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing albums: ‘In Through the Out Door’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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It’s funny listening to Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door decades after it first appeared in the summer of 1979. I had just become a teenager and was undergoing a seriously big crush on rock and roll, something that has never really abated.

The problem in 1979 was that there was a difficult decision to be made. Kids today can ironically or sincerely listen to whatever they want. Eclectic is cool. I almost laughed out loud recently seeing a young bearded fellow’s haul at a second-hand shop that included both that Eurythmics album everyone owned at one time and Black Sabbath’s Sabotage. Not in my day, sonny boy. You were rock, disco, or punk/new wave. And no twains met, except on some albums by bands that were tired of their old sounds but unsure of how to proceed in such a sectarian landscape.

Listen to the one truly beautiful song on the album, I’m Gonna Crawl. The atmosphere is heavy with bass-laden pathos as Plant channels his inner Nina Simone.

In Through The Out Door sounds, to my ears, a lot like 1979. It’s incredible to think that it had only been a scant four years since Physical Graffitti and eight since Zoso, as we called it then. But then 1971 was a lot further away from 1978 than say 1981 would be from 1988. Rock and roll time is by no means constant.

Even before John Bonham’s death, soon after this album was released, there were rumours that Zep was finished. This album was the first product that had appeared under their name since 1976 and they had only played a few shows in the intervening years. The death of Plant’s son Karac, Page’s increasing fondness for heroin, and Bonham’s long-term enthusiasm for lager had sunk the once vital band into inactivity.

When they finally got together to record this album, it was a very different group. The dominant force here is John Paul Jones, whose keyboard work is far more prominent than Page’s guitar action. For fans, this was confounding to the max. Even in Grade Eight maths at Bayview Junior High, where rock and roll was dissected by a panel of experts sitting towards the back, questions were raised.

Some songs like Carouselambra sounded almost (whispered) ‘new wave’. And all agreed that the insipid radio hit, All My Love, sucked. No one could quite believe that this was the same band that everyone’s big brothers had wrecked the family hi-fi speakers with, getting really stoned and cranking up Immigrant Song. No one was getting high to Fool in the Rain. Coke hadn’t come to Willowdale, Ontario in 1979.

Professional critics weren’t impressed either. The band’s manager Peter Grant banned Sounds magazine from the Knebworth shows after a two-star review and their suggestion that it might be time to go out through the out door and shut off the lights on the way.

Of the three surviving members, only John Paul Jones takes some pride in his work on the record – and it is pretty impressive. Jimmy Page is barely there and has regularly trashed it over the years. Robert Plant, who wrote all of the lyrics, has dismissed it as “not really a Led Zeppelin record”. He seems to feel that no one was in any condition to make an album and many folks, including Zeppelin chronicler Mick Wall agree.

So, it was and remains a disappointing album. That said, I would argue – and it will be an argument – that it has aged better than, say, Presence. The keyboard sounds that were so jarring at the time sound much warmer now. Listen to the one truly beautiful song on the album, I’m Gonna Crawl. The atmosphere is heavy with bass-laden pathos as Plant channels his inner Nina Simone. Jeff Buckley turned 13 in 1979 too. When he bought this record, I bet he listened to this final track over and over.

Why is it disappointing?

The absence of Jimmy Page’s righteous riffs is a serious issue and Bonham sounds like someone gave him brushes. They could get away with something like South Bound Suarez if it was followed with something like, say, When The Levee Breaks. But add the throwaway Hot Dog, the yacht rocking Fool In The Rain, and the synth driven Carouselambra onto a record with only seven tracks and you don’t really have a Led Zeppelin record.

Why should you hear it?

As far as final albums by exhausted bands go, it’s pretty good. An observant critic at the time noted that it was the art rock album that they always seemed to have in them. If Led Zeppelin had always been just Page and Bonham, they would never have been as interesting. Plant’s eclecticism and pop sensibility is at the fore here with John Paul Jones’ instrumental curiosity. If they had gone on to make another massive rock statement like Houses of the Holy, this album would probably be seen more favourably as ‘transitional’ or ‘experimental’. The fact that it represents such an unrepresentative closing address makes it a difficult album for fans and past members alike.

For the rest of this series, click here.

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